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The CLASSE Legal Committee: A Critical Look Backpdf

Members of the CLASSE Legal Committee1

 

The motivation behind creating a committee to support arrestees grew out of the ever-increasing judicial repression of political dissent in we saw 2010 and 2011. First, the Toronto G20 summit in June 2010 was the site of the largest mass arrest in Canadian history,2 which led CLAC (see glossary) to create a legal defense fund for the G20 arrestees, the Fonds de défense légale des accusée-e-s du G20. Shortly afterwards, section 500.1 of the Highway Safety Code3 was used to forcefully end the Montreal demonstration against police brutality on March 15th, 2011; this section's constitutionality is currently being challenged. Additionally, about 15 targeted arrests of people on ASSÉ's elected decision-making bodies were carried out by the Montreal police's GAMMA squad,4 in relation to two direct actions that happened in March of 2011. These arrests provided a taste of the harsh repression that the upcoming student strike was about to experience: the student movement has never been subjected to harsher repression at the hands of the police and the justice system than it was during the 2012 strike.5

Nevertheless, the principles of combative syndicalism required us to keep organizing increasingly disruptive actions in order to create or maintain a position of power. Thus we had to eradicate activists' fear of being unable to benefit from legal support for lack of money. The primary goals of a legal committee were, on the one hand, to build a line of defense against growing state repression, and on the other hand, to create good conditions for the type of civil disobedience that would reinforce the student movement. We wished to provide ourselves with the tools to support those who took the risk of facing state repression. The result was that an ad hoc legal committee made up of five members was created in September 2011,6 and was later added to ASSÉ's structures and became a permanent feature of CLASSE's structures.

Four mandates kept the committee busy: first, to gather the necessary amounts of money in order to pay for bail, legal fees and lawyers' fees; second, to contact different activist lawyers willing to work with the legal committee to defend arrestees for a preferential rate; third, to produce critical information on legal issues for activists; and fourth, to provide legal, human and logistical support for those arrested from within the student movement, without distinction based on any affiliation or status as a student. This last criterion was fundamental since it aimed to avoid catering only to a specific membership's interests, and since it lined up with the legal committee's goal of enacting solidarity. We were mainly motivated by the desire to bring financial and legal support to arrestees without regard for their charges or the probability that they had or hadn't committed the alleged actions. This was consistent not only with the legal idea that one is innocent until proven guilty, but also with our own basis of unity.

The ASSÉ arrestees fund / Fonds des arrété-e-s de l'ASSÉ

During the 2011-2012 school year, we requested funding and donations for the ASSÉ arrestees fund. This allowed us to raise a bit over $50,000, essentially from student associations in Québec and from a few unions. This money was simply added to ASSÉ's assets, and was maintained thanks to honest management by the staffers and executive. It appears to us, however, that this money could have been kept separate from the rest of ASSÉ's budget. Although ASSÉ's willingness to manage this fund was welcome, other initiatives had a broader mandate and benefitted from a useful degree of independence, from a legal standpoint. The Fonds de défense légale 2012 (2012 Legal Defense Fund), for example, collected money in order to support arrestees, but also to pay for the cost of fighting injunctions and of challenging laws and other regulations, and helped people wishing to sue a municipal government for reparations after having survived police brutality. Another fund, Je donne à nous,7 actually gathered the resources to organize fundraising activities in support of the student movement. In contrast, the legal committee had to turn down requests for us to support fundraisers, since this would have exceeded our own capabilities. Our experience brings us to say that it seems preferable for the legal committee to organise legal and logistical support for arrestees, and for separate entities (with which the committee maintains close relations) to raise the funds necessary to ensure they are well defended. Close relations are necessary in order to quickly access the fund when urgent payments need to be made.

Activist lawyers

After having contacted six or seven criminal lawyers with experience defending protesters, we ended up working with four lawyers in Montreal and one in Québec City. Their phone numbers were circulated during demonstrations, and we publicly committed to providing financial help to the arrestees represented by these lawyers. Their work was incommensurably valuable, as they took it upon themselves to ensure the arrestees were well-defended; some even had few hang-ups about being paid in a timely fashion, or were willing to answer questions of a legal nature at all times.

Although we were well-prepared to defend people accused of penal offenses, we had difficulty responding when ASSÉ was served notice of a motion seeking an injunction: the first of over sixty injunctions attacking students' right to strike. We acted quickly in order to find a lawyer's office that was capable of defending student associations against injunctions at a lesser cost. The law office we found ended up representing dozens of student associations facing injunctions, and CLASSE committed to paying the legal bills of those associations with less money. The same legal firm also took on the task of representing ASSÉ as it challenged Law 12, known in bill form as Bill 78 (see glossary). It was crucial to be able to count on the support of lawyers practicing in the fields of labour and criminal law who shared our core values. The line between a political and a legal argument can be thin, and an organisation's political integrity must be reflected in the legal fights it takes on, if indeed it chooses to do so.

A mandate to inform

In response to requests by student associations and CLASSE, the legal committee put out information of a legal nature, including information on the law pertaining to arrests, the legality of strikes, the ins and outs of Law 12, as well as information on Québec's Election Act. We also published material criticizing police brutality and the criminalization of dissent. We participated in over thirty events in order to discuss these topics, mainly in the context of general assemblies or conferences. As much as we thought that everyone should know the consequences of their actions beforehand, we also did not wish to overly influence the activities organized by the members of the student movement. Nevertheless, we knowingly took the risk of demobilizing some people whose willingness to take action might be reduced when they became aware of all the tools which the State has at its disposal to prevent us from organizing.

We responded to the best of our knowledge to the multiple questions we received via email and through the committee's cell phone on a daily basis; we also enlisted the help of lawyers. We took pains to remind people that we could not give legal advice since we were not members of the Bar. The cell phone, which was passed around between the various members of the committee, turned out to be an essential tool. We could get a dozen calls per day, either to warn us of imminent arrests, to request more information on legal procedures, to ask for help from a lawyer, from people who wanted to denounce the police brutality they had experienced and wanted to know about potential recourses, to request legal assistance while filing a complaint in front of the Police Ethics Committee, or to ask about whether a friend or loved one was being detained.

Support for arrestees

Our main form of support for people grappling with the justice system was to refer them to lawyers working with CLASSE and to make them aware of the financial support we had available to them, if they were unable to obtain funds from the public legal aid system. We explained the steps to be taken to obtain legal aid and we tried to demystify what their time in the court system would look like.

We also occasionally welcomed prisoners who had been released from police operations centres. We came along with arrestees to the courthouse; participated in vigils; paid for bail for those accused with no resources, or contacted people close to them who could commit to covering their bail. The idea guiding our actions was that we would never let anyone stay in prison for lack of resources.

As we enacted the necessary solidarity with those facing legal repression, our mandates and priorities had to shift. We were faced with the unexpected reality that the vast majority of people were not facing criminal charges, but rather were being accused of breaking city by-laws or provincial laws that allowed police to temporarily detain people and to slap them with extremely high fines, but which avoided giving people prison terms or criminal records. The widespread use of these purely penal accusations meant that most people were in practice unable to obtain public legal aid in order to mount a challenge. Using this strategy, the authorities detained over 2,500 people for many hours, in poor conditions, in order to put an end to demonstrations and to take the steam out of various actions. Since this was how the police carried out the heaviest political repression, we had to fight it by encouraging people to challenge their tickets. Since originally the funds we had collected were supposed to be used mainly for people facing accusations under the Criminal Code, CLASSE's congress changed our committee's mandate in order to help our actions respond more effectively to the police's tactics.

CLASSE also joined a project organized by the Association des juristes progressistes8 and the Ligue des droits et libertés9 which aimed at gathering testimonies from people who had experienced police brutality and political profiling. This endeavour's aim was to assist in denouncing the police abuse and discrimination on the basis of political beliefs that became an all too common reality during the strike.

On top of all this, we had been tasked with providing human support for the arrestees; unfortunately, for lack of time and people, we were unable to completely fulfill this mandate. We want to point this out as a problem, since one issue that comes up in times of struggle is the need for a network of solidarity in order to help people respond to the emotional difficulties that come up when one is submitted to police violence, and/or when one is faced with the court system and with the fear of what the potential outcome of one's trial could be. A psychological and social support group for arrestees would have been very relevant, and we are aware that this type of initiative is currently being organized outside of ASSÉ's structures.

Concerns with legalistic activism

The importance of challenging Law 12 in the court system derived from the danger associated with its implementation: it would have imposed heavy fines on the individuals and the student associations that continued to act in accordance with their strike mandates. The best way to challenge these fines was to strike down the law that made them possible; this seemed possible in light of the heavy criticism it had already drawn from Québec's Human Rights Commission (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse du Québec)10. The path of legal activism was also chosen when support was given to those challenging the amendments to Municipal By-law P-6 in Montreal11, which forced the organizers of a demonstration to provide police with the route of their demonstration and banned people from participating in demonstrations while wearing a mask.

Logistical and financial support for both these initiatives was made possible, for better or for worse, by the presence of a legal committee within CLASSE, by its regular dealings with lawyers, and through its role in bringing legal concerns into an organization that prioritizes political struggle and has a legitimate measure of suspicion for practices that bring the struggle too far into the court system. Challenging Law 12 and defending student associations against injunctions imposed a heavy financial burden on CLASSE, to the tune of $100,000: civil law proceedings that might be considered unacceptable for an organization based on combative syndicalism. Let us add to this the consideration that this type of challenge is rarely resolved in a lower court; appeals drag the process along over many years and require truly astounding sums of money. These cases probably would have been referred to the Supreme Court if the incoming government had not abolished Law 12. When we step into the world of legal activism, we no longer limit ourselves to defending ourselves against the legal apparatus, but we try to grab it by the horns and use it to defend our own interests. The risks that come along with legal battles are very real, although they may be justified by a concern with protecting activists from consequences that would put an end to mobilization: liberal discourses are inevitably chosen, and resources are wasted.

The dangers of reproducing legal elitism

Although the legal committee was supposed to serve a combative student movement by combining the work of providing legal information with a constant critique of the law, and although we sought to avoid conforming with the established framework of legality, we still were unable to avoid the ever-present danger of reproducing legal elitism. Against our best wishes, we kept alive the separation between legal knowledge, conceived of as a form of expertise, from activist work. The legal committee was the only committee to be made up exclusively of law students12; this made our work accessible only to legal professionals-in-training. In spite of ourselves, we stuck to the idea that it was necessary to benefit from prior legal knowledge in order to contribute to the committee's work; this made us into technocratic authority figures and gave us a troubling sense of immunity to criticism.

Although the work of most of CLASSE's committees was heavily scrutinized and understood as eminently more political and central to the organization, we acted separately from the rest of the organisation; the congress was not very interested in our internal decision-making processes or the extent to which we followed through on our mandates. It was an obvious fact that the newspaper committee would not be made up exclusively of future journalists, or that the women's committee would not be exclusively feminist studies students; why, then, separate the legal sphere (the exclusive domain of law students) from the rest? Doesn't this derive from an uncritical set of ideas about the elitist function of legal professionals in society? A very simple way of not perpetuating the dominant ideology would be to rename the committee, in order for its name to better reflect the work accomplished by the committee and to establish a clear distinction between its mandate and ideas surrounding legal "expertise".

In conclusion, we recognize that it is useful to have a committee working on the issue of the criminalization of struggle as part of the structures of an organization like CLASSE. We even believe this committee should become a permanent fixture. The danger of being caught up in the court system, however, is ever-present, and we must build lines of defense against it, all the more so since the accused's legal proceedings can last for many years. We also need to continuously gather what we can learn from those aspect of our struggle that have been appreciated by people who have to deal with the legal apparatus and by the organization at large. Nonetheless, we must exercise vigilance with respect to the conservative nature of the law, in order to make sure the contributions of a legal committee do not take away from the radical nature of the organization's tactics.

1 Translated by Joël Pedneault.

2 About 1050 arrests involving detention.

3 This section bans actions whose aim is to block roads or highways, although this is the necessary effect of any demonstration.

4 Guet des activités et des mouvements marginaux et anarchistes or "Surveillance of the activities of marginal and anarchist movements."

5 To name a few examples: the widespread use of section 500.1 of the Highway Safety Act; the first use of a special law against the student movement and to promote 'public order'; government support for the dozens of injunctions filed against student association on strike; the explicitly political centralization of the court system's processing of these injunctions by a Superior Court judge; municipal by-laws adopted or amended to restrict the right to protest, etc.

6 Four people added themselves to the committee over time.

7 In English, "I give to us", a mutual aid fund that was created during the strike.

8An association of progressive legal professionals.

9 Translator's note: Rights and Freedoms League, Québec's version of a civil liberties union.

10 CDPDJ, "Commentaires sur la Loi permettant aux étudiants de recevoir l'enseignement dispensé par les établissements de niveau postsecondaire qu'ils fréquentent" (Comments on the Act to enable students to receive instruction from the postsecondary institutions they attend), LQ 2012 chapitre 12, juillet 2012.

11 Règlement sur la prévention des troubles de la paix, de la sécurité et de l'ordre public, et sur l'utilisation du domaine public (By-law "preventing breaches of peace, security and public order, and on the use of public spaces"), RRVM c P-6.

12 We were all students in the legal sciences department at UQAM; opening up this committee to students from other schools is an important step that has yet to be taken.