Nothing else sounds quite like a riot squad’s concussion grenade. It’s more than a gunshot, more than a firework. The explosion it makes sounds more like the word “boom” than anything else you’ve ever heard explode. And when it happens right above your head, no matter what you’re doing, it’s hard not to take a moment to reflect on how really impressive, and terrifying, a sound it is.

Unfortunately, what I was doing on Friday night, May 18, when the Montreal riot squad launched a concussion grenade that exploded about six or seven metres to the right of my head, and just above it, was running from the Montreal riot squad.

Part of the 5,000-strong crowd that had come out to protest the passing of Premier Jean Charest’s authoritarian and likely unconstitutional Bill 78, I’d joined the march at its beginning in high spirits, cheering and chanting with the rest. When I picked my friend David up from his métro stop as the march went by, we marvelled at how big it was, that it could be going down one street in huge numbers while still coming up the opposite direction one block away.

I felt good because we were all there together to challenge that odious law that infringed on both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ guarantee of liberty of assembly and association, and on the same guarantee in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. On the picket sign I was carrying, I had copied out the Section 3 of the Quebec Charter, reading, “Every person is the possessor of the fundamental freedoms, including freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.”

And naturally I felt that the law – the higher law of the Charter – was on my side. I’m no criminal, or I wasn’t until they passed Bill 78. It was intended to be the bill that cooled off the student strike that’s been underway since February, except it did the opposite of legislating an end to those hostilities. Instead, it banned all protests of 50 or more people that have not received permission no later than eight hours in advance from the police, who must be provided with information about the protest location, protest route and protest duration.

Police, under the law, have the right to deny you the permission to protest, and also to change your protest route as they see fit. As well, the law bans protest within 50 metres of any educational institution – meaning all of downtown Montreal is off-limits to demonstrators – and made it a criminal act to tell people (even over social media like Twitter) about a protest that police haven’t given permission to. For protest leaders, the fines can be as high as $125,000, which is a lot more than the $50,000 you can get fined in Quebec for political corruption. And that’s something Charest’s government might have in mind, since right now, the Charbonneau Inquiry is beginning to present the findings of its investigation into organized crime in the construction industry and possible connections between the Charest government and the mafia.

The reaction to Bill 78 was instant – the whole city of Montreal seemed to be enraged. In my neighbourhood, the red square that symbolizes support for the student movement began to appear in windows up and down every street, as it took on a second meaning of opposition to Bill 78. Under those circumstances, I headed for the protest, where I was intent on exercising the rights guaranteed to me in both the charters of this province and this country.

That was a little naïve, and I should have known. After all, many readers in the Eeyou Istchee know better than to trust the Quebec government to hold to their promises on paper. But there I was, cheerfully marching down St. Urbain Street toward the very spot where I’d been pushed around by riot cops a month ago while attempting to report on Charest’s Salon Plan Nord.

The demonstration was huge: we were coming to Viger Street and already the head had gone around the corner when I called a friend in the back who said it was still filing past De Maisonneuve – a solid four blocks behind us. A detachment of the riot squad – maybe a dozen armoured cops with clubs and other weapons – was marching alongside us, and a group of angry protestors had gathered extremely close behind them, walking in exaggerated goose-step and sieg-heiling, chanting “SS-PVM! Police politique!”

This struck me as a pretty stupid and offensive move, but everyone was angry about the authoritarian new law and these guys were obviously upset at the riot detachment for following us. They’d been marching along beside us for about a half-hour, but as soon as the group began goose-stepping and saluting, they became agitated. Then, without a moment’s warning, they turned: several began clubbing the goose-steppers, while one fired a rubber-bullet gun at someone (I don’t know whom), and another used a can of pepper-spray to hose down everyone who got too close to them. I was luckily a few people away, so rather than get the spray in my eyes, I just breathed it in. That was unpleasant enough and as close as I wanted to get.

Suddenly the crowd split into two, and I was standing with my back to a store window in the middle of the space that opened up between the two groups, trying to decide whether to go to the right, the way my friend had gone, or to retreat the way I’d come. Hurrying my decision, one of the armoured cops was pointing the rubber-bullet gun at me, and I thought, “They’re probably ready to shoot just about anyone.” Behind the cop with the gun, the others were zip-tying one of the goose-steppers into plastic cuffs. Still holding my sign, I moved very slowly toward the crowd in front and rejoined David. We kept moving, especially when we noticed a new detachment of the riot squad coming toward us from the west on Viger, beating their shields with their batons.

Following the main group, we headed into Chinatown, where the streets aren’t wide and there’s not a lot of place to run. This was perhaps a poor choice on the part of whoever was leading the march, but by the time we’d made our way back up to the corner of René-Lévesque, we’d almost forgotten about the pepper spray. We stepped into the intersection with the rest of the crowd, but the mood changed abruptly enough that we could feel it.

Looking around to try to locate the source of the sudden agitation, we saw up ahead there were cops on horseback, moving toward us. That struck me as bad news, but still I couldn’t understand what was happening until I heard the first concussion grenade, a little ways off, and then more of the flat popping of the rubber-bullet gun, which also fires tear-gas canisters.

“We’d better turn around,” said David, and we began to stroll calmly through a parking lot as the sounds of gunfire and grenades picked up. I think we figured if we walked away, we would show we were just peaceful citizens and no threat to anyone, but in retrospect this was also naïve. There was a lot more noise behind us and I turned around to see a cop with a riot gun shooting some sort of strange projectiles at us – they flew through the air like grapes, trailing smoke, and I watched as they landed on the ground behind an elderly couple not far away from us. Then the grapes exploded into smoke. Others were landing nearby and doing the same. It was a totally alien experience, as though it was raining exploding frogs.

“Don’t worry,” I said to David, “That’s just smoke. I don’t think it’s gas.”

“No,” David said, choking, “that’s definitely gas.” As soon as he said it, I felt it. Coughing and blowing snot, we cut through the parking lot, jumped over a low wall, and were walking toward the lawn of a building to our left, thinking we were out of harm’s way, when I heard the ominous thumping of the riot squad banging their shields again. I turned and realized they were just behind us, charging at a dead run. Most of the crowd that had been broken off at the intersection saw them at the same time. Chanting together, “On reste calme! On reste calme!” we hustled, trying not to panic and trample anyone, but to move as fast as we could. The whole crowd was fleeing, many in terror. That was when they threw the grenade that exploded not too far from my head, the grenade that made me stop and think, “Jeez, whatever else you have to say about that, it sure makes a hell of a sound.”

Around the corner, the riot squad followed us, clubbing people in the back and cross-checking stragglers with their night-sticks. They didn’t seem to want to arrest anybody, only to push us away. A few phone calls later we learned that someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail at the police in the front – a vicious, brutal act – but that rather than simply catch and detain the person or people responsible, the police took the opportunity to launch a frontal attack on the demonstration to break it up as much as they could. The fact that they attacked us – so far away from the action that we had no clue it had even happened – was a sign of their intention to make the whole march pay for the actions of the lunatic with the firebomb. Later they claimed that they had given us three warnings to disperse on the loudspeaker. Maybe they did, but if so it was so far away from the area that they attacked that it could hardly be taken seriously.

After that, the march was declared illegal, but that was no surprise. At a great number of the marches that have been happening daily for nearly a month, the Montreal police has used the opportunity of a small handful of people in the front behaving aggressively or throwing things at the riot squad to declare the entire protest illegal, meaning everyone who doesn’t leave immediately is guilty of a crime. That part isn’t protected by the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Suspiciously, they often let the marches go, announcing that though they’re illegal, the police will allow them to continue “unless there are any more illegal acts”. It’s a strange balance, being told by the cops that the non-violent marching you’re doing is illegal, but you can keep doing it so long as you don’t break the law.

A half-hour later, the march regrouped, and an hour on it was even stronger than before, with as many as 10,000 people, stretching for eight or nine blocks at a time. That didn’t change much: Bill 78 had gone into effect that day, and as the 10,000 marched, the riot squad charged into group after group, shoving and bludgeoning crowds with nightsticks, tear-gassing them, and dousing them with pepper spray. The crowds haven’t get any smaller. As this issue went to press, possibly the largest political demonstration in Quebec and Canadian history took place in Montreal in opposition to the law, drawing anywhere between 250,000 and 400,000 people. At press time, however, the law remains in place.