Members of the hacktivist collective Anonymous have launched new protests in reaction to the dismantling of a homeless camp at Viger Square in downtown Montreal as part of a project they started last year dubbed #OpSafeWinterMTL. The group has executed one distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack against the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) and occupied the square for a short time; members are calling for a permanent moratorium on police winter raids of homeless encampments.
On January 7, without warning and in the middle of a cold snap—temperatures had dropped under -22 degrees Fahrenheit during the night—city crews bulldozed the encampment while SPVM officers watched. Last week, in an interview with the CBC, Montreal police spokesman Laurent Gingras argued that it’s a matter “of cleanliness, of public health,” and that the City had mostly collected garbage and soiled needles.
“There was some good stuff in there,” said Jacques, 49, who returned to Viger Square on Monday after camping at the site for about three months. CBC’s footage from the dismantling clearly shows bulldozers piling up mattresses, blankets, pillows and sleeping bags.
“This is all they have,” an Anonymous activist told VICE, outraged at how the Montreal government destroyed and confiscated all their belongings—including winter gear provided by Op Safe Winter Montreal activists on December 23.
“This has nothing to do with public health, it has to do with aesthetics,” the activist said. “What’s actually a hazard is still on the floor,” They pointing out that used syringes were still lying around in a corner of the destroyed encampment site.
The encampment is located in the lower downtown area, right across the street from the new Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Montréal (CHUM) construction site and half a kilometer from City Hall and the tourist-friendly Old Montreal—leading some to believe that the camp’s removal had more to do with optics than public health and safety.
Brutally removing the homeless population is nothing less than “an act of war against the poorest of the poor,” the activist told VICE.
“The encampment was tolerated for a long time,” another Anonymous activist added, saying there was no reason to dismantle it in the middle of winter.
SPVM Commander Vincent Richer insisted, however, that “the interventions that were made, in the context of extreme cold weather, were made with regards to the safety and health of homeless people.”
He also noted that interventions with homeless people were made in partnership with health services and with the Old Brewery Mission, and that the material the city bulldozed was soiled and caught in the ice.
In response to the city’s raid on the Viger Square homeless encampment, Anonymous launched a call for an occupation of the site and threatened the city of Montreal with attacks on its cyber infrastructure.
“Anonymous will not stand by and allow the SPVM (Montreal police) and the City of Montreal to attack homeless camps in the middle of winter,” the hacktivist group stated in a January 11 press release.
“We love this camp,” said one #OpSafeWinterMTL activist. “We want to help. We’ve got people ready to build a kitchen,” the other added.
Two SPVM officers came by early Monday afternoon and took down all the signs that had been put up around the square. They told the activists that the occupation would not be tolerated.
“Encampments have always been forbidden,” an officer named Fradette told both activists before she and her partner went to check out the site where homeless people had already started setting up a new camp.
When the activists were told they would be evicted by nightfall, Anonymous launched a DDoS attack on the SPVM’s website, and successfully brought it down just before 5 PM.
In recent years, Montreal police have been criticized for their questionable handling of the homeless population. A year ago an SPVM officer was caught on video threatening to tie a homeless man to a pole in the biting cold of January. A 2012 study showed that homeless people counted for 25 percent of all tickets gave out by the SPVM in 2010—a 7 percent increase from 2006.
At Viger Square, Jacques told VICE, “Every week we get harassed by police… That’s not right.”
SPVM officers have also been involved in the killing of several homeless men in mental health crises. A public coroner’s inquiry was launched this week into the shooting of Alain Magloire, who was gunned down on February 3, 2014, just a few blocks north of Viger Square.
With an estimated homeless population of around 30,000, the homelessness crisis in Montreal is serious. In an attempt to alleviate the problem, last fall the city adopted an action plan on homelessness, which includes “reinforcing the exercise of citizenship.”
“Raiding encampments and destroying precious cold weather gear belonging to the homeless is an act of war against the poorest of the poor,” Anonymous declared in its statement on Sunday, accusing Montreal of neglecting the needs most vulnerable population.
The action plan adopted in September 2014 does involve creating a position of “homeless people’s protector” who would engage in regular consultation with homeless people and launch public consultations into issues of social profiling by the SPVM. But the watchdog for homeless people’s rights has yet to be appointed—and apparently Anonymous is attempting to step into that role instead.