L’Histoire d’Amal «Tout ce que je veux savoir c’est pourquoi?»

Par Beryl Wajsman le 23 avril 2010

Le nom arabe Amal signifie trois choses. L’espoir, l’anticipation, et l’aspiration. Ces trois mots sont une bonne synthèse de ce qu’une résidante de Pointe Claire et étudiante à l’Université Concordia en relations humaines et psychologie Amal Asmar ose rêver ces jours-ci après que la police l'ait harcelée, malmenée et laissée avec quelques 1 000$ en amendes. Elle espère pour la justice; anticipe des excuses et aspire à une réponse à sa demande sincère de : « tous ce que je veux savoir c’est pourquoi? ». Alors qu’elle achève ses études et continue sa recherche pour un emploi, les cicatrices mentales qu'elle a toujours l'obligent à maintenir ce rêve vivant. Ses « crimes ? ». Être assise sur un banc devant la Plaza Alexis Nihon avec sa sacoche sur le banc et crier quand les policiers l’ont tordu les bras et les poignets alors qu’ils lui ont dépêchés dans leur voiture parce qu’elle criait. Elle suspecte qu'il pourrait y avoir un autre « crime »: qu'elle avait la mauvaise apparence, au mauvais endroit, au mauvais moment. 

Amal-cover-story-1bw.jpgAmal, born and raised in Montreal, is perfectly bilingual with no trace of an accent in English or French. She loves to walk her beloved Black Lab Freddy in the parks of Pointe Claire where she often waves to public security officers who ask if all is well when she is out at night. She happens to be of Palestinian origin. Her parents came to Canada from Ramallah seeking a peaceful life. Her tan complexion and piercing dark eyes are framed by black hair worn in long, natural curls. She could be from any Mediterranean country. But, she sports one other distinguishing feature, a keffiyeh — or Arabic scarf. She wears it around her neck as a scarf — not a head dress — out of cultural affinity, not political posturing. In winter, she will pull up part of it around her nose and mouth when there is a strong wind or icy frost as many of us do with our scarves in the cold. And that’s what she suspects may have caught the attention of two police officers on a cold February night.  Amal spent the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 3 of this year studying in Concordia’s Webster Library for an important exam the next day. She has to study late because she holds down a part-time job as a companion and caregiver to an elderly Jewish man — a member of what Amal describes as a very “caring” family — who suffers from a psychological disorder. Before she knew it, it was way past midnight Thursday morning Feb. 4. Instead of going home to Pointe Claire, she decided to walk to a friend’s place in lower Westmount, sleep there and get to school early for the exam. It was a cold night, but dry as most of this past winter has been. By the time she had walked from Guy and St. Catherine to Atwater, she was a bit tired and decided to sit down on that now famous bench in front of Alexis Nihon Plaza. She pulled her school bag up onto the bench to look for gloves and left a white plastic grocery sack containing Tupperware and apple juice on the ground in front of her.

She was dressed in casual student attire with dark blue jogging pants, running shoes, a black-and-white ski jacket and a beige ski knit hat. She also wore her keffiyeh… pulled up over her nose and mouth against the cold. As Amal was looking through her agenda for a moment, she noticed that a police cruiser from Westmount’s Station 12 had pulled up. The cruiser had two officers inside. Their names were Champoux and McIntyre.

Les policiers ont commencé à l'interroger à l'intérieur de leur voiture. On a demandé en premier à Amal s'il y avait un problème. Elle a répondu que « non ». Ils l’ont alors demandé ce qu'elle faisait là et elle a répondu qu'elle s'était assise simplement pour se reposer et pour chercher quelque chose. Ils l’ont par la suite demandé à voir une pièce d’identification. À ce moment, Amal a demandé, « pourquoi, ai-je fait quelque chose de mal? ».

Amal says it was at that point that — without answering — the officers got out of the cruiser, walked over and each stood inches from her on either side. She felt intimidated by their posture and demeanor. They told her that the way she was using the bench was against the law. She asked them what they meant. They answered that a public bench is not a place for placing bags.

Amal then asked what law prohibited her from doing so, since the answer was completely stupefying. Amal says that they again refused to answer and instead told her to stand up because she was being “arrested.” She asked to see their badges. They replied “You watch too much Law and Order, we’re not obliged to show you that.”

Before she could respond, the officers grabbed her and physically removed her from the bench to the cruiser. Amal describes that each one took one of her arms and wrists, twisted them, shoved her against the front hood passenger side of the cruiser with her face against the hood. One of the officer’s hands was around the back of her neck squeezing hard and applying pressure against the spine. The entire time, they each held one arm and continued to twist Amal’s arms and wrists. Amal says she was desperately trying to pull up her head to scream, hoping to attract someone’s attention. The officers then put metal handcuffs on her. Amal continued to yell as she was scared and in excruciating pain. The officers told her to stop yelling. She answered that they were hurting her. They said that they would not stop until she stopped screaming. The officers then frisked her. Champoux allegedly told her that they were looking for weapons.

Les policiers l'ont alors mise dans la banquette arrière de la voiture et ont fouillé sa sacoche. Ils ont trouvé son portefeuille et ses pièces d’identification, mais ont continué à chercher toutes ses affaires. La fouille a duré environ 15 minutes, pendant qu’Amal est resté dans la banquette arrière de la voiture de police, menottée.

As it happened, a vehicle with the word “Supervisor” in French on the window, showed up. Judging by his accent, Amal understood he was Francophone. He spoke to the other two officers in French only. Amal describes him as being around 190 pounds and 6 feet tall. He never spoke directly to her. Amal heard the supervisor ask the two officers if Amal spoke French. They replied no without asking her. As Amal told me, that was a stroke of luck because she could understand everything that was being said without the officers knowing it. They had never asked her.

Amal a alors entendu le surveillant demander aux policiers pourquoi ils l’avaient « arrêté ». Elle a entendu les policiers répondre qu'ils avaient conduit jusqu'à elle et qu'elle a immédiatement commencé à crier « comme une folle ». À travers la conversation entre les policiers, Amal a compris qu'environ 20 minutes avant qu'elle est arrivée à Atwater une femme avait fait un appel au 911 d'une des cabines téléphoniques avoisinantes, mais les policiers n'étaient pas certains de l’origine exacte de l’appel. Amal a entendu le superviseur demander à Champoux s'il était certain que c'était Amal qui avait appelée. Le superviseur a demandé à Champoux trois fois. Il a répondu oui à chaque fois et a ajouté que la voix semblait étrangère. Le superviseur a dit ok et est parti. Comme rapporté ci-dessus, Amal n'a aucun accent.

Champoux and McIntyre then re-entered the cruiser and asked Amal if she had called 911 — they said they were investigating such a call — and whether she had a cell phone, which she did not. In shock and pain, Amal at that point had had enough. She said she had the right to remain silent and said she wanted to speak to their supervisor. The officers’ alleged answer according to 

Amal was thick with sarcasm. “Yeah, sure,” they said.

Amal a alors vu les policiers feuilleter un livret et discuter quelles offenses mèneraient aux plus grandes amendes. Ils ont alors remis brusquement ses affaires dans sa sacoche et l’ont jeté à terre. Ils l'ont alors sorti de la voiture et l'ont enlevé les menottes. Ils ne l'ont même pas laissé prendre son chapeau qui était tombé à l’arrière de la voiture, quoiqu'elle ait demandé.

Amal again asked to see their badges and they again refused saying “we don’t have to show you. Our names are on the tickets.” Amal asked “what tickets” because they hadn’t handed her any. Champoux responded that “you’ll find it in your stuff.” They then sped off into the night. Amal began collecting her belongings on the ground. She found two tickets tucked into her agenda.

 One ticket was for use of municipal property other than for its intended purpose. $620! The other was for having made a loud noise other than yelling. $420!

Amal’s wrists were hurt as a result of the handcuffs. She also had pain in both arms, shoulders, neck and upper and lower back from the manner in which the officers had handled her. She went to see a doctor at a West Island clinic. The doctor examined her wrists and found that one was strained. He gave her a note to excuse her from her exam. Amal was so shaken up by the incident that she didn’t attend classes for the entire following week.

Bien que la description de la confrontation d'Amal Asmar avec la police vienne principalement d’elle, plusieurs facteurs mènent à la créance de sa version des événements, même après mon entretien avec le commandant du Poste 12, Stéphane Plourde, lundi après-midi. 

The first is that, in public statements, the police have not challenged her charges or her version, particularly those of using force. They merely claim that they used it because she was yelling “like a crazy person” at the officers “as soon as they arrived,” as reported in this story. Cmdr. Plourde even repeated that in a CTV television interview. He also agreed, as did Mayor Tremblay in that same news segment, that the fines were excessive. To me, Cmdr. Plourde added that the officers were investigating the 911 call mentioned in the story and had approached Amal just to see if she knew anything because the call supposedly came from a payphone in the area. That call was later deemed by police to be a prank.

Cmdr. Plourde repeated the officers statements about her immediate screaming. I asked him if that was the case, why was Amal not charged with obstructing an investigation or locked up for the night to protect her from herself, instead of being issued irrational tickets with fines that even he found excessive? Cmdr. Plourde paused, then said that the department was still investigating the two versions of the events. He then added that police officers have the discretion whether to issue any charges or fines and what they are to be.

Secondly, the police have failed to explain why they used such force, whatever their reasons were for approaching Amal. Amal is a calm person, but admits to yelling when she was being hurt. Would it be unreasonable for any citizen to yell in frustration when police officers refuse to tell them why they are questioning them or show their badges, and even more so when they are twisting arms? A comment Cmdr. Plourde made to me is very germane to this issue. Though not responding directly to this point, he did say that it takes officers years to acquire the skills to deal with people on the street. Champoux has been a police officer for five years. McIntyre for three.

Third, the very language of the infractions she received undermines any reasonable cause the police may have had for questioning her. Nowhere is there a bylaw that states you cannot put a bag on a public bench. So do the police now decide the interpretation of our laws when they told Amal she could not put a bag on a bench? Is it the police who decide on the particularity of a generality? Is a bag now to be equated with sleeping on a bench? The second ticket was for “emitting an audible noise other than a yell.” Again, is there no restraint of compassionate authority over the decision of a police officer? Are the very officers writing tickets that generate so much revenue for the city going to be the deciders of subjective judgments?  I asked Cmdr. Plourde — in light of the recent report that 250 tickets were issued last year for every 1,000 Montrealers — whether it is not time that the police stop being the revenue agency for the civic administration? Again, he answered diplomatically, telling us that  with a total of one million police “interventions” last year the department does have its hands full.

Quatrièmement, l’agent Champoux a dit à son superviseur, et le département a indiqué la même chose, que la voix de l'appel au 911 avait un accent étranger. Quoique Champoux n'ait pas su qu'Amal parlait français, il pouvait certainement reconnaître qu'Amal n'avait pas d’accent en anglais. Et s'il ne pouvait pas discerner des accents anglais, son partenaire anglophone McIntyre pouvait le faire. Pourquoi alors n'indiqueraient-ils pas cela au superviseur? 

Finally, the medical exam bore out the signs of excessive force.

It is ironic to remember that some years ago the Montreal police, with the support of elected officials, said they were going to enforce “civility and respect for authority.” Fo Niemi, director-general of CRAAR which guided Amal in her complaint  to the Police Ethics Commission, warned Montreal’s Public Security Committee at the time that such a broad and subjective approach would be prejudicial to the rights of all Montrealers but particularly to minorities. His words have proved prophetic. It is unfortunate that police and politicians have not been guided by another prophetic warning from the late American  Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who said that, “For the law to be respected, it must first be made respectable.

J'ai souvent écrit à propos de Montréalais harcelés par une application trop zélée de règlements municipaux irrationnels et de règlementation par des autorités de sécurité. Je préférerais en écrire moins de ces faits. Mais j’en vois constamment plus. Et trop souvent contre des minorités visibles. Nous ne pouvons pas encore répondre à la réclamation d'Amal de « pourquoi? ». Mais si son cas était causé par des policiers inexpérimentés, ou trop expérimentés à remplir des quotas d’amendes, ce journaliste est laissé avec une pensée harcelante. Les agents Champoux et McIntyre auraient-ils troublé une blonde aux yeux bleues avec une écharpe Burberry autour de son nez et de sa bouche?


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