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Police spray tear gas after protesters occupy McGill admin building

Montreal riot squad officers had entered the building by about 7 p.m., ending two-hour occupation; no word on number of arrests

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A group of pro-Palestinian protesters occupied a McGill University administration building for several hours Thursday afternoon and into the late evening over what they said was the university’s failure to comply with the demands of the ongoing encampment at the school’s downtown campus.

The occupation began shortly after 4 p.m. when masked protesters entered the James Administration Building, just north of the Milton St. entrance to the main campus. For several hours before police stormed the building through a separate entrance, protesters chanted and banged on drums while police in riot gear formed lines on either side of the building.

Shortly after their occupation began, the protesters made their way to third floor of the building, opened three windows looking out over where their supporters had gathered and unfurled a Palestinian flag and two banners, to roars of approval from the crowd below.

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An employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said she saw four or five people wearing kerchiefs and masks on their faces walking through the halls and carrying a ladder. When she went to leave through the main entrance, she saw the front doors had been fastened shut from the inside. It took her and her colleagues some time to figure out how to get out of the building because several other doors had been fastened shut.

As she walked through the halls, she said she spoke to the masked protesters, telling them that they had to let the employees out. “They weren’t aggressive or threatening anybody. They were just saying ,’We don’t want to keep you in here, so just go out the back.’”

At around 7 p.m. as the steady rain became a downpour, riot squad officers entered the building. A few minutes later, police officers could be seen standing at the third-floor windows where student occupiers had been standing previously.

At 7:10 p.m., police outside sprayed a chemical irritant into a crowd of protesters. One young woman, who identified herself as Zaza, said she was standing about a metre from the riot police line when the officer in front of her took out a canister and sprayed her in the face.

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The irritant did not seem to dissuade the protesters, though. As those who had been sprayed moved back, others moved immediately in to face the officers, chanting again, “There is no violence here, why are you in riot gear?”

The protesters seemed prepared for the chemical spray, as many were carrying water bottles to help those whose eyes were stinging. On social media, protesters searched for remedies to lessen the sting of the chemicals. In video and photographs, some protesters can be seen using umbrellas to protect themselves and others against the spray.

About 7:30 p.m., protesters began moving portions of fencing and other large items, including a McGill publicity panel and a large metal trolley, to form a barricade between themselves and the line of riot police. This prompted a much more thorough deployment of chemical irritants, forcing protesters away from the building.

A police officer points a tear gas gun at protesters
A video screen grab shows an officer pointing a chemical irritant launcher at pro-Palestinian protesters who surrounded a McGill administration building Thursday. Photo by SPHR McGill/Twitter

Police charged the crowd of protesters — some wore rain ponchos or rain slickers, other holding umbrellas — and deployed more chemical irritants, yelling “move” and banging their shields, and pushing the protesters southward toward the encampment near the Roddick Gates.

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Earlier in the day, protesters had banged drums and chanted slogans such as “Stop the funding now,” “We are the revolution,” “Genocide is crystal clear,” and “Saini, Saini, take a side,” referring to McGill president Deep Saini.

The students had blocked the building’s entrance with fencing and a shelving unit that supported potted plants. In front of another door, protesters had linked arms as police looked on. They hung sheets painted with slogans and a Palestinian flag from open windows on the third floor. At least six protesters stood at these windows, their faces covered with keffiyehs and goggles. Meanwhile, below, a line of riot squad police officers blocked an entrance to the building.

Protesters in a window of the James Administration building at McGill University
Protesters in a window of the James Administration building at McGill University on Thursday. Photo by John Mahoney/Montreal Gazette

Before entering the James Administration building, officers stood calmly staring ahead as protesters shouted at “Shame” at them and “Shame on McGill.”

A young woman who identified herself as an organizer of the barricade and a spokesperson for Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, said the action was organized out of frustration with the McGill administration’s refusal to meet demands of the encampment, which has been a fixture on the downtown campus for almost seven weeks. The protest began in late April following similar protests on U.S. university campuses. These have been in response to Israel’s war with Hamas, the Gaza-based terrorist organization that on Oct. 7 invaded Israel and killed more than 1,200 people. The Israeli war has led to the deaths of more than 34,000 people.

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The SPHR spokesperson said she is a McGill student but declined to give her name “for safety reasons.”

“Our administration is complicit in funding and propping up this genocide and they have refused to meet the demands of the students … after 41 days of this encampment being set up.”

She said the students inside the building were willing to stay until their demands are met. The demands have been for McGill to break financial and academic ties with Israel.

“Our students are putting their bodies on the line … We don’t want our tuition money to be used to invest in weapons manufacturing companies that are dropping bombs on children in Gaza,” she said.

“People who are part of the McGill community have blockaded and occupied the James Administration Building to protest the ongoing escalations in Rafah and the massacres and the crimes that are being perpetrated against our people in the ongoing genocide,” Rama Al-Malah, a member of the group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill, told The Gazette in a phone interview. “But also to protest our administration’s ongoing complicity in funding and propping up this genocide financially and politically.”

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She said the occupation is also intended to protest the university administration’s failure to comply with the demands made by members of the ongoing encampment at the university’s downtown campus. Asked about the large police presence on campus, Al-Malah, who said she didn’t know how many protesters were inside the building, said participants were committed to “not being moved until their demands are met.”

In a terse emailed statement Thursday evening, McGill said: “Protesters are currently occupying the main administration building on the downtown campus of McGill University. Police and security services are on site. Protesters have set up a barricade outside the building.”

At 9:35 p.m., an SPVM spokesperson said some protesters were still inside the James building and police were negotiating with them. Other protesters were still marching in the area of McGill’s campus. She said she could not yet say how many arrests had been made.

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