Black's sentence for threat raises Montreal tension

November 04, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MONTREAL -- After police shot and killed a young black man in controversial circumstances in April, Mercier Remy warned that the next policeman who unjustifiably killed a black Montrealer would in turn be executed.

His warning hit hard, not only on the police force, which is more than 99 percent white, but also among Montreal's blacks, who make up about 80,000 of the metropolitan area's nearly 3 million people. More than two-thirds of the city is French-speaking, with the black population roughly divided between English and French speakers.

While most black leaders distanced themselves from the harsh suggestion by Remy -- who is 37, black and a French-speaking Haitian immigrant -- they also contend that his comments represent the anger and frustration felt by many in the black minority toward the Quebec establishment.

Dr. Clarence Bayne, director of the Black Studies Center at Concordia University in Montreal, noted how even English-speaking whites in Quebec frequently charge the French Quebecers with hostility toward anyone who doesn't share their ethnic background.

"French Quebec can be very tribal and oppressive," Dr. Bayne said. "When one white group accuses another white group of racism, then you know the situation is serious."

Remy was convicted in September of threatening the police and could have received five years in prison.

The controversy continued Oct. 5, when a Quebec provincial judge sentenced him to 15 months in jail for his words but reduced the sentence to five months plus time served because Remy, a cafe owner and karate instructor, had been held without bail since his arrest April 27.

Both his attorney and the prosecution suggested that the time Remy had already served would be a sufficient sentence, but Judge Celine Pelletier said she added the five months because the police had a difficult job and needed to be supported.

Remy has been freed while his attorney appeals the conviction on the ground that it is a violation of his right to free speech.

Remy's anger in April was shared by many blacks when Presley Leslie, 25, was shot by police when they responded to a wild brawl at a downtown disco called the Thunderdome. Witnesses said Mr. Leslie had a gun in his hand, and the use of force by police later was ruled to have been justified.

That shooting recalled a 1987 incident in which an unarmed 18-year-old, Anthony Griffin, was shot while in police custody. The police officer was acquitted of criminal charges but fired from the force, although he won his job back on appeal.

After the Thunderdome death, Remy made statements to a newspaper and a radio station.

He was quoted as saying: "The next police officer who kills a black under circumstances as nebulous as those surrounding the deaths of Anthony Griffin and Presley Leslie will in turn be killed. I'm publicly warning the . . . police department that such an officer could be executed on the spot."

The police called Remy's words a threat and arrested him at his home at 3 a.m. the next day.

Police spokesman John Dalzell said Remy would have been charged with making a death threat even if he had not targeted the police.

"In our society, we don't tolerate death threats," Mr. Dalzell said.

Mr. Dalzell said that while only 0.4 percent of the 4,500-member force was composed of "visible minorities" such as blacks or Asians, the department stressed a cross-cultural training program and planned to establish an affirmative action program early next year that would include numerical hiring goals.

Community leaders say the lack of blacks on the police force is typical of the slow progress they have made in other areas during the past 25 years of significant black immigration, mainly from the Caribbean.

"We are still struggling to get our message across," said Dan Philip, the leader of a coalition of black groups in Quebec, whose office contains portraits of U.S. civil rights leaders Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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