Simon Coutu said he felt a surge of adrenaline when it happened: A group of masked men barged into his office, surrounded him and began shouting him down.
They belonged to a far-right group “tainted by violence” whose members were physically imposing, trained in martial arts and had been involved in a 2007 stabbing at a Quebec City nightclub, according to Coutu.
His testimony Monday is central to the trial of Atalante Québec leader Raphaël Lévesque, who stands accused of criminal intimidation for his role in storming Vice Media’s Montreal offices on May 23, 2018.
“When masked men show up at your office, uninvited, it’s intimidating,” said Coutu, a journalist. “It surprises you, it rattles you. … There’s a whole culture of violence associated with (Atalante).”
Since it was launched in 2013, Vice Québec reported on far-right groups like Atalante, La Meute and Soldiers of Odin, often shedding light on their ties to the white supremacist movement.
Coutu said he believes an article published five days before the incident — outlining growing tensions between Quebec’s far-right and anti-fascist groups — led Lévesque to confront him at Vice’s offices with a half dozen masked men.
They tossed clown noses and flyers, and gave Coutu an award for “garbage media.” The plastic trophy was filled with cigarette butts.
A video of the incident, presented in court Monday, appears to show Lévesque thanking Coutu for “starting a war.” Lévesque was the only member of Atalante not hiding behind a mask.
Much of Monday’s proceedings focused on whether Lévesque’s violent criminal record or his membership in the hardcore group Légitime Violence are admissible as evidence.
Crown prosecutor Jimmy Simard argued that those two factors added a menacing dimension to his actions at the Vice offices.
“They project a hard-boiled image, one of people willing to drop the gloves … and commit acts of violence against members of the left,” Simard said. “This isn’t a hearing about the artistic merits of Légitime Violence. This is a political group; they’re not Dadaists.”
Simard argued it might be reasonable for journalists like Coutu to see Lévesque’s tough-guy persona from his band and infer that he carries it with him when he acts on behalf of Atalante.
“When you wear two hats, you cannot chose which one people see,” Simard said.
Performing as his hardcore alter-ego “Raf Stomper,” Lévesque sings lyrics that reference stabbing leftists, and his band’s YouTube videos feature photos of him carrying pistols and of Légitime Violence’s fans armed with brass knuckles.
Lévesque’s attorney, Mathieu Corbo, contends the lyrics and persona of a band have nothing to do with the actions carried out at Vice offices.
Judge Joëlle Roy agreed with the defence, ruling that the issue of lyrics and Lévesque’s music was too broad to be connected to the charge of criminal intimidation for his actions in May 2018. She compared his hardcore persona to a role that an actor might play.
”Now Jack Nicholson has played some violent characters (in his films), but if you saw him at a hotel would you be intimidated,” Roy asked.
Simard objected to the comparison.
”They’re talking about stabbing leftists,” he said. “If Jean-René Dufort did all of these things (at the Vice office), we wouldn’t be here today. He’s a journalist who does satirical work. The accused is part of a far-right group that advocates violence.”
Roy hasn’t ruled on whether Lévesque’s criminal record is relevant to the trial.
Earlier Monday, the defence mentioned that the police officer called to the scene did not report the incident as a crime.
It was only after a series of follow-up interviews with employees at Vice that Montreal police detectives handed the file over to prosecutors. An arrest warrant was forwarded to police in Quebec City, Lévesque’s hometown, on June 18 — almost one month after the incident.
He was released on condition that he promise not to contact Coutu or other Vice reporters. The defence highlighted Coutu’s repeated attempts to contact Lévesque after the May 23 incident, occasionally using a fake Facebook account to reach the Atalante leader.
“I’m a journalist; if journalists took no for an answer, newspapers would be empty,” Coutu said.
During cross examination, Corbo challenged Coutu’s perception that he was being intimidated.
”Did Mr. Lévesque make any threatening gestures … wasn’t he smiling the entire time,” Corbo asked.
”He was smiling … but when masked people come into your office uninvited, it’s intimidation,” Coutu said.
After the confrontation with Lévesque, a colleague of Coutu’s called the police as he began writing an article about the incident.
”I was literally writing the article in front of the police,” Coutu said. “It was my instinct as a journalist.”