Monday, July 05, 2010

Toronto G20 Civil Liberties Post-Mortem

image:: Vidcap of Jason MacDonald at a G20 Protest, Queen West & Spadina, Toronto, Canada, via impolitical

Cross-posted on ThickCulture
Notes from North of 49ºN

I was far from the fray two weekends ago when the G20 was in town here in Toronto and I thought the mainstream media was being overly dramatic about the "violence" in the city due to anarchist protesters. On Saturday, the 26th., statements on the news like "Toronto will never be the same" while shots of boarded-up shopfronts on Yonge Street and a police cruiser set ablaze conveyed the message that the city was under siege. More on the cruiser later.

The fact of the matter is that the "destruction" was isolated and targeted at corporate entities, but the lingering fallout will be that of lawsuits and questions pertaining to civil liberties. There were over a thousand detainees stemming from the G20. The Toronto Star {via impolitical} summed things up regarding the detainees and the police use of section 31 {breaching the peace}::

"According to section 31 of the criminal code, officers can arrest anyone found to be 'committing the breach of the peace or who, on reasonable grounds, he believes is about to join in or renew the breach of peace.'

But according to criminal lawyer Paul Calarco, there is 'no legitimate basis' for many of this weekend’s arrests.

'Wearing a black t-shirt is not any basis for saying reasonable grounds (for arrest),' he argued. As for arresting peaceful demonstrators en masse, “that is not a proper use of Section 31. That is an intimidation tactic,' he said.

'Standing on the sidewalk and exercising your constitutional rights is not a breach of the peace.'"

While some might argue that the G20 protests had the potential to truly get out of hand, the reality was that incidents were isolated. The problem is where is the line drawn with respect to police actions under these circumstances? Should civil liberties be expected to be waived due to extraordinary circumstances and how are these circumstances defined?

One would think that a transit worker in uniform going to work, blocks away from protest activity would be OK, right? Particularly if nothing was "going on". Wrong. A fare collector spent 36 hours handcuffed in detention for being "in the wrong place at the wrong time". Gerald Yau heading to work at the Queen's Park TTC station was tackled and told to stop resisting arrest::

“'I told them I wasn’t resisting arrest, that I was on my way to work. I was in full uniform with TTC shirt, pants, full ID, my employee card, everything,' Yau said on Wednesday. 'They said, ‘Really? Well, you’re a prisoner today.’

Moments before, another man had run into him but kept going, Yau said, adding that man was also arrested. There was no protest in sight and not many people in the street, he said.

Berating Yau and swearing at him for being an 'embarrassment' to the TTC, officers dragged him half a block in handcuffs and shackles and threw him into a paddy wagon, he said.

After a TTC supervisor arrived to vouch for him, he thought he’d be released but was sent to the Eastern Ave. detention centre instead."

The tactics used by the police bring into sharp focus the lines between public safety and the rights of citizens and visitors to Canada. I tend to agree with Boyd Erman of the Globe & Mail who said the actions of the police give Toronto a black eye::

"But the events of this past weekend have shaken that faith for many. Some of the scenes on Toronto’s streets during the G20 recalled for witnesses those more often associated with dictatorships. There were plainclothes officers snatching people from the midst of seemingly peaceful demonstrations and stuffing them in the back of minivans, before speeding away. Passersby arrested just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were cops busting into homes and pointing guns at innocent people in their own beds. (That’s what one Toronto couple, veterinarians both, claim happened to them when police snuck into the family apartment at 4 a.m. by mistake, then hemmed and hawed when asked to produce a warrant.)

There were police charges at crowds with no warning. (This is a point the Toronto police dispute, but most eyewitness accounts, including those of journalists, are in agreement that warnings were inadequate, inaudible or even non-existent.)

Some showcase. A few broken windows by lawbreaking protesters have, sadly, become expected at these events. But police behaviour like this and the criminalization of civilian dissent is not expected, certainly not in Canada.

None of the criticism of the police absolves all protesters of blame. Both the criminal element who damaged property and taunted police, as well as the many peaceful protesters who nonetheless refused to disavow violence as a tactic, are at the root of the problem.

However, the police must be held to a higher standard. These were the biggest mass arrests in Canadian history, numbering more than 900. There were surely legitimate reasons for some, but the vast numbers of people simply held then released suggests that police simply picked up everyone in sight, a civil libertarian’s nightmare."

While it might not seem like a big deal that a peaceful protester gets a little bloody from a police shield, the damage is done when it comes to perceptions of proportional use of force. Frankly, it makes Toronto look bush league with a city government worthy of derision, given prior debacles when the city wasn't able to handle "crises", such as Mel Lastman's snowmageddon, when the army was called in to remove the snow. {BTW, I'll leave it to Rick Mercer to give his un-PC rant about Toronto and the weather}. Sure, nobody expects the Spanish inquisition, but there should be better planning, policies, and procedures in place to deal with crises—that don't throw civil liberties out the window.

With the luxury of hindsight, this was indeed a debacle and it's not as if there wasn't plenty of lead time to prepare for it, including the expectation of Black Bloc activity. There were also plenty of funds to go around. What about the violence and police cruisers set ablaze? Some are saying that they were "bait", as in props to fuel the media frenzy. Sounds pretty paranoid, right? Well, in Montebello, Québec in August of 2007, a rock-wielding police infiltrator was "outed" at a protest, which was captured on tape and made the rounds on YouTube.

While it may not be surprising that the underground media is stating that the police "staged" the "violence" or at least allowed the "violence" to seem more threatening than it actually was, what might be surprising is that the mainstream media are picking up on this theme. David Warren of the Ottawa Citizen offered this::

"...No one was seriously injured. It would have taken very little traditional police effort to prevent almost all of the property damage that occurred last week. Instead we spent something like a billion dollars in overkill, necessitated by the bureaucratic need to permit violence before awkwardly suppressing it."

And so it goes...

Song:: Nick Lowe-"So It Goes"

Twitterversion:: [blog] Post-mortem review of G20 #Toronto police actions & civil liberties fallout. #ThickCulture

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