We the People

Protest and Police at Queen and Spadina

Image courtesy BlogTO.

As some of you may know, I moderate a mailing list attached to the Transit Toronto web site. Here, a couple hundred participants or so talk about transit matters. In the week following the damage done during the G20 summit, given the significant disruption, I wrote an e-mail encouraging discussion of the event, so that people would have a chance to get things off their chest.

Adding to the on-topic nature of this discussion was news that a TTC worker, heading to work while in uniform, was tackled by police, verbally abused, and detained for over 24 hours, in spite of his supervisor coming forward and vouching for the man. To start off the discussion, I wrote the following:

I’m beginning to agree that we need an inquiry on how security was handled at the G20. I know there were violent hooligans out there, but yet the police seemed to allow them to ride roughshod on Yonge Street, while deliberately hemming in and potentially illegally detaining peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders at Queen and Spadina.

I know, it seems like the police can’t ever win sometimes. They’re either accused of doing too much or too little. But my concern is that they appear to have done both at once this weekend. And while it hardly justifies detaining an innocent man for 36 hours, it might have been an ounce more worthwhile if at least some of the so-called Black Bloc hooligans were captured at the same time.

It was a good debate. We had a variety of opinions, but people managed to keep their emotions under control. This was made easy, I feel, by the fact that reports of allegations of severe abuse by certain members of the police had yet to come to light.

In the days following that e-mail, I fear my opinion of police conduct during the G20 summit has changed. Reports continue to come in of individuals, who were not disturbing the peace — many of whom, indeed, weren’t even protesting — still being harassed and, in some cases, detained by police, held in intolerable conditions, and even denied their right to a simple phone call.

Sure, these incidents could be trumped up by aggrieved parties looking for some payback for being legally detained, but the sheer number of incidents being reported, and their consistency, give me pause. Further, some the individuals who are reporting them, make me doubt that these claims are all frivolous. For instance, consider the case of Mike Brock.

I know Mike as a fellow traveller in the blogosphere. I know him to be a good man. I also know him to be a free market capitalist and libertarian who has little time for the anti-capitalist attitudes held by some of the participants in the G20 protests. On the Sunday, he was minding his own business on University Avenue and approached by a group of police officers, who appeared to take offence over the fact that he was wearing a black shirt.

It happened just a few minutes ago. I was sitting down on University Avenue, when a group of police officers approached me and said they wanted to talk to me. Stunned, I opened my mouth getting ready to reply to the request, when one of the officers at the top of his lungs yelled: “I DON’T GIVE A FUCK WHAT YOU THINK!”

Another officer said they didn’t want to hear about my rights.

They then proceeded to demand I remove the earphones from my ears, forcing me to get off the phone with my colleague. I told them I was on the phone to which another officer responded, “we don’t care.”


(Update, 7:45 a.m.: Mike writes me with a correction. This incident actually occurred on a Monday, long after the summit had finished. This makes things even worse, in my opinion, as the justification for such a draconian act, such as it was, was basically removed)

Now, some people might ask, given that there had already been clashes between “black bloc” hooligans and police on Saturday, what Mike was thinking being downtown on Sunday Monday. But Mike lives and works downtown. And, in any event, he wasn’t participating in a protest, and nor does he appear to have been acting in any way that can be interpreted as a breach of the peace. So, what justifies the actions of those police officers in treating a Canadian citizen with such disrespect?

But if Mike breaks type in terms of the sort of individual who’d speak out and allege impropriety by members of the police forces charged with keeping the peace at the G20 summit, Kathy Shaidle shatters it. She and I agree sometime never. She certainly gives me no indication that she sympathizes with the attitudes of the protesters. And yet she and her husband have a run-in with police themselves?

Add to this videos, including this one, of the police reaction to a peaceful protest at the intersection of Queen and Spadina, where protesters were penned in on both sides and given no opportunity to peacefully disperse, and it starts to look as though members of the security forces around the G20 summit weren’t interested in keeping the peace, but in provoking confrontations.

Then finally we come to the most horrible story of all: a 57-year-old amputee, picked up by police at Queen’s Park, who allegedly ripped off his prosthetic leg, pulled away his walking sticks, beat him, accused him of resisting arrest, and finally detaining him for over 24 hours.

When I heard that, I lost a lot of confidence I had in the police forces of this country.

Let me ask you something: what are the police for? Why do they exist? The answer is that they exist to protect the public. They protect the public from random acts of violence. Who is the public? We are. Every last one of us: from the individual who peacefully protests to the idiot that throws a brick through a window, to the unlucky sod who happens to be walking home from work at the time. All deserve equal protections under the law, and the rights of the two innocent parties should never be abrogated, not even to prosecute the actions of the guilty third.

How was what happened to John Pruyn anything less than a common assault? Had these actions been perpetrated by anybody who wasn’t in uniform, we’d see this as a cruel act of violence — worse, even, than anything the so-called “black bloc” perpetrated on Yonge Street. And Mr. Pruyn is just the worst allegation that we happen to know of. We’re only just beginning to sift through similar accusations suggesting that hundreds of Torontonians were intimidated, threatened, and roughed up for no good reason.

The fact that individuals like Mike Brock or John Pruyn could be targeted for such shameful treatment should be ringing alarm bells in everyone’s ears. Mike is not your typical protester (not to suggest that peaceful protesters themselves deserve similar treatment). This means that what happened to Mike Brock, what happened to John Pruyn, could happen to us all, given any number of factors which are beyond our control. We ourselves could have received this treatment for no good reason, and there is no case in the world which justifies such an atrocity.

What’s just as bad is the number of people who have come forward to criticize people like Mike Brock, questioning the validity of his accusations, or why he was out and about downtown on the day in question — suggesting, in effect, that people like Mike and John Pruyn got what was coming to them. To those individuals, I can only pray that someday you yourselves won’t feel the lash of a police baton just because you happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that you further don’t have arrogant twits ask what you did to bring about your own beating.

Some defenders don’t even deny that abuses occurred; instead, they try to excuse them by saying “the police are only human”, and that we shouldn’t hold them up to a higher standard than, say, the black bloc hooligans.

But of course we hold up our police officers to a high standard. It is vital that we do so considering the importance of the job. If a nuclear safety technician allowed a reactor to melt down because of whatever extenuating circumstance you could name, would you say “he was only human”?

If even half of the allegations coming forward prove true, we have here an indication that the police themselves became a threat to the very peace that they were supposed to protect. These incidents suggest that the focus of the police officers’ mandate was simply a mantra of “security”, and the people they deemed as being those solely worthy of their protection were the individuals behind the barricades, not us. Not the people who put those people behind the barricades, supposedly acting on our behalf.

This must be addressed, not only to redress any violations and to reaffirm our most cherished rights and freedoms, but also to restore faith in our police forces — most of whom did act appropriately and who shouldn’t be tarred by the actions of a minority. It is important that we ask: who gave the orders that allowed certain members of the police to become the bigger threat to the public that weekend? How were those orders communicated? Who takes responsibility when the innocent are treated worse than those who are guilty? And how do we ensure that our rights as well as our safety are maintained, and that these events never happen again?

Nothing less than a full public inquiry will serve.

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