Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Linda McQuaig: Vindication for G20 Protesters

Vindication for G20 Protesters
December 14, 2010 | The Toronto Star | CommonDreams | Rabble

In the aftermath of the G20 fiasco here last summer, one thing Torontonians agreed on was that such summits should be held in isolated venues — on military bases, on ocean-going vessels, on melting glaciers — anywhere but where lots of people reside.

But beyond being upset with the expense and disorder that weekend, many Torontonians (and city council) sided with the police, assuming that the arrest of 1,105 people must have somehow been justified, given the rampage of a small group through the downtown core.

What is now unmistakably clear — with the release of a searing report by Ontario Ombudsman André Marin and startling new video evidence of police beatings obtained by the Star’s Rosie DiManno — is that the vast powers of the state were unjustifiably used against thousands of innocent protesters, as well as against others doing nothing more subversive than riding a bike or picking up groceries.

Unbeknownst to citizens who had gathered for a peaceful march through downtown Toronto — similar to marches frequently held without incident in the city — the provincial cabinet had resurrected police powers from the 70-year-old Public Works Protection Act, enacted when the country was at war with Nazi Germany.

This, according to Marin, triggered “extravagant police authority” which the police went on to exercise outside the intended area, leaving citizens vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and detention far from the G20, and creating “the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history.”

If one were trying to dream up scenarios of overarching police powers, it would be hard to invent anything more lurid than the real-life tale of police yanking the prosthetic leg off 57-year-old Revenue Canada employee John Pruyn, after he was unable to move quickly enough from the designated Queen’s Park “speech area” where he was sitting with his daughter.

The war measures powers only compounded the problem created by the massive police presence assembled by the federal government. Harry Glasbeek, professor emeritus at Osgoode Hall Law School, notes that, with almost 20,000 police to monitor some 10,000 demonstrators, there were two “guardians of the peace” for every unarmed demonstrator.

All this not only alerts us to the dangers of creeping authoritarianism, but amounts to a vindication of the demonstrators, who were often dismissed as troublemakers.

On the contrary, we need more these sorts of citizens, who take seriously the notion that dissent is essential to freedom, because it keeps political leaders in check.

Indeed, while police were arresting the one-legged man on the lawn at Queen’s Park, a few kilometres away the G20 leaders were quietly scrapping a proposed tax on financial speculation, promoting an agenda of austerity, and generally assuring that the horrendous costs of the financial crisis would be paid for by the world’s citizens — not by the banks that brought it on.

The important role of protesters — so well appreciated by iconic Western thinkers like John Stuart Mill — is denigrated these days, perhaps because it fits uneasily with our society’s narrative about everyone being driven purely by greed and self-interest.

We seem to have trouble understanding people willing to spend hours marching in protests without the slightest prospect of personal gain, just a commitment to justice.

Instead, oddly, we accept as normal governments that squander $1 billion on “security,” turning the country’s largest city into a pseudo war zone and locking up hundreds of its finest citizens.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2010

Linda McQuaig is a columnist for The Star. She is the author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet and The Trouble With Billionaires.

The Toronto Star Articles by Linda McQuaig
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Toews denies role in G20 police law
CBC's Louise Elliott article link
December 8, 2010 | CBC

G20 police rule slammed by ombudsman
CBC's Mike Crawley article link
December 7, 2010 | CBC

Toronto police chief retracts G20 video comments
December 3, 2010 | CBC

G20 probe slammed by Toronto police chief
November 29, 2010 | CBC

G20 review will probe use of police force
November 4, 2010 | CBC
CBC News home page


The Ontario ombudsman's G20 report confirms the denial of our civil liberties
by Sarah Jean Harrison article link
December 14, 2010 | Rabble


That's what the Ontario ombudsman's Andre Marin's report sounds like to me.

As a peaceful protester during the G20 demonstrations, I saw and experienced Toronto as a police state where the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms no longer applied. While the mainstream media couldn't tear the cameras away from burning cruisers, police officers were conducting illegal searches, used excessive force and the provincial government quietly withdrew our rights.

Of all the piece-meal inquiries and investigations looking into spending and security around the G20, Caught in the Act, Andre Marin's scathing report of the provincial government and police conduct, is the first to honestly acknowledge what thousands of peaceful protestors experienced that weekend: our civil liberties, those rules we thought shaped citizenship, were trashed.

Marin's discussion of the Public Works Protection Act raises a number of very disturbing questions. The original document was a "war measures act" that was created in 1939, shortly after Canada declared war on Germany. What does it mean when a war measures act can be re-hashed without our knowledge or consent? What does it mean when the government feels it's acting in our best interests to revamp a 71-year-old act that pre-dates the Charter of Rights by 43 years?

Perhaps it means that by agreeing to enact this measure, during what we have traditionally understood as a peacetime, the government (and Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair) is suggesting that hosting an international summit is the equivalent to being at war.

And maybe they're right.

Similar to a military, the G20 doesn't work according to democratic practices. A hierarchy of a few select leaders are afforded the power to make decisions and issue directives for the majority of the world. The top brass outline the plan while populations, some more than others, are expected to execute the orders.

Like war, the policies of the G20 have collateral damage. The "fiscal consolidation" urged by the G20 have translated into the austerity measures we are now seeing in places like the UK, Ireland and Greece. The G20's unrealistic and unremitting adherence to unlimited economic growth has consistently required deep cuts in social services which, at street level, is essentially a war waged against the poor and marginalized.

To fight a war, one of the main requirements of any government is to effectively repress all forms of dissent, especially at home. This is why our "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression," "freedom of peaceful assembly," "the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure," and "the right not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned," as protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms since 1982, were not adhered to on that now infamous weekend in June.

So the provincial government changed the rules, at the request of Chief Blair, and attempted to quietly dismantle our rights. In effect, the war was brought to the citizens and demonstrators of Fortress Toronto via illegal searches, falsely interpreted laws, rubber bullets, tear gas, kettlings, mass arrests and arbitrary beatings.

Thankfully we haven't turned away from this unexpected war.

Despite the heavy-handed policing that attempted to scare people off the streets and into silence, thousands refused to ignore the suspension of our rights. Thousands decided that dissent is a valuable means of protecting our rights and freedoms.

It is through protest we are able to speak back to institutions like the G20, Toronto Police Services and the provincial government. It is through protest that we indicate our non-compliance with abuse of power, intimidation tactics and injustice. It is through protest that we oppose the G20's wars.

The hundreds of complaints, photos, videos and statements protestors provided were the foundation upon which Marin could build his report. Without our presence on the streets taking photos, filming, recording and uploading, the denial of our Charter rights could have easily slipped into the past. Especially with Chief Blair working so hard to withhold information, dismiss the illegality of the supposed five-metre law (which never existed) and attempting to discredit activists' accusations of excessive force.

The worst thing we can do is collectively turn a blind eye to war, allowing its violence and injustice to fester in the dark. If we silently allow our rights to be removed, even for a weekend, we are paving the road to repetition and escalation. Marin's report is a validation of dissent as a form of political engagement. But, perhaps Marin knows this already. Hopefully his report will help educate our government.

Sarah Jean Harrison is a Toronto-based freelance writer, social justice activist, feminist, community artist and university instructor.

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