...we all need to ask this question, though the situation in Ontario seems especially bad. If the drift of Canada towards a police state has not yet affected you directly, you would do well to recall the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, writing in Germany before his arrest in the 1930s: "The Nazis came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I was a Protestant, so I didn't speak up....by that time there was nobody left to speak up for anyone."From: Deborah Brock, who teaches crime and social regulation in the Department of Sociology, York University. June 2000
Policing is and always has been a para-military form of organization. However, police practices have become noticeably less restrained since the election of the Harris government. Conservative ideologies and policies have stripped basic rights from tenants, workers, and the poor, while creating zero tolerance policies and boot camps which focus on punishment, and ignore the social causes of crime. At its annual meeting this week, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police is proposing that civilian investigators from the Special Investigations Unit (whose task it is to investigate police conduct) be replaced by police officers. Now that a government is in power which lacks the most basic understanding of political rights and favours authoritarian forms of governing, who is policing the police?
It is not only in Ontario that police power is expanding. Former New York City Mayor Randolph Giuliani's clean up campaign has been lauded on both sides of the border for its "get tough on crime" successes, despite accusations of brutality on the part of the NYPD. And last week, the federal liberal government tabled a Bill that would allow police forces across Canada greater latitude in breaking the law in the line of duty.
The policing of public demonstrations has also rapidly changed. Remember "Peppergate", when a public investigation was launched after police pepper sprayed demonstrators during the APEC meetings in Vancouver in 1997? Since that time, pepper spraying demonstrators has become a routine practice in crowd control, as we have seen in Seattle, Washington, Windsor, and now Toronto. Yet when demonstrators show up prepared with vinegar soaked bandanas and swimming goggles, this is interpreted as them looking for trouble, rather than attempting to protect themselves against a now routine form of police assault.
I went to Queen's Park on Thursday June 15 as part of a demonstration against the provincial Tory government's agenda----an agenda which is killing people daily, on the streets, in the hospitals, and in Ontario communities like Walkerton, where people risk their lives when they turn on a kitchen tap. The demonstration was organized by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, and endorsed by numerous unions and community organizations. Trade unionists, university professors, and church groups were among those who marched from Allan Gardens to Queen's Park with marginally housed and homeless people, demanding to be heard. What happened that day can only be described as a "police riot."
At Queen's Park, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty spokesperson John Clarke addressed the crowd, stating that the victims of poverty and homelessness should be able to speak to the legislature. He announced that those who had elected to attempt to do so should proceed. Some of the demonstrators then moved forward and attempted to remove barricades to the entrance to the legislature, chanting "Whose house, our house!" to signal that people facing poverty and homelessness were being ignored and denied access to elected officials.
The police, in full riot gear, on horseback, in uniform, were out in force, standing behind a barricaded entrance to the legislature, while undercover officers were planted among the demonstrators. They were prepared for a riot to happen----they had apparently been training for it for weeks-and they immediately put that training into practice, thereby actually creating the situation that they were there to control. They immediately attacked demonstrators with truncheons and pepper spray. Lines of riot gear clad police surged forward, beating everyone within reach. When they reached my location, well back from the front of the demonstration, a friend and I jumped up on to a statue and watched the people who had been standing immediately in front of us, doing nothing, set upon and repeatedly clubbed by groups of police, even after they were prostrate on the ground. People were running in every direction, as they were charged by police on massive horses sweeping from the sides and down the middle of the park, in full gallop. Riot police paused periodically, only to renew their assault on the crowds with a frenzy that conveyed a loss of control within an orchestrated assault. During one of the pauses, a police officer directly in front of me yelled at a woman standing beside me (not to me - was I too well dressed?), "Why aren't you working?" I asked him what having a job had to do with citizenship rights. His reply was one of those very deliberate smiley sneers that I recall the villains making on the Saturday morning cartoons I watched as a kid.
Police are trained to respond to dissent by containing and de-escalatingit. From a policing perspective, it would have been appropriate to do so when demonstrators broke down the barricades. That is not what happened. Instead, police resorted to tactics which escalated the situation, and provoked anger and sometimes violence from the crowd in response. Everyone who attended that demonstration was treated as an enemy of the public. Some, like me, were so outraged by police actions that we refused to turn and run. Others not only refused, but fought back.
In media accounts that I have seen and read, it was reported that police responded to rioting protestors throwing stones, sticks (from protest signs), horse dung, yellow paint, and a Molotov cocktail. Yet this occurred only after police began their assault on the crowd. The first items to be thrown by some of the protestors were protest signs and horse dung. As the police attack continued, the response escalated. About 25 minutes after police began their assault I saw a few young men break up a brick sidewalk to fight back against police truncheons. A friend saw some disapproving women protestors picking up the loosened bricks and putting them in their purses, to prevent the bricks from being used as weapons.
It took approximately 45 minutes to clear the demonstration from Queen's Park. We were pushed out onto the street at the south east corner of Queen's Park, at which point OCAP made the request that we march back to Allan Gardens. Police followed us to Allan Gardens, and continued to attack and arrest people. I witnessed the arrest of Magaly San. Martin, a community worker at Parkdale Community Legal Services and doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Magaly is a founder of the Latin American Coalition Against Racism, and has worked for police accountability. She was among those who participated in a campaign to remove police association posters in the TTC depicting Latin Americans as criminals. Magaly was charged with participating in a riot and assaulting a police officer, both indictable offences. An officer stated that she had thrown 15 stones at police (her friends denied this), while the Crown Attorney and Justice of the Peace at her bail hearing both assumed her guilt, and moreover described her as the clever ringleader of a riot. The JP stated that "Maybe she thinks that she can get away with that kind of thing in Chile, but in Canada we don't allow that sort of thing." Magaly's family had fled Pinochet's military junta when Magaly was 13. She is familiar with a police state, and she has worked with determination to ensure that civil rights are protected and police are accountable. And like me, Magaly had simply come to Queen's Park to signal her opposition to Tory government policies.
Another casualty of the police riot that day was Toronto councillor and member of the Police Services Board, Olivia Chow. Olivia Chow and Councillor Jack Layton had arrived at the south east corner of Queen's Park on their bicycles, and witnessed police charging into the crowd on horseback. Chow has been a tireless social justice advocate and has in the past not been afraid to be critical of the police. She chose to work within the system in order to ensure its accountability. For merely daring to question police conduct, she was forced to resign her position on the Police Services Board.
In the days immediately following the demonstration, mainstream media accounts were virtually unanimous in declaring that what happened at Queen's Park was a riot by protestors, which injured numerous police and their horses (the many protestors injured by police are incidental in these accounts). Police statements in media accounts indeed garnered public sympathy by reporting injuries to horses from thrown objects. When will police be held accountable for using the horses as weapons, thereby placing them at risk?
A "riot by protestors" has come to be understood as the "factual" account of what happened at Queen's Park; one that most people who only learned of what happened June 15 by reading their newspapers or watching their television news reports might reasonably assume to be true. Even allies like Sid Ryan, the president of CUPE-Ontario, and anti-poverty writer Pat Capponi have interpreted these media accounts as truth, and condemned the demonstrators. These now "factual" accounts and the public condemnation for the demonstrators that is produced out of these accounts then organize consent for an expansion of repressive police powers and for more of the iron fist policies that the provincial Tory government have been putting into place since they came to power.
OCAP did declare that a war was going on, but it was a war by the government against the poor. Some supporters did attempt to breach police barricades. Some did fight back against police with whatever they could lay their hands on (and yes, at least one came prepared for a fight with yellow paint, and another with a molotov cocktail). But I do not want this to imply that there were respectable and unrespectable protestors in Queen's Park, with the orderly and respectable being hurt as a result of the actions of the unruly, as some might charge. This government has chosen to completely ignore democratic political protest----hundreds of thousands of Ontario residents have to date marched on Queen's Park, only to be dismissed as marginal or unrepresentative of legitimate Ontario citizens. The mainstream media has become so used to frequent protests that they no longer constitute a newsworthy event. Some activists have recognized that the only way to capture media and public attention, and to try to stem the tide of deaths of the homeless on Toronto streets, is to engage in actions-like attempting to enter the Ontario legislature to confront the government - for which they will likely be arrested. While this is not my choice of tactics, I cannot blame them for choosing it. These are desperate times, and this kind of reaction pales in comparison to the extent of the crisis facing so many Ontario residents, as the gap between the rich and the poor widens. This government must be called to account. Given the events that I witnessed in Queen's Park last week, so must the police.http://www.peace.ca/policingthepolice.htm