The price of order

In the aftermath of protests surrounding the G20 summit in Toronto with world leaders of developed and developing economies, it is reassuring that there is still some potency in public pressure and public opinion. The Toronto Police Services Board has now agreed to an independent civilian review of police actions in handling the protesters.

Police response during the two-day G20 needs to be properly assessed and understood, not least because of the apparent violation of civil liberties, but also because, as police officials have acknowledged, the event was a huge learning curve for them.

To the uncritical eye, what we observed on day one was a restrained army of black-clad police standing witness to acts of vandalism including the setting of police cars on fire, while on day two the police seemed to have gone overboard in handling protesters – most of whom were peaceful – and non-protesters alike, people who, it seems, were just going about their business.

With media coverage focusing on the most dramatic aspects of the protests, many across Canada did not have the broader picture of the thousands of peaceful protesters. So it is of little surprise that a national poll taken after the vandalism and police action found that a majority of respondents, including 70 per cent of people polled in Toronto, supported the police actions.

The main concern of protesters is the Sunday incident at Queen Street and Spadina Avenue in which people were rounded up in driving rain in an enclosure technique called “kettling”, where lines of police converge on a crowd from all sides effectively fencing them in. About 1,000 people were surrounded in this manner and detained. More than 700 were arrested but later released without charge. As of Tuesday, another 250 still faced charges.

Those who were placed in detention at the temporary holding facility on Eastern Avenue tell stories of having been held for extended periods without being told what they were being charged with; that they were not allowed access to lawyers or the opportunity to make a phone call. Some allege that they were degraded in a number of ways. Allegations include racial slurs, taunting, sensory depravation and the humiliation of open – that is, door-less – toilet facilities with no additional sanitary amenities.

Another disturbing aspect of the G20 public security fiasco was the secretiveness of the McGuinty government concerning the enactment of regulations giving the police additional powers of search and seizure during the G20 weekend. Since the fence set up to protect the world leaders was not breached and none of them – nor members of their entourages – seemed to have ever been in harm’s way, one could argue that the end justified the means. But, was this tactic ethical?

While it is hoped that all of these issues will be sifted through in the independent review, there still remains a more present and troubling social concern reflected in the willingness of so many to accept the suspending of civil freedoms by the state.

We must never become so smug about our so-called civilized society that we fool ourselves into thinking that the types of militarization that exist in other countries can never happen here.

In reaction to the shocking attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, Canada passed its controversial Anti-Terrorism Act. Civil rights organizations, lawyers and immigrant groups argued that the Act’s focus on preventive arrests, arrests on mere suspicion and secret hearings contravened Canada’s Charter of Rights. Yet, many were willing to accede to this. Later, when in March 2007 some provisions of the Act were about to expire, the Opposition – at that time led by current prime minister, Stephen Harper – sought, unsuccessfully, to retain aspects such as the power of preventive arrest.

Two weeks ago, we all watched while security forces set up a mini-police state, believing it was in the best interest of protecting visiting world leaders. But where was the plan for protecting the rights of citizens? And at what price are we really willing to maintain order?


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