More Stupid than Brutal?
departments in the United States and Canada are scrambling for a
way to control an outbreak of summer protests without appearing
to be unduly repressive. On July 21st, police in Philadelphia
admitted to photographing activists as they arrived in the city
for the upcoming civil disobedience that will coincide with the
Republican Convention in that city (July 31 to August 3). In using
such tactics, the police encounter accusations that they are violating
the Constitutional rights of protesters who should be able to speak
out and peacefully gather. The police point to the violence "caused"
by protesters at the World Trade Organization meeting (Seattle,
1999) and the World Bank meeting (Washington, April 2000) as justification.
But the public’s concern about freedom of speech remains one of
the most powerful restraints upon police conduct.
Given this backdrop of concern, one can only marvel at the political
folly of the Toronto Police Department who seem determined to convert
a PR battle they were slowly winning into a sudden embarrassment.
The folly in question: the forcible seizure of news photographs
and videotapes taken of the June 15th anti-poverty protest
by the mainstream media. Police Chief Julian Fantino has stated
his intention to use the confiscated media footage as evidence in
court against the protesters. Among those challenging the seizure
of media files are the news agencies Global Television, ONtv, CTV,
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the newspaper giant Globe
and Mail. In short, the police have managed to convert a
situation in which most third parties were more or less on their
side into a battle over freedom of speech. The latter is a battle
they cannot win: the mere raising of this issue by respectable sources
constitutes a setback in and of itself for the authorities. The
debate is no longer about the behavior of the protesters but about
the rights of the average citizen in court and of the media to independently
How did the police come to make this arrogant faux pas and especially
now when they are trying to fend off an official review of their
tactics during the June 15th protest?
On June 15th, anti-poverty protesters in Toronto marched
on Queen’s Park where the Ontario Provincial Parliament was sitting.
Outraged over Premier Mike Harris’s budget cuts and the "Safe
Streets" Bill that legalized the persecution of the homeless,
a reported crowd of 500 people demanded entry into the legislature.
Predictably, they were refused. The next day, journalist Michael
Harris of the National
Post reported what happened, "When the rock slammed
into my shoulder, I realized that the demonstrators had more than
paint bombs in their knapsacks. But there was scarcely time to register
the numbing pain, before riot policemen on horseback waded into
the crowd, wielding batons and urging their mounts irresistibly
forward. Molotov cocktails exploded into smoke and flame on the
steps of the legislature behind them." Harris described the
protesters as "water bugs" who scattered before the horse
charges of the police.
Such reports, complete with accounts of protesters screaming "You
f---ing pigs!" while they attacked policemen’s mounts, did
precisely what civil disobedience textbooks caution against. The
violence of the protesters was used to justify the brutality of
the official response. What else could come from reports like Harris’s
that declared, "I could see the eyes of the officers as large
as saucers now, as they fought to deflect the cobblestones and bottles
that rained down on them." When the smoke and teargas cleared
an hour later...well, reports vary. Somewhere between eighteen and
twenty-nine people had been arrested, with dozens of people and
horses injured. It was one of the most violent protests in Ontario’s
But, if some people were shocked by photos of baton-wielding cops,
more people seemed outraged by the intentional and planned brutality
of the protesters. Moreover, the marchers were viewed as the proximate
cause by much of the mainstream media coverage. Its leaders were
the targets of ad hominem. On June 17th, Christie Blatchford
reported in the National Post on the Ontario
Coalition Against Poverty, founded by John Clarke who led the
march. "Its most enduring result in a decade-long existence
is to attract sufficient funding (from the likes of the Canadian
Auto Workers and the Canadian Union of Public Employees) to provide
Mr. Clarke himself with enough money to live in a house." In
short, with the assistance of many news accounts, the police were
winning the PR war.
Blatchford’s words have come back to haunt her. She had written
of the protesters, "Watching the endless tape on local television
stations the past two nights, I saw all the old familiar faces who
have been showing up at these events for the last 10 years. (Or,
as I put it through my still-frozen mouth [frozen from a visit to
her dentist]: ‘Hey, I gno dose arthhodes!’)" Now the police
know them as well. They know them from the same footage that Blatchford
viewed, which is now considered to be "evidence" whether
the media likes it or not.
agencies have been forced to turn over hours and hours of unaired
footage to the authorities.
Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, under "Fundamental
Freedoms" reads, "Everyone has the following fundamental
freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion; (b) freedom of
thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the
press and other media of communication...."
Suddenly, news agencies became the protesters. They object to placing
their journalists in the line of danger in order to gather evidence
for the police. They declare that the independence of the media nay!
of democracy itself is being threatened by a police state. How can
they convince people to be interviewed, they ask, if the interviews
will be used in court proceedings?
The police’s declaration of war on news agencies comes on the heels
of a decisive victory in the "Queen’s Park riot matter."
Olivia Chow a councilor for an inner-city riding and a member
of the Toronto Police Services Board (a civilian board overseeing
the police) was on the scene at the riot. From the street,
Chow was vocal in criticizing the police brutality. They are aggressively
charging at people," she told a local cable station, "I
almost got charged. So why are they charging at people?" A
traffic cop named Deland Jessop started a petition to demand her
resignation from the police board and reportedly had 1,000 signatures
within 24 hours. Chow has been replaced by a more moderate voice.
Then, as though to distract media attention from the debacle of
seizing media files, the police began arresting key figures from
the Queen’s Park march. On July 21st, John Clarke, Gaetan
Heroux, and Stefan Pilipa of the Ontario Coalition Against and Poverty
were taken into custody along with several others. Moreover, the
police announced that they are holding several more arrest warrants
ready to be used at their discretion. The media quickly reported
this ill-disguised attempt at blackmail.
If the police hoped to deflect attention away from freedom of speech
and back onto protesters’ violence, they miscalculated. On July
22nd, John Clarke was released on $2,000 bail and a promise
to appear in court next week. With the same political stumbling
that characterized early official responses, the court attached
certain conditions to his bail. Among them:
can’t contact members of his own coalition, he can’t participate
in demonstrations, and he cannot go to Queen’s Park the seat of
provincial government. The conditions amount to a gag order. Given
that Clarke is also a well-known radical writer the cries of "unconstitutionality"
were quick in coming. Again, the issue is freedom of speech.
It must hearten the protesters to know they can count on at least
one constant the incredible stupidity of the authorities.
McElroy is author of The
Reasonable Woman. See more of her work at ifeminists.com
and at her personal website.