(Updated with more myths)
I’ve been following the fallout from this G20 summit through Twitter, YouTube and other media over the past few days. I wasn’t there myself, but I have some experience as an observer during protests, so a lot of what I saw and heard was familiar.
The first thing you have to know about large protests – and the police action that comes with it – is that it’s all more of a public relations war than anything else. Neither side is interested in harming the other (permanently), nor do they seriously expect that the other side will listen to reason and compromise. Instead, their shared goal is to convince the court of public opinion that the opposing side is an evil, heartless monster menace and they are the innocent victims (it’s a battle the police tend to win, by the way – as a post-G20 poll shows).
And that wouldn’t be so difficult. All either side has to do to get on the public’s good side is behave. Don’t antagonize, don’t attack, don’t resist, don’t break the law.
The problem with large protests (just about anything large enough to bring out the riot squad) is that while the majority – even the vast majority – do behave during these events, a minority of both sides doesn’t. And those are the ones people focus on. The ones who let their frustrations get the better of them, the ones who think the ends justify the means, or the ones who are just straight-up assholes.
And so, in the days after the G20, both sides have been screaming out half-truths to anyone who will listen, trying their best to exaggerate the extreme actions of the other side while dismissing or rationalizing their own excesses.
Here are a few of those outrageous claims. Some might be true, others not. I don’t know, because it seems everyone who does know the truth is too clouded by their political agendas to speak it properly. But I’m willing to guess the truth lies somewhere between the two sides.
Corporate media ignored the protesters’ demands
I haven’t found much media coverage of what the protesters were actually there to say (though the Globe and Mail did a good job of interviewing various interest groups before the summits). Then again, I haven’t found much independent media coverage of that either – though there is some. The big message I’m getting from the protester side is about the police, as it unfortunately tends to be.
There’s a post at the Toronto Media Co-op about how people should actually look at the G8-G20 magazine and discuss it. The post’s first comment said: “I would discuss the magazine with you but every time I try to read a page I want to vomit.” (Open-minded, no?) Other comments that followed brought the discussion back to police and protesters.
If anything, there’s far too much media coverage of the G20 protests, considering what happened. And that, of course, has to do with the fact that it happened in Toronto. Because so-called national media are based there, anything that happens there suddenly gains more national significance than it would if it had happened in Halifax or Saskatoon.
We have articles from the Toronto Star, Toronto Sun, National Post, Globe and Mail, CTV and CBC chronicling the sometimes disturbing claims of peaceful protesters. Can’t get more corporate/mainstream than that.
Protesters were abused by police
I’ve heard all sorts of exaggerations when it comes to so-called “police brutality” – a shove with a baton to get someone to move will be described as a violent, unprovoked attack on an unarmed person (extra points if they’re frail or pregnant). This protest was no different. The most minor of police jostles becomes a brutal attack in the eyes of the protesters.
A disturbing report from student journalists recounts stories about … well, let’s be honest, it’s more discomfort and inconvenience than it is abuse. But police say everything was on tape, and they’re willing to face any complaint.
In fact, the police later gave a tour to the media of this supposed hell hole that people were taken to after they were arrested. These metal cages doesn’t look particularly appetizing, but they’re jail cells. And when detainees are complaining about the taste of the cheese sandwiches they were given, you have to wonder what kind of treatment they expected.
I’m not defending what the police do. I too have been shoved with a baton and grabbed with a forceful arm. It’s really uncomfortable, and in many cases it hurts. But I would never use the term “brutality” to describe something done to me, and it’s rare to find cases that go beyond scrapes or bruises, even more so when the victim was following police orders and acting peacefully.
This makes me question some of the things said about police action after the arrests. Amy Miller, who calls herself an independent journalist but is clearly on one side of this conflict, said “I was told I was going to be raped“. Maybe she’s right. Maybe a police officer said something that went way too far. Maybe this girl was strangled as she said.
Maybe. But with the clear agenda they have in reporting these events, it’s hard to distinguish between truth and exaggeration.
But before you dismiss it all, consider this opinion piece by TVO’s Steve Paikin, who witnessed the protests first-hand and is hardly a radical anarchist. He didn’t say what the police did was abusive. He didn’t say it was illegal. He didn’t do any amateur legal analysis or use ridiculous hyperbole. But he painted a picture and said the police overstepped their bounds, said they “overreacted” and said the scene was “frightening”.
I’m much more likely to believe a story like that than one that says “OMG police pig storm troopers were illegally assaulting and abusing innocent peaceful protesters and must answer for their war crimes against humanity!!!!” – no matter how many MDs they drag out.
Besides, the real abuse of human rights was the denial of shopping.
Protesters were heavily armed
Toronto police put on an impressive display (a chainsaw? really?) of weapons seized during the protests. Police chief Bill Blair gave this telling quote during the press conference: “No one should be so naïve as to think these people were there for the purpose of lawful protest.”
The message is clear: the protesters were armed, here to cause violence, and we police officers were entirely justified in what we did because of it. It’s only because of us, they say, that Toronto wasn’t destroyed by an angry mob.
But while the press conference was impressive, there’s a few problems with the logic used. The first is that there aren’t enough weapons there to account for all the protesters present at the G20 summit, nor even those 1,000 or so arrested. So clearly some were arrested who were unarmed.
Second, the police definition of “weapon” is very liberal. One person was arrested and faces weapons charges for carrying a Swiss army knife. Other weapons put on display included goggles, bicycle helmets, tennis balls and walkie-talkies, the Globe says.
Finally, many of the weapons put on display were not taken from G20 protesters. That chainsaw? The crossbow? Unrelated, the police admitted. The chain mail? It’s from a guy who was on his way to a live-action role-playing game.
Even what’s left after you dismiss all of these are questionable: “gas masks, cans of spray paint, a replica gun, saws, pocket knives, a staple gun, a drill, a slingshot, chains and handcuffs.” How much damage can you see any of the above doing to a police officer in riot gear? Or to an unarmed dignitary if they do get through?
There were clearly some weapons brought in with the purpose of doing damage at the G20 protests. But it was a small number, and the police were clearly trying to exaggerate it to gain public sympathy.
Undercover cops acted as agents provocateurs
I’ve always found this myth a bit far-fetched. It’s one thing to suggest that undercover police officers have infiltrated activist ranks before and during protests. I expect that to happen. But to take it to the next level and say that those officers are the ones that are causing the violence? That they are the ones setting fire to police cars and breaking windows – all with the support of uniformed officers – just so the police can win a PR war? That the Black Bloc itself is nothing but a creation of police forces, whose broader goal is to give fellow officers an excuse to abuse innocent people and “criminalize dissent”?
It smacks of a conspiracy theory along the lines of the U.S. planning 9/11. And it just doesn’t make any sense. (We’ll set aside for a moment the unlikelihood of a giant conspiracy involving hundreds of people being carried out over and over and no official evidence of it ever leaking to the media).
And if the Black Bloc are nothing but undercover police provocateurs, if the “real protesters never wear masks”, then why do I see banners saying “We are all Black Bloc!” in a sympathy protest in Vancouver? Were those also police agents? And if so, why didn’t they smash anything? Why are people defending the actions of the Black Bloc, even psychoanalyzing them in a sympathetic way?
Video after video on YouTube describes “agents provocateurs”, but at best they show cops in civilian clothing – with no evidence that they damaged anything or provoked anything – or people dressed in black vandalizing property – with no evidence that these people are police officers or being protected by them.
I’d have dismissed such crazy talk entirely had I not known about a protest in Montebello in August 2007.
Shortly afterward, a video went up on YouTube of a union leader convinced that three guys in army boots and bandanas were in fact cops sent to bring an unstable element to the protest. One of the three had a rock in his hand. They stood there quietly, trying not to react. Eventually they moved closer to the line of SQ cops. Despite one of them carrying a rock for no apparent purpose, less than three feet away from riot cops, the SQ did nothing. Not a shove, not a yell.
As the other activists (including some wearing masks) turned on the three guys, they inched closer to the riot cops, and appeared to start a conversation with them. Eventually they pushed – walked, even – behing the SQ line and were taken into custody with no resistance whatsoever.
It was just incredibly suspicious. It became even moreso when a picture surfaced showing the three mysterious men were wearing the same type of boots as the uniformed SQ cops.
Individually, none of these things is proof of anything. Even together, the evidence is circumstantial. I remained unconvinced.
Then the SQ admitted it: They were undercover cops. That guy had no intention of using that rock, the SQ said. Holding it in his hand was just a way of getting behind enemy lines.
Whether they were agents provocateurs is up for debate. But this episode did show that police do go undercover, and do pose as violent protesters. More importantly, it showed me that sometimes the crazy activist conspiracy theorists are right.
The police allowed the Black Bloc to run amok to bolster their PR case
Just like there are those who don’t believe the U.S. organized 9/11 but believe they allowed it to happen, there are those who think the police willingly turned a blind eye to Black Bloc tactics so that they could run to the media and say “look at what our enemies are doing!” – and so they could take out their primal aggressions on peaceful protesters.
A billion dollars was spent on security, with thousands of police officers brought in from all over the country. They had plenty to rough up peaceful protests, but they couldn’t stop a handful of Black Bloc troublemakers from breaking windows of businesses? Why was it up to random citizens to stop the looting?
There are all sorts of reasons why police won’t stop a vandal. Usually it’s because they don’t think they can do so safely, keeping their officers protected. (Their first priority is their own safety, not that of their cars.) But the decision to retreat is usually a result of a lack of manpower, which I can’t imagine could have been the case here. At least not longer than it would take for dozens of riot cops to march a few blocks.
A police review will probably shed some light on how the vandalism and police car fires were allowed to happen (and it’s one of those things that the non-activist public actually wants to know from the police).
But as with the previous conspiracy theory, I just don’t see the motivation. Are we to believe that the police are thugs who take a sick pleasure out of beating up innocent people? That they would orchestrate some massive conspiracy so they could give some kids a few bruises? Or maybe it’s some complicated ruse to increase their budget? If that were the case, you’d think the union would have denounced it by now. Unless, of course, we have to believe that they’re in on it too.
Then again, maybe it is true. A CityNews reporter recounts a police officer saying that the more arrests they made, the more funding they would get. Probably a joke, perhaps an exaggeration, a guess or a misunderstanding of policy, but it makes you wonder.
Protesters protected and supported the Black Bloc
It’s true that part of the way the Black Bloc works is to use the massive crowd of protesters as cover. But even in the videos showing their destructive tactics, you can see people denouncing them. One bystander even took matters into his own hands to stop looting from a broken store window.
While a sympathy protest was held in Vancouver, another one is being organized where they’re not welcome.
There are protesters who support the Black Bloc, who think that the battle against capitalism will someday result in all-out armed revolution and create a new world order. But they’re in the minority.
At the G20, nobody stopped police officers from arresting Black Bloc members. The cops just weren’t there.
That said, protesters, journalists and all those bystanders taking cellphone videos have to understand that they’re part of the problem. Each one forms part of a mob that will dissuade police from rushing in to stop the destruction. Like in any riot, people gawking and taking pictures and video – as well-intentioned as they may be – only encourage more of the same.
Toronto was a police state
Sure, that fence was high, and some officers probably went too far (in many cases bringing out some really strange logic), but comparing Toronto to some middle eastern dictatorship is going a bit far. Real police states don’t protect people even as they’re arresting them.
There are legitimate criticisms of the encroachment on civil liberties that took place during the G20 summit, including unprovoked searches and the confiscation of non-dangerous belongings. But exaggerating this will only serve to push away any public sympathy and have the victims be branded as radicals with no sense of reality.
Putting up a video that shows a police officer saying “this ain’t Canada right now” – now that speaks volumes.
Police targeted Quebecers
It’s a strange claim, but some people are saying that people with Quebec license plates or who spoke French were being harassed by police officers. The first of these claims came from CLAC, the anti-capitalist radicals who support vandalism as a legitimate form of protest, and I think it’s far more likely police were profiling CLAC members because of their political views than because of their province of origin or spoken language. But still, it’s not far-fetched to believe that some police officers let their prejudices get the better of them.
Police targeted journalists
Looking at the videos from the G20 protests, it seems every second person had a camera and was calling themselves an “independent journalists.” In reality, a lot of those people were just activists with blogs.
One of the most high-profile cases is Jesse Rosenfeld, who was described as a journalist with The Guardian. But he’s not. He writes for a section of the Guardian’s website called “Comment is free” – and the Guardian itself describes him as a Canadian “freelance journalist.”
I don’t know what Rosenfeld’s motivations were. Maybe his interest was strictly journalism. Maybe he was out to present an agenda. But he is either misrepresenting himself or being misrepresented as being a class of journalist he’s clearly not.
Don’t get me wrong, independent media is very important, and websites like the Toronto Media Co-op have been very useful in my research here, but to suggest that they present straight news without a political agenda is ridiculous.
The fact that so much footage made it to the Internet – even from some people who had been arrested – suggests the police weren’t exactly trying to shut down journalism (independent or otherwise) on a massive scale.
Male officers performed strip searches on female detainees
The allegations are all over the Internet (along with allegations that police raped and tortured people), but the police deny it. And since the stories all seem to come from the same single report, it’s hard to give it too much credibility.
Police fired on protesters
Saying police “opened fire” gives the incorrect impression that live bullets were used, but otherwise this one appears to be true. I’m sure some context is missing from the above video, but clearly the police made use of nonlethal projectile weapons as a form of crowd control.
They probably think they were justified somehow.
Police did a good job
More than a week after the summit, Toronto City Council voted unanimously to praise the police for their work. This, after an inquiry had been called, but before it had collected any evidence. One councillor – a mayoral candidate – even argued the police were “too nice”.
These motions have no real power. They’re entirely symbolic. But they send the wrong message – that the city is on the side of the police, and the complaints of the protesters are without merit. As much as I’m skeptical about some of the reports made by some protesters, there are too many of them which are too consistent, backed by too much video and photographic evidence to be dismissed outright.
Police are only human, it’s expected some of them should lose their temper like some protesters did
Yes, police are human. It’s understandable that some would let their emotions get the better of them and they go too far. That doesn’t make it right.
Police, especially in situations like this, have to bend over backwards to the point of absurdity to protect the safety and rights of everyone – including the protesters. That’s their job. If anyone steps out of line, they should be punished. If they don’t like it, they shouldn’t be police officers.
Eye for an eye is not acceptable as a police tactic. Protesters will be rude, insulting and uncooperative. It’s mean, and in many cases uncalled for, but unless a law is broken, it’s perfectly legal, and they should be allowed to do it.
It’s not fair. But neither is the fact that police have weapons and protesters don’t. Police must accept more responsibility for their actions.
The amount of arrests is evidence of the nefarious intentions of the protest mob
There were more than 900 arrests made during the G20 summit. It’s the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Twice as much as were made during the October Crisis – you’ll recall people actually died during that, and even then it was controversial.
But what’s more important than the large number of arrests is the comparatively small number of prosecutions. Most people were released – after hours of detainment in disgusting wire cages – without charges.
There are two reasons this might happen: 1) The charges are so minor that police deem it a waste of time and resources to prosecute them; 2) The charges are so difficult to prove that police don’t believe they’d get a conviction.
In both of these cases, one really should call into question the arrest itself, no?
I’ve seen protest arrests, followed by hours of detainment, where people are released after signing a document waiving their rights (say, by agreeing not to protest under certain conditions). Even though they know they did nothing wrong, and the police have no case, they sign over their rights in exchange for their freedom. It’s wrong, but it keeps repeating itself.
A week after the protest, the number of people still detained – the number facing serious charges – is in the low double digits. Is 900 arrests really justified when only 10-20 did anything the police are seriously prepared to prosecute?
This whole summit could have been done over teleconference
It borders on the absurd, but some are suggesting that in-person conferences among world leaders should be done away with and that everyone should just meet using teleconference systems like Skype.
Aside from missing the point – should major policy be set by the whims of violent protesters? – many experts argue – and I tend to agree – that face-to-face contact between world leaders does make a difference. But, by all means, cut down some of that staff of 500 President Obama brings with him to these things.
Police were given sweeping new powers after laws were secretly passed
Speaking of absurd, there was news just before the G20 began that Ontario lawmakers had secretly passed a law that gave the police the power to detain or even arrest people just for approaching the giant fence separating the G20 from the rest of Toronto.
The media made a big deal of these new police powers. People were arrested using them. But it turns out the laws people were complaining about never existed, despite the police making everyone think they did. Isn’t it wrong for a police officer to pretend there’s a law that doesn’t exist, and particularly to act on it?
Even the police chief was in on it:
Asked Tuesday if there actually was a five-metre rule given the ministry’s clarification, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair smiled and said, “No, but I was trying to keep the criminals out.”
In other words, he helped to fool everyone. About, you know, the law. Are there also secret parts of the constitution the government is just choosing not to publicize? This is the law, for crying out loud!
Amnesty International is calling for an independent inquiry. The Toronto police have said they would review their procedures, but it sounds more like reviewing their tactics than actually investigating to see if any of them might have crossed the line. There will be an independent investigation, but not a full inquiry. Who knows how detailed it will be.
I think a full inquiry makes sense here, for a number of reasons. First, because of the amount of money involved. A few million dollars on an inquiry seems like a drop in the bucket compared to hundreds of millions spent on security. Saving just a few percent next time would more than compensate for the cost of the inquiry.
Second, this isn’t a one-off, isolated event. This entire production will repeat itself the next time world leaders meet in Canada. The larger issue needs to be explored, with clearer guidelines given to police about how to deal with protesters, and better procedures in place so that peaceful protesters are allowed to demonstrate freely while those who commit criminal acts are found and arrested before they can do any damage to property.
But I have a feeling that even such an inquiry would change little about how police and protesters confront each other. The idea that they could come to a peaceful understanding and just let each other be … well, that’s just another myth.
UPDATE (Sept. 4): The Toronto Star has a look back at the G20, which helps explain a bit about the police and the Black Bloc.