Canadians demand answers to G20 police brutality

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Tahir Mustafa

Rajab 18, 1431 2010-07-01

News & Analysis

by Tahir Mustafa (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 5, Rajab, 1431)

Those arrested included students, journalists, lawyers and even bystanders. Ugly scenes of police attacking and knocking people to the ground and putting handcuffs on them were seen on television.

Reverberations from the G20 summit held in Toronto more than a month ago continue to be felt. There is great unease among Canadians of all backgrounds about how the summit was handled, especially by the police and other security agencies that clearly went overboard in arresting more than 1,000 people — 1,090 to be precise. Those arrested, the overwhelming majority being completely peaceful protesters or innocent bystanders — were locked up in filthy cages in an abandoned warehouse that used to serve as home for the Toronto Film Festival.

Those arrested included students, journalists, lawyers and even bystanders. Ugly scenes of police attacking and knocking people to the ground and putting handcuffs on them were seen on television. Many journalists were also roughed up by the police and prevented from doing their job. Jesse Rosenfeld, working for the British daily, the Guardian, was punched in the stomach by a plainclothes police officer as others held him tight and then elbowed in the back, knocking him to the ground. This was not hearsay, the assault on Rosenfeld was witnessed and confirmed by senior Canadian journalist Steve Paikin, host of the well-known TV Show, The Agenda, which is broadcast on TVO. Paikin himself, despite his G20 accreditation badge, was threatened with arrest if he did not leave the scene. All but a handful of those arrested were released within the next 18 to 20 hours without any charges but not before being threatened, abused and humiliated by the police.

It would seem the powers that be lost their nerve at the massive turnout of tens of thousands of people opposed to the G20 summit held in Toronto on June 26 and 27. The protesters were completely peaceful and did not confront the police but the situation turned ugly when a small group of people, described as “Black Bloc” protesters, broke loose from the main rally and went on a rampage. They smashed police cars setting them on fire as well as store windows. The questions that have remained unanswered are: where were the police when the Black Bloc protesters — called so because they covered their faces and wore black clothes — were vandalizing police vehicles? And why were police vehicles left unattended for hours near the march route? The police have confirmed that their agents had penetrated the Black Bloc, which raised the question: were they allowed by the police to indulge in such rowdy behaviour to justify the $1.2 billion spent on summit security?

After such acts of vandalism, the police and other security forces in riot gear attacked peaceful protesters even in pre-designated protest areas. They did not care whether people were standing or sitting; everyone was attacked and beaten up. By the evening of June 26, the images that were splashed around the world on television screens of an otherwise peaceful and laid back city like Toronto were of burning police cars, smashed store fronts, and police clubbing people, putting chains on them before hauling them to the make-shift detention camp. To cap this outrage, the Toronto police chief Bill Blair announced that his force had acted properly. This immediately led to calls by leading Canadian figures for a public inquiry into police conduct and resignation of the police chief. On June 28, nearly 3,000 people rallied outside the police headquarters on College Street in Toronto and denounced police tactics of criminalizing peaceful dissent.

On June 29, Blair displayed a cache of “weaponry” calling it proof of the “criminal conspiracy” of some protesters. It turned out that many of the items were not G20-related at all. It seems the police chief has been forced to resort to such underhand tactics to deflect criticism of his force.

There have been rallies since the disastrous summit weekend almost on a continuous basis. A petition calling for police chief Blair to resign has been signed by among others, Abbie Bakan, Professor of Politics Studies at Queen’s University; Judy Rebick, CAW Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy; Rinaldo Walcott, Professor at OISE, University of Toronto; author Noami Klein; James Cairns, Assistant Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University (Brantford); Deborah Cowen, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto; Sue Ferguson, Wilfrid Laurier University-Brantford; David McNally, Professor of Political Science, York University; Mary-Jo Nadeau, Lecturer, University of Toronto (Mississauga campus), and Alan Sears, Sociology, Ryerson University, Toronto.

The $1.2 billion spent on security for the three-day summit (first day in Huntsville for the G-8 summit and two days for G-20) has been widely condemned especially at a time of high unemployment and great suffering caused to people as a consequence of the recession. There was hardly anyone who did not feel this was a complete waste of resources. For a change, even the media were opposed to the summit and its huge expense. They also said the venue — the Metro Toronto Convention Centre — right in the heart of downtown was totally inappropriate. Toronto Mayor David Miller had suggested the CNE grounds that are relatively secluded and would have proved less disruptive to public life.

Officials at different levels of government acted completely contrary to Charter rights. For instance, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty surreptitiously approved the Public Works Protection Act (PWPA) granting vast new powers to the police a few days before the summit. There was no discussion of this draconian measure even in the provincial assembly. Why was it necessary to do so, and why concrete barriers and four-mile long chain-link fence surrounded the conference site were erected that acted as magnet for protesters? Was it necessary to turn Toronto into a vast prison camp? One commentator suggested the summit could have been held in Guantanamo Bay where the chain link fence was already in place minus the intrusive pesky protesters.

Not only the public turnout but also the issues raised at the rallies were diverse. There were groups protesting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Israeli siege of Gaza. There were others demanding repatriation of Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen still held in Guantanamo eight years after he was brutally shot and wounded in Afghanistan. He was only 15 and, therefore, a child soldier when he was captured. Yet he has been tortured and faces a kangaroo-style military court while the Canadian government refuses to ask for his release or extradition. There were groups protesting the degradation of the environment as well as Indian brutalities in Kashmir. Labour groups protested wage freezes while Native groups demanded their rights. Above all, the rallies were peaceful, except for the few vandals that appear to have been allowed by the police to indulge in such acts.

The summit produced nothing of substance; it could not have: how could people that are responsible for bringing the world to the brink of economic disaster claim to fix the economy? The entire exercise was a complete waste of time and money. The only outcome was, Toronto’s image as a beautiful and peaceful city was trashed.

Next time Canadian politicians feel compelled to condemn other governments around the world, they should look a little closer at home. Images of burning cars and police clubbing innocent peaceful protesters are now etched permanently into people’s psyche, thanks to television and the internet.

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