Adrienne Telford and Jeff Carolin
As we mark the one-year anniversary of the G20’s visit to downtown Toronto, the events that unfolded in Vancouver last week cry out for comparison.
Take, for example, the differences between the police planning and response.
In Vancouver, the police planned for a public gathering of 100,000 people by deploying 300 officers. When acts of property damage and looting broke out, the officers made 101 arrests, and then everyone went home.
In Toronto, 19,000 officers were deployed for protest marches that attracted upwards of 30,000 people. The police made no arrests at the time property was being damaged, and then spent the next 24 hours patrolling the downtown in heavily armed groups, continuing the pattern they established earlier that week of on-the-spot interrogations and Constitution-violating searches.
More than 1,000 people were ultimately arrested, often violently. The majority were held in makeshift cages without access to lawyers, medical care or adequate food and water. Most were not charged with any crime, and many of those who were charged have seen those charges withdrawn.
Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Constable Jana McGuiness unintentionally highlighted the differing police tactics when she explained the VPD’s approach two weeks ago. She commented to the media that “you don’t want to punish the whole group for the actions of a few . . . ”
But it seems that when the “actions of a few” are part of a broader political protest — against cuts to social services, against ever-increasing corporate power, against environmental destruction and against the ongoing colonization of aboriginal land — then collective punishment and rampant violations of civil liberties are the order of the day.
It appears that wearing your political stripes on your sleeve is far riskier in Canada than wearing a hockey jersey, and that your purpose for being in the streets will determine the police response more than your actions.
Of course, it’s not just any political message that attracts such treatment. The other big political protest in Ontario last summer — a right-wing anti-choice, anti-abortion rally in Ottawa on May 13 — was attended by 10,000 people. Police presence there was minimal.
There’s another point of comparison that needs to be made as well: the way the public has responded to the actions of the police in both cities.
In Vancouver, the police have been congratulated for showing restraint. Residents have decorated squad cars in flowers and fond words.
In Toronto, the police have been criticized for their excessive use of force, for their unmeasured response. As an editorial in the Toronto Star mentioned this past week, “public trust” in the police has been shaken.
Although this comparison may appear obvious, it is ultimately misleading. It risks turning the police repression and violence during the G20 into a one-off, exceptional event during which “the public” lost its trust in police. It presents the hands-off, “meet-and-greet” policing in Vancouver as the norm.
But outside of the media spotlight, the reality is exactly the opposite.
Take the two cases of Abbas Jama and Adam Nobody.
According to media reports, Jama, a migrant from Somalia, was arrested for carrying a loaded hand gun in June 2009. Once restrained, he alleges that he was beaten up by several officers with the Toronto Police Services.
Adam Nobody, a G20 protester, was arrested for assaulting a police officer at Queen’s Park on June 26, 2010, a charge that was later dropped. He alleges that after being violently arrested, he was restrained in zip-cuffs and taken behind police wagons where two of the very same officers who allegedly assaulted Jama punched and kicked him as he lay on the ground.
The public is much more likely to have heard Nobody’s story.
When more than 1,000, mostly white, mostly young, mostly middle class people get assaulted and arrested by police officers on the lawn of Queen’s Park, it’s a big deal. Newspaper headlines reveal how police officers who break the law and beat up those they’ve detained usually get away with a slap on the wrist — if that.
But when the same officers assault people at night, in alleyways and in interview rooms — people who disproportionately come from racialized and low-income communities — it rarely makes the news. And in these cases, even a slap on the wrist is hard to come by.
Unfortunately, none of this is surprising. Repression of political dissent is nothing new in Canada. And that goes the same for police officers who abuse their power, break the law and are given raises instead of being disciplined or dismissed.
What is surprising is how few people, even one year later, want to talk about this.
In two years’ time, on the second anniversary of one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history, we hope that instead of making another comparison between examples of police misconduct, we’ll be celebrating justice for all victims of police abuse.
Adrienne Telford is a Toronto-based lawyer and Jeff Carolin is a graduate of Osgoode Hall law school. Both offered legal support to demonstrators during the G20 as members of the Movement Defence Committee.