Back in 2010, I found myself standing beside a row of police officers at an almost picnic-like march, organized to protest against the way security for the recent G20 summit in Toronto had been handled.
I heard one police officer bark loudly, “I just want this [expletive]thing over! I haven’t seen my kids in five days!”
And I thought, “Whoa, Afghanistan, man – can we get a little perspective here?”
It seemed to me that the officers standing on either side of him were embarrassed by his outburst. Perhaps, like me, they saw his glazed eyes and, hearing his hysterical, disconnected tone, wondered whether he was high. I’d have bet on it.
This week’s scathing report by Ontario’s independent police watchdog concluded that the police used excessive force during the G20 protests, that the mass arrests were unlawful and that there were numerous breaches of constitutional rights.
And, indeed, the G20 was a weekend of excess in every way. It seemed as if too much money had been spent on the whole affair. I was reminded of parties I once attended in the mostly unfurnished, newly rented homes of freshly successful film directors. Sometimes I’d think, “What is it that does this to people? A man earns some decent money and all of a sudden there’s an ice swan on the table.” A 30-year-old guy starts making $2-million a year, and suddenly he’s throwing his 50th wedding anniversary party. He forgets himself. He forgets the demographic he will be serving that weekend.
Close to $1-billion was spent on security for the G20 gathering. It was as if the officials won policing a summit in a lottery. Ostentatious displays of policing were everywhere – hundreds of riot-gear-clad officers charging repeatedly through peaceful crowds, banging their massive riot shields like so many big-screen TVs ordered in bulk for the guest bathroom.
Like the ice swan, these expenditures bore almost no relation to the events at hand. The independent police reviewer this week wrote exactly what struck me most as an observer: “It is fortunate that, in all the confusion, there were no deaths.”
“He’s maniacal,” the report records one officer saying of the on-duty incident commander who ordered that 400 peaceful protesters be detained on conspiracy to commit mischief. They, along with various passersby, tourists, observers and journalists, were kettled for hours, in torrential rain, without, as some officers at the scene suggested, first being given a chance to disperse peacefully.
In all of this, the investigation of a man who was headed to a role-playing game and transporting a longbow and arrows – with the tips cut off and replaced with bits of pool noodle wrapped in a sock – resulted in police officials displaying these “weapons” as trophies. Trust me, people, we’ll know when the nerds attack: Some of them are wizards.
Then again, this playtime arsenal might have seemed credible to a police force warned to be on guard for Super Soakers they were assured could be used as flame throwers. That is the sort of thing that the Grade 6s tell the Grade 3s, and the Grade 3s don’t believe them.
And yet, in all of this paranoia and enforcement of both real and imagined-for-the-occasion laws, no one managed to arrest the few dozen anarchists who charged down Yonge Street throwing bricks through the windows of the exact stores that anyone with a knowledge of Toronto and a rudimentary understanding of Black Bloc tactics would have predicted would be targets.
The march protesting against the treatment of G20 protesters was peaceful. Officers occasionally asked people to move one way or another, please. And they did. It was like being welcomed back to the Toronto I knew, by the police I know, although certainly emotions ran high.
I spoke to one man who lived on Bay Street, in the heart of downtown, who told me that he had been swept up in one of the chaotic mass arrests and held for 16 hours before he was eventually taken on a long drive and deposited miles away in the pouring rain, closer to the core of the Scarborough suburb. His was one of the 1,200 arrests, resulting in fewer than 50 convictions, that came out of this massive, disorganized show of force.
The G20 was the result of an unparalleled level of co-operation between federal, provincial & municipal governments. This would be inspiring had it not been three levels of government working together to deprive Canadians of their rights.
Some senior Toronto police commanders are expected to be charged shortly for a variety of misconduct offences. Currently 28 front-line officers face disciplinary hearings on complaints including unlawful arrests and use of excessive or unnecessary force.
We owe it to the protesters who marched peacefully, holding up signs with which I frequently did not agree, to get answers. Those protesters are placeholders for the time when a cause moves me, or anyone else, to demonstrate. I am grateful to them.
We also owe those answers to the many decent police officers who realize that the role of the police is never, as one officer interpreted his directions from superiors that weekend, to “own the streets.”