As police and city workers moved to roll up the Occupy Toronto camp, a bearded young man stood to shout an objection. “This is Canada. This isn’t Egypt. This isn’t Libya.”
The comparison, like much of the Occupy rhetoric, was absurd on its face. While armed riot police in Egypt fought thousands of protesters, the police move to end the protest at Toronto’s St. James Park was cautious and orderly.
Police arrived before dawn in buses to take up positions around the park in the city’s downtown, next to stately St. James Cathedral. From the beginning they were at pains to be as low-key and as respectful as possible.
Instead of marching in force on the park in riot gear, police entered in small groups of officers in yellow jackets or standard blue police uniforms. City garbage and parks workers came with them. A police commander read from a written order saying they had come to enforce a court order instructing protesters to leave the park. The statement asked protesters to depart by the northwest exit. Protesters were told where to pick up leftover belongings afterward and where to go if they needed medical help.
When some occupiers yelled at police for using a sound-cannon to broadcast the clear-out message, a police commander agreed to use the protest’s “people’s mic” system. He spoke in brief phrases and the crowd echoed him. He made a point of saying that once the police had cleared the tents and cleaned up the park, protesters were at liberty to return to exercise their right to free speech.
No, this was not exactly Egypt or Libya. Perhaps learning from their G20 experience, police were deliberately non-confrontational. It was hardly “the G20 all over again,” as one protester put it.
Milling around the site, some police chatted with protesters and onlookers as city workers went about their task. They had obviously been instructed not to make any aggressive moves or engage with protesters who occasionally confronted them.
“Hello, is there anyone in the tent?’ one officer in a yellow slicker asked as he gingerly lifted the flap of one camping tent, which turned out to be unoccupied.
Later, police calmly negotiated an end to the occupation of a yurt, set up as a makeshift library, where protesters had holed up, refusing to leave.
By noon, there had been just one arrest – of a young woman who was carried off the site by police for trespassing, then quickly released – but that moment of tension passed swiftly.
The most provocative move of the day came not from police but from Sid Ryan’s Ontario Federation of Labour. He led scores of fellow unionists in a march on the park. They arrived around noon, raising the temperature at the site just as police were winding things up. It was badly timed act that could easily have escalated matters.
“This is what democracy looks like,” the protesters chanted as police moved in. They were referring to their own movement, of course, but the slogan was fitting. This is indeed how a democracy acts when faced with situation like Occupy: deliberately, compassionately and with careful respect for the law.