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Police wearing full riot gear, walk north on Pape Ave., near the temporary G20/G8 detention centre in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Police wearing full riot gear, walk north on Pape Ave., near the temporary G20/G8 detention centre in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Neither brutes nor heroes Add to ...

On Wednesday, city council witnessed something unusual for the talking shop in a clam shell: a display of political courage.

It happened during debate on a motion to thank the police for their work during the G20 unrest last month. One by one, councillors stood to praise our men and women in blue. Mayoral candidate Rob Ford said they did a "phenomenal job" and rejected any notion they may have overreacted. If anything, "I think our police force was too nice."

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The motion eventually passed 36-0. But, before it did, two councillors stood to utter some unpopular truths. Michael Walker and Brian Ashton are white-haired veterans with decades of experience between them. Both are retiring this year. Each man made it clear he deplored the G20 violence, but each was also troubled by some of the police reactions.

Mr. Ashton said it was "bloody outrageous" that a group of "rogues and cockroaches" vandalized downtown. But it was also outrageous that an 18-year-old student walking around downtown on the weekend could find herself arrested and held for hours by police for nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"We need to use all of our will, all of our energy, all of our thoughtfulness and all of the heritage and legacy that has been left to us to ensure that that 18-year-old wouldn't get arrested if that happened in the future - that we wouldn't find ourselves having to abuse her civil liberties," he said.

Mr. Walker said that regardless of what people thought of the protesters, "it's their rights, and we have to exercise the greatest amount of caution before we cross the line and try and take away their rights."

It cannot have been easy for either man to take such a stand. A recent opinion poll showed that 81 per cent of Torontonians think the police did a good job during the summit. Mayor David Miller has led a parade of political leaders in commending the police and their popular chief, Bill Blair. Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak hit a typical note when he wrote that "I proudly stand behind" the police, who were faced with "a daunting and difficult task."

Difficult, it was. Police faced a well-planned conspiracy by a gang of militants who hid among other protesters, switching clothes as they went. But in the sweep that police commanders ordered after the Black Bloc smashing spree, many innocent people were caught in the net.

More than 1,000 were arrested over the weekend, the biggest mass arrest ever in Canada. Only about a quarter of them have been charged with any crime. Most of the rest were held under an open-ended "breach of the peace" statute that gives police the power to detain those who threaten public order. Many were peaceful protesters, interested observers or even credentialed journalists doing their job.

No big deal, you might say. They were all released without charge by the end of the weekend anyway, most of them no worse for wear. But tell that to the hundreds who spent hour after hour in the great cavern of the police holding pen on Eastern Avenue, confined in wire-mesh cells with little to eat or drink and nowhere to sleep but the concrete floor.

I spoke to one 38-year-old investment dealer who went down to have a look at what he thought was a designated protest zone at Queen's Park. He moved too slowly when, for reasons that have yet to be properly explained, a line of riot police advanced to clear the area. Four police pushed him to the ground, cuffed him and put him in a police van. He says he spent the next 21 "dehumanizing" hours in custody, much of it in a cramped cell at Eastern Avenue. "People's legal rights were shelved for the purpose of controlling the extent and size of the demonstrations that weekend," he says, still shaken from the ordeal.

The dawn of a police state? Of course not. Ignore all the nonsense from protest groups about how the cops provoked the Saturday violence to justify a crackdown or make excuses for the huge security price tag. But there should be something between trashing the police as brutes and hailing them as faultless heroes.

As the Canadian Civil Liberties Association puts it, "It is possible to feel outrage about acts of vandalism and at the same time recognize the importance of maintaining a free and just society committed to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention and the presumption of innocence."

Amid all the noise from the opposing sides, Mr. Ashton and Mr. Walker occupied the middle ground. That took some guts.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

 

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