Toronto police had a lot at stake when they moved to dismantle the Occupy Toronto camp at St. James Park. A cloud has been hanging over the force since the violent G20 weekend of June, 2010. With their calm, professional conduct at the park on Wednesday, they went a long way toward removing its shadow.
Police arrived before dawn to enforce Monday’s court order that found the protesters could not hide behind the Charter and continue to spend nights in the downtown park. Police leaders could have followed the example of other cities and swept into the park in riot gear. Instead, they approached on light feet.
There was to be no “kettling” this time – no riot shields, billy clubs or mounted police charges. Police simply stood around as 100 city workers took down tents and piled debris into garbage compacters. If protesters yelled at them or got in their faces, they declined to engage. Their approach throughout was low-key, polite and respectful.
Police in yellow cycling jackets or standard blue police uniforms walked casually into the park in small groups. A police commander read a statement asking the protesters to leave, but also offering medical attention or social assistance to those who needed it and emphasizing that the protesters were free to return and exercise their right to free speech once the park had been cleared of tents and debris. He even agreed to give up his high-tech sound blaster and use the protesters’ “people’s mic” system, speaking in short phrases that were then repeated by the crowd.
One cop was seen petting a protester’s dog. Others chatted or joked with the occupiers. “Hello, is there anyone in the tent?” one officer in yellow slicker asked as he gingerly lifted the flap of one camping tent.
“This is Canada. This isn’t Egypt. This isn’t Libya,” yelled one young protester as police moved in. The comparison, like much of the Occupy rhetoric, was absurd.
There were no fights between police and protesters and only 11 arrests. No one was hurt. Even some of the protesters, usually no great fans of the police, praised the cops for playing it cool.
One young woman who was arrested and carried bodily from the park when she blocked a city truck was released within minutes. Officers processed others in a police van without a trip to the police station. Police invited Occupy chaplains to look on so that no one would worry about their safety.
When a few hard-core occupiers refused to leave their reinforced tents, police negotiated instead of bulling their way in. After a parlay at the library yurt, a fixture in the park, protester Ian Smart and police inspector Gary Meissner emerged to hold a joint news conference announcing an agreement to safeguard the books inside. “I want to thank the police department of Toronto,” Mr. Smart said. “This could have ended badly. Everyone kept a level head today.”
The most provocative move of the day came not from police or protesters but from the Ontario Federation of Labour. OFL president Sid Ryan led scores of fellow unionists in a march on the park. They arrived around noon, briefly raising the temperature at the site just as tension was ebbing. It was an atrociously timed intervention that could easily have escalated matters.
By nightfall, the show was mostly over. Police had cleared last-stand protesters from the “sacred fire” tent and park gazebo. “It has been orderly and largely peaceful,” said Mayor Rob Ford, who took the high road and praised both the police and the protesters.
It was a reminder that, G20 notwithstanding, Toronto police respect the right to protest. Their behaviour on Wednesday recalled another proud moment: their measured reaction, under Chief Bill Blair, to Tamil protests in 2009 that blocked some city streets.
“This is what democracy looks like,” the protesters chanted when police first 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 a challenge like Occupy: deliberately, compassionately and with careful respect for the law.