The real “criminal element”

Posted on June 29, 2010


It seems like the only thing that can motivate me to post on this blog is outrage. First it was motion 6, which the Canadian Federation of Students forced on students from across the country. Now it’s the the hundreds of plastic zipcuffs, which the Toronto police forced on activists from across the country.

In case you haven’t been following the news, this past weekend saw the G20 integrated security unit carry out the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Over 900 people were arrested in and around downtown Toronto, most of whom were peaceful protesters, media personnel, or innocent bystanders. A brief search of youtube reveals countless documented abuses of police power.  The police carried out arbitrary arrests and illegal searches of activists across the city.  Once arrested, peaceful activists faced a startling range of abuses in the makeshift jail.

I am not going to use this post to express my outrage against the police. Other bloggers have already done that much better than I ever could. My blog is about argument, and so I will be using this space to address one of the common arguments made in favour of the police.  It seems that many believe that the actions of the black bloc on Saturday justified a police crackdown. This sentiment is easily found in today’s letters to the editor in the Globe and Mail.

Here is a good example:

Enough already about the civil rights of protesters. What about the civil rights of law-abiding store owners in Toronto who had their windows smashed by protesters? Protesters are now complaining they were arrested unjustly and thrown into a detention centre that did not resemble a Holiday Inn. Give me a break.

Graham Wright, Victoria Beach, N.S.

The common sentiment is that the police response was necessary, if regrettable. The broken store windows on Yonge and Bay street, and the torched cop cars are thought to warrant the mass arrests that followed. My position is that no amount of criminal activity justifies the police in breaking the law themselves.

Let’s look at the crimes that were committed by the black bloc, shall we? Near as I can tell, the damage caused by them is limited to some shop windows smashed, and two police cars set on fire. Of course, I have no respect for the despicable people who used a peaceful protest as a base from which to carry out these acts of violence. What the black bloc did was a crime, and they should have been arrested while they were committing it. That said, the only charge that could have been made to stick is vandalism. Contrary to what the mainstream media might be saying, these people were not terrorists. Not a single human being was injured by the black bloc. Vandalism is, regrettably, a fairly common thing in modern society. Hooligans break windows and spraypaint buildings all the time. Most of the time, the police do not use such acts as an excuse to round up hundreds of innocents.

In this case, however, they did. Shortly after the damage was done, the police stormed a group of peaceful protesters in Queen’s park, arresting many of them and causing significant injuries. They claimed that this was necessary to apprehend the perpetrators of the violence. The same justification was used for similar police actions all day Sunday, which violently shut down virtually every attempt at peaceful assembly in the city.

There are significant questions as to whether the police were actually trying to apprehend the black bloc when they busted up these peaceful protests. This video, for example, shows snatch squads apparently arresting random members of the crowd at Queen’s Park.  I am going to give the police the benefit of the doubt, however. Let’s assume for a moment that they really were acting in good faith and attempting to defend the city from further vandalism.

The question still remains: Were they justified in their actions?  I contend that no amount of potential vandalism justifies the police actions this weekend.  The fact remains that the majority of the arrestees are either peaceful protesters or innocent bystanders. I believe that it is better to let a handful of violent hooligans walk free than it is to arrest many times that number of innocents. I believe that our rights to free speech and free assembly and from unreasonable search and seizure and arbitrary arrest are more valuable than a handful of shop windows and police cruisers could ever be. I believe that there is more harm done in injuring people than there is in injuring property.

The simple fact is that the police broke the law this weekend. My personal experience drove this home quite well. As I was heading down College Street to yesterday’s rally against police brutality, I was confronted by a group of police officers on the sidewalk who detained me as I tried to walk past.  They asked where I was going, and I said I was going to the rally. They asked if I had any weapons and I said no. When they asked to search my bag, I began to say that I would not consent, but one of them interrupted me and said “I’m going to look through it anyway”, and grabbed it off my back. When I asked what law allowed him to do so, I was ignored. It appears that the officer was citing the “I have a gun and you don’t” act. Common muggers frequently cite this act to get people to hand over their wallets. The search I was subjected to was illegal, and the officer did not appear to care.

I was lucky that in my case the officer’s reckless disregard for the law only resulted in a fairly harmless search. They saw that I had no weapons, and they let me go on my way. Others were not so lucky. In spite of the law they swore to uphold, the police arbitrarily arrested 900 people and assaulted hundreds more, all while breaking up peaceful assemblies to which Canadians are legally entitled. Those detained were illegally denied access to legal counsel and a phone call. We have a word for people who break the law: criminals. This weekend, that word applied more to the Toronto police department than to any protester. Frankly, it terrifies me that the police service was reduced to a well-organized gang of well-armed thugs, but that’s exactly what happened.

So let’s return to the attempted justification for this behaviour: the crimes of a few justify the (criminal) behaviour of the police. Has this rationalization ever been acceptable before? If somebody breaks into your house, you are not entitled to assault all their friends until the stolen goods are returned. If your TV is stolen, you do not get to start cracking skulls at pawn shops until you find it. No amount of criminal behaviour can justify further criminal behaviour.

To return to the above cited letter to the editor, there is NEVER a time where it is valid to say “Enough already about the civil rights of protesters”.