First, let’s start with a confession. As a result of fear of being arrested I did not go to the Detention Centre on Sunday morning when I was asked to go and give communion. After years of willing to confront the state, I couldn’t face what others were willing to face—tear gas; rubber bullets; police truncheons; indefinite detention. While on my own I could have coped with the consequences of my actions, members of my family couldn’t have taken the stress. In a free country I shouldn’t have been afraid to respond to a pastoral concern and my family should not have been incredibly anxious about what could happen to be if I went to a public place to share in a religious sacrament. It turned out their fears were accurate. Police responded with force to against those gathered near the detention centre, a well documented example of the actions of the police over the past weekend. And no only against protesters. This has been a time when even the media, including conservative media, was targeted.
Second, let us consider that 22 years ago, during the G7 protests, I was part of a group that split off from the main protest to challenge police restrictions on the right to protest as well as to try and serve citizen arrest warrants against the leaders of the G7 for various crimes against humanity. There was no secret in what we were attempting; we confronted openly the power of the state. There was indeed an abuse of police power—arresting about 200 people doesn’t occur without an abuse of power. Lawyers were denied access to some clients; food was denied; there were documented incidents of assault by police. There was even a secret law passed—an order in council granting immunity to prosecution to leaders of the G7 for the duration of the meeting. However, there was restraint on what happened. Tear gas was available but not used. People not engaged in the non-violent protest were not arrested. The charter was violated, but not shredded. Reporters were able to do their job without being arrested. And it was police that provided the security in 1988, not police plus over 1,000 unlicenced security guards who provided security forces for the G20. It is possible for non-violent protest to happen without the state massively over-reacting. With an Anarchist Survival Gathering happening in Toronto that same time, which had a Day of Action with did involve some property damage, the state could have found a way to justify greatly overreacting, but didn’t.
Third, let us consider that the police don’t act in a vacuum. Individual officers don’t leave home in the morning, choose to put on riot gear, grab a tear gas gun and wander aimlessly through the streets. Each police officer is a part of a system that does not readily separate political dissent from criminal activity. Indeed, police officers are a part of a system that, at least on paper, criminalises many expressions of dissent. Over the decades I’ve been charged with everything from unlawful handbill distribution to unlawful assembly with the vast majority of charges being dismissed. There is a systemic problem that involves the enforcement arm of the state being used against people involved intimately in the business of the state—bringing forward ideas and concerns in the public sphere where violence is used to stop dissent. Individual officers need to be held accountable for their actions—and that is what civil courts and the police complaints process can partially achieve. Civil suits and complaints do need to occur in large numbers to help ensure accountability by individual officers. However, the real problem is much larger. The police didn’t create the Unlawful Assembly and related sections of the Canadian Criminal Code—the House of Commons and Canadian Senate did. The police did not create the Ontario Trespass to Property Act or enact regulations under Ontario’s Public Works Protection Act —the Ontario legislature is responsible for the former; the Ontario cabinet for the later. Even the purchase of sound cannons wasn’t ultimately the responsibility of the police—the Toronto Police Services Board with federal financial assistance is responsible.
The public face of oppression—the police—must indeed be held accountable. However, it is their employers, i.e. our elected and appointed officials that must be held even more accountable. Whether it is the Police Services Board that signed off on policy and purchasing decisions or legislative bodies that enact laws that restrict rights of expression and assembly, the events of the past weekend would not have occurred without their involvement.
And, ultimately, we as citizens are to be held accountable. We accept with silence or muted voices the decisions that lead to the police actions this past weekend. As we were told in Buffy St. Marie’s Universal Soldier—the orders come from you and me. We elect those that put into place the laws that oppress us and which, in our names, hire those that use truncheons against people sitting on a road and ride horses into people seeking a better world.