Yesterday there was a rally in support of the International Day Against Police Brutality. Really, the word “rally” should be in quotation marks, because the “rally” was maybe one or two hundred people representing the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and other community organizations like it. OCAP gathered at 51 Division and then marched to University and Dundas, or until they got bored and went home, whichever happened first. And that was basically it…
… Except that someone on Reddit snapped several pictures of police snipers watching the protesters.
Now, some (including, in fairness, the original photographer, who asked us not to republish the photo of the sniper) have argued that the police here are simply being responsible: a sniper is well-suited to observing a situation from above street-level. The sniper did not, at any time, have his weapon in hand while the protesters were present, but instead merely watched them through binoculars. (As is proper; any police sniper worth his or her salt would only draw a weapon in the most extreme situations.) The rifle is just there as a last resort—after all, one never knows when a protest might get out of hand and turn violent.
Of course, the problem with this line of argument is that it distorts the proportions of the elements in play. The small band of OCAPsters were surrounded by police for the entire duration of their protest. There is tremendously little that having sniper coverage can add when you have one armed officer on the scene for every three or four protesters.
But even so, there is always the “last resort” argument—the What If line of attack. “Sure, nothing happened, but what if something had happened? What if the OCAP protesters had gotten violent? What if they had been armed? What if some lunatic not connected with the protesters decided to do something? You’d be glad that police sniper was there then!”
You can keep going with What If ad nauseum. “What if Osama bin Laden suddenly attacked 51 Division with a suitcase bomb? What if a radical paramilitary cell infiltrated OCAP with the intent of assassinating Doug Ford? What if the zombies suddenly arose and started eating OCAP?” What If can justify literally anything. (Hey, why don’t we have snipers on buildings all the time? Think of all the criminals who would be deterred.)
The What If ploy especially doesn’t work in this instance because—come on. It’s OCAP. Everybody knows what OCAP does: they show up, make some noise, wave some signs, get arrested for disturbing the peace, and then three months later repeat the whole process. We’re pretty sure nobody in OCAP has ever been convicted of anything in relation to a protest: the closest they ever came was back after the Queen’s Park mini-riot in 2000 when John Clarke nearly got convicted for assault, and since then they’ve been careful to try and play by nonviolent rules as much as possible.
Ultimately, though, we could argue back and forth about the necessity of a sniper at this protest for hours and never get to the real point: the police strongly overreacted to this protest, and with an unseemly amount of fear. Snipers are simply not a necessary security measure for anything other than the largest public protests, and even then their use is highly questionable. (Ultimately a sniper’s basic purpose is to shoot at people from a great distance, and involving them in a public protest is an admission that you believe deadly force may well be necessary.) But this was not a large public protest. This was OCAP being the same damn pain in the ass they always are: mostly peaceful and mostly annoying, and meriting consideration of deadly force not in the slightest.
Many have said before that the true crime perpetrated by the G20 Integrated Security Unit was to intimidate and pre-criminalize the citizenry of Toronto as a whole. Even so, the events of the G20 were exceptional in many ways, and although police there reacted extremely badly to those exceptional events this could still be forgiven if it was clear that the tactics adopted for the G20 were seen as a mistake. However, if snipers are to become a constant presence at public protests, then the events of the G20 were not a terrible mistake. Instead, they were the introduction of a new norm, where protest is considered to be not only the source of likely criminal activity, but a source of criminal activity so dangerous that it requires the installation of lethal force at a distance. And that is unacceptable.
All photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.