This past Wednesday, the G20 Independent Public Review—commissioned by the Toronto Police Services Board last year, and so far still the only undertaking of its kind—began its public segment with open deputations.
The review, led by retired Chief Justice John Morden, is, depending on who you ask, either empowered or hamstrung by terms of reference that are, well…reference-y [PDF]. Finally, we’ll have some closure on whether the board had “sufficient time to adequately develop a framework and plan” for their G20 policing strategy. (Recall: it wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place.) All those subjected to illegal arrest can now rest assured they were not alone in their panicked reaction: “My god. There must be unforeseen complications.”
With a year elapsed, emotional injuries festering under the mostly healed bodies of citizens and city, only a lone officer charged, and every apparatchik glibly refusing apology, frustration is a reasonable response to what may be the Police Board’s fixation on simply absolving itself of guilt. Sarcasm (briefly) aside, we must have sympathy for Morden and his review. So long as all other levels of government wash their hands of inquiry, the Board can’t easily own up to its failings: the horse that takes the lead becomes a scapegoat. The Board’s ass-covering (for that is what we have thus far) may be a sad prerequisite for accountability.
Except, halfhearted efforts to the contrary, there is no official narrative. There’s a shifting pseudo-narrative, told and re-told by many voices in a pidgin of what reporters saw, what reporters understood, and what we’ve managed to hear and understand ourselves from friends and strangers or our own failed-Jenga-tower of memories.
It averages out to something like this: last June, the G20, who travel the world creating jobs, came to town, bringing with them a particularly impressive fence. But, the Protesters of Toronto (a proud but inscrutable people, with a rich history stretching back as far as 1999, when they emigrated here from Seattle), having a religious aversion to fences, planned precisely two days of protests, and no more. As is their way. Because of the fence.
Hidden, unknown, among these gentle savages lay the Black Bloc. The Bloc, who hate our freedom, and our windows, emerged from the protest, went on a rampage of bloodless violence against Business Owners, and briefly burned down Toronto. Fives—even tens—of attackers overwhelmed the security forces of numerous cities and jurisdictions, none of whom had any prior experience with large protests.
So, the next day, police overreacted and made tea out of a number of protesters. Some Normal People also fell into the giant kettle deployed at Queen and Spadina, and were subjected to the inhumane conditions of a prison woefully overcrowded, because, as mentioned, Canadian police have absolutely no experience with large protests.
It’s the age-old opera of naive Protesters, nefarious Vandals, noble Business Owners, and particularly well-funded Keystone Kops.
Except, no. Jeff Cohen, introducing himself to considerable applause as “owner of the legendary Horseshoe Tavern”—the storied Queen West venue outside which a police car was left to burn under heavy guard well into the evening of June 26—flipped the script. His deputation, beginning as a shaggy-dog tale of regular patrons prone to smashing and constables full of folksy wisdom, ended with that rare sort of genius we can only call The Obvious: “Broken windows are no reason to have the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history.”
It was a leitmotif that evening. “Even the vandals hurt no one. The only threat to public safety came from the police,” said deputant Alexander von Thorn, to much applause (which Morden calmly waited out). “Police were directed to repress dissent.”
And there is the well-armed elephant in the room. All the shiny new civilian oversight frameworks in the world, though extremely necessary, are hard-pressed to address one simple fact, all but invisible to bureaucratic inquiry because of its simplicity: the ranks of the Toronto Police Service include at least several individuals who frankly don’t give a shit about civil liberties or Charter rights. And that seems to extend to the top.
Jesse Rosenfeld, assaulted while reporting on the protests before finding himself in the Eastern Avenue “detention centre,” quoted one of the guards: “What makes you think you deserve rights?”
Rosenfeld was arrested—though “abducted” is a better word—from an unannounced police cordon outside the Novotel hotel on June 26. And there’s the thing about The Kettle, employed on “the Sunday,” when anyone at Queen and Spadina was swept up without warning or opportunity to leave. It didn’t happen only then: University and Elm on Friday afternoon; Rosenfeld’s experience on the Esplanade; Queen and Cameron shortly thereafter. And probably elsewhere. Most striking about conversations during the review’s break was how many stories there are left to tell, almost a year later.
In fact, the only thing new about kettling is the name. Toronto police have used it since at least 2002, when they steeped anti-poverty activists for a good long while during a protest against Mike Harris. Deputant Vikram Mulligan held up pictures, taken at events well after the G20, in which officers were not wearing the mandatory name tags that seemed so prone to falling off just before G20 beatings. The RCMP, as well as Montreal and Calgary officers, pointed out deputant and former paramedic Gary Walsh, have badge numbers printed on their helmets. Toronto? Velcro and epaulettes. And as U of T professor and surveillance expert Andrew Clement pointed out, “Most of the vandalism occurred in view of [police surveillance] cameras—and no officers were dispatched.”
In other words, one doesn’t have to dig too deeply to see that von Thorn’s assertion (“Police were directed to repress dissent”) rings true, that police inaction stemmed from something other than incompetence, and that this is almost surely nothing new. “[What happened during] the G20 is something that the people of the Jane-Finch community experience all the time,” said Sonia Castillo.
But what, then, can a decidedly former chief justice, charged with making recommendations that will carry no legal weight, do? The Police Services Board, now a reconfigured version of the one that approved the review (due to the new Rob Ford appointees), has been traditionally skittish about telling the Chief (its employee) what to do, out of fear of crossing the streams of Policy and Operations.
“Any operation can be looked at through a lens of policy,” said Tanya Thompson of the Law Union of Ontario. “That’s the Board’s obligation… [Operation] is where policy comes to life. And the only way to know if policy is being broken is to look at operations.”(Morden, for his part, said notably—and in that drily cryptic way old judges have about them—that he “wasn’t so sure” that the twain of policy and operations shall never meet.)
Thompson recounted her visit to Eastern Avenue to check in on abductees. “I went back and forth between being afraid—high fences, spotlights, officers in military gear—and unable to be afraid because I couldn’t even believe what I was seeing.”
There were no blankets for injured people going into shock. People were denied their medication. Queer Ontario’s Casey Oraa spoke of ubiquitous homo- and transphobic slurs from officers. And many of us are now well aware of the multiple alleged rape threats from guards. “If over 700 of the people arrested were not even suspected of a crime,” said von Thorn, “we have to ask why [the detention centre] was even necessary.”
It’s astounding that the Board members, who have remained mostly mum on the gulag, should even need to be told this, or that it’s taken a collection of lawyers and a former chief justice to ferret out the one radical piece of common sense expressed by almost every deputant, legal expert, and layperson alike: When police break the rules, punish them.
Or, in the words of one deputant: “You cannot correct the future until you correct the present. And the present has not been corrected.”
The public-consultation leg of Morden’s review will conclude after two more sessions, in Etobicoke and Scarborough.
Mike Smith has reported regularly on Toronto city hall, policing, and grassroots politics for nearly a decade. He blogs intermittently at linebreaks.com.