With the much-lauded Canucks in the Stanley Cup final, it seemed like 2011 was homecoming year for the trophy, and the entire country hopped on the bandwagon. Then, like a runaway Zamboni, it all came to a screeching, heartbreaking, facepalming crash the night of game seven. Within minutes of the third period horn, we were hearing about crowds, then fights, then fires, then all of the above, spilling down Granville. The Vancouver riot of 2011 represented the consequences of pseudo-nationalistic hype gone terribly, tragically wrong.
Torontonians, though, saw it all through a different lens. With the unbalanced numbers, the unruly mob clearly outnumbering the Vancouver police presence that night, our thoughts shifted to last summer, and a very different set of events. Vancouver’s riot was like a bizarro take on the police state that ensnared our own downtown during the G20, their crowd one that actually merited every phalanx of black-armoured cops available. You could even, reluctantly, imagine the legitimacy of kettling, or snatch squads, or any number of the G20’s controversial tactics in controlling a crowd so hell-bent on just fucking up everything. Instead, Vancouver’s police were overwhelmed in their handling of the riot, which went way beyond a couple hundred black-masked idiots smashing storefronts. There were stabbings; there were beatings—sometimes 10-to-one. It wasn’t just cop cars burning, but 16 vehicles in total. The person-to-person violence was controlled by the riot’s participants, not the police, and the operational differences between the two events are almost appalling as a result—or at least startling enough to raise some deeply troubling questions.
Last Friday morning, the Vancouver police themselves broached that contrast officially, if indirectly, insisting that the scale of a police presence doesn’t necessarily guarantee the prevention of a riot. “Toronto had many more police, drawn from across the country on the streets for the G20,” the department said in a statement, “and they still had a riot.”
Well, yes. There was a saboteur element in the otherwise peaceful rally that managed to break off from the crowd and make its way through much of downtown and the banking district for 90 minutes, breaking things. But if that constituted the same kind of public disturbance as the Vancouver riots—which is really quite debatable—it was dwarfed in size by a force better armed and more heavily reinforced than what Vancouver had.
“If you want to manage a crowd like that effectively without having it turn into a riot, then we need probably 5,000 police officers, not the five or six or 700 police officers we had out there,” said Tom Stamatakis, the head of the Vancouver Police Union, five days after their riot. Let’s take that as read: 700 police, deployed to control a crowd that, when the puck dropped, was estimated in the neighbourhood of 25,000. A year later, an updated accounting of the forces in Toronto: at least 20,000 police locked down Toronto’s streets last June, and were ordered to back off at the first signs of violence—which had taken the form of smashed storefronts and torched police vehicles—rather than control a mob of a couple hundred.
With the iconography of burning cars and masked vandals lingering as the sensational fallout of the G20, Chief Blair’s explanation that “officer safety” was a deciding factor in that decision looks good on paper. But in light of the hard numbers—20,000 versus a few hundred—it’s pretty hard to accept as final. There are very few reasons to keep your platoons of paramilitary cops on the sidelines while the city burns, only to sic the whole lot of them on every other demonstrator once the smoke clears a little. Unless, that is, there’s some deciding difference between a vicious, city-sacking freakout of hockey fans and a defiant gathering of political dissidents.
And when it comes to this tale of two riots, there it is: as glaring as night and day.
In the history of the G20, the violence that visited Toronto last year is nothing new. In April 2009, the G20 rolled in to London, England, with much more violent results. Newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson found himself on the wrong end of a police assault, later fatally succumbing to his injuries. In September 2009, Pittsburgh was also under siege. During that event, police occupied the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, foreshadowing warrantless raids at the University of Toronto that would see 70 activists swept into detention.
In every case, the same general approach to policing was employed, colloquially referred to as “the Miami Model.” Speaking with the Star last year, Naomi Archer, an indigenous rights activist from North Carolina, laid out some of the key themes in this particular theatrical narrative. Operatives profile and infiltrate opposition groups weeks or months before the event begins. Intimidation follows: state snooping and surveillance, with police raiding offices, homes, or other sites central to dissenting activities. Then comes the bureaucratic chicanery. Miami passed an ordinance in 2003 forbidding the assembly of groups exceeding seven for more than 30 minutes. In Toronto, we had the hastily passed, arcane, and excessively enforced 1939 Public Works Protection Act, quietly enacted to expand police powers of search and detention. “It was just done surreptitiously,” said Howard Morton, defence lawyer for detainee Dave Vasey, “like a mushroom growing under a rock at night.”
A year later, it’s all coming out. On June 24, the CBC published an internal police report disclosing what many had been saying for weeks before the G20: socialist, anti-war, anti-poverty, anti-capitalism, and alleged anarchist groups had been extensively infiltrated, with participating forces dispatching undercover officers to monitor dissent. Even before Harper dumped the G20 in Toronto’s lap, the RCMP had set up a Joint Intelligence Group to monitor and infiltrate suspected “extremist” networks—in January 2009, a full year and a half earlier. Among the CBC’s findings: the deployment of a clandestine Primary Intelligence Investigative Team, whose role went beyond monitoring possible criminal activity. A dozen officers were mandated to “deter, prevent, investigate and/or disrupt” threats to the summit, with dossiers on individual dissidents catalogued and shared in long, comprehensive lists. These activists, the CBC reported, were colour coded “according to perceived risk level as red (suspect), orange (person of interest), and yellow (associate).”
It’s something with which Ryerson University and its student newspaper would become all too familiar on June 23. That afternoon, a plainclothes RCMP officer, Leslie Tull, attempted to disrupt a group of demonstrators’ pre-G20 strategy session. Then came the raids, early in the morning of June 26. Refusing to identify themselves or produce warrants, integrated teams from the RCMP, Toronto Police, Peel Regional, and the Canadian Forces kicked in doors, dragged people from their beds and generally caused the rudest awakening you can imagine. This was hours before the first projectile hit the first plate glass window. Even then, when the truncheons started swinging, it only complemented the invasive and draconian institutional violence that had been going on for over a year.
With all that—the years of planning, the labyrinthine surveillance, the integrated federal law enforcement presence, and the temerity of participating SWAT teams raiding private homes without so much as a warrant—we’ve still been hearing this week that Toronto’s police, like Vancouver’s, were “overwhelmed,” “unprepared,” or simply caught with their tactical pants down. Maybe, but the TPS was one of several participating units comprising what was ultimately a federal police force, cobbled together from regional ones. The Toronto Police Service was in charge of securing the streets outside the fence, but in this scenario, were they under their own command?
A few weeks later, the Toronto Star reported that the Toronto Police Services Board—the “Gold Standard” for civilian oversight, the Star called it—had been kept out of the loop throughout G20 planning, with some members saying that it seemed deliberate. “It’s as if whoever was in charge is using Black Bloc tactics,” board member Hamlin Grange said. “They’ve taken off their uniform and dispersed into the crowd—nowhere to be found.” Was it intentional? Worse, was it strategic?
This, of course, is where the question stops being about the massive screw-up of a local police force and starts being about who, pulling what strings, with what end in mind, saw it advantageous to let a relatively progressive, community-minded police chief twist in the wind and keep the public in the dark.
In the very strange, unpleasant year that has intervened, the public, in its pursuit of Blair’s head, stopped discussing some facts reported very soon after the G20. In the same article, the Star reported that Integrated Security Unit officials asked the Toronto chief to push for the five-metre law, something Blair insisted was unnecessary at the time. Police, he told them, already had the authority to search and detain suspicious individuals under common law. Then, when the ISU’s legal team laid out the nuts-and-bolts of the legislation, they did so incorrectly. With the chief himself out of the loop, his explanation seemed like public deception, the Star wrote, when in fact he was as poorly informed as the rest of us were. The rest is history.
It’s tempting to see these things as mistakes, the consequence of too many cooks in the kitchen. But that perception is also advantageous for those at the top of the ISU hierarchy, leaving the local players mired in controversy over what was a federal game. With the RCMP heading the Integrated Security Unit, it’s a hierarchy that ascends past Alphonse MacNeil and points straight to Public Safety, its cabinet-level leadership, and ultimately, the leadership of the cabinet. And it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen these shenanigans on Harper’s watch.
Montebello, Quebec. August, 2007. During a meeting of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, a gathering of labour unions, students, environmental activists, and others assembled in front of the Chateau Montebello, staging a protest. What’s best remembered about that protest is what happened when three men, black-clad and masked, were outed as officers from the Sûreté du Québec. In a video, Dave Coles, then-president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, stood between the men and a line of SQ riot police. “Put the rock down, man!” Coles shouted, alternately ordering the men to stand down and warning the crowd of their intentions: “These guys are cops, everybody!”
Initially, Sûreté du Québec leadership denied the allegations, but later conceded that their officers had, in fact, infiltrated the event. But despite the crude projectiles the men were wielding, the force maintained that their intentions were peaceful. “At no time did the police of the Sûreté du Québec act as instigators or commit criminal acts,” they said. “It is not in the police force’s policies, nor in its strategies, to act in that manner.” A very early precedent was set for using shenanigans in protecting multilateral state functions.
Knowing that the RCMP pursued a similar strategy of infiltration last summer, in our own city, should raise some questions about why, and for what purpose. Black Bloc isn’t a group, it’s a tactic, and it’s very well-known to police forces: among other details, it’s the sort of information gleaned through years of surveillance and infiltration, the type we saw before the G20. Knowing how advantageous the violence was to an agenda that sought to politically sterilize the city for the sake of the political elite, can we really, honestly, say that the sabotaging of a political rally by those using Black Bloc tactics had no state involvement? Was Grange on to something? Is this—the threat of a restless, angry, informed populace, like that which demonstrated at the G20—why we saw more guns in the faces of non-violent political dissidents than those of drunk, angry hockey hooligans?
Or, more disturbingly, was what happened that weekend a bellwether for whatever the Harper government has in mind with its law-and-order agenda? Austerity measures, like what we’re seeing now, come to mind.
Yes, there are still questions about what happened in Toronto, with Toronto Police. Those questions matter. But if we follow those questions and see where they lead, we find ourselves faced with even more ominous ones. It’s been a year; it’s time to take aim at bigger fish.
Photos by Dean Bradley/Torontoist.
For complete G20 retrospective coverage, go to One Year Later.