I was thinking about how to mark the 5 year anniversary of the G20 summit and the police’s poor handling of peaceful protestors and innocent bystanders at the event. Peaceful protests were mired by members of the Black Bloc appearing and causing damage to buildings and even setting fire to a police cruiser. The police began sweeping arrests and failed to differentiate between Black Bloc members and peaceful protestors and other bystanders. Over 1100 people were detained with the majority being released without charges (all but 278) in what has been called the “largest mass arrest in Canada’s peacetime history”.
In the aftermath, the Ontario government and police admitted to misleading the public about their powers to stop and search members of the public. Ombudsman Andre Marin stated “[i]t was ‘illegal’ and ‘likely unconstitutional’ for Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government to pass a secret regulation that police used to detain people”. One video shows an officer telling a man “this isn’t Canada any more…you have no civil rights” when he refuses to have his bag searched. To his credit, the former police Chief, Bill Blair ordered an in-depth review of all police actions at the G20 and made the findings public.
Today’s announcement of same-sex marriage becoming legal in the US struck me as an example of positive change that is possible when citizens are given the freedom to stand up and be counted through peaceful demonstrations. In fact, one of the protests in advance of the G20 was to highlight the need for stronger LGBT rights among the G20 member countries (at the time only five members allowed same-sex marriage while three members had laws making same-sex relationships illegal). Each demonstration, protest or parade raises awareness and tips over a few more dominos in a slow but relentless progression to announcements like the one we heard today.
The Canadian government’s decision to hold the G20 in Toronto’s dense downtown core and the police’s treatment of peaceful protesters are a big deal because they could lead to people being less willing to participate in important future demonstrations. I think democracy exists on a continuum, with our society shifting back and forth depending on who is in charge, how transparent our government is etc. I believe our society became a little less democratic after the G20. Many innocent people and peaceful protesters that were detained and/or strip searched are much more likely to steer clear of similar protests in the future. And without people feeling comfortable participating in peaceful demonstrations, social progress is in danger of slowing or even stopping. President Obama today said, “We have made our union a little more perfect” but he also opposed gay marriage in 2008 to maintain the support of his base. Our elected leaders have no choice but to reflect the beliefs of their electorate – it is up to us to clearly show them what our beliefs are.
It is concerning that after admissions of guilt, public outrage and multiple reports, no one was ultimately held responsible for how the peaceful G20 protesters and bystanders were treated. A few officers who were caught on video for particularly egregious misconduct were charged in isolated cases. Only two senior police officials faced misconduct charges for the police actions during the G20. Superintendent Dave Fenton pleaded not guilty to five charges of unlawful arrest and discreditable conduct for two “kettling” incidents during the G20 weekend at his police tribunal hearing which heard closing arguments recently. Inspector Gary Meissner was also charged with misconduct, but he retired before his hearing could take place.
Even though it turned out to be dangerous to be a peaceful protester at the G20, I continue to believe that we need to encourage each other to stand up for issues we believe in. In order to do this, the police need to protect the rights of those who are willing to stand up and be counted through peaceful protest from anarchists like the Black Bloc. Today the US took an important step forward in social change, brought on by the Supreme Court. But let’s not forget the decades of peaceful protests and activism that underlie today’s decision. There is much social change still needed, and many miles still to march until we get there.