Police – More Stupid than Brutal?

Police departments in the United States and Canada are scrambling for a way to control an outbreak of summer protests without appearing to be unduly repressive. On July 21st, police in Philadelphia admitted to photographing activists as they arrived in the city for the upcoming civil disobedience that will coincide with the Republican Convention in that city (July 31 to August 3). In using such tactics, the police encounter accusations that they are violating the Constitutional rights of protesters who should be able to speak out and peacefully gather. The police point to the violence "caused" by protesters at the World Trade Organization meeting (Seattle, 1999) and the World Bank meeting (Washington, April 2000) as justification. But the public's concern about freedom of speech remains one of the most powerful restraints upon police conduct.

Given this backdrop of concern, one can only marvel at the political folly of the Toronto Police Department who seem determined to convert a PR battle they were slowly winning into a sudden embarrassment. The folly in question: the forcible seizure of news photographs and videotapes taken of the June 15th anti-poverty protest by the mainstream media. Police Chief Julian Fantino has stated his intention to use the confiscated media footage as evidence in court against the protesters. Among those challenging the seizure of media files are the news agencies Global Television, ONtv, CTV, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the newspaper giant Globe and Mail. In short, the police have managed to convert a situation in which most third parties were more or less on their side into a battle over freedom of speech. The latter is a battle they cannot win: the mere raising of this issue by respectable sources constitutes a setback in and of itself for the authorities. The debate is no longer about the behavior of the protesters but about the rights of the average citizen in court and of the media to independently report news.

How did the police come to make this arrogant faux pas – and especially now when they are trying to fend off an official review of their tactics during the June 15th protest?

On June 15th, anti-poverty protesters in Toronto marched on Queen's Park where the Ontario Provincial Parliament was sitting. Outraged over Premier Mike Harris's budget cuts and the "Safe Streets" Bill that legalized the persecution of the homeless, a reported crowd of 500 people demanded entry into the legislature. Predictably, they were refused. The next day, journalist Michael Harris of the National Post reported what happened, "When the rock slammed into my shoulder, I realized that the demonstrators had more than paint bombs in their knapsacks. But there was scarcely time to register the numbing pain, before riot policemen on horseback waded into the crowd, wielding batons and urging their mounts irresistibly forward. Molotov cocktails exploded into smoke and flame on the steps of the legislature behind them." Harris described the protesters as "water bugs" who scattered before the horse charges of the police.

Such reports, complete with accounts of protesters screaming "You f—ing pigs!" while they attacked policemen's mounts, did precisely what civil disobedience textbooks caution against. The violence of the protesters was used to justify the brutality of the official response. What else could come from reports like Harris's that declared, "I could see the eyes of the officers as large as saucers now, as they fought to deflect the cobblestones and bottles that rained down on them." When the smoke and teargas cleared an hour later…well, reports vary. Somewhere between eighteen and twenty-nine people had been arrested, with dozens of people and horses injured. It was one of the most violent protests in Ontario's history.

But, if some people were shocked by photos of baton-wielding cops, more people seemed outraged by the intentional and planned brutality of the protesters. Moreover, the marchers were viewed as the proximate cause by much of the mainstream media coverage. Its leaders were the targets of ad hominem. On June 17th, Christie Blatchford reported in the National Post on the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, founded by John Clarke who led the march. "Its most enduring result in a decade-long existence is to attract sufficient funding (from the likes of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Canadian Union of Public Employees) to provide Mr. Clarke himself with enough money to live in a house." In short, with the assistance of many news accounts, the police were winning the PR war.

Blatchford's words have come back to haunt her. She had written of the protesters, "Watching the endless tape on local television stations the past two nights, I saw all the old familiar faces who have been showing up at these events for the last 10 years. (Or, as I put it through my still-frozen mouth [frozen from a visit to her dentist]: u2018Hey, I gno dose arthhodes!')" Now the police know them as well. They know them from the same footage that Blatchford viewed, which is now considered to be "evidence" whether the media likes it or not.

News agencies have been forced to turn over hours and hours of unaired footage to the authorities.

Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, under "Fundamental Freedoms" reads, "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion; (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication…."

Suddenly, news agencies became the protesters. They object to placing their journalists in the line of danger in order to gather evidence for the police. They declare that the independence of the media – nay! of democracy itself – is being threatened by a police state. How can they convince people to be interviewed, they ask, if the interviews will be used in court proceedings?

The police's declaration of war on news agencies comes on the heels of a decisive victory in the "Queen's Park riot matter." Olivia Chow – a councilor for an inner-city riding and a member of the Toronto Police Services Board (a civilian board overseeing the police) – was on the scene at the riot. From the street, Chow was vocal in criticizing the police brutality. They are aggressively charging at people," she told a local cable station, "I almost got charged. So why are they charging at people?" A traffic cop named Deland Jessop started a petition to demand her resignation from the police board and reportedly had 1,000 signatures within 24 hours. Chow has been replaced by a more moderate voice.

Then, as though to distract media attention from the debacle of seizing media files, the police began arresting key figures from the Queen's Park march. On July 21st, John Clarke, Gaetan Heroux, and Stefan Pilipa of the Ontario Coalition Against and Poverty were taken into custody along with several others. Moreover, the police announced that they are holding several more arrest warrants ready to be used at their discretion. The media quickly reported this ill-disguised attempt at blackmail.

If the police hoped to deflect attention away from freedom of speech and back onto protesters' violence, they miscalculated. On July 22nd, John Clarke was released on $2,000 bail and a promise to appear in court next week. With the same political stumbling that characterized early official responses, the court attached certain conditions to his bail. Among them:

Clarke can't contact members of his own coalition, he can't participate in demonstrations, and he cannot go to Queen's Park – the seat of provincial government. The conditions amount to a gag order. Given that Clarke is also a well-known radical writer the cries of "unconstitutionality" were quick in coming. Again, the issue is freedom of speech.

It must hearten the protesters to know they can count on at least one constant – the incredible stupidity of the authorities.

July 25, 2000

Wendy McElroy is author of The Reasonable Woman. See more of her work at and at her personal website.

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