The Toronto G-20 summit sent a message to poor and working people in Europe and North America. “You will pay for the global financial crisis through cuts to your social safety nets. There will be no taxing of those who actually caused the crisis and made fortunes in the various bubbles over the last decades.”
This was bad enough. But there was another message, too, sent through the Canadian police: “If you don’t like it, how about a rubber bullet?” It looks like G-20 countries will deal with opposition to their plans through martial law and police brutality.
I was there in Toronto, where police turned the downtown center into something resembling martial law. The invocation of an archaic piece of legislation called the “Public Works Protection Act” at the G20 site essentially suspended probable cause, giving police the rights of search and seizure to anyone, anywhere in the area. In other parts of the city peaceful demonstrators were charged with “conspiracy to commit mischief” and “disturbing the Queen’s peace”.
Canadians learned that there was no right to freedom of assembly and no freedom of speech as long as extraordinary measures could be rationalized.
And what were the circumstances? Well, in the midst of twenty thousand peaceful demonstrators were around one hundred people dressed in black (known as the Black Bloc tactic). At a certain point on Saturday afternoon, they broke away from the main protest march, and ran up and down Yonge Street breaking windows. Four police cars were trashed and burned. There is evidence a few of the cars were abandoned by police for hours before they were set upon. On one such car, protesters painted the words “bait”.
There was nothing very secret about the Black Bloc’s intentions or plans. There is evidence that the police had infiltrated the group, but in any case, they actually published most of their plans on a public web site. Yet in footage captured by a freelance journalist and dozens of cams posted on YouTube, police can be seen standing by for as long as an hour or more while the rampage occurred.
Was it a deliberate plan by the security forces (led by the RCMP), or a lack of resources as police claimed? When you try to answer that, keep in mind the Canadian government spent close to a billion dollars on security that included around 19,000 police on the streets.
In any case, television images of burning police cars became the rationale for almost a thousand arrests, mostly not of people wearing black, but of ordinary demonstrators. We know of times when people sat cross-legged holding up peace signs had rubber bullets fired at them. Journalists were manhandled, thrown to the ground, beaten with batons or punched in the face or gut, which happened to Jesse Rosenfeld (writing for the British paper The Guardian) and our own Jesse Freeston at The Real News.
The public has a right to know whether police are or are not abusing their powers. And the public can’t know this without professional journalists with the courage to report from the centre of the storm. These journalists must be able to stand their ground if police try to move them, and the law must protect their right to do so. Without this, we are on our way to a police state.
Canadians are still processing the Toronto protest. What happened with the $1 billion the federal government is spending on security? Are the people of Ontario going to put up with the Public Works Protection Act, implemented quietly for the G-20? Will they accept the principle that the police can declare any protest or demonstration an illegal assembly? Will they demand full accountability from politicians and the police?
If the protest marked a turning point for the city, then it also marked a turning point for the world. If the Toronto G-20 is the shape of things to come, then people faced with drastic reductions in their living standards will be denied their freedom of speech and assembly at the snap of a police officer’s or politician’s fingers.
The firing of those rubber bullets should be a shot heard round the world.
You can watch a collection of G-20 video reports, including “Doves on finance reform, hawks on austerity” with Rob Johnson, at the Real News Network.