Public Values

Police desperate to avoid an inquiry

Official line is that downtown Toronto was sacrificed for summit security.

Police desperate to avoid an inquiryby David Langille

Faced with the rising clamour for an inquiry into the policing at the G8/G20 summits, senior policy officials are trying to kill it with candor. They are speaking openly about the callous decision-making that allowed the rioters to trash downtown Toronto. But we still need an impartial inquiry to probe beneath the candor. Otherwise there is no assurance that we are getting the full story, or even a true story.

I speak not only as an academic who researches and teaches about social movements and social justice, but as an activist who has coordinated two "popular summits" when the G7 came to Ottawa in 1981 and the G8 to Toronto in 1988.

I have also participated in numerous demonstrations in Canada, the United States, Europe and South America – and never felt so threatened as in my hometown of Toronto. I didn't feel threatened by the Black Block protestors, who clearly were not wanting to hurt people, but by the lack of police protection.

When 150 rioters came up Yonge Street and along College Street, not only passing by me sitting on a restaurant patio, but also passing by Toronto Police Headquarters, there was not a policeman to be seen.

The police claim they had other priorities.

On Monday, the spokesperson for the Toronto Police made very clear that their role was to support the RCMP in defending the perimeter of the Security Zone, and they were forced to "sacrifice" the downtown area in the process. Chief Blair was obviously taking orders from higher up within the Integrated Security Unit. He is the "fall guy" for the trashing of downtown Toronto after those really in charge have returned to Ottawa.

Then yesterday, the head of the Integrated Security Unit, RCMP Chief Superintendent Alphonse MacNeil, spoke openly about his role in protecting the world leaders. He felt the event was a success, given "that all we really had at the end of the day is a few broken windows and a few damaged police cars". When challenged by CBC's Susan Ormiston he said, "We succeeded at what we wanted to do."

So why did they allow the riot to happen?

Clearly, the police cannot complain about a lack of resources – not after being furnished with an embarrassment of new weapons, and having over 7000 police officers on duty. Nor were they lacking in intelligence resources. Before the event they were reassuring us that they were familiar with the tactics of the Black Block, but afterwards they were saying they had "never seen anything like it." They can't have it both ways...

The police knew, just as every seasoned activist knows, that the Black Block were here to pursue a "diversity of tactics" – not just to tear down the fence but to attack the visible manifestations of corporate capitalism – eg. from Starbucks to American Apparel. It was wrong for the police to claim that the Black Block "infiltrated" the main demonstration, and that ordinary demonstrators were somehow "caught up in their actions". As far as I could see, the Black Block activists maintained their distance and only became active after the larger demonstration ended peacefully.

The police knew, as every seasoned activist knows, that the greatest danger to public property was after the march. They knew that the Black Block would split up and begin attacking private property. I was incredulous to see Chief Blair on the front page of today's Globe and Mail claim, "It was a new tactic'.

The police could have protected Yonge Street just as they protected the American Consulate. When the main march walked past the Consulate and one aging marcher mounted the barricade to wave his fist at the American Empire, a horde of riot police – at least 50 – came pouring out to protect the Americans.

Our local citizens and businesses deserved similar protection given that we were spending over a billion dollars on security. There could have been buses of riot police standing by in the downtown area. It was unbelievable for MacNeil of the RCMP to blame the Black Block on the one hand, then claim that "we didn't want to be distracted by their actions." (He lost further credibility when he said, "We don't just wade into a crowd and start grabbing people" – when our media show otherwise.)

Instead of offering protection, the RCMP and their handlers in the Privy Council Office decided to protect the perimeter of the Security Zone and "sacrifice" the downtown.

Their priority was not simply to protect the leaders. It was to send a message to the public. They were about to face a storm of criticism for having wasted over a billion dollars on security measures when no visible threat had materialized.

So they allowed some windows to get broken to prove the threat was real.

And they allowed two police cars to get torched to provide a hugely effective photo opportunity – those pictures appeared in major media outlets across Canada and around the world.

Of course they had a water cannon truck available, but it was to repel demonstrators, not to extinguish burning police cars, which were allowed to burn as long as there were any photographers interested.

So on top of the many good questions that are being asked, I want to add:

  • Chief Blair admits "we were slow to respond" to the damage in the downtown core. Why? Who refused to send in the riot police, until after the damage was done?
  • Chief Blair said the attacks on the downtown were "diversionary tactics" by the Black Block so as to allow them to attack the fence? Who gave him that idea?
  • Who ordered lone police officers to "trail" the Black Block down our major streets then abandon their cars, when the police were clearly given orders to stick together in large groups and never let themselves get isolated?

While I await answers to these questions, it appears that the priority of the police "brass" was to protect themselves and their political masters from having to account for wasting over a billion dollars in public funds.

David Langille is Executive Producer for Poor No More – a feature documentary on Canada's working poor.

Posted: June 29, 2010

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