In the Toronto G20 aftermath the discord continues. Particularly divisive is the controversy regarding police actions, which divides on two main fronts: support for police vs support for protesters, and both camps seem to hold themselves mutually opposed and irreconcilable.
But these views are not mutually exclusive, and should not be seen as in absolute opposition. We can fully support police defending our rights and freedoms in this democratic society while at the same time fully supporting the democratic right of citizens in such a society to engage in peaceful protest. There is no incompatibility.
We did see roving groups of black clad, masked, “Black Bloc” urban guerillas running amok, committing assault, battery, and destroying and defacing property. But this is not in any way an exercise of democratic rights, and it is not contrary to democratic principles to detain and arrest people who are committing assault, battery, or destroying or defacing property, providing of course that the arrests and detainments themselves are conducted properly.
There were many thousands of other people exercising their freedom of speech and association, peacefully demonstrating for or against their various causes. And, irrespective of whether one agrees with their particular messages, it is completely acceptable, and even desirable in a democratic society, that such voices be able to speak. Regrettably, though, the antidemocratic Black Bloc overshadowed these legitimate protests, overwhelming legitimate voices and deafening us to their messages.
We also saw an army of black clad, armed and armoured police, batons on shields beating cadence, advancing on peaceful crowds. We saw them rush peaceful groups, assailling them with tear gas, rubber bullets, and muzzle blasts, as well as roughly dragging away people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We saw wholesale arbitrary detainment, and wholesale illegal searches and seizures. We heard of droves of citizens held like cattle for long hours in primitive over-crowded concrete and wire pens, with inadequate food and water, without being informed of the complaints against them, and deprived of access to legal counsel.
We saw them making little apparent effort to discriminate between lawful, peaceful protesters and Black Bloc anarchists, and thereby, in an excess of zeal, silencing and suppressing legitimate dissent. We saw them lay false claim to expanded police powers (and then, later, admit to the deceit).
These are violations of a whole list of Charter rights. These tactics, too, are antidemocratic. Rather than a defence of our free democracy, they are an assault on the foundations of it, by the very people charged with defending it.
This brings the administration of justice and the police themselves into disrepute. It weakens legal authority, and breeds mistrust, fuels outrage and exacerbates discord and dissent. Instead of shoring up our peace and stability it energizes and therefore abets the likes of the Black Bloc, which are born out of suspicion and mistrust of authority, and likewise feed upon it.
Sadly, it also obscures recognition of the other reality: the real and valuable service police officers deliver, day in and day out, across the land, putting their lives on the line, serving and protecting.
We should hold all such misbehaviour to account, whether on the part of the Black Bloc agitators or protests that just got out of hand, or by the police themselves. But we must consider the police misbehaviour to be the most egregious. We depend upon the police to properly identify, build cases, and prefer charges against the likes of Black Bloc ruffians. Police misbehaviour detracts from this, even to the point of crippling or defeating any prosecutions that might flow from it.
In our police forces we have large, professional, well financed, well trained and well equipped paramilitary organizations. We arm such forces and send them into our communities, entrusting in them the power to arrest and detain, to use lethal force; to keep the peace, block by block, day by day. It is a difficult job, and, day by day, they do it with courage and dedication, and they do it well.
But, having said that, it still is a great deal of power, which makes it all the more dangerous if misused and all the more critical that we take care to control and channel it. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a key element in this; it helps to define the boundaries of acceptable government and, in particular, police action.
If we allow end-runs around these rights and freedoms, even when such rights seem but “technicalities,” or mere nuisances, we short-circuit these critical checks and balances. This puts us on a path for the good-guys to become distinguishable from the bad-guys only by their uniforms, and for these conscientious and trustworthy servants to become instead our masters.
When we ensure that these boundaries are respected, both by ordinary citizens and by police alike, both can then fulfill their proper and valuable roles as facets of a vigorous and healthy democracy.