With the Toronto G20 imbroglio still raging, the argument typically boils down to “I support the police,” vs “I support the protesters” positions. The implication is that we must choose one or the other, but not both, and that to support one is to deny any support for the other. This is a false choice. Both assertions paint us into a corner with too broad a brush.
There were indeed, among thousands, a few violent protesters who violated people’s rights by damaging property, threatening their safety, or causing them harm. In relatively short time these few miscreants captured the lion’s share of the press coverage and managed to skew the debate out of all proportion. But their actions were anti-democratic, and it is entirely appropriate to reject and condemn these.
We must not forget, however, that most of the many thousands of protesters behaved properly, exercising their rights of freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech, and were attempting to participate in a legitimate dialogue about issues important to them. Regardless of what one thinks of their particular issues, it is entirely appropriate to laud these actions as essential and valuable to a healthy democracy.
Any position that confers any degree of support for protester violence (such as the unqualified “I support the protesters”), or that implies denial of of support for appropriate protester behaviour (such as the unqualified “I support the police”) is unacceptable.
Similarly, there were thousands of police officers on the job, and on the whole they provided a good and valuable service. We can fully support these actions, and express our appreciation for their commitment and dedication.
But it must still be said that there were also numerous police actions that were highly questionable: erroneous, even deceitful, claims to expanded powers; arbitrary searches and seizures, even beyond the falsely-claimed expanded powers; excessive force; mass arbitrary detainments; failure to promptly advise people of the specific reasons for their detainment; and denying access to legal counsel.
These actions were excessive to the requirements of maintaining order, and were serious violations of a whole list of Charter rights. They are fundamentally anti-democratic in nature, and unacceptable. Moreover, they further worked against the proper functioning of our democracy by intimidating and silencing lawful discourse and dissent, as well as being intrinsically counter-productive by energizing the selfsame violent behaviour they purported to forestall. They will prove an impediment to prosecutions of protesters, and will thus work against our ability to hold them properly to account. For all of the ways in which they served us well, in these ways they failed us.
As before, any position that confers any degree of support for unacceptable police behaviour (such as the unqualified “I support the police”), or that implies denial of support for appropriate police behaviour (such as the unqualified “I support the protesters”) is unacceptable.
Defending Our Rights
The positions we need to adopt are those that condemn violations of our rights — from whatever source — whether on the part of violent, vandalizing protesters, or by excessive police action. We need to adopt positions that support human rights and the rule of law within a robust, healthy, democracy. In doing this we must recognize that both police, and protesters, each within properly prescribed limits, are important partners, and in such context both fulfill valuable complementary roles.
Learning From Our Mistakes
We must also consider how to learn from our mistakes. But to do that we need to carefully document what happened, and identify and clarify what the mistakes actually were.
Some say that we should just leave it all to the courts, and let the courts decide what’s true and what recourse is appropriate. This will perhaps be useful in individual cases to the extent that they are not overwhelmed by rights violations, but in such cases other issues will be examined only to the extent that they impinge upon the given case. Court cases will also likely only consider matters arising out of charges brought by police, and it is unrealistic to expect police to build cases or bring charges against themselves. Hence, if we just let things play out in court, we can expect that a broad array of important issues will be left unexplored.
There are far wider, systemic, failures here that must be addressed, well beyond the scope of what might arise out of the few handfuls of criminal prosecutions that we can expect to ensue.
We need a venue in which the full range of these questions will be examined, whether criminal or not, with the ability to compel evidence and testimony under oath, and to put such evidence and testimony to the test.
In other words, we need a public judicial inquiry mandated to examine the gamut of G20 security planning and execution, policies and procedures, as well as training, and to delve into what worked and what didn’t, and why. It must be empowered to make recommendations, as well as to make findings of fault as well as fact.