No Blank Cheques

Regarding my support for an Amnesty International petition for a public inquiry into G20 security, Mary Alice commmnted in Facebook as follows:

This needs more explanation — Whose freedoms? whose securities?  Right to protest peaceably, yes.  Rights to vandalize, infiltrating legitimate groups?  Individuals guilty by association , or after the fact.  How can police determine on the spot who is guilty of what?  That is for the court.  This is a huge issue and definitely a dark spot in Canadian history.  I support the law officers doing their best in a bad situation.

… To which I replied at some length.  It’s a bit of a rehash of my previous G20 posts where I haven’t quite yet clearly expressed myself.  But the blog being insatiable, I reprise my reply here  (with some minor adjustments)  in case I’ve hit it more squarely this time …

There is no question, now, or ever, that the violent G20 protesters were in the wrong.  They were in the wrong because their actions violated the civil rights of others.  There is no right to vandalize, no right of assault or battery.

But this does not mean we can allow wholesale abandonment of civil rights, on the off-chance that someone might commit a crime.  Police must maintain order and administer justice in a manner that is respectful of the civil rights of citizens, just as citizens must respect the proper role of the police, and the civil rights of each other.

Nevertheless, it is not for the police to determine who is guilty of what, whether on the spot or not.  It is up to them to build cases, and to prefer charges where it is appropriate to do so.  The determination of guilt is a matter for a competent court.  Until such a court so rules, everyone is entitled to be presumed innocent.  This is a critical point.

Police do not have the right to stop just anyone in the vicinity of a peaceful gathering and search them, and make them justify their reason for being there, or take them away to the slammer, just ’cause they’re there, or taking pictures, or whatever else offends them.  They may have apprehended some violent miscreants, but the bulk of the detainments were just for being there, where they had a lawful right to be.

And, when detained, people have a right to be promptly told of the reasons for it, which on the whole they were not, and given access to legal representation, which again they apparently were not.  On top of all this, people were penned like cattle in inhumane conditions for many many long hours.  This treatment is what we might expect from a military junta, such as in Burma/Myanmar, not Canada.

It is essential that people must be able to assemble peacefully, and speak their minds against the government without reprisal, regardless of whether any of us like or agree with what they might want to say.  Just as it is wrong for protesters to violate people’s rights, it is wrong for police to do so.  Police actions here wrongly silenced the voices of many thousands of peaceful demonstrators who were trying to exercise their lawful and important right to have their say.

The anarchistic protesters answer to no one, and we have primarily only the police to help keep them in line.  But the government/police are supposed to answer to us, and it is our job to keep them in line.

Once the government/police, in whom we entrust such enormous power, fail to respect the fundamental rights they’re supposed to uphold, we are in grave danger of becoming a police state.  When they cross the line, it is like our immune system turning against us — it is society’s equivalent of cancer, and society will grievously suffer for it.  We must hold them to the very highest standard.

In addition, when government/police cross the line, they interfere with their/our ability to hold other wrong-doers to account — any violation of Charter rights by police will impede ensuing prosecutions, meaning that the miscreants will basically just get away with it because the police weren’t doing their job properly.  Rights violations and high-handedness by police also incite further unrest, disrespect of authority, even fostering breakdown of that authority, and further violence.  It is a destructive spiral.

The call for an inquiry is for these things to be sorted out, to document what happened, and what went wrong (or right), and determine better what to do in future.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this is not about  “not supporting the police”  in doing their difficult job.  It’s a false choice.  It’s about supporting freedom and justice.  We can support all the not-wrongful police actions, and their commitment and dedication — without giving them a blank cheque.  And we can at the same time, without any shred of contradiction, support all the not-wrongful protester actions — without giving them a blank cheque either.

We must recognize that both police and protesters, when operating within the boundaries of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and rule of law based on this, both are essential elements working in partnership in our free democracy.

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