Tuesday, June 29, 2010

G20 protesters: Boxed in

On Sunday morning, strolling past Toronto Police Headquarters (two minutes away from where I live), I struck up a conversation with a police constable.  Why, I asked him, did the police not protect property during the G20 disturbances of the previous day?  He replied, quite reasonably, that the police did not want to risk bodily harm to protect windows.  They would have intervened if people had been at risk.  Nobody was harmed, he pointed out, nor was anybody placed under that threat.

That sounded right.  But it was an odd echo of something a rioter from the notorious "Black Block" told the Globe and Mail: "We're not violent," he said, "all we damaged was property -- not a single person was hurt."  (That might sound a tad disingenuous: what would have happened if police had tried to arrest one of the rioters while he was smashing a window with a hammer? -- But let's not chase the thought down that hole.)  Ironically, the scary rioter was making the same distinction as my charming constable acquaintance.  Hurting property is different from hurting people.  Morally different.

Here is another head-scratcher from that Sunday.  A lot of people, including some suspected of carrying dangerous weapons, were milling around in the vicinity of Queen and Spadina.  (See below.)  Police suspected some of these people of carrying nasty items, such as Molotov cocktails.  So they told everybody they had to go, unless detained.  The crowd didn't disperse.  So the police boxed the crowd in -- presumably, they wanted to hold the malfeasant types in until they were ready to be inspected without resisting.  Problem is they held the whole crowd there for several hours in the pouring rain, until they could be inspected, and then detained or released.  Many of the people in the box were peaceful and legitimate protesters; one was a freelancer working for the Guardian newspaper in London. (I really do not want to say that the Guardian's coverage of the Vancouver Olympics makes it ok to punch their journalists in the stomach -- but I confess the thought did cross my mind.)  

Now, here's the question.  Were those who were not charged illegally detained? Were their civil rights violated?


I don't know anything about the law.  But here's what puzzles me.  The police claim that the crowd was ordered to disperse.  Suppose this is true.  Then, supposing that the order was delivered audibly, clearly, and repeatedly, not dispersing puts you in risk of some coercive action.  So on this scenario, some of the people in the box knowingly disobeyed an order given by peace officers.  They could not find their way out of a place that they had been told to vacate.  Look: if you wander into a place where there is a clearly posted Keep Out sign, you can't really complain.  Maybe the person who put the sign there had no right to -- but surely the police do have a right to ask citizens not to interfere with their actions.  (Hell, they do that every time I venture out onto an expressway in Toronto.  There's always some "investigation" that lasts for hours and backs the Gardiner up forever.)

Let's stick with the scenario for a moment.  Some of those people in the box claim that they didn't hear the order.  They may not have heard it -- that it was given audibly doesn't imply that everybody heard it.  Some may have been distracted; some may have been talking to their friends; some may have had other things on their minds.  But this doesn't put them in the clear, legally speaking, as far as I know.  If the order is properly given, not having heard it is not an excuse for disobeying.  Nor does it cut the mustard to say, as some did say, that they were waiting for a bus.  Once riot police tell you to clear out, the transit option disappears.  Better to think of walking, or taking a taxi, or hiking up to Dundas to see if transit is running better up there.  Inconvenient . . . but what else are you going to do?

Still sticking with the warning-was-given scenario, the best sense I can make of the just-hanging-around scenario is that, given the situation and its political implications, some people wanted to disobey the police.  That's civil disobedience.  I admire civil disobedience -- it's a much more lofty option than insisting that you have to catch the street car.  Hey, I was brought up in India, and Gandhi is my hero.  You are not going to catch me saying that peaceful civil disobedience is morally less-than-heroic.

But: and this was Gandhi's point -- watch the Ben Kingsley/Leslie Howard scene if you don't believe me -- that civil disobedience comes with the duty to suffer the duly administered legal penalty.  If you break the law for a noble political end, then assuming you want to change the state not destroy it, you accept the penalty.  What's this about civil rights being violated?  You don't have a civil right to hang out at the corner of Queen and Spadina when a peace officer has told you to move on.  Assuming, of course, that he has a right to do so.  (If you think he doesn't have that right, then why not say so -- rather than all this "I didn't hear him" nonsense?)

OK, let's come off the scenario now.  It hasn't yet been established that the police did clearly, loudly, and repeatedly enough make it clear that people had to disperse.  I would think, though, that this is easily established.  There must be film, right?  The guy/gal who took the photo above probably could tell you, if s/he was contacted and asked nicely.  If they just boxed people in without giving them a chance to leave, and kept them there for hours in the pouring rain, and didn't give them anything to eat or a private place to relieve themselves -- well, that is a crime.  How would you like to be treated that way? 

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