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Jonathan Kay: Toronto Police did a good job in difficult circumstances but detention needs investigation

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And joining us now from Toronto to discuss the G-20 weekend, particularly what happened on the streets of Toronto, is Jonathan Kay. He’s the columnist for The National Post, and he’s the editor of their comments page. Thanks for joining us, Jonathan.


JAY: The big debate in Toronto right now is: should there be an independent public inquiry about police actions over the course of the weekend, particularly an inquiry into the rights of subpoena power? What’s your view on the question?

KAY: I think probably the greatest grounds for any kind of inquiry was the treatment of detainees. I didn’t see much, actually, on the streets that aroused any suspicion of police brutality or anything like that. However, there are some credible reports that, once in detention, some of the activists were mistreated.

JAY: So you would support a public inquiry on that point.

KAY: To the extent politicians think a public inquiry is needed, to me, that area, there’s the strongest argument for having one. I don’t see any great urgency to have one, but it’d be interesting to know more about how the detainees were treated.

JAY: Now, there’s been a lot of reports on several points that people say are violations of the Canadian Charter of Rights. Of course, the first and foremost one is the right to free assembly. There’s many reports that of the almost 1,000 people arrested, at least something like 800 or 900 of them were not involved in any kind of vandalism, weren’t involved in breaking windows. Steve Paikin, the veteran journalist for TV Ontario, in a Real News interview describes arrests of several hundred people at the Esplanade who were sitting down with peace signs, chanting “peaceful protest”. You must have heard all these reports. Do you not think there needs to be an inquiry whether the right of freedom of assembly was violated?

KAY: The problem is, whenever there’s a mob scene and whenever you have the specter of violence, often the police are required to clear an area in a very short period of time, and sometimes the good apples get swept up with the bad. I would be more concerned if I thought these people were brutalized or if innocents were being detained for more than a few hours. I’ve looked at, as you have, I’m sure, dozens of pieces of footage from the G-20 protests. I’m yet to see any footage of anyone actually being brutalized in any serious way. As far as I know, there were no injuries, certainly no deaths, to arise out of the protests. I think the greatest complaint was that these people were detained for a few hours. In some cases they were detained overnight and then they were released. I think in any crowd control situation, whenever, as I said, the specter of violence, sometimes good apples get swept up with the bad. I don’t see that as evidence of wrongdoing.

JAY: Right now. Well, if you look at Paikin’s interview describing what happened on the Esplanade, first of all, he talks about the demonstrators—in fact, he says they weren’t even really protesters at that point. Most of them were just walking around, even without signs, none of them dressed in black. They got cornered on the Esplanade, according to Paikin. The police tell them to leave, except they block, according to Paikin, any exit route, so the people sit. And then, Paikin says, rubber bullets are fired into a sitting crowd. Paikin’s then told, as a journalist, “Leave or you’ll be arrested,” and he shows his identification. He’s now moved off to the side, out of the way of police action, behind, you could say, police lines, and he’s told, “Get out or we’ll arrest you.” And then as he starts to leave, he sees another journalist, Jesse Rosenfeld, being smashed in the stomach, held by two cops, elbowed in the back. I mean, have you seen this testimony of Paikin? And don’t you think that type of evidence requires more investigation?

KAY: I’m actually friends with Steve Paikin. He and I appeared on two separate interview shows together. I’m familiar with what he said. In terms of firing rubber bullets into the crowd, I don’t know that that happened. Had that happened, certainly many people would have been admitted to hospital with serious injuries. That didn’t happen.

JAY: Well, Paikin says it did. I mean, according to Paikin—you can see it in the interview.

KAY: In terms of Mr. Rosenfeld, Mr. Rosenfeld is an activist who blogs for a British newspaper. Like many journalists—or people, in his case he presented himself as a journalist. He didn’t have proper accreditation. He was asked to leave the scene. He refused. Paikin will admit this, that he [Rosenfeld] talked back to the cops. And one cop—it sounds like one cop probably overreached and was too zealous and hit him, which he shouldn’t have done. I actually was in a similar situation when I was at Queen and Spadina. I was on a side street trying to cover the action. A group of police came and they told us all, you know, you have to leave or you’re going to be arrested, and I was presented with the opportunity. I said, look, you know, I’m a journalist; I work for the The National Post. It didn’t matter: I had to leave the scene. Like a number of other people who were subsequently detained, I could have stood my ground and said, “You know what? I’m not leaving the scene. Arrest me,” and I would have spent the night in jail and had a good story. I didn’t do that. I left.

JAY: But, Jonathan, if journalists leave the scene, then where is freedom of the press? Now, I’m not talking about getting in the way of the police’s work, but there’s a difference between leaving the scene and getting in the way. If you can’t remove yourself just out of the field of where the police are operating and then report on the police, how is the public to know whether the police are abusing their powers or not? Where is the freedom of the press in that?

KAY: You know, in terms of police abuse, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where police behavior was more closely scrutinized. Out of the thousands of people I saw at the demonstrations, it seemed like every single person was holding a camcorder, including me. And that’s why it’s quite notable that you don’t see any scenes of police brutality.

JAY: Well, that’s not true. Come on, there’s all kinds of YouTube videos of the police smashing people with batons.

KAY: In thousands of YouTube videos that have been posted, you don’t see any actual scene of this brutality that we’ve been told about, despite the fact that this was probably one of the most filmed episodes of any news event I’ve covered as a journalist.

JAY: But, Jonathan, we have video of the horses running over a person. Our own journalist was smashed in the face, Jesse Freeston, when he was covering an event on College Street.

KAY: Did he present himself at the hospital? Because my understanding is that the hospital reports—is that no one was seriously injured throughout the G-20 protests.

JAY: Well, first of all, whether it’s serious injury or not, getting smashed in the face and elbowed and etcetera are assaults, by any means. And, second of all, in fact there are evidence that some people are in the hospital. In fact, we know the story of one man who wasn’t part of the protest at all, was looking for his daughter, and because he kept looking for his daughter, the police told him to get out. He didn’t want to get out. He wound up with a broken spleen in the hospital. But I don’t think the issue is serious injury or not. Isn’t the issue the right to assemble?

KAY: The right to assembly is important in any democracy. And as it spells out in our charter, rights are contextual. When you have—I believe the language is “such rights as can be upheld in an ordered democracy”. When you have thousands of protesters, hundreds of whom have gone on record on the Internet before the event and said, we are going to smash cars, we’re going to attack police, we are going to try and infiltrate the buildings where political leaders are being held, that is when the police have the right to set up fences and to arrest people that they deem to be a threat to people’s safety.

JAY: Yeah, but why didn’t they? I mean, I don’t think anyone would disagree that when people break windows or burn police cars they are subject to arrest. But, apparently, for hours the police didn’t intervene when the violence was taking place, and then, after, there had been pictures of burning police cars on television for an hour or more. Then there was an attack on Queen’s Park, where in fact people had been peacefully demonstrating, and in many other places that—.

KAY: I don’t think that’s a correct chronology. I think there were police confronting crowds all over the downtown area throughout Saturday and then into Sunday. What I witnessed at Queen and Spadina was that you did have a violent mob. The police arrived, and it wasn’t until the police had appropriate numbers to secure the area that they advanced on the intersection.

JAY: Oh, take a look at the tape.

KAY: If I can just continue, what typically happens in this kind of situation is, if you have small groups of police who are quickly overwhelmed by protesters, who are overwhelmed by criminals in some cases, then that is when the police sometimes resort to deadly force. It is when you have a large number of police who can secure an area, who can march into an intersection with confidence—and that’s what happened at Queen and Spadina, that’s what I saw, and there was absolutely no violence between the police and the protesters—that actually is safer for people on both sides. So if you had small groups of police confronting large groups of protesters and vandals all over the city, that to my mind would have been a greater recipe for violence, and to the police’s credit they didn’t do that. They waited until they had the appropriate numbers, they confronted the protesters in a safe situation, and that’s why you didn’t have any significant injuries arising in the entire G-20 weekend.

JAY: Well, obviously there’s two very different views of what happened. People can look at the tape and judge. But isn’t that even more reason why there should be a public inquiry? A great number of people in Toronto and journalists who were there covering this have a very different version of events than you just described. How else are we going to get at this without a public inquiry with the powers of subpoena?

KAY: A public inquiry, I mean, I guess there are some good things that could come of it. You could find out better ways to police the city to prevent the fairly limited vandalism that happened. I mean, I think a lot of the stories of vandalism are overstated. You had about three or four dozen businesses that had their windows smashed, and in the Canadian media that’s presented as if this was some huge, epic apocalypse. I mean, this was essentially a medium-sized British soccer riot that took place.

JAY: Yeah, except almost 1,000 people were arrested, most of whom lost their right of free assembly and most of whom were peaceful.

KAY: Well, Paul, I think you have to remember that you had several dozen leaders, world leaders, just a couple of kilometers away. This wasn’t just an ordinary weekend in Toronto. You had leaders from all over Europe, the United States, Canada, you name it, in Toronto. Obviously, this would be a high-priority target not just for black bloc types but for worse. And so I think you would agree with me that the rules of engagement between police and large, violent crowds are somewhat different when you have that high-stakes target just a few kilometers away.

JAY: Well, I just don’t—I mean, I don’t think the evidence bears out it was a large violent crowd. I think it was a very small group within a big peaceful crowd, which was why I think there should be an inquiry to settle the issue. But let me ask you another question. The Public Works Protection Act is a piece of legislation that was imposed over the area of the downtown Toronto convention center. It’s a piece of legislation that was written in 1939, apparently to deal with possible German agents that were going to come against public buildings and assassinate people. Many lawyers in town think it’s essentially a form of martial law. It gives the police the right to search and seize not just at the building but any approach that they define to the building. What do you make of that piece of legislation? Is that in conflict with the Charter? And do you think there’s—again, the debate now is that it should be repealed.

KAY: Well, if it was martial law, it was certainly well disguised. I was able to bike all over downtown all weekend and—.

JAY: No, no, it was imposed only at the convention center. But the piece of legislation itself is on the books, and now a precedent is set.

KAY: The legislation certainly could be interpreted in a very broad way, and it probably could be used in a frightening way, really, to lock down the entire city, if city officials did that. And I agree. Like, for instance, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, if all the powers in the Anti-Terrorism Act were deployed in an irresponsible way by the federal government, yes, you would have something like a police state. However, we have politically accountable leaders who are limited in the way they can apply these statutes, and I think that’s what happened in Toronto. But I would agree with you that if you actually look at the letter of the law, it could be applied in a draconian manner. I don’t think it was at the G-20, but I would agree with you that it’s certainly worth revisiting the language of the law.

JAY: And just finally, if you look at where the money went, almost $1 billion spent on security, the Toronto police say they may only have spent $122 million (and they’re not even sure they spent their whole budget), $35 million at Huntsville for the Muskoka adventure, at least something like—something over $800 million, which $500 million went to the RCMP. The parliamentary budgetary officer says it’s not clear where all the money went. Do you think there’s a bit of overkill in the expenditure? And do you think there’s a question mark here? Was it actually spent for this weekend, or is it actually being spent on something else?

KAY: Look, whether there’s a slush fund or not, I see no evidence of that. I would agree with you, and I think most Canadians would agree with you, that this was a lot of money spent for a meeting that for the most part was fairly ornamental. I don’t think a lot gets done at G-20 meetings or G-8 meetings. However, I think probably more Canadians would have agreed this was a waste of money for security expenditures before the scenes of violence they saw in the streets of Toronto. I think the best argument in Harper’s favor in terms of spending all this money on security was made by the people who torched the police cars and broke those windows.

JAY: Well, you know, that’s the argument people are making, that the police had infiltrated the black bloc. And we know that as a fact, that they had infiltrated. It’s actually in court documents. Now, we don’t know for any—there’s no evidence that the police who infiltrated the black bloc were themselves involved in any of the violence, but, obviously, you’re making the argument that people on the other side are making, that the police let these police cars burn for a long time before they intervene, precisely for these reasons.

KAY: No, I actually think that verges on conspiracy theory. I think you had a lot of police who were going around the city trying to quell violence; and as between protecting people and protecting a police car that had already been trashed, they opted to protect people. The fact that a police car that had been trashed was sitting on the street for a couple of hours, to me that’s hardly evidence that the police were somehow—.

JAY: Well, actually, they didn’t—if you look at the CP24 report, they’re quite amazed that the police cars are burning, they’re potentially exploding, and there’s tourists on Queen Street and others standing right next to these cars. And they keep saying, where is the police? And one of the questions of where the police are is: where are the fire engines, and where are the police protecting people on the streets and pushing them away from burning cars? Instead you get these images on television of burning cars for, apparently, almost an hour before the police show up.

KAY: I don’t think it was an hour. I was actually out in downtown Toronto, Saturday night. I saw the big plume of smoke go up from the police car that was burned on Queen and Spadina. I headed west to see what was going on. As I was heading west, I was passed by several large buses full of riot police. The riot police immediately cleared the intersection at Queen and Spadina. And they put out—subsequently the fire was put out. The idea that somehow this cop car was left to burn as some kind of pretext for draconian riot control actions, I mean, as I said, that sounds like a conspiracy theory to me.

JAY: Just because a conspiracy might exist and calling it “conspiracy” doesn’t mean a decision wasn’t made. But again I say you need a public inquiry to find this out. I mean, you know, do you call it a conspiracy when the provincial government passed the Public Works Protection Act and doesn’t tell anybody, and quietly sticks it on a website that nobody looks at and calls that a public release?

KAY: Yeah, I think you agree with me that the incorrect dissemination of information about public laws is very different from deliberately ignoring acts of violence on the streets of Toronto as a pretext to punish protesters. You can’t compare those two.

JAY: Well, again, it seems like you’ve got some sympathy for a public inquiry, so maybe, hopefully, there’ll be one.

KAY: You know what? If there’s a public inquiry that is fair-minded, you know, you and I are on the same page in that I think some lessons can be brought out. And the major lesson—which I think both of us would be interested in—is how do you configure police response, police protection, in such a way that you quickly isolate and stop vandals, criminals, the black bloc types who are interested in smashing things, from legitimate protesters. I would agree with you: the police could have done a better job in that, because there were situations where damage was done, the police showed up, they arrested a lot of people, many of whom had nothing to do with the violence. It could be that there are lessons to be drawn from crowd control techniques deployed around the world in other democracies that maybe would be a better fit for Canada, maybe would be more effective, maybe would protect property and civil liberties at the same time. If lessons like that could come from a public inquiry, I agree with you. I would be in support of it. My fear, though, is that a lot of the people who promote the idea of a public inquiry are simply looking to cast blame on the police. And from what I saw on the streets of Toronto, I think the police generally—not always, but generally did a good-faith job in protecting people and in, where they could, protecting property. And I think the proof of that is, as I said, no serious injuries, no deaths, which is pretty good for 20,000 people protesting in the streets of Toronto, often in violent circumstances, and none of them to go home with any serious injuries. I think at the end of the day that’s something to be proud of.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Jonathan. Jonathan Kay is the columnist for The National Post and runs their comments page. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Jonathan Kay is comment pages editor of the National Post. In addition, he is a columnist for the National Post op-ed page, and a regular contributor to Commentary magazine and the New York Post. His freelance articles have appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and various other publications. In April 2002, he was awarded Canada's National Newspaper Award for Critical Writing. In June 2004, he was awarded a National Newspaper Award for Editorial Writing. Jonathan was born and raised in Montreal.