First Canadian Officer Convicted for Mass Arrests at 2010 G-20 Toronto Summit

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Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Laura Berger and TRNN’s former video journalist Jesse Freeston discuss the police’s motivations behind mass arrests and the legacy of the G-20 in current policing practices

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

It’s been more than five years since the largest mass arrest in Canadian peacetime history occurred. You may recall the scenes of police clashing with protesters during the G20 in Toronto, where more than 1,000 protesters were arrested. Now for the first time a senior police officer has been convicted for discreditable conduct and unnecessary exercise of authority.

Now joining us to discuss all of this is Laura Berger. She is the interim director of policing and public safety program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. And also joining us is Jesse Freeston. He’s an independent documentary filmmaker based in Montreal, and he was a video journalist here at the Real News during the Toronto G20. Thank you both for joining us.

JESSE FREESTON: Hi Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: Jesse, let’s start off with you since you were on the ground at that time. You were covering these protests. First I’m going to show our viewers a clip so they get a sense of how aggressive the policing was. This one officer even threatened to arrest a protester for blowing bubbles. Let’s take a look at that clip.

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OFFICER: If the bubble touches me you’re going to be arrested for assault. Do you understand?

PROTESTER: Bubbles.

OFFICER: Yes. That’s right. It’s a deliberate act on your behalf, and I’m going to arrest you. Do you understand me?

PROTESTER: I understand but [inaud.]

OFFICER: Right. You’re going to be in handcuffs, all right? You either knock it off with the bubbles–you touch me with that bubble, you’re going into custody.

~~~

DESVARIEUX: So Jesse, why were the police so aggressive towards protesters, and who were they really targeting?

FREESTON: I don’t think I could talk about exactly why they, each officer was aggressive. I actually have to go look–I have to go look at my own coverage of that time to remind myself of what happened. I mean, it’s like five years ago, and we’re finally getting a ruling on this.

I think it’s important to remember the context that the G20 was happening in. The financial crisis had happened less than two years earlier, had started less than two years earlier. Economic crisis, lots of pressure on governments to do something about the economic crisis, and lots of governments not doing those things, including the Canadian government. The UN had offered to step in and provide some sort of global conference on how to resolve the crisis, which had been killed by the G20 governments. They said no, we’re going to settle this as just the 20 of us. And then in that context they build a massive wall in the biggest city in Canada, and pass all kinds of, pass laws that were unclear about whether or not you would be searched or IDed if you were within five meters of the wall.

So at a time that this reaction to the economic crisis was already looking like a very elite reaction, where there wasn’t going to be much democratic process, now you have this physical thing arrive in Toronto that just says yes, that’s exactly what’s happening. And also just, there’s a lot of distrust of the police in Canada leading up to this, as well. Just to name one example, with the particular context of protests, the last massive protests that had been in Canada was in 2007 for the Security and Prosperity Partnership talks between Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. to kind of extend NAFTA. And during that time police officers at the time, Surete du Quebec, which is the police force of Quebec, were caught undercover dressed as maybe anarchists dressed in black carrying rocks, and threatening police officers and threatening protesters, and trying to start fights in the crowd.

There’s footage of it, you can go watch it. The Quebec police force eventually admitted that yes, these were undercover officers. One of them had a rock in his hand and they said that they were there to protect the people in the crowd. There was no followup, no investigation. So there was a lot of distrust amongst activists and people in that world leading up to these things.

And then the actual event was, had some pretty terrifying moments. There was the day of Friday protests, which was before the day that everybody remembers, was the Saturday when the police cars were burned and windows were smashed, and all kinds of property damage happened. [Inaud.] was in the march. It was a justice for our communities march, it was very peaceful, lots of music, lots of color. And he’s a, an [inaud.]. his friends were trying to tell the police officers, he’s deaf. He can’t even hear you. And they’re arresting him and pulling him into a department store. And then they just started attacking his friends. I was filming it, they attacked me. Took my microphone.

And then in hindsight when you look at the independent review when they interviewed the officers who were doing this, when they talked about what happened with me the officer said, I considered his microphone to be the most dangerous thing in the situation. I can’t remember all the details, I don’t have it in front of me. But I considered the microphone to be the most dangerous thing in the situation. It was the scariest moment of my 20-year policing career. I treated the microphone like a knife, and separated him from it. I feared he was trying to distract us with the microphone so that we could be attacked by the Black Bloc, or by some group of anarchists, or whatever.

I mean, they–the real story here is what kind of training are these people getting? Because that is a, a terrifying paranoid way of seeing the world for somebody who has a badge and a gun, and is clearly, with the exception perhaps of Mr. [inaud.] here and a few others, pretty much acts with impunity in these situations.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah, and the judge who heard the case said, quote, this decision to order mass arrests demonstrated a lack of understanding of the right to protest. Laura, you’re sort of the legal mind here. Was this just truly about a lack of understanding on the side of the police? Or were the police just carrying out orders from those higher up?

LAURA BERGER: I think there’s not a great deal of transparency about the orders at the high levels. What we do know is that police were ill-prepared for the G20 in Toronto. One thing the police have mentioned, and it’s true, is that they were given six months to prepare for a tremendous international event that would attract tens of thousands of protesters.

So they weren’t very well prepared. There were some problems with the planning process. And then during G20 weekend itself there were very poor decisions being made. And I think what you see is a culture and an attitude that the descent, the protest, the demonstrations on city streets, when coupled with some acts of violence committed by a smaller number of people, posed a threat to the security of the G20 in the city, police officers were prepared to take whatever measures they felt were necessary to secure the streets and to disrupt the protests.

And so that’s what yesterday’s decision in the case of Superintendent Fenton found. Superintendent Fenton felt that he needed to disperse the protests, and he misapprehended what the law says about when you’re allowed to arrest and detain innocent people. As it happens, our Canadian constitution, you’ll be relieved to hear, holds that you can’t simply arrest people who are acting peacefully, where there’s no reason to believe that they’re about to do something unlawful. So that was the fundamental misunderstanding that led to the mass arrests during the G20.

DESVARIEUX: Yes, and Fenton is the only upper command officer charged under the province’s Police Act for his actions during the summit, and one of only a handful of cops to ever see any consequences from the events of that June 2010 weekend. So why haven’t we seen more consequences?

BEGER: There’s a few different reasons. One thing that we did see was police officers removing or covering their badge numbers and their nametags during the G20 weekend so that people weren’t able to identify the police officers who they felt acted inappropriately. A number of police officers actually were disciplined for taking off their nametags, but the discipline for that breach of policy is relatively minor.

We have seen different forms of accountability. It’s important to remember that there’s different ways that police officers and police services can be held to account. So we’ve seen some police officers facing disciplinary charges. That means that they have job-related consequences. Docked pay, even dismissal are possibilities. You also see criminal charges. There was one Toronto constable who was convicted criminally because of his assault of a protester. But again, those charges are also rare.

What we have seen is a lot of systemic analysis of what went wrong. There have been a number of different reviews looking at different pieces of the puzzle. So a review of the RCMP’s conduct and involvement in security for the summit. A review of the Toronto police’s conduct and the decisions made, and so on and so forth. So I think there’s been a tendency to try and look at this at a systemic level and make recommendations. The problem is that those recommendations don’t have the same kind of bite, necessarily, as charges disciplinary or criminal against an individual officer.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s talk more specifically about those recommendations. Can you just lay out a few examples?

BERGER: Sure. Sure. So it has everything to do from the Toronto Police Services Board, which provides civilian oversight of the police, being more involved and setting more explicit policies about things like this. There were recommendations around the law that Jesse referred to, the Public Works Protection Act. This is an old piece of legislation, and sort of very quickly before the G20 summit, Ontario passed a new regulation that affected some of the rights and responsibilities of individuals and police in the secured area where the G20 dignitaries were gathering. So there were a lot of recommendations around that change in the law, and the fact that it was done very hastily, without a lot of public notice. And in fact, elements of that, that regulation, were miscommunicated to the public.

So if you’re going to expand police powers, people have to know so that they know what their rights are. They know what to expect. And there should be public debate about this. This is an area where my organization was really critical, and there were strong recommendations at different levels that in the future any changes like this had to be handled in a much better way.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Jesse, do you have a final word?

FREESTON: Yeah, I think–we talked about, there was some mention about how there was a misunderstanding or something like this about whether or not these 1,000 people plus needed to be arrested to prevent further violence. And I think there’s two huge misunderstandings here that are that are promoted often by the police themselves, by the government themselves in their statements, and by the media, which is first of all not making a separation between violence against people and violence against property. So if we’re going to have this discussion, then let’s have a discussion about is it worth arresting thousands of people, or 1,000 people plus premeditatively, in advance, so to save some windows that they potentially might break?

The other thing that I think is a misunderstanding that’s promoted is that taking a political position automatically means that you’re more apt to carry out violence. We saw this with a lot of the criticism of how some journalists were treated, as if that was a greater crime. Like myself or others, as if that was a greater crime than the way that some activists were treated. And the truth is, if you have freedom of expression you have freedom of expression. It doesn’t matter if you’re a journalist, it doesn’t matter what idea you’re promoting. And this idea that we would be ranked in terms of whose expression is more valuable or more important and who is less should be treated better or worse by the police officers, I think that’s kind of scary.

The other quick two things I’ll add is that this kettling practice we’ve seen here in Montreal now is the most common thing. It’s actually technically illegal in Montreal now to organize a protest of more than 50 people, or to be in the streets with more than 50 people, without getting advance permission from the police officers 24 hours in advance. And you have to give them your itinerary. And if you break your itinerary or anything like this they will immediately kettle you, and they will give everybody a $660 fine. That’s been going on ever since 2012 when there was the big student uprising. And there’s been hundreds of kettles, and there’s been thousands of people protesting during that time, and thousands of these fines handed out. And there’s a constitutional fight going on to declare that law unconstitutional. It’s called P6, it’s a municipal bylaw. And it still hasn’t come to the constitutional court.

The other thing I’ll add that I think is a bit of a legacy of the G20 is that a lot of people felt for the first time in their lives the feeling of what it feels like to have a police officer either attack you or take away your freedom. And so I think it’s also created a lot of activists, a lot of people now who are looking around their society and looking at who are some of the other people in my community that are feeling this on a regular basis unjustly? And so I think we’ve seen an increase in the amount of solidarity with communities, people of color and marginalized communities as well.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Jesse Freeston as well as Laura Berger, thank you both for joining us.

BERGER: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.