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A Police State in Public Space

by Andy Crosby

Walls of police protect TPS headquarters on College St. - Photo: Andy Crosby
Walls of police protect TPS headquarters on College St. - Photo: Andy Crosby
Heavily armed police stand guard - Photo: Andy Crosby
Heavily armed police stand guard - Photo: Andy Crosby

“This ain’t Canada right now. . . . There’s no civil rights here in this area.” – York Regional Police Sergeant Mark Charlebois, responding to a man questioning the legality of being searched at King St. West and University Ave., one block from the G20 Summit security fence, June 27, 2010.

“For the citizens of Toronto, the days up to and including the weekend of the G8/G20 will live in infamy as a time period where martial law set in [on] the city of Toronto leading to the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history.” – André Marin, Ontario’s ombudsman, December 7, 2010.

The facts and figures are now widely known: tens of thousands of military, police, and private security personnel propped up by a billion-dollar budget and granted special police powers under a 71-year-old piece of wartime legislation; an integrated security unit (ISU) led by the RCMP with a mandate to surveil, infiltrate, and disrupt protest groups; officers from over two dozen police departments across the country sent to train and gain experience in crowd control.

The result was a global spectacle of militarization in a heavily populated urban centre, complete with brigades of riot police inflicting widespread and indiscriminate violence on an unarmed population, an unprecedented mass arrest of 1,118 people in Canada, and the suspension of civil liberties guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

All this so that the leaders of the G20 countries could meet in Toronto in June 2010 to discuss the newest round of austerity measures. The pageantry and symbolism were no different from the usual annual gathering, nor was the routine construction of heavily securitized landscapes in the name of protecting international delegates, manifested by a $5.5-million, 3.5-kilometre-long, 3-metre-high barricade erected in the heart of downtown Toronto.

The difference on this occasion was the extraordinary powers demanded by police to control public space around the summit site, drawing attention to the measures the state is willing to employ to dissuade and crush protest, but also the limits of the security apparatus in controlling space.

Like elsewhere in recent history, protest groups mobilized to confront what was viewed as an undemocratic and unaccountable gathering of elites. In Toronto, tens of thousands demonstrated over a myriad of issues, chief among them the G20 leaders’ austerity agenda, which included bank bailouts and high interest loans to failing economies at the expense of jobs, pensions, and wages. These measures are widely viewed as serving to line already wealthy pockets, while further burgeoning the income gap on a global scale.

Although some protest groups use international summits as a platform to voice opposition and reach a wider audience, others rely less on media coverage and seek to actually disrupt the meetings. This is what occurred at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999, when large street protests and coordinated actions were effective in blocking delegates’ access to the meetings.

This event is recognized as a turning point in the way security forces deal with crowd control at urban summits. Police have since devised a series of tactics, all of which were employed during the G20 Summit in Toronto and have been the subject of controversy.

Prior to the summit, the ISU infiltrated and put activist groups under surveillance, raided houses at gunpoint, and laid conspiracy charges. During the summit, crowds in the designated protest zone in Queen’s Park and elsewhere throughout the city were attacked by police, who used snatch squads, mounted units, tear gas, rubber and plastic bullets, pepper spray, and kettling – boxing in crowds on all sides for detainment or mass arrest. These actions have resulted in the filing of hundreds of complaints against police, along with scathing criticism from some prominent Canadian figures.

Clayton Ruby, member of the Order of Canada and renowned constitutional, criminal, and civil rights lawyer, described the police violence as inevitable in an interview with the Real News Network. The “idea of what is normal Toronto policing is not based primarily on any value system the police hold that respects individual rights to protest: they seem to have none. It’s based on limited budgets,” he said.  

For the G20, police were given enormous budgets for increased numbers of personnel and equipment, showing that a police state “will come with money, and there’s nothing to stop it because those values of liberty and freedom and democracy are not cherished by the police department,” according to Ruby.

Expansive budgets and unlimited personnel (55 Ottawa police officers were called in for emergency duty at $2,080 each for one day’s work) enabled police to lay siege to Toronto, but it was the controversial and secretly passed Public Works Protection Act (PWPA) that empowered police with the legal mechanisms to physically and psychologically control the city.

The PWPA is a decades-old wartime security measure, described by Ontario’s ombudsman André Marin as “a civil rights landmine from World War Two” that provided “extravagant, sweeping powers” to police that “would almost certainly be illegal and unconstitutional under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Police were empowered to arrest anybody who did not present proper identification or refused to be searched, and according to Marin, this “created a legal landscape where people were detained by the police, compelled to identify themselves, answer questions, and submit to warrantless searches, even if they simply wanted to walk away.”

As the summit approached, police began arresting people outside the security fence, citing a five-metre rule that later turned out to be non-existent. Police deliberately misinformed the public on the proximate details of the ordinance, which only applied to the area within the security fence. During the summit, the PWPA was de facto applied throughout what the ISU deemed the Outer Zone, which saw people illegally searched and detained as far away as three kilometres from the fence.

The fence, a strong symbol of separation and containment, is often used at high-level summits to safely secure delegates within while keeping others out. At the G20 Summit, the fence once again separated the elites from the people their decisions would affect, materially reproducing the division between the powerful and the rest of us, and the barriers faced every day by marginalized peoples often rendered invisible in our cherished liberal democracies.

As part of a mass protest on June 26, a convergence called Get Off the Fence was organized. A contingent of over a thousand or so protesters called for a “militant, confrontational demonstration” seeking to “challenge the global apartheid and injustices the fence represents.”

Hundreds also participated in the black bloc tactic of dressing in black for purposes of anonymity and solidarity when carrying out confrontational or militant actions. Although ultimately unsuccessful in breaching the fence and disrupting the meeting, the group was better able to reclaim public space from police control.

They moved rapidly through the streets, torching cruisers near the fence, inflicting considerable damage on corporate storefronts, and attacking police headquarters on College Street. A police riot ensued as hundreds – protesters and bystanders alike – were gassed, shot, beaten, snatched, trampled, kettled, and arrested.

In June 2011, the Toronto Police Service issued a G20 after-action review detailing its version of events. Overall, the report conveys a ubiquitous dysfunctionality in police conduct surrounding communications, intelligence, crowd control, and prisoner management.

In the report, police admit they were overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with black bloc tactics, due to the “rapidity with which the crowds were able to move,” which made it “difficult to assemble a sufficient number of officers to safely contain large and aggressive crowds.”

In an age of increasing austerity measures – defined by a sustained attack on workers, the poor, students, and seniors through unpopular privatization schemes, the rhetoric of fiscal prudence, and the reality of debt slavery – urban unrest will continue to grow.

Security agencies are preparing for public unrest and if necessary will use an iron fist to stamp through the unpopular measures of their governments. In this context, the struggle over public space is crucial. The G20 Summit had the effect of politicizing people and illuminating important questions about austerity and repression.

Clayton Ruby’s warning about an impending police state reinforces the pertinence of engaging in dialogue, building relationships, and working together around the politics of the street and the creation of a more just world.

This article was first published in the Leveller special issue Summer 2011.

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