The G20 summit’s grim lessons for civil liberties
Two things stand out from the street riots and subsequent police actions that swept downtown Toronto last weekend.
The first is the state blatantly abused its powers. Summits legitimately require security; but in this one, governments went over the top.
The federal government transformed the city’s downtown into a no-go zone. The provincial government secretly passed new regulations to give police extraordinary search and seizure powers and then, when citizens found out, pretended that it hadn’t. The police used their authority to prevent breaches of the peace as an excuse to jail citizens who were committing no crimes
The second is that most people don’t care. Polls show that more than 70 per cent of Torontonians approve of these abuses.
For that we can thank the small group of rioters who burned police cars and smashed store windows last Saturday. The logic behind those actions (and yes there is a logic) flows from the theory that capitalism is based on violence, albeit violence that is usually veiled. By provoking the state, this intrinsic violence will be revealed, thereby radicalizing the population against both capitalism and the state.
The problem with this theory, as the Red Brigades and other left-wing terrorists found in the 1970s, is that such provocations drive the general population to authoritarianism, not revolution.
Faced with a choice between order and civil liberties, people almost invariably choose order. Think the Nazis in 1930s Germany; think the PATRIOT Act in post 9/11 America.
In last weekend’s brouhaha, governments and the so-called anarchists fed on and supported one another. By threatening to disrupt the summit, the anarchists ensured that the fence would be built. By building the fence, the government ensured that the anarchists would try to attack it. Each side kept upping the ante until the events of last weekend became almost inevitable.
In the end, the violence that always lies behind state authority did show itself to those who had assumed they were immune.
Andrew MacIsaac, a 24-year-old lawyer observing the demonstrations for the Law Union, was swept up by police early Sunday morning and held at the Eastern Ave. detention centre for almost 20 hours. He tells a now-familiar story.
MacIsaac says he and others in the peaceful protest were arrested under the broad authority of police to detain those they think might be about to engage in a breach of the peace.
He was not permitted to contact a lawyer; he was kept handcuffed in a cage with others. He was given two cheese sandwiches over the period and three styrofoam cups of water. The open portable toilet in his cage had no toilet paper (MacIsaac tore off part of his shirt sleeve to help a fellow inmate); he was never formally notified of the charges—if any—levied against him.
In police state terms, this is relatively minor. MacIsaac wasn’t chained in stress positions, as he might have been at Guantanamo Bay. Nor was he flayed with rubber cables, as he might have been in Egypt.
But what’s interesting is that some of the elements of classic authoritarian detention were there, albeit in embryonic forms. He was kept deliberately disoriented; usually, he didn’t know what time it was. He was kept uncomfortable; the combination of bound wrists and concrete floor made it impossible for him to sleep. His sense of self-worth was undermined by an array of minor indignities such as the lack of toilet paper.
In particular, he was kept isolated from the outside world. Requests to call a lawyer were never formally denied, just put off to some undefined and never-reached point in the future.
At one point, an official in plain-clothes told him that the federal government had declared martial law.
When he was released, MacIsaac phoned his mother (it was her birthday). Then, in what may be a fitting epitaph for the entire Toronto G20 Summit disaster, he describes what he did next.
“I took a cab home and I wept.”
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