As Sean Kheraj noted last week, many commentators seemed surprised about the police violence that gripped Toronto through the G20 weekend. Many of my contemporaries were surprised that Mayor David Miller and most of his counterparts (except for some subsequent rumblings from the provincial NDP and mayoral candidates) expressed their firm and complete support of police actions. “Figures,” many resignedly noted, “politicians always have to support the police.” (To be fair, it was a bit less surprising when the polling numbers were released) Well, no, they don’t, and a brief trip through Toronto’s 20th century past can show us two things: firstly, that police violence and arbitrary use of power has a long history in Toronto. More importantly, however, we see that citizen action can spur meaningful regulatory change. We can do something (for some hopefully helpful suggestions, along with a personal account of the G20, please scroll to the bottom of the post).
Let me preface this by noting that much of this is dedicated towards policing structures and some of their senior leadership. While there are certainly abuses by rank-and-file officers, many others are hard working, decent men and women – which I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with firsthand in my personal and professional life. The focus needs to be on structures rather than the individuals, although the latter certainly need to be held accountable.
Sean Kheraj has documented some instances of police violence up until the turn of the 20th century; let’s add a few more vignettes to this tale (it will be far from exhaustive, I’m afraid, but hope it will give a bit of contextualization to the post-G20 discussion). Through the First World War, Toronto police were noted for their vigorous prosecution of individuals who held contradictory political views. In 1917, Toronto newspaper editor Isaac Bainbridge was raided by the Toronto police for possessing anti-conscription literature that dared suggest that the war was fought for territory rather than liberty, and that the ruling classes were responsible for the war as opposed to the working people of all countries. Through the 1930s, the Toronto police under former Brigadier General Denis Draper deployed its “Red Squad” to brutally suppress dissent and break up any public demonstrations that threatened the public order. Indeed, English would be the only allowed language at any radical public gathering (to ease police surveillance). Violators were arrested. Indeed, in a fascinating paper, Robert Oliver has argued that through the 1930s, “Spadina, Soho, Queen, Albert and Yonge streets became the new battlegrounds between the police and the Communists. While public meetings may have been crucial sites for party building, the suppression of them presented a greater propaganda opportunity.” [Robert Oliver, “Revolutionary Claims: Recalling the Politics of the Pavement in Toronto, 1928-1932,” Great Lakes Geographer, 9 (2003)] For those of you not from Toronto, the G20 protests and events were centered around these very streets and intersections. The more times change, the more they stay the same.
It was not until the 1970s that serious calls appeared to challenge the power of Toronto’s police. At the 1973 Artistic Woodwork strike in North York, the Metropolitan Toronto police ended up arresting 108 picketers and strikers during an especially lengthy strike by an immigrant workforce supported by the broad Toronto New Left milieux. This saw widespread violence: police were brutally assaulting young men and women, removing their identification numbers, fabricating charges (most notably accusing 78-year-old temperance crusader and former CCF MPP William Temple of assaulting a police officer and of being publicly drunk, which stretched all credibility), and essentially rioting against a large picket line. Once a video of the violence became available to Toronto City Council, several councilors – led by future mayor Art Eggleton – actually called for the Metropolitan police to be recalled from the police line. Councillors such as Dan Heap, Dorothy Thomas and John Sewell also voiced their discomfort with police actions. Indeed, the police chief stormed out of one meeting after refusing to provide his surveillance tapes to the council. Not that things weren’t polarized even then, of course: North York City Council voted their support of the police just as Toronto Council voted their non-confidence. [This is the subject of my own research]
Through the mid and late 1970s, attention increased towards police brutality, as discussed in Jeffrey Ian Ross’s Making News of Police Violence: A Comparative Study of Toronto and New York City. In October 1974, after a series of stories in the Globe and Mail, the province carried out a Royal Commission (the Morand Commission) on police brutality, which subsequently called for a complaints commissioner. On 26 August 1979, 35-year-old Jamaican immigrant Albert Johnson was shot dead by police. Conflicting police accounts and a coroners finding that the man was either crouching or kneeling when killed led some to speculate – as advanced by Johnson’s 9-year-old daughter – that police had forced him to kneel and shot him execution-style (as Christie Blatchford reported in the Toronto Star of 28 October 1980). Two constables were charged with manslaughter and acquitted, leading tto the formation of a defense committee, and Nathan Phillips Square became the site of many protests. This, as well as several other incidents, at least led to the creation of the Office of the Public Complaints Commissioner (OPCC) in 1981 and the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in 1990; however flawed these institutions continue to be due to the use of former police investigators.
Police brutality in Toronto is nothing new, nor is the use of police to suppress particular political messages. However, if there is any consolation, my impression is that many of the police excesses on the Sunday/Monday were motivated more by confusion and lack of effective leadership than any deliberate strategy of suppressing a particular message in favour of another (the case of the young Quebecer arrested on spurious ‘breach of the peace’ charges because she had an anarchist book and black clothing aside). Let’s hope that we can all learn from the recent and not-so-recent past, and help us all move forward as citizens. Only a small minority of police officers abuse their power – I’ve noticed that several have gone out of their way to be extremely polite lately – but let’s make sure they have the structures to enable them to do their jobs effectively, fairly, and constitutionally.
So with that, let me end with a call to action. Let’s help make history. During the G20 Summit and protests, I was witness to both the strange moments of seeing no police whatsoever (such as on Yonge street, hours after windows had been smashed) but also the over-policing of Sunday and Monday: random police ‘checkpoints’ (read: gaggles of police officers) set up at my local subway station in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood as well as at Queen’s Park station before a protest at police headquarters. Young men and women were zip-tied, searched, IDed and released without any charges evidently being leveled. What happened was inexcusable, and let this be one more voice adding to the calls for a public inquiry. Please consider donating to the Legal Defence Fund (set up through OPIRG York – the paypal is down but you can send a cheque the old fashioned way), affixing your name to a range of petitions, attend any local protests in your community, or by writing your MP or MPP (postage is free for the former). Even if you don’t believe in the specifics of G20 protests, it is my firm belief that we need to show that our rights of assembly and to be free from arbitrary detention need to be vigilantly defended at every turn. Again, as Torontonians in the past have demonstrated, we can make a difference – and we must.