In a lesson in how not to police a demo, they send horses into a crowd that was quiet
I watch the crowd of 1,500 spill into Queen’s Park playing their drums and chanting furious anti-Tory slogans. I cringe as some unruly types in the front line toss some scary stuff at cops and fight down two sets of barricades. But then, just when it all seems to have settled down, police suddenly advance into the milling marchers — and the real madness begins.
Mounted officers swarm along the grass clubbing anyone in their path. The attacks are indiscriminate, and I watch people running to safety being chased down and beaten. The conflict escalates into a frenzy of rock-throwing for two hours as protestors try to flee or fight back.
Liberal MPP Gerard Kennedy says he saw a young girl injured by police batons. “I didn’t see the justification,” he says.
Jostled himself by police, Kennedy says he was shocked that the police treated protestors as if they were all aggressors. “I just find it problematic that everyone is treated as if they were doing violence.”
And this, it seems, is the heart of the matter: are all participants in a demonstration to be treated as if they were responsible for the violations of a few?
Civil liberties lawyer Clayton Ruby is adamant that they aren’t.
“I saw police with truncheons charging into a crowd of ordinary Canadians of all ages who were doing nothing at that point, trying to drive them from the park. I consider that to be unnecessary force and I’m sure most Canadians will agree.”
He says there may have been an action by some demonstrators earlier that would amount to a criminal offence and that would justify their arrest. “But that doesn’t give police licence to start attacking ordinary people.”
That’s also the view of lawyer Bob Kellerman, one of the defence attorneys for OCAP. Kellerman thinks the fact that police chose to charge people with participating in a riot illustrates that their evidence is weak.
The police, he says, are now basing their actions on what the crowd did rather than what individuals did. This, he says, poses a legal conundrum.
“There is a constitutional argument that an individual can’t be held responsible for what a crowd does, because the individual has no control over it.”
So what is it police were trying to do?
When I call the RCMP looking for someone who can speak on crowd- control training, I am directed to sergeant Paul Marsh.
He, of course, doesn’t want to comment on how the Toronto police handled the situation. But he does say the RCMP do not use mounted horse units for crowd control and that tactical officers are trained to use force only when alternatives are unavailable.
“The general crowd-control policy is to assess the response with what can be done to better avoid the use of force,” he says. “RCMP officers responding to an incident should assess minute-to-minute to determine the response taken.”
Is that what Toronto police did when they started galloping through the park chasing protestors?
Constable Devin Kealey, who tells me OCAP is to blame for the ruckus, has a curious way of viewing demonstrators as one organic mass. Aren’t police strategists sophisticated enough to understand that a march of 1,500 against poverty includes quite a variety of personalities and intentions?
“It was obvious right from the go,” he says, “that they wanted a confrontation. If you are involved in a peaceful march, you don’t need a first aid team, you don’t need goggles, bricks in your backpacks. You don’t need firebombs. It was obvious this group had no intent of having a peaceful demonstration.”
Lawyer Peter Rosenthal, who was in the middle of the action, says police simply blew it. “It was poorly handled by police. They had poor barricades and overcompensated with big horses moving fast into a crowd and creating a lot of panic and anger.”
The most ominous aspect of all this is the police suggestion that they are considering the arrest of fiery speechifier Clarke on charges of inciting a riot, raising the possibility that all energetic platform speakers may now be liable for the acts of random protestors.
Fingering Clarke on inciting-to-riot charges, many believe, would be a political and legal blunder.
“There has never been a riot charge in Toronto in my memory,” says Ruby. “I think it was done a lot in the 30s, but not a lot in modern times, because it’s hard to prove.”
If police opt for this charge, he says, “it would be political rather than legal. They want the word ‘riot’ in the headline.”
Clarke, who has withstood a storm of press vilification in the last few days, was noticeably absent from any direct protestor-cop confrontation. “If they start arresting people based on what they said in a speech, it is going to be pretty incredible,” he says.
HOMELESS IN TORONTO
Number of homeless people who have died on the street since November: 22
Number of last four murder victims who were homeless: 3
Vacancy rate at shelters: 0
Number of eviction notices filed in Toronto per week: 500
Number of homeless people in Toronto: 10,000
Number of people with no fixed address: 50,000