Lawyers say jailing of peaceful protestors meant to teach lesson
in an ominous display of cop power, two recent peaceful protests have been marred by intimidation, 10 arrests, nine charges, questionable detentions and the use of pepper spray. It’s a message that hasn’t been lost on labour and OCAP activists revving for major demos in the fall who wonder if they’re the real targets of this newfound zero tolerance on dissent.Greg Bonser began his eventful weekend at the Reclaim The Streets party Friday night (August 17), which managed to stop traffic on Queen West for a short time.
The Green party spokesperson alleges that he was struck by a police baton in the groin and then pepper-sprayed for vocally protesting the arrest of a woman who marked a police horse trailer with chalk. (The woman was later released without charge.)
Monday morning (August 20), Bonser was also one of seven protestors outside Ontario Power Generation (OPG) headquarters at College and University demonstrating against the utility’s smog-producing, coal-fired generating plants. All seven were charged with mischief for allegedly blocking traffic, although only one lane was blocked and protestors claim that police blocked it.
They were held for more than 24 hours before getting a bail hearing and were finally released Tuesday afternoon.
Although Bonser says he was prepared to be arrested for sitting in the street, he didn’t think it would result in more than a day behind bars.
“We learned (at the bail hearing) that the police told the Crown that they had asked us all if we wanted conditions on our bail and we had all refused, which is why we were staying overnight, which is untrue,” Bonser says.
One of the lawyers for the seven argues that the detention was illegal since more than 24 hours passed before they came before a justice of the peace.
“It’s highly unusual that people with this background, with this minor a charge, would not be released at the police station,” says defence lawyer David Bayliss. “It’s also highly unusual, if they weren’t being released from the police station, that they wouldn’t have been brought before a court sometime that day.”
Bayliss calls the whole process “a heavy-handed, insensitive procedure” and questions the validity of the mischief charges in the OPG protest.
“The Charter of Rights talks about freedom of association and expression, and obviously that right is a more significant one than the right to have four instead of three lanes when you’re driving south on University Avenue,” he says. “The whole issue of whether or not any offence occurred here is a very live one.”
The protestors claim the police were already blocking traffic when they arrived on the scene.
Defence lawyer Tim Gleason represents one of two protestors charged with obstructing police at Reclaim The Streets. He also co-represented the OPG protestors at their bail hearing Tuesday. He attended the Reclaim The Streets rally and says demonstrators were nothing but cooperative with police, who were out in overwhelming numbers.
“I think the police presence at these things is sending a message,” he says. “When the (Reclaim The Streets) people were staging in Grange Park prior to the street party, there was a huge police presence, very intimidating. And then when they moved down to Queen Street, there were even more police.”
Gleason is afraid that local police are viewing every lawful street demonstration these days as a potential Quebec City, which was escalated in part by radical Black Bloc protestors, or as a potential replay of the OCAP protest at Queen’s Park last year.
“This is a medium that is clearly different from what happened in Quebec,” Gleason says. “But the police tend to see things that way.”
Acting 52 Division superintendent Kim Derry maintains that the police haven’t changed the way they handle protests.
“We always facilitate peaceful demonstrations — nothing’s changed that way,” he says. “People have the right to demonstrate. But they don’t have the right to cause other people to be affected.”
Derry didn’t know the number of officers dispatched to either demonstration. He also says the use of pepper spray is up to the discretion of the officer, based on the situation.
And he’s unclear about why the seven OPG protestors were held overnight on simple mischief charges, but claims it’s not unusual.