Cuffed and Gagged

Cops sweep common front off the street

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just what does it take to defenda Tory convention anyway? Judging from last weekend, even when Ontario Common Front demonstrators were a dozen blocks from anything resembling the Big Blue Machine, they were still treated as though a siege of the Convention Centre were imminent.A classic case, say police observers, of a frightening overreaction — and one that is showing up so often now that civil rights lawyers are saying it’s time to establish formal monitoring.

Instead of keeping the peace, officers mobilized by the hundreds, toting tear gas and stun guns and using their horses as weapons, were bent on sweeping the streets though there were no more than 500 protestors at the peak.

Police will not say how many officers flooded the downtown Friday night and Saturday, but spokesperson Jim Muscat confirms that the Toronto force was bolstered by Barrie and Peel cops and the OPP.

In what has to be one of the most militant evictions of Toronto squatters in recent memory, on Friday night police fired tear gas into the boarded-up Mission Press building on Dundas east of Yonge, far from the hoopla on Front Street, to end a three hour-long squat by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. Fifty-nine people were ultimately arrested and herded into paddy wagons, where they were held for hours before being taken either to 52 or 55 Division.

There they were strip-searched, fingerprinted, photographed and ultimately charged with mischief. They were finally released a day later on bail ranging from $500 to $1,500, with a shopping list of restrictive conditions.

“Some of them got to court within 24 hours, but some didn’t get to court until Sunday morning and had been allowed no phone call and no access to counsel,” says OCAP immigration caseworker and legal support worker Stefanie Gude.

Caught up in the wave of arrests Friiday night was Lani Krantz, a first-year student in Ryerson’s graduate journalism program who was on assignment for her magazine class. She has been researching a story on OCAP since October and followed the squatters into the Mission building. However, when she left the building before the police fired the tear gas, she was arrested even though she identified herself as a journalism student covering a story.

Despite her continued insistence, the investigating officer still labelled Krantz a “professional protestor.”

On Saturday protestors had barely left Allan Gardens before the police were in their face. As the snake march proceeded down to the Convention Centre, police nabbed people for simply stepping onto the street.

“This is the largest number of arrests at one event that we’ve ever sustained,” says Gude.

Some lawyers are now acknowledging that a legal monitoring team should be put in place to make sure civil rights aren’t being violated.

Bob Kellerman of the Ontario Law Union says sending legal observers to protests in the future is just one approach that’s being considered.

“I think what’s needed are some sort of respectable citizens who won’t be ignored by the courts when they have to testify,” says Kellerman.

Social activists are also feeling abandoned by organized labour, and that division could be emboldening the police. It’s interesting that not a single labour protestor was arrested over the weekend, according to the police.

The split between big labour and OCAP was on display Saturday afternoon. Instead of joining up in solidarity with social activists as they arrived in front of the Convention Centre, union demonstrators had already left.

“They hung us out to dry,” says OCAP’s John Clarke.

If labour had taken OCAP under its wing, would that have influenced how police reacted?

“It’s important for us, if we call a protest, that in fact we ensure it’s as peaceful as possible, because obviously more people can come if it’s peaceful,” says Ontario Federation of Labour chief Wayne Samuelson, who adds, “However people chose to express their anger, I’m certainly not going to pass judgment.”


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