It started off predictably enough - speeches, flags, silly costumes, a circuitous route through the city core. But some shadowy figures bent on getting as many of their comrades arrested and injured as possible threw something at police. Before long, the panicked crowd was overturning fire trucks in a desperate bid for safety. A young constable approached the crowd to apprehend a stone-thrower, but his commanding officer grabbed his shoulder. "Ease up there, Constable."
"But Sarge "
"Nothin' doin'," said the sergeant, adding with a sigh, "This protest is unpermitted. Our hands are tied."
And so ended civilization. Sound absurd? Slightly less so than the bylaw Toronto police services tried to push on to city council's agenda. The proposed bylaw, a pet project of Chief Fantino, would make permit-seeking for demos mandatory and would put the power to grant or deny those permits in the hands of City Hall, with a huge dose of police guidance.
But a surprise was waiting for opponents of the bylaw. When it came up before the planning and transportation committee Monday, April 28, councillors give it a procedural raspberry by voting to "receive" it. "Receive for information," explains Bob Gallagher of Olivia Chow's office, "is what you do when you get something you want to completely ignore and go nowhere. "That was obviously the committee members' intent. Pam McConnell called it a "no-brainer." Gerry Altobello called it "nuts." Lorenzo Berardinetti, a lawyer by training, saw it as a "non-starter. If we delve into that debate then we're saying, 'Let's think about this.' Why would we need to do that?"
To be honest, even the police pushing for this thing can't come up with a consistent rationale that doesn't make the proposal sound like what it is - a draconian power grab. Deputy Chief Steve Reesor tried his hand: "If someone has to speak to someone at the city about getting a permit then they would cooperatively try to ensure that there is the least amount of disruption. (We want a process to ensure )the least amount of disruption to the business community and the landowners."
As police services board head Norm Gardner tells it, their primary concern is ensuring that too many officers aren't called away from their divisions. "The councillors will scream and yell if you don't (handle this well). Kyle Rae, he's always screaming and yelling."
It might not be mere coincidence that Rae's name came up, since he was the one who put forth a motion to kill the proposal. Later, he said the committee decision was "a very significant signal to police services. There was a measure of disdain in it: it's not worth discussing."
Those who'd come to speak against the proposal seemed upset but broke into applause when the meaning of "receive" was finally explained. E-mails went out celebrating the death of the bylaw. Hopefully, they weren't premature. Because it ran headlong into a roadblock at the planning and transportation committee, the demo permit motion would require a two-thirds majority to actually get to the floor this month, but if proper notice is given, a simple majority could put it on the agenda come June. Says Chow, "we won the first round, but it hasn't disappeared yet.'
When I ask Gardner for his reaction to the bill being received, he's quick to add "and going on to council." He's confident the debate will happen.
I'm not sure how getting a permit would prevent what police are worrying about. Aren't they already equipped to deal with emergency situations? I mean, they're police. Officers guarding the U.S. Consulate during protests seem ready to deal with any problems, up to and including nuclear blasts to boot. Isn't this just a way to control groups that don't have Fantino's favour? "We don't interfere with peaceful gatherings," insists Gardner. Well, maybe not officially. And for now, it stays that way.