On their guard

Are cops cherry-picking audiences at chief's town halls?

Rating: NNNNN

I must admit that at first I was mildly impressed when, in the face of mounting criticism over racial profiling, Toronto police Chief Julian Fantino decided to go to the public in a series of town hall meetings. But two weeks ago I attempted to attend the eighth of these meetings, held at Lord Dufferin Public School on Parliament Street. As I neared the entrance to the school I was abruptly confronted by a solid line of police who were pushing people back onto the sidewalk. It soon became clear that police were trying to block OCAP members from attending. I was told I could not enter because I had been “identified.”

“Identified as what?” I responded. The officer had no answer.

It was obvious that someone was keeping track of faces, because I am indeed a member of OCAP Allies, and some officers present knew me from my arrest at a Reclaim The Streets demo a few years back.

Still, the scrutiny wasn’t complete, because cops on the front line seemed to have no clear idea who was who and were bizarrely barring people on the basis of how they looked. One activist joked with me that she should have worn her high heels.***

A week later, on March 3, I try again to join a town hall meeting, this one held at City Hall, thinking the police might be more restrained here. Wrong. They’re out in even larger force, outnumbering the public by almost two to one. Those trying to get in have to go through an intimidating phalanx and, if deemed suspicious, be searched and denied entry on an arbitrary whim.Again I’m denied entry. After angrily challenging this, I’m allowed in if I agree to “sign in.” Inside, it’s obvious that most of my fellow activist types haven’t made it. This is the “public” the police want — largely white, middle-class and well-dressed.

Most of those making presentations are business or property owners who, in the absence of much real “crime,” direct their anger at the homeless and street people.

A spokeswoman for what she describes as the “upscale” Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor complains about the “garbage on the streets,” which in her world view includes the homeless. The chair of the St. Lawrence Market BIA is alarmed that panhandlers in the Market are seemingly getting organized. “What can be done about this?” he almost shouts. “It’s bad for tourism.” Reassured by the commander of 52 Division that police are doing their best to “ticket” the homeless, he smiles and sits down.

I squirm in my seat and wish that OCAPers were here.

The few critical voices are either cut short by the chair or ridiculed by Fantino. An Iranian man complaining about being beaten by two Toronto police is interrupted and told he can’t continue because the two officers “are not present to defend themselves” and the matter is “currently before the courts.”

At the mike I question Fantino about this excessive police presence and harassment of activists. Instead of answering, he goes into a rant about how many horses and cops were injured during the June 15, 2000, police riot at Queen’s Park. Without a hint of irony, he then informs the crowd that these matters are “currently before the courts.”

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