My ex-wife used to call me a critical [replace with colourful afjective]. I’m starting to think she may be right.
I mean, the G20 meeting is easy to criticize. The cost, the purpose (or lack thereof), the way the rights of the citizens of Toronto are seemingly being shoved aside without regard; yeah, that all needs to be questioned.
Now more than ever, it seems.
Folks who follow my tweets will no doubt have read about my concerns about the seeming lack of any legal basis for any of the security restrictions. And that’s not just me saying that. Plus, I’ve been asking police what laws I’d be breaking should I breach the security barriers or if I fail to comply with their demands. Not that I necessarily plan to do so, but I’m deeply troubled by the fact that the police themselves don’t know what, specifically, they’re enforcing. If there’s a law (or laws), so be it — if I don’t like it then there’s a system through which it can be changed. But if there is no law…
In other words, if I was put into handcuffs, what would I be charged with? Keeping the peace, protecting private property, these things I understand and respect, but I want to be assured that I can’t be detained for no other reason than “heightened security”. That’s not a law, that’s an excuse, and a very dangerous one at that.
And that’s no longer just my pontification on the subject.
In the middle of the afternoon yesterday I heard about an impromptu protest being staged by the Toronto Community Mobilization Network, a group playing host to many of the protesters coming to the city. They started their march in Allan Gardens, moved down adjacent Sherbourne Street, and were routed west along Dundas by police until they decided to “take over” an Esso gas station at Jarvis. This route wasn’t planned in any way and by the time I got to Sherbourne the group was gone. I though they might’ve moved farther south so I continued along Sherbourne to Queen Street East. There I spotted a number of unmarked vehicles carrying riot police – must be the spot the protesters are heading towards, I thought.
I stopped by one of the open cars and asked one of the officers if they knew anything about the protest. Not a thing, he replied. So I waited under a shady tree in adjacent Moss Park, camera hanging off my arm by the strap, directly in front of the riot police. And waited. And waited.
I must’ve stood there for twenty minutes waiting for the protest group to come down, checking websites and tweeting from my mobile phone to try to get some more info. Every now and again I raised my head to see if anything was happening – nothing but the cops passing out drink bottles and engaging in casual chatter with each other.
Then two of the riot police approached me.
“Sir, are you with the media?”
“No”, I replied. Trying to be honest, I don’t consider TCL to be an established news organization. Not yet anyway. :)
“Then we’re going to have to ask you to leave the area for your own protection.”
I kind of stood there and blinked for a moment, dumbfounded.
Moss Park must’ve had some twenty to thirty people in it, some sun tanning, some walking their dogs, some just standing around like me. A further group of people were sitting on the curbs and nearby concrete embankments, also not doing a whole heck of a lot except sitting there and staring at the cops. I think if you were to pick out any particularly suspicious physical characteristic (mirror shades, five o’clock shadow, dishevelled clothing, etc.), you’d have been able to find at least two other people who were more likely suspects than me.
“My own protection? Will you be asking everyone to leave too?”, I asked. I felt like I was being singled out. But, if the protesters were coming then, yeah, they would be asking everyone else to leave too. Right?
“It’s because you’re taking photos of us getting kitted up”, replied the second cop, considerably less cordial than the first.
“I’m not taking photos…”, but was cut off before I could finish. “You were back there, I saw you”, replied cop number two. “Leave the area now”. End of pleasantness.
I was now getting rather annoyed, to be honest. Moments earlier I had spotted another photographer with a camera just as prominent as mine (more so, in fact), poking his lens right into the vehicles and taking more than a few photos of the cops up close and personal. He had what looked like a media tag slung around his neck with a lanyard. I don’t know who he was with, but I know that the cops didn’t even bat an eyelash in his direction – certainly didn’t check his “credentials”. They decided, instead, to arbitrarily pick on me.
“How about if I put the lens cap back on?”, I offered.
“Please leave the area.”
“What about if I just put the camera in my bag?”, I continued.
“Leave the area now.”
“Look, I’ve got a zoom lens on this thing. I could be at the other end of the park and take close-up pictures of you”, I tried to reason.
They shrugged. “Sir, please leave the area. For your own safety.”
Obviously not because of any protesters. And obviously just me. Was it because they would be threatening my own safety?
I decided there would be no reasoning with these guys so I acquiesced. I receded a few meters into the park, leaned up against the fence, and continued to try to get more information on the protest. The two cops, leaning into the car windows, pointed me out to their buddies and discussed how much of a threat I would be (I guess). The other guy with the camera went on his merry way, snapping even more photos as he walked by, passer-bys took shots with their mobile phones, but the police attention was still trained on me, fingers occasionally pointing in my direction.
I had my ID with me, I would’ve volunteered to have my bag searched, and I would’ve been happy to answer their questions – considerably more than your average citizen is required to do. I really had nothing to hide and, up until that point, had no gripe with the police. Unfortunately, none of this was an option – I guess they’d already made up their minds about me.
Eventually the group got back into their vehicles and sped off. Well, tried to. You know, downtown traffic pretty much ensured that I could easily keep up on foot. I guess the protest had broken up at that point, however, and the vehicles eventually dispersed in separate directions to go harass some other innocent civilian.
Here’s the thing: what the fuck ?!
Expressing concern about their identities being revealed, that I could understand. Not revealing license plate information also makes sense to me. Hell, if they knew anything about the law, they could’ve even requested that I not use their faces – that’s their right as citizens under the Copyright Act (you own the rights to your face and can refuse to have it used—seems sensible, no?). Besides, the police aren’t asking permission to take high-definition photos of everyone passing under the newly installed cameras that appear, literally, on every street corner.
Photographers are allowed, by law, to take photos in public places. Can you imagine how unwieldy it would be to try to get permission from everyone that appeared in the frame when taking a street shot? It’s why I can do what I do, and it’s why police can install cameras on street corners.
Okay, so at this point you’re probably asking what the big deal is? Wasn’t like they were beating me with batons and, frankly, I could’ve told them to go to hell.
What this situation does, unfortunately, is to demonstrate just how illegal and intrusive some police actions may be during the summit. You see, I wasn’t anywhere near the fenced security zone, I was a block away from my flat. My neighbourhood. Allan Gardens, the park where the protest started, is across the street from me.
When it’s calm, the riot cops can afford to walk up to “suspicious” people to try to intimidate them, but if things start to get a bit more heated, I doubt that they’ll take the time out to ask who I am, what my purpose is, or even try to take off their riot gear to identify themselves. The most likely scenario will be: there’s a guy with a camera (or whatever) — we don’t like the looks of him, attack / arrest first, maybe ask questions later. In my neighbourhood, on my street, out in public. How likely is this? Based on this recent interaction, I’d say very.
See the problem?
Following this run-in I flagged down a group of about nine Toronto bicycle cops – plenty around these days. I asked them if I’d done anything illegal or even just questionable, if they could think of any reason why the riot police would’ve approached me like that, and if it was within their power to detain me or remove me from the area (had I decided to take it that far). I explained the situation fully, including the few photos I took when I arrived at the scene. The bicycle cops looked me over, perhaps to see if I was menacing enough to warrant that sort of action, mulled it over a bit, and answered that they really couldn’t think of a reason. I hadn’t broken any law and, in fact, was free to take photos out in public as long as I wasn’t trespassing on private property. Exactly as I understood my rights. Exactly what I had done (and only briefly at that).
I should point out, once again, that the Toronto police are for the most part really decent folks. The bicycle cops joked around with me, smiled, and wished me a pleasant day as I was leaving. If the riot cops took that attitude, shit, I’d have even offered to delete the photos I took. My problem isn’t with the cops, per se, it’s simply the fact that they’re carrying weapons, restraints, authority, but apparently not terribly sure about what laws they’re enforcing. Not a single cop has been able to cite any legal justification for what’s happening around the city. Again, if I was breaking shit, trespassing, or being a jerk to the police, all of that is covered by law and good enough reason for them to slap the cuffs on me. I want them to have that power, it seems perfectly reasonable.
I was, however, breaking no law, doing or even thinking nothing wrong – literally standing under a shady tree in a public park, adjacent to a public sidewalk, among a group of other people who were loitering much as I was. My aim was to photograph the protesters, believing that the cops get a bum rap in the media when it comes to most altercations. Yes, actually on the side of the police and hoping to show them in a positive light.
Unfortunately, claims by protesters about police harassment now seem quite likely to me. What’s worse, the cops can’t seem to even claim any basis in law to support their actions. At the moment, what we have on the streets of Toronto are basically a bunch of armed, armoured thugs walking / driving around in unmarked vehicles and intimidating random people. I’m still trying to remain open-minded, still reminding myself of the law-abiding, friendly cops I’ve had interactions with. Perhaps these riot police are not natives, as the bike cops suggested, perhaps Montreal police shipped in for the occasion. Frankly, I don’t give a fuck where they’re from – it’s their duty to follow the laws they’re supposedly enforcing. Whatever those are.
And then there are the protesters…