Monday, August 23, 2010

Increasing state intervention and the future of dissidence

In the aftermath of the G20 summit in Toronto, it occurs to me that the issue of the state’s increasing display of power may be a harbinger of the future of state intervention and could have deleterious effects on dissidence, freedom of speech, and freedom of association. The demonstration of power at the G20 summit in Toronto is the strongest display of state intervention against protest that Canada has seen. I don’t think it is a stretch of the imagination to say that Harper’s intention was to totally quash dissent.

In an earlier blog comment, I mentioned briefly the concept of fear. I think it is worth examining this concept in more detail. In fact we could not have known just how much manufactured fear through deception and brutality were awaiting the protestors. It is also important to consider the future of dissidence in the face of this growing state intervention. This blog will focus on Canada although I submit that Harper’s reaction to protest has implications for other countries.

When I joined thousands who took to the streets in Ottawa in 1993 to protest the Free Trade Agreement during the Mulroney regime, we faced no pepper spray and no fear of arrest for marching and expressing dissent. We were protesting what we knew would be destructive and debilitating for third world and developing countries. The Free Trade Agreement, then embraced by the G7 has turned into exactly what we feared.

Dissent and protest were not met with violence and oppression. People felt free to express their disapproval of political agendas. There has been a drastic change in the climate of protest since then.

Currently, fear is present at several different levels. There is fear at the state level and fear among people who continue to oppose the government agendas. There is perhaps nothing more dangerous for those in power than a public that is aware and critical of government agendas. As Chomsky points out our current educational system is designed to stifle creative and analytical thought. This is of course, no accident. Education conditions our thinking at an early age so that we do not analyze and more importantly ensure that we all think along similar lines.

If the majority of the general public knew or understood what the G8 and G20 agenda is I think the reaction would have been generalized outrage. The media is crucial in their role of anesthetising the general public with misinformation which leads to indifference and lethargy that is antithetical to critical thinking. The “mainstream” media is crucial for the state to continue its agenda.

While alternative media attempted to show the public another side of the summit, the mainstream media concentrated on continuously showing the one, maybe two burning police cars, and the smashing of windows by a few people. Unfortunately, these are the images that are indelibly imprinted in the minds of a majority of people. As well, it was probably no accident that many alternative journalists were arrested. This effectively silenced the voices of those who would give the public another side of what was happening.

It was necessary for Harper to have the public believe that the price tag for security was in the end, necessary. The media’s continual portrayal of the burning police car had the desired effect. But do people look beyond this to question how it is that no explosion occurred? Do people question why it is that while a few people were smashing windows of selected stores (Nike, Starbucks and other symbols of globalization), no arrests were made at that moment by the police? In fact why are people not questioning the total absence of police in the video footage of these acts?

Most citizens in Toronto and perhaps around the world would conclude that indeed the measures of state control were justified. In a climate like this, what is the future of protest, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech? Will the next country that hosts the G20 and G8 summit have to exceed the state intervention seen in Toronto?

Along with a media that ensures misinformation is spread to the public in the form of “news”, the state uses other means of quashing public protest. The police and military are strong elements of control.

Many brutalities by police have been well documented in previous blogs. However, it is important to note some police powers that have not been discussed in this blog space. In “Policing of Dissent-The Use of Breach of the Peace Arrests at Political Demonstrations”, (2002), 1 University of Toronto Journal of Law and Equality 246, Jackie Esmonde examines a powerful tool that police officers have discretion to use. Her paper outlines the fine balance between keeping peace and questionable, heavy handed arrest tactics. She explains that the term “breach of peace” is not clearly defined and there is much discretion in arresting someone who “may” in the opinion of the police, “breach the peace.” Particularly interesting is the discussion of the power that police have to pronounce a demonstration or protest a “breach of the peace” often before the protest has even begun.

In an equally compelling article, “Bail, Global Justice, and Dissent”, (2003), 41 Osgoode Hall L.J. 323, Esmonde examines the use of bail conditions to further criminalize dissent. She outlines how onerous bail conditions often curtail the civil rights of people who have been unreasonably detained. Bail conditions that prevent people from associating with other people in certain groups is one example of a violation of civil rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

At this point it is useful to examine an example of the use of these powers. The treatment of Jaggi Singh at the G20 summit in Toronto illustrates these powers at work. A warrant for Singh’s arrest was issued on conspiracy related charges. Yet Singh, from all accounts, had done none of the things that were alleged. This is an example of arrest based on the supposition that he might have done something to breach the peace. His bail conditions were also onerous. Bail set at $10,000 was excessive and the conditions of his bail were that he;
• Stay with one of the three people acting as his guarantors.
• Turn in his passport.
• Not use a cell phone.
• Not have any contact with other protesters
The guarantors had to provide $75,000 to obtain his release and ensure that he abide by the above conditions. I think we could say that Jaggi Singh, a protestor, was treated by the police as if he were more dangerous than any terrorist.

These are some of the tactics that police can use to criminalize dissent and to target people who are outspoken about the real agenda of the G20 and G8. What effect could these tactics have on other protestors?

Finally, the last concept that is important to consider is the state’s trend toward secrecy as a method of controlling dissent. This is yet another way of keeping the public misinformed. It was during the time that Harper prorogued Parliament, that he announced that the G20 summit would be held in Toronto. At the provincial level, McGuinty passed an expansion of the existing Public Works Protection Act through the Cabinet. This disallowed any opportunity for debate about the controversial measure. What additional police powers were actually granted? This measure was both secretive and added to the uncertainty of what powers the police actually had. This is a very powerful combination which ensured that those who protested did not know which actions were legal and which were not.

Intimidation through unprecedented security spending, enhanced police powers, misinformation through mainstream media, an educational system that discourages independant thought, and a government at both provincial and federal levels that employs increasingly secretive and clandestine attempts to keep the public in the dark are all tactics that could very well in the end have the desired effect—the end of dissidence and so the end of freedom of association and expression. Is Harper showing us his vision of democracy in Canada?

Do you think that Harper intends to quash dissent and protest?
How do you think increased state powers will affect dissent?
What do you think can be done to counter growing state power?
What do you think can be done to counter mainstream media’s misinformation?
How can the general public be informed about both sides of political issues?

Posted by Elayne Francis (Windsor Law II)


  1. I find it telling that the author describes the police response to protesters at the G20 as being "the strongest display of state intervention against protest that Canada has ever seen."

    While there can be no doubt that the spectacle of police violence at the G20 did indeed criminalize dissent, and was extremely violent, calling it the strongest display of state intervention against protest that Canada has ever seen very simply ignores the historic and current reality of First Nations people, racialized people, and poor people in this country.

    For example, First Nations communities have been experiencing police violence for expressing dissent for centuries. Pepper spray, real bullets and over zealous police have been a constant throughout the history of the colonization of First Nations land here in Canada.

    While it is crucial that we continue to speak out against state violence, it is equally crucial that we connect this struggle to already existing struggles.

    In particular, the struggles of activists who spent one night in jail must be connected to allready existing prison justice struggles. We need to highlight not only the plight of those activists who were detained during protest, but also the plight of prisoners who are detained everyday and the conditions that they are subjected to.

    First Nations people, poor and otherwise marginalized people and racialized communities in general in Canada have always, and continue to be subjected to over-policing, heightened securitization, over-zealous policing, and police tactics that are intended to curb dissent. There is nothing novel about police violence - the only novelty was the demographic on the receiving end of the violence at the G20.

    Outcries about the injustices perpetuated by the police and the state at the G20 (and there are many) must connect to already existing struggles faced by so many in Canada who are subjected to living in a police state on a daily basis.

  2. As the author, I would agree with this comment. The poor, the First Nations people and many disadvantaged groups face state sponsored repression. Hopefully, the co-operation of the many groups at the G20, who were protesting exactly the kind of violence that this commentator raises, will create linkages that address issues of police violence.

  3. I am not sure I agree with the basic thrust of the post, primarily because, I sense, that this is one of those situations in which previous events tend to fade out of focus and seem less significant. It is therefore often, if not always true, that the most recent event seems to be the 'strongest display', given that it is most strongly in the public consciousness.

    Specifically for example, while reading I considered a number of different protest incidents in the past, generally regarding aboriginal land claims. While the most recent incidents have been relatively peaceful, prior incidents were not so. Ontario provincial police shot Dudley George in 1995 during a land claim's protest, and in that same year, the RCMP deployed nine APCs, five helicopters, two fixed-wing aircraft, and four hundred paramilitary officers to Gustafsen lake, who fired 77,000 rounds of ammunition and blew up a car with a landmine in order to deal with a protest by a few dozen individuals.

    Moreover, in specifically the case of the G-20, it's worth noting that the primary concern over the response of the Toronto police and the Ontario government (under the Public Works Protection Act) seems to have been the result of actions of the provincial government, not the federal government.

    Ultimately, there was very limited, if any, involvement by the federal government in the actual implementation of security measures surrounding the G-20.

    Having just skimmed over anonymous's comment, I think that while our comments dovetail, where they separate is that I don't think this is an issue of race. The police response to protest is not so much a matter of race (although, race often determines who protests in the first place) but is more a matter of the political and tactical environment in which they operate. Where protestors are politically unpopular and located in a tactical environment that minimizes the likelihood of collateral damage (such as at Gustafsen Lake), they are far more likely to engage with significant force.

    There have been a number of political protests in Toronto that have not resulted in significant harm to the protestors; Tamil protests come to mind. But G-20 protestors are politically unpopular, and moreover, were in a tactical environment with very limited potential for collateral damage. That allowed the police to use disproportionately significant force, but the situation surrounding that use of force was not unexpected.