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)