Analysis: Were G20 arrests indiscriminate?

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TORONTO, Canada — It’s useful, when considering the conduct of police during the recent G20 summit in Toronto, to compare it to a time when Canada faced its most serious domestic crisis.

It was back in 1970, during a tumultuous period known as the October Crisis. An extremist group called the FLQ had for years been waging a bombing campaign against federal buildings and institutions in Montreal, part of a bloody bid to make the province of Quebec an independent country.

The group then upped the ante by kidnapping Britain’s trade commissioner, James Cross, and the province’s minister of labor, Pierre Laporte. The provincial and federal governments considered it a state of insurrection and imposed the War Measures Act, which suspended civil liberties and saw Canadian soldiers take control of Montreal streets. The next day, Oct. 17, Laporte was murdered by his kidnappers.

By the end of that year, 468 people were arrested — the biggest peacetime mass roundup in Canadian history. Many were jailed simply for supporting the Parti Quebecois, a political party that wanted to achieve Quebec independence by democratic means. It was elected to power provincially six years later.

Many considered the mass arrests — some were held incommunicado for days — an outrageous abuse of state power. Indeed, 408 of those arrested were eventually released without charges. Only two ended up being sentenced.

Fast forward to Toronto, the weekend of June 26, when, despite objections from the city’s mayor, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to host leaders from 20 of the most important economies in the heart of downtown Toronto.

In the sad tradition of international summits, a relatively small group of black-clad protesters turned violent. They smashed windows, largely targeting what they considered symbols of international corporatism, including banks, Starbucks and stores like Gap and Nike.

Despite the presence of 20,000 police officers in a small area of the downtown core — yes, 20,000 — rioters also managed to burn three or four police cruisers.

By no stretch of the most paranoid imagination could anyone assume that a state of insurrection was underway, or even imminent. In fact, the violence resembled what unfortunately has occurred — in Canada and the United States — when major league sports teams win or lose championships.

Toronto police responded by arresting 1,105 people. And they didn’t need the War Measures Act to do it.

There is much evidence suggesting the arrests were indiscriminate. In one incident, riot police rushed a crowd peacefully singing the national anthem.

In another, they surrounded some 500 people at the corner of a major downtown intersection Sunday evening, the day after the violence. Police boxed them there for three hours — a tactic known as “kettling” — in the pouring rain. Most of those detained were innocent bystanders who just happened to be walking by that corner or standing there for one reason or another.

Scores of arrests were made at Queen’s Park, site of Ontario’s provincial legislature. There, a 57 year-old amputee named John Pruyn was resting on the grass with his daughter after taking part in the official protest march organized by the Canadian Labour Congress, an umbrella organization of unions.

Pruyn, an employee with Revenue Canada, the department that collects income taxes, told the National Post newspaper he was ordered to move by riot police. As he struggled to get up an officer jumped him and dug a knee into his temple.

“I guess the police thought I was taking too long,” he said.

Pruyn said an officer then grabbed his prosthetic leg and “yanked it right off.”

“Then he said, ‘Hop!’ but I told them I couldn’t because it hurts for me to hop on my right leg,” Pruyn told the Post. “Then the cop said, ‘OK, you asked for it’ and two officers grabbed me under my armpits and dragged me away from Queen’s Park towards the police vans.”

He said he was taken to a makeshift detention center, placed in a wheelchair, taken to a cell and handcuffed there for 27 hours. He said he was given one cup of water, a processed cheese sandwich and not allowed to make a phone call. He was then released without charge.

Also arrested was Benjamin Elroy Yau, a 37-year-old Toronto Transit Commission fare collector, who happened to be walking to work — in full uniform, with his employee ID card dangling — at the Queen’s Park subway station.

Yau was tackled by police and taken to a detention center for 36 hours, despite a supervisor vouching for him. In detention, his hands remained cuffed, even while in a cell. He was fed nothing but a “disgusting” cheese sandwich. He was eventually released without charge.

“I was petrified, I was shocked. I was essentially arrested for going to work,” Yau told the Toronto Star newspaper. “It was just martial law. I had no rights.”

Of the more than 1,000 arrested, only 263 were charged with offences. It’s a good bet that far fewer will ever be convicted.

Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, have been calling for an independent inquiry into police conduct. Both the provincial and federal governments have rejected the calls, choosing instead to praise the work of police and denounce rioters as thugs.

Many suspect the provincial government isn’t keen to shed light on how it secretly granted police extra powers of arrest during the summit — a move that only became known when revealed by the Toronto Star. Prime Minister Harper, for his part, might not want an inquiry to scrutinize the incredible $1 billion summit security budget that turned downtown Toronto into a no-go-zone.

But some questions won’t go away. It is now known, for instance, that undercover police agents infiltrated the leading G20 radical protest group — the South Ontario Anarchists Resistance — attending its planning meetings for more than a year. So, if police knew the group’s alleged plans for violence at the summit, why were 20,000 officers unable to stop it?

Why did some riot officers — including one pictured in the Toronto Star putting the boot to a sitting protester — not wear name tags on their uniforms, contrary to professional standards?

And, finally, why hasn’t U.S. President Barack Obama — or any other leader who wined and dined while innocent Canadians were rounded up — said anything about the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history? Did he even notice?

Is there any place, in discussions about the global economy, for human rights?