Confronting the Monster
I was a peaceful protestor.
During the G20 Summit in Toronto last summer, I marched, cycled, sang and waved a rainbow peace flag overhead. I chatted with friendly officers about the best kind of cycling shorts and thanked them for stopping traffic. Some of them even liked my flag. I was not involved in violence or aggression, just peaceful assembly.
And then I was kettled.
The sound of clubs pounding bullet-proof shields and boots stomping the concrete in unison makes your heart race with panic and your body scream run.
On Eastern Avenue the Bike Bloc, a non-violent cycling demonstration I participated in, was trapped in an intersection by riot cops. With no warning or provocation we were corralled by an armed mass that was unresponsive to questions, illogically aggressive and moving with terrifying precision. I was surrounded by a monster and I was scared.
After a tense 30 minutes, the monster formed a tunnel of black uniforms and allowed us to leave. Riding out slowly, I was fully aware of how vulnerable my body was to so many boots and batons. I stared into the lines of visors and was startled to see eyes looking back at me, some hard and distant but others mirroring my own fear.
There were people inside that monster. But all the gear, all the armour and all the weapons were hiding their bodies. They were dehumanized and recreated as an opaque, intimidating and aggressive beast.
I learned something during those 30 minutes: a police officer and The Police are not the same thing.
Police officers are people – people with lives, families and opinions, whose work is to implement our laws and maintain the status quo (for better or worse). The Police is an institution, a socially constructed system of policies and practices based on hierarchy, obedience and the threat of physical force. It is an institution that enforces the social norms determined by those with power.
What I encountered on Eastern Avenue was not police officers. That terrifying monster was The Police, an institution brought to life through riot gear and weapons. And it was this institution that found it reasonable to kettle our peaceful demonstrations, to attack protestors, to make mass arrests and to ignore our civil rights.
Months after the G20 had left Toronto, the aftermath of that monster is still felt.
Those rounded up in the mass arrests launched a class-action lawsuit against the Toronto Police Services Board, Peel Police Services Board and Federal Attorney General Rob Nicholson. Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin has released his scathing report, Caught in the Act, on the Toronto Police and the Ontario government. Babak Andalib-Goortani, one of the officers who beat up demonstrator Andrew Nobody, has been (slowly) identified and charged.
But the monster – The Police as an institution – remains at large.
I think it’s time we confront the monster.