Monday, June 28, 2010

Where's it all leading?

Some reflections on this weekend's events in Toronto:

There's an equation of sorts that emerges from these organise protests.

1. There will always be masked window smashers and rock chuckers. If they are absent, Montebello has shown the police are quite willing to provide their own.

2. The presence of a reactionary few will be used as justification for police actions against the many.

3. The police don't play fair and will create the circumstances that justify their use of force. See number one and this.

4. It's getting worse. Government and police have demonstrated they are willing to pass secret laws to further their capacity for violence against the public. In Canada.

There's something about all this that doesn't make sense.

One would logically think that security planning for mass protests would have sought to minimise the use of active measures of crowd control because doing so inflames tempers and raises tension. Trapping a group of passive marchers between two lines of riot police, yet demanding they disperse, is like caging an animal and raises the chances of damaged property and physical harm to protestors and police, especially when the police charge the crowd. On the surface, this appears pretty reckless and looks like incompetent command and control by the police.

One would therefore think that a security planner would want to do their utmost to keep tempers under control and let the marchers have their day. The security comes into play not with baton charges and mass arrests, but in deploying the riot police in such a way as to control the route and deny access to critical infrastructure and locations where the massing of protestors would be extremely difficult to manage should things get out of hand. Broken windows and such are what insurance companies are for and do not, when smashed by a few, constitute a riot. Indeed, I remember a conversation years ago with a British soldier who described the fascinating and very clever thinking behind protest management in Northern Ireland; how they army and RUC would control march routes and prevent consolidation of the crowd by blocking access certain streets and places, aka controlling the ground. The idea being that you really didn't want to make the job harder than you had to, and especially in a place like NI, add fuel to the fire. Or India. Or any number of other places where the authorities went in heavy and succeeded in making more enemies than friends.

Restraint, where at all possible, is the name of the game.

The actions of a few window-smashers and bait car-burners to justify tear gas and mass arrest seems counterproductive. What might have happened if they were simply ignored? The disruption caused by window smashing isn't nearly as disruptive as arresting 700 people, launching CS gas, and baton charges.

So, I ask again, what was the thinking behind what is clearly police escalation of the events in Toronto? What possessed them to think mass arrests were a good idea? Secret laws? If I've made the practical case for minimising the use of force against protestors, why did we see what saw in Toronto?

Three possible answers come to my mind, two of them suggest intent.

First, there's a new fad in cop-think around protest control and crowd behaviour theory that says actions like Toronto are sound ways of dealing with public dissent. Maybe there's a consultant running around the police conferences giving lectures on this and selling them sound cannon and riot helmets.

Second, maybe this is a result of having a government intolerant of dissent with a hand in security planning. Sympathetic and stupid police brass might help them too.

Third, utter incompetence on the part of the security planners. Not unheard of. And not necessarily exclusive of the first two.

Implicit behind the first two scenarios is the notion of the public as the enemy. Not simply citizens acting out as is their right, but an enemy to be fought. Well at least certain members of it: namely those with argument against the government of the day. Lock them up, push them down, make them fearful to publicly challenge the forces of order and authority.

Except it almost never works. And when it does, it never lasts forever.

The right to public dissent is not just an abstract democratic notion about free speech or democracy, it serves a very practical purpose as a release valve for the stress pressures that accumulate in any society. Free and democratic societies, more so. Attempt to close these valves with force, and the pressure will escape elsewhere. The day to day job of police just got a bit harder because they come across [perhaps more so] as untrustworthy thugs: That was somebody's granddaughter being hauled away in riot cuffs, somebody's nephew that caught a truncheon the face. The long term electoral prospects of the Harper Regime just got a little slimmer and its fascistic and authoritarian soul revealed a bit more. Protesters will take more protections, some will become more violent. Tactics will change. All will raise the ante and cost and erode the foundational trust of our society. Governments that try to crush dissent ultimately fail.

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