The 'Sacco and Vanzetti' of Ottawa's bank arson case

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On Aug. 23rd, 1927, Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in Massachusetts. The two were convicted of a double-murder committed during an armed robbery. The trial and media coverage focused on the political ideology of the two men, treating as secondary the material evidence related to the crime itself. The two men were members of the Galleanist Anarchist movement, and the trial was a watershed moment in the campaign to delegitimize the global anarchist movement as a whole.

The politicization of the trial extended to Judge Webster Thayer, who allegedly referred to the defendants as "anarchist bastards." This is one example of the many ways that the pair's political activities and beliefs were invoked in a way that prohibited a fair trial from proceeding. Some of the most renowned thinkers of the day spoke out against the prejudice surrounding the trial, such as Upton Sinclair and Walter Lippmann. Fifty years later, a Massachusetts government commission confirmed the trial had been unfair and Governor Michael Dukakis declared a "Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day."

Sacco and Vanzetti come to Ottawa

On Saturday, Ottawa police announced the charging of three well-known Ottawa activists in connection with the May 18th arson of a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. What follows is not a comment on the event in question, nor the guilt or innocence of the accused, but a condemnation of the treatment of the accused by the media and Ottawa police.

Much like Sacco and Vanzetti before them, these three are already receiving prejudicial media coverage. An inordinate amount of time and column inches are being dedicated to the activism that the three were known for. The CBC, for example, reported on Claude Haridge's participation in a Palestinian rights march, and his attendance at the so-called 'Activism Course' hosted by former University of Ottawa professor Denis Rancourt. Rancourt has accused the CBC of insinuating this is evidence against the three.

The RBC arson was clearly a political act, as evidenced by the video that was released with it. Therefore, the politics of any suspect are a relevant discussion. But that discussion should not replace discussion about the material evidence, much less be presented as evidence in and of itself. Nor should it come at the cost of media oversight of the police investigation.

 

Ottawa Police fan the flames

The Ottawa Police have added to the show-trial appearance of the case. The original statement from the Ottawa Police, during a Saturday morning press conference, was that .50 caliber "sniper-style" ammunition was recovered during a raid of Haridge's home. The police sent out a release later in the day to say that the ammunition was actually 7.62mm. Both kinds of bullets are legal, but 7.62mm ammo is not used in sniper rifles.

It's difficult to believe that trained firearm users, like police detectives, could confuse the drastically different looking bullets. Less believable still that such an error could make it into an important press conference. Const. Katherine Larouche, spokesperson for the Ottawa Police, told me that the bullets were found in a case marked ".50 cal," which led to the erroneous press release. When asked if that meant the police didn't open the case before reporting their findings to the media, she declined to comment.

Many media outlets did correct the error, many didn't. Regardless, the damage has been done. Haridge will be thought of as a potential sniper and few will read the corrections.

During the press conference, the police also made a point of calling the bullets "military-grade". The ammunition expert I spoke to was surprised by the use of this term. Under international law, military ammunition must be 'jacketed' to stop bullets from exploding inside the victim. Thus they are less dangerous than other forms of ammo, such as hunting ammo that is designed to kill an animal as fast as possible. It is unclear why the police would use such a misleading term, but the media ate it up nonetheless.

Adding to the police's influence on the public's perception of the accused -- keep in mind that it's the Ottawa public that will eventually form the sitting jury -- are statements by Ottawa Police Chief Vern White. White has publicly called for the RCMP to file terrorism charges against the three, referring to the accused as "domestic terrorists." Lawrence Greenspon, lawyer for one of the accused, believes the police chief is acting irresponsibly, given that civilian life was not the target of the attack. Direct or indirect targetting of civilians is a necessary factor in most definitions of terrorism. However, Canada's controversial post-9/11 anti-terrorism law is much more ambiguous on this point.

"The charges are essentially damage-to-property-related charges," Greenspon told the Ottawa Citizen. "There's no talk of terrorism by anybody except our chief of police."

Greenspon also scolded federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews. Toews held a news conference on Saturday in which he said: "The dedication and tireless work of police has once again succeeded in making our communities safer." Greenspon accused Toews of violating the accuseds' right to the presumption of innocence.

Police and media endangering G20 protesters

The treatment of the case by media and authorities has not only jeopardized the right to due process, but also the safety of protesters descending on Toronto this week for the G20. In their Saturday evening report on the ammunition discovery, CTV News -- Canada's most watched national newscast -- reported that "police say (the ammunition discovery) could indicate the kind of violence to expect at next week's summits."

The Globe and Mail -- Canada's most-read national daily newspaper -- ran an article by Colin Freeze which reported that, "the seizure (of ammunition) is stoking police fears about what they could be up against when protesters amass during the G8/G20 summits next week."

Some are viewing these statements as pre-justification for repression by the Toronto Police. This becomes very worrisome when viewed alongside the force's recent history of brutality, including accusations of murder in the death of Junior Manon on May 5th.

Let's put this into context: thousands of justifiably angry marchers, artists, journalists, parents, children, and others with grievances surrounding the G8/G20 summits are being targeted because legal ammunition was found on one man who should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

This narrative was seeded by Ottawa Police Chief White. "I ask Ottawa residents to remain vigilant, before and during the G8-G20, and continue to report any suspicious activity to police," reads the lone quote attributed to White in the force's first press release on the arrests. At the police's Saturday press conference, representatives of the Toronto Police were present. A five-hour drive from their jurisdiction, no reason was given for their participation, but the effect was to reinforce the connection between the Ottawa arrests and the activists in the streets of Toronto. A connection that appears in every single report on the arrests that I have encountered.

The irresponsibility of the media lies not in reporting these police statements, but in doing so without a hint of analysis on either the logic or the consequences these statements can have.

Anyone remember Montebello?

While the media and police give credence to an irrational fear of protesters, they ignore the very real security concerns of those in the street. Worries that are founded in recent history.

In 2007, the Sûreté du Québec (Quebec's provincial police force) were discovered mobilizing rock-wielding agents provocateurs at the Security and Prosperity Partnership meeting in Montebello (see video here and police admission here.)

That same day, thousands of peaceful protesters were tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and beaten by hundreds of police officers. No government inquiry was ever opened to determine the source of the order to send rock-carrying officers into the crowd. No member of government or police was ever disciplined. Numerous social justice and civil liberties groups screamed about the precedent the lack of accountability would set for future convergences.

Enter the G8/G20, the first conference of international heads of state in Canada since Montebello. Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, suggested provocateurs might be used again to incite violence. Violence that might be interpreted by the media as justification for the conference's controversial $1 billion security budget. The head of the Toronto Police Association, Mike McCormack, responded by calling for Ryan's resignation, adding that "(Ryan) should be writing fiction because obviously he isn't dealing with reality."

The Harper administration has ignored requests for a pledge that provocateurs won't be used this week like they were in 2007. For those opposing the G20, silence at a moment like this is a return to the age of Sacco and Vanzetti. Will we have to wait another 50 years for an admission of misconduct?

Jesse Freeston is a video-journalist with The Real News Network, reporting from the G-20 in Toronto for the Toronto Media Co-op.blog in The Dominion. This story appeared first on his blog.

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