Who Says it was a Riot?

In the summer of 2000, on the grounds of the Ontario legislature, the landscape of political action in the province changed. Welfare cuts, the Safe Streets Act and the gutting of the Tenant Protection Act were but a few aspects of the Conservative agenda that created a situation that was on the verge of explosion.

June 15: thousands of people joined the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) to demand the right to be heard. The crowd breached a set of barricades erected in front of Queen’s Park. Stunned police scrambled for control. Using horses, pepper spray and batons, the police repeatedly charged the crowd and indiscriminately brutalized people. With any crude instrument they could find, the crowd fought back.

In the melee, dozens of protestors were injured. Broken bones, bruises and scratches were common; a doctor told one woman who suffered a concussion that the bike helmet she had been wearing saved her life.

For those who took part in the protest, the years of passivity in the fight against Tory attacks were over. After the demonstration, Toronto Police Staff Sergeant Brian O’Connor remarked, “There was a fury in these people, an intensity, that I’ve never experienced.”

During the action and in the months following, over three-dozen participants in the June 15, 2000 demonstration were arrested. They face charges ranging from assault police to participation in a riot. Almost two years later, many of those court cases have just begun.

***

As larger, more effective movements against neoliberal forces have developed, police and government have stepped up their attempts to quash these activities. Infiltration, arbitrary arrests and lengthy detentions have become the norm. The APEC inquiry revealed what members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were willing to do in order to keep an eye on political activists. Police documents and the inquiry hearings revealed how the RCMP had sat in on meetings, participated in demonstrations and planned to arrest key protest organizers.

In Toronto, OCAP’s supporters have increasingly attracted this kind of attention. An article published in one of the city’s weeklies, eye magazine, revealed how, even before the Queen’s Park protest, OCAP members were being watched. According to eye,Toronto’s intelligence unit routinely infiltrated the group’s meetings, harassed OCAP members’ families and monitored the movements of its supporters. After June 15, this type of surveillance was used to arrest other Queen’s Park participants at demonstrations throughout the summer.

As well, both Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman and Police Chief Julian Fantino have used the press to demonize those who dare to fight the repressive polices of the provincial Tory government. Fantino characterized the march to Queen’s Park as “domestic terrorism.” When the Ontario Common Front, of which OCAP is a part, shutdown Bay Street in October, he said the coalition was an example of “organized crime at its finest.” Lastman has repeatedly called members of OCAP thugs, animals and bullies.

In the months leading up to the Summit of the Americas, members of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence (CLAC) in Montreal became very familiar with this type of smear. Mark Mackinnon wrote in The Globe and Mail that the CLAC was “intent on violence at the Summit” and that their members could be bringing explosives to Quebec City. “Both in mainstream papers and in other sources that you would expect to be more sensitive to the reality of protest, CLAC was openly referred to as a violent group,” states CLAC member Jaggi Singh. “That innuendo is used to marginalize people.”

***

The outcome of the June 15 trials could have sweeping effects on the radical left, as they decide the fate of this group of militant community organizers. “The state could draw the conclusion that the blow that they delivered to OCAP was completely successful and worked beautifully,” states OCAP organizer John Clarke. “Then those kinds of measures that shutdown an organization they regarded as a thorn in the flesh, then there is no reason to imagine they wouldn’t draw up plans to repeat the process again and again on a bigger and bigger scale.”

Specifically, the jury trials of Clarke, Stefan Pilipia and Gaetan Heroux later in the fall could set dangerous legal precedents for future trials. Charged with Participating in a Riot and Counselling to Participate in a Riot, the three OCAP members could face lengthy prison sentences if found guilty.

On the other hand, the trials will also serve as a key opportunity to mount a legal challenge to police conduct at demonstrations. “We are planning to challenge the constitutionality of the Participating in a Riot section of the criminal code, and that would have an effect one way or the other,” says Peter Rosenthal, legal counsel for John Clarke. “It shouldn’t be constitutional to have an offence like that where you could just be standing around a big crowd and it is determined to be a riot and you are all of sudden guilty of an offence.”

The arbitrary ability for police forces to declare any assembly a riot represents a dangerous escalation to many activists. “It could have huge impacts on picket lines, on what the definition of direct action plays out to be in people’s daily lives. So many working people would be drawn into such a broad definition of counselling to commit,” says June 15 defendant PJ Liley.

Despite police attempts to create divisions within the left regarding confrontational direct action, the defendants continue to receive a huge amount of community support. “We have a solid history of working with — and some of us being a part of — OCAP, and our fight and goals are the same,” says Cathy Crowe of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. OCAP’s focus on the local issues that directly affect the lives of Toronto’s poor is key to that support says Crowe.

According to Gaetan Heroux, “The oppression and the attacks that OCAP has been experiencing, is what the communities we work in and live in have been experiencing way before then. So when a group like OCAP comes into that community or into that context, what we found is that that voice is very very welcome.” Stressing the importance of building grassroots support is the source of OCAP’s effectiveness, and in many ways is the reason why the group is considered a threat to systems of power.

In recognizing how OCAP’s success is rooted in creating a strong community of resistance, members believe that the courts and the police have worked to destroy those community links. “So far in our convictions and the people who have served time, it’s been the most vulnerable,” explains Liley. “People of colour, people who are homeless, people who have AIDS, people who have addictions; these are the ones who they press the hardest and want to keep in jail longest and separate from the organization as well to break that social network.”

In the face of huge legal costs and endless court dates, the defendants continue to stress the importance of effective, confrontational organizing. “Do we, in the course of these trials, manage to build political momentum, support and confidence? And if we do, then we can use these as means to actually take the movement forward,” remarks Clarke. He adds, “I would be very happy to be sitting in jail if I knew that, in doing that, it was making a contribution to building the kind of movement that can actually fight to win.”

Stuart Duncan is a media activist currently living in Guelph, Ontario. He has been working in various independent grassroots media organizations over the last year. He has hosted a weekly spoken-word show on CFRU-FM, Guelph’s campus and community radio station, focussing on social justice issues. Stuart is a member of the Peak Collective, the University of Guelph’s autonomous, democratic, volunteer-run alternative magazine. He is also a member of the Independent Media Centre (IMC) Ontario. Finally, Stuart has worked in the news department of Toronto’s Now magazine and freelances for Echo in Kitchener-Waterloo.

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