Vindication for G20 protesters

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In the aftermath of the G20 fiasco here last summer, one thing Torontonians agreed on was that such summits should be held in isolated venues -- on military bases, on ocean-going vessels, on melting glaciers -- anywhere but where lots of people reside.

But beyond being upset with the expense and disorder that weekend, many Torontonians (and city council) sided with the police, assuming that the arrest of 1,105 people must have somehow been justified, given the rampage of a small group through the downtown core.

What is now unmistakably clear -- with the release of a searing report by Ontario Ombudsman André Marin and startling new video evidence of police beatings obtained by the Star's Rosie DiManno -- is that the vast powers of the state were unjustifiably used against thousands of innocent protesters, as well as against others doing nothing more subversive than riding a bike or picking up groceries.

Unbeknownst to citizens who had gathered for a peaceful march through downtown Toronto -- similar to marches frequently held without incident in the city -- the provincial cabinet had resurrected police powers from the 70-year-old Public Works Protection Act, enacted when the country was at war with Nazi Germany.

This, according to Marin, triggered "extravagant police authority" which the police went on to exercise outside the intended area, leaving citizens vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and detention far from the G20, and creating "the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history."

If one were trying to dream up scenarios of overarching police powers, it would be hard to invent anything more lurid than the real-life tale of police yanking the prosthetic leg off 57-year-old Revenue Canada employee John Pruyn, after he was unable to move quickly enough from the designated Queen's Park "speech area" where he was sitting with his daughter.

The war measures powers only compounded the problem created by the massive police presence assembled by the federal government. Harry Glasbeek, professor emeritus at Osgoode Hall Law School, notes that, with almost 20,000 police to monitor some 10,000 demonstrators, there were two "guardians of the peace" for every unarmed demonstrator.

All this not only alerts us to the dangers of creeping authoritarianism, but amounts to a vindication of the demonstrators, who were often dismissed as troublemakers.

On the contrary, we need more these sorts of citizens, who take seriously the notion that dissent is essential to freedom, because it keeps political leaders in check.

Indeed, while police were arresting the one-legged man on the lawn at Queen's Park, a few kilometres away the G20 leaders were quietly scrapping a proposed tax on financial speculation, promoting an agenda of austerity, and generally assuring that the horrendous costs of the financial crisis would be paid for by the world's citizens -- not by the banks that brought it on.

The important role of protesters -- so well appreciated by iconic Western thinkers like John Stuart Mill -- is denigrated these days, perhaps because it fits uneasily with our society's narrative about everyone being driven purely by greed and self-interest.

We seem to have trouble understanding people willing to spend hours marching in protests without the slightest prospect of personal gain, just a commitment to justice.

Instead, oddly, we accept as normal governments that squander $1 billion on "security," turning the country's largest city into a pseudo war zone and locking up hundreds of its finest citizens.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet and The Trouble With Billionaires. This article was originally published in The Toronto Star.

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