Leah Henderson and the G20 arrests: A study in the criminalization of dissent

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It would be nice -- polite -- to consider the aftermath of the G20 Summit protests as simply a harmless endnote to a hard-won political victory, an epilogue filled with a counter-balanced peace to the previous frenetic resistance on the streets.

But a government that actively engaged in a pre-emptive campaign against activists has not stopped. A government bent on control can be active in its intervention into activism just as surely as it can be inactive in addressing the critical issue of climate change before, during, and after the G20 Summit.

The criminalization of dissent

But let us talk about government action, especially concerning the treatment of those whom the government alleges are community organizers involved in local struggles which joined together to confront the G20. Before the actual G20 Summit manifested in Toronto -- more than a year in terms of the resources invested, in fact -- the government/police had infiltrated numerous activists groups during a 14-month investigation and were reportedly monitoring internet chatter and social media

Leah Henderson, Alex Hundert, Amanda (Mandy) Hiscocks and Peter Hopperton were arrested in Toronto early on Saturday, June 26, 2010, and are all accused of having organizing roles in the G20 protests that caused thousands of dollars worth of damage over the G20 weekend in Toronto. They are being considered by the Crown as members of the Southern Ontario Anarchist Resistance (SOAR). 

This alleged organizing role -- the alleged ability to order other activists and groups at their whim -- has led the Crown to charge the defendants with conspiracy to commit mischief, obstruct justice and assault police, even though they were in jail during the protests. They have been portrayed in the media as many things, from fearless leaders to masters of mayhem, despite the fact that a little background research would lead any reporter to realize that anarchists don't believe in such a hierarchy of leadership.

While this article is about Henderson's current circumstances, the story isn't really about her. She is keenly aware of the daily actions of the police, backed by the government, against marginalized communities as she has worked in solidarity with Indigenous communities across Ontario for years, from Grassy Narrows to Six Nations. She knows how her incarceration fits into a larger strategy of oppression, reflective in the fact that hundreds of Indigenous activists have been criminalized over the years for simply protecting the land.

The G20 Summit protests

There were various levels of paranoia within activist camps regarding CSIS and the Integrated Security Unit (ISU) before the summit began and a sort of wait-and-see strategy. Large groups and small affinities alike discussed strategy and possible outcomes, like a boxer carefully taping up his hands before a fight. Each activists has his or her own ritual the night before the day of action. Some drink. Some pray. Some go to bed early. Some make love. For activists are human, after all.

There are no heroes. Only people putting themselves on the line for what they believe in. These big spectacle protests are simply a microcosm of the every-day struggles they engage in to defend their communities and the land.

And the government, with its billion-dollar security apparatus, was ready.

Early morning on June 26, 2010, the government launched a pre-emptive strike by arresting dozens of activists under the cover of darkness

In Toronto, most of the vandalism occurred latter the same day, during the late afternoon and evening. I want to state this fact clearly. All things considered, the demonstrations during the week and even on Friday, June 25, had been peaceful and growing in strength

The following is an account from the perspective of Leah Henderson, currently under complex and restrictive bail conditions.

On 4:55 a.m. on Saturday morning, June 26, 2010, Henderson, Hundert and Hiscocks were heading to bed at Henderson and Hundert's house when the police burst into their home with guns drawn.

Henderson was in bed in a room at the back of the house, not asleep but drifting off. Police officers broke down the front door, shouting "POLICE, DON'T MOVE !" All Henderson heard were the words: "Don't move!" She didn't.

Then the police came rushing in with their guns pointed at her and handcuffed her, leaving her sitting on the bed. Henderson asked whether she could pull on some pants before she was taken away. The police allowed her request.

The human impulse to compare life with TV is funny, really, as if an event can be too real to be real and therefore has to be fiction. The thought of the police breaking down someone's door and dragging them out of bed at gunpoint is probably too surreal for most Canadians to contemplate, though it does hint to a greater lesson in solidarity with activists facing repressive regimes across the globe.

But for Canadians, this could have been any cop-drama TV show where the good guys burst in on the bad guys and yell at everyone to kiss the carpet. That's good 10:00 p.m., prime-time drama. But it was real. It was terror.

Just imagine yourself in that situation. Stop and imagine. I could only hope that I could have the composure and dignity to ask for a pair of pants before they took me away.

That's the truth in the police tactic of waiting until the dark of night to grab activists in the isolation of their own homes, taking advantage of a 4:55 a.m. state of disorientation. It was a physical message, a way to instill fear into the activist community so others would not rise up from the community to take their place.

Henderson, Hundert and Hiscocks were taken to the now infamous Eastern Avenue Detention Centre, where hundreds of activists were later held, but saw the inside of the facility before it would reach maximum capacity, its huge interior like the inside of a whale. Leah described a very systematic procedure of moving them from cage to cage to cage, before being taken to 2201 Finch Avenue Court on Saturday afternoon.

The Metro West Etobicoke Courthouse at 2201 Finch Avenue is the anti-terrorism courthouse constructed in 2007, and I know the government can say it was necessary to take G20 defendants to that location since it could then claim it could have, in the realm of all possibility, arrested an al-Qaeda operative. But the optics definitely work to the advantage of the police who have been equating activism with terrorism well before the emergence of the Fighting for Freedom Coalition (FFFC) Ottawa

The police were out hunting, after all. Despite CSIS's admission that the international terrorist threat potential during the G20 Summit was low, the Canadian government was skittish after the Vancouver Olympic Games, and prepared to rework the definition of terrorism to turn the focus inwards, turning the police on its own people. Again, macrocosms and microcosms. A government that can spend billions of dollars to terrorize people in Afghanistan and within its own borders reminds us that we should not be so smug about our assumed civil liberties, as was revealed through the police's conduct on the streets during the demonstrations

After being held for more than three weeks, Henderson and Hundert were eventually released on July 19, 2010; both on separate bail and sureties totaling $140,000. Amanda "Mandy" Hiscocks spent more than a month incarcerated before being released on July 27, 2010 on $140,000 bail and sureties. Erik Lankin still remains in custody.

Henderson faces three charges:

1. Conspiracy to commit mischief over $5,000;

2. Conspiracy to obstruct police;

3. Conspiracy to assault police.

On the phone, she listed off her bail conditions to me with a heaviness that grew with each restriction, including:

• $100,000 bail;

• having to reside with one of her four sureties;

• not being allowed to leave the house unless she is accompanied by one of her four sureties;

• having to be home between 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. every night regardless of surety accompaniment;

• not being allowed to post anything on the internet;

• non-association with her co-accused;

• not to organize, or participate in, public demonstrations;

But a list does not do justice to the complications these conditions have on her life, as if the government wanted her to pay for daring to question its authority.

Henderson worked at a law firm and that law firm wrote the Crown a letter for her bail hearing, stating that it had kept her job for her when she is released, but because of her strict conditions, she has lost it since she is unable to leave the house without a surety. The loss of her job means she has no way to earn an income until her bail conditions are changed or the matter is finally settled in court.

But since the Crown is currently appealing her release there is almost no chance that she will get her bail restrictions eased. It appears the Crown does not even want her out, let alone in the position to have more freedom than they are already granting her.

Also restrictive is Henderson's non-association condition. Henderson is in a relationship with one of her co-accused so that is the one exception to her non-association condition. They are still allowed to see each other in the presence of one of their sureties. The Crown would not allow them to stay in the same residence, so if she wants to go visit her partner, her surety has to accompany her over to her partner's house and remain in the room during the entirety of the visit, and vice versa. If they both leave the house, then they both need a surety to accompany them. They are not allowed to communicate over email. If they talk on the phone, each needs a surety present on their end of the conversation to listen in live.

Imagine trying to live like that. Unable to leave your home unless with a chaperone, unable to work and unable to spend alone time with your significant other. Financial restrictions are trying, but consider the stress on the heart and soul of a relationship. Any attempt to seek comfort from your intimate support system is mitigated by the presence of a third party who could be asked at any time to report on your behavior. Being watched constantly, how does someone have a normal phone conversation, go out in public or settle into the private embrace of a loved one? These types of conditions are meant to break the spirit.

Not only is the government appealing a Crown ruling regarding the bail of Henderson and Hundert, on August 19, 2010, in an attempt to further isolate Henderson and her co-accused from their community, the police have warned them against speaking to the media. Hundert's father was warned by the police that any statement or speech that was critical of the government or of the police could be interpreted as public protest, and therefore constitute a breach of their bail conditions.

Describing the parameters of Henderson and Hundert's bail conditions, Ontario Provincial Police Inspector (OPP), Dave Ross, denied that any activist was being silenced but did admit that the police have been monitoring the communications and public statements of the accused.

"These two individuals agreed to conditions by the court and the court did impose conditions on them," he said in an interview on Aug. 5. "After consultations with a Crown attorney, we did contact the individuals to advise them that some of their comments could be construed as violating their bail conditions."

Public comments are defined as interviews, internet posts, and any communications that could be construed to be motivating or actively engaging the activist community.

"Leah and Alex recently appeared on CBC radio, Toronto Sun, Vancouver Media Co-op, and rabble decrying the politically motivated nature of the charges against them and calling on all people to support Indigenous communities, poor people, precarious migrants, and communities under occupation in the face of attacks by the leaders and policies of the G20 on their lands, livelihood, and health," said Faraz Shahidi, of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG - Toronto).

Ross further commented, "Certainly, we recognize peoples' right to freedom of speech and lawful assembly, it's what is said that can be construed as violating those bail conditions... I think it's important to recognize that speaking to the media is not an offence. It's what one might say (that determines) whether or not that contravenes a condition of bail."

Supporters of the four defendants are speaking up.

"There could hardly be a clearer indication that the police are trying to silence the voices of these organizers at all costs," said Shahidi.

"Alex and Leah refuse to be intimidated from speaking out about their experiences and the daily injustices perpetrated against our society's most marginalized communities."

Ryan White, a Movement Defense Committee lawyer, said in the release: "Freely expressing opinions is not illegal. These violations of the right to free speech and the freedom of the press to speak to G20 defendants have a grave impact on all of us." 

Each word these defendants and their supporters say, each word I write, each word you read, joins us at the heart; the rhythm of listening and speaking that unites a community in a murmur and a shout: None of us are free until we are all free.

The four alleged ring leaders will appear with other G20 defendants in court again on August 23, 2010

Krystalline Kraus writes the G8/G20 Communique blog for rabble.ca


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