Canada also has history of troops in the streets and violent provocateurs

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Protesters in Lafayette Square, Washington D.C., May 31, 2020. Image: Tracy Lee/Flickr

U.S. President Donald Trump wants to send troops to his country's major cities. Their purpose would be, in the president's words, to "dominate" the streets.

Here in Canada, those of us with long memories will remember when our current prime minister's father, Pierre Trudeau, did the same. 

It happened half a century ago, in 1970. 

We call it the October Crisis today, and it started when a tiny, militant group, the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), kidnapped the British trade commissioner in Montreal, James Richard Cross. That led to a second kidnapping, of Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, following which the federal government sent troops into Quebec. Their role, federal officials said, was to protect federal property. 

When journalists questioned this unprecedented use of the military, Pierre Trudeau retorted that "bleeding hearts" who didn't like the sight of soldiers in the streets could "go ahead and bleed." 

Reporter Tim Ralfe pushed Trudeau, asking how far he would go. The prime minister famously snapped back: "Just watch me!"

A few days after Trudeau uttered those words, the federal government invoked the War Measures Act, draconian legislation never before used in peacetime, which suspended most civil liberties and allowed the authorities to arrest and detain people without trial. 

The police in Quebec proceeded to do just that. They incarcerated, without charge, a wide variety of activists, union militants, journalists and ordinary folks whose names somehow got onto a list. The putative motive for this extreme response was an apprehended insurrection, of which there was scant evidence. 

At the time, we had no constitutionally enshrined Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada. Trudeau-père did not succeed in getting that major addition to our Constitution enacted until more than a decade later. 

The 1807 Insurrection Act

The U.S. anti-racist protests started last week in response to the death of George Floyd and over police mistreatment of African Americans, and have spread across the country.

On Monday, June 1, when Trump threatened to call on the U.S. army if state governors he characterized as "weak" failed to control the situation, he too raised the spectre of insurrection. In fact, Trump said he would mobilize the army by invoking the U.S. Insurrection Act of 1807. 

That ancient legislation has been used very rarely, and, for the most part, only at the request of state governors. 

The last time the U.S. federal government invoked the act was in 1992, at the request of Pete Wilson, the California governor. Wilson sought federal assistance to deal with the widespread unrest provoked by the acquittal of the four police officers who had brutally beaten African-American Rodney King a year earlier. 

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy both used the 1807 act to deal with southern governors who refused to enforce court orders to desegregate their schools. Thus, we had the spectacle of Black children going to school accompanied by armed troops -- protecting them from jeering crowds of white racists. 

In the current situation, Trump says he wants to take tough action not because of legitimate, peaceful protesters, but because of the folks he calls "domestic terrorists," who are breaking windows, throwing rocks, looting and engaging in other forms of violence. 

Trump's administration has even gone so far as to label Antifa, a vague entity with no known structure or leadership, a terrorist organization. 

Even if the authorities could find an actual group that operated under the name Antifa, which is highly unlikely -- the term only denotes, in a broad sense, self-declared anti-fascists -- U.S. legal experts say the government can only legally affix the terrorist label to foreign entities. 

The Trump administration, and some governors and mayors, blame virtually all of the violence at the anti-racism protests on what they refer to as left-wing, Antifa radicals, many of them, supposedly, outside agitators. 

Others, including some journalists and municipal officials, point the finger at far-right, white supremacists, who are taking advantage of the protests to foment chaos, and ultimately, the extremists hope, civil war. 

It will take a while, and considerable investigation, before we know the truth. 

The available information, at this stage, indicates that those engaging in violence are a mixed bag. In many cases, they seem to have confused and incoherent motivations.

The Washington Post reports that one white man arrested in Pittsburgh for smashing the windows of a police vehicle, 20-year-old Brian Jordan Bartels, has espoused an incoherent world view that combines veganism with hatred of the establishment. 

Police report that Bartels kept spray paint and a stash of weapons at his suburban home. When he attacked the police vehicle, Black protesters recorded themselves objecting strenuously and expressing their outrage.

Similar clashes have occurred at demonstrations in other cities. In some cases, peaceful African-American protesters used their bodies to protect storefronts, and confronted white participants, whom they accused of usurping the "Black lives matter" slogan for their own ends. 

Police agents can provoke or initiate violence

Aside from outside agitators and opportunists, there is also a strong possibility that police force agents-provocateur have infiltrated the U.S. anti-racism demonstrations. Some of those agents could be deliberately using and provoking violence in order to provide a pretext for an aggressive, military-style police response.

We have seen that tactic here in Canada.  

Almost 13 years ago, there was one such well-reported case during a G-8 meeting at Montebello, Quebec, an hour east of Ottawa. Legitimate protesters saw masked men, wearing Quebec provincial police boots, holding rocks they intended to throw, and stopped them. The cops then took the would-be rock-throwers behind police lines, but did not arrest them.

Later, Quebec authorities admitted police agents had infiltrated the demonstration, but claimed their only purpose was to identify demonstrators who might resort to violence.

Those who took part peacefully in the protest know otherwise. They even had a video to prove their point

The fact is that whether at the hands of white supremacists with fantasies of civil war, wild-eyed adventurists with an inchoate attraction to violence, or police provocateurs, peaceful protests can easily fall prey to those who foment chaos. 

When that happens it only serves the political and authoritarian ends of the likes of Donald Trump. 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Tracy Lee/Flickr

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