Over the past seventy-two hours, various footage from Toronto's G20 summit has appeared on the internet. Some of the footage shows cowards running wild in downtown streets, smashing windows, stealing from businesses, and causing as much destruction as possible. Other footage shows an exchange between a middle-aged couple (photographing a group of detained protesters) being asked to "move along" and then exchanging words with Officer #3478, who I hope has had better days because if this is him at his best Toronto is in trouble. More troubling still is news that a reporter for The Guardian was physically attacked by three police officers in front of witnesses, despite having shown them his media credentials. What is missing from all of this? I have yet to hear or see footage of police intervening and arresting the violent thugs who wreaked havoc on parts of Toronto this weekend [yes I know hundreds of people were arrested but by and large these seem to have been the, er, more "peaceful" protesters - when will hear that arsonists who torched police cruisers have been arrested?]. In fact, the only "intervention" footage I have seen shows a private citizen stopping someone from smashing a window, doing a job officers were clearly told not to.
Jonathan Kay at the National Post wrote a glowing report, praising the Toronto Police Force's "extraordinary professionalism" and cited the massive police presence as the reason the city escaped massive damage. Although I agree that a large police presence does (and did) dissuade the creation of absolute chaos in the city over the weekend, the police tactics at the G20 have greatly shaken my faith in Canadian police. As someone who often mocks the inefficacy of British police it was not easy for me to watch some of the footage streaming out of Toronto this weekend. It does not matter how tough the police look if they are not willing to stop crimes from being committed.
And now I have to really swallow my pride and say: Toronto police could use a lesson from the Met in London (and I say this exclusively with relation to crowd control). SMW has covered many, many, many protests and political demonstrations in London and if there is one thing the Met can do it is control and/or contain an angry mob (of course there are always exceptions). What surprised me the most about the footage from the Toronto G20 is that there do not seem to be that many hooligans in the streets (Kay also mentions the relatively small number in his article). Why then was it so difficult for Toronto police to take control and contain what was allegedly a small group of violent protesters? I do not think it was, or would have been, difficult for Toronto police to limit the looting that took place - what seems clear is that orders came from somewhere not to take direct action against these individuals. These "stand down" orders permit and encourage this type of lawless activity at future events in Toronto, and at future G20 summits. People weren't "afraid" of the police because they know the police will not do anything and this is not something to be proud of - it is a problem. The people who appeared to be the most "afraid" at the G20 were the police: afraid to enforce the law, afraid to directly confront criminals, afraid to be seen subduing thugs, afraid to be filmed by non-threatening observers, afraid of reporters who might record and then criticize their performance. This type of fear comes straight from the top and it is systemic.
After a weekend of Presence Without Performance (and I do recognize the importance of presence) from the police it is somewhat embarrassing that they are now asking the public for film/photos to help them track down G20 criminals. Apparently Badge #3478 did not get that memo. Does the Toronto police force not have police photographers on staff? Maybe I have just been in London too long, but when I think of a protest the first things that come to mind are the awesome looking police photographers on the Met and police helicopters. Given the height of buildings in Toronto the lack of helicopter footage is understandable, but I am genuinely shocked that Toronto police did not have staff on site photographing this stuff as it was going on. Dismal.
The truth is that I have a soft-spot for police officers. Some of the men in my life that I respect the most are cops. I actually do feel safer walking to my car at night when I see a cruiser drive by. I know a number of guys on various forces who want to enforce the law, but are told by their superiors that they can't. These guys get abuse heaped onto them and are expected to show nothing but restraint (of course there are always a few jacka*sses).
The police are going to take heat no matter what they do. However, their apparent inability to contain, record, and arrest criminal thugs over the weekend while somehow finding time to debate tax distribution with peaceful observers and beat-up a Guardian reporter leaves one wondering how well equipped the Toronto Police Force is to maintain law and order.