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At last week’s General Issues committee, Councillor Sam Merulla brought forward a proposal to create a new, late-night bylaw “SWAT” team. These “commandos” would be responsible for noise bylaws and other infractions between 1 and 7am, a time when police are often too busy to respond. Merulla also proposes that these officers, possibly “special constables”, would be armed and trained in self-defence. Council voted to study the idea.

“As long as there are no issues with the police, we’d create a department of special constables who can defend themselves, whether it be with firearms, bats or some other way” -Councillor Sam Merulla

Firearms or bats!?! For noise complaints?

Does our city really need another paramilitary security force? Do they have to be armed? Has anyone considered the very real possibility that somebody will be killed? Is a noise complaint worth that?

In February of last year, 19-year-old Andreas Chinnery was shot and killed by police responding to a noise complaint, finding him alone in his own Barton St. East apartment. Last month, the province finally opened an inquest into his death. Have we, as a city, learned nothing from this tragedy?

I may not be the biggest fan of cops, but I know the difference between years and weekends of use-of-force training. There’s no cheap substitute for police. How will a separate, night-time bylaw bureaucracy be any more accountable than our existing police force? And does anybody believe that armed officers with even less training and oversight will help prevent yet another tragedy?

Hamilton isn’t the only city to have these kinds of ambitions. Toronto’s Giorgio Mammoliti suggested arming bylaw enforcement and giving them the power to arrest in order to stop graffiti. He also suggested bringing in the army to police the streets. Vancouver had its “Downtown Ambassador” program in which private security guards were paid by the city and BIAs to patrol business districts, often accused of harassing the homeless. Other cities have experimented with broader privatization of their police forces, such as the UK’s Surrey and West Midlands and now at least ten others. As a result, there’s been a massive growth in the private security sector, ranging from municipal enforcement all the way to ‘defence contractors’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. One question, at the end of all these cases stands out: who do they answer to?

It isn’t as if our police are “stretched”. They’ve seen their budget increased yearly since at least amalgamation, with constant plans by politicians like mayor Bratina to add dozens to their ranks at a time. Their largest recent initiative, the ACTION team, saw 43 more cops walking, biking or horse-riding ‘the beat’ downtown and elsewhere in an admitted attempt to saturate public places with police presence. They call it “high visibility policing”. Other initiatives include “blitzes” targeting jaywalking(!) and people who ride bikes without bells or teenagers drinking in the woods. There’s even a cop regularly stationed up the street from Webster’s Falls on the weekends for most of the summer, regulating parking access. Does this sound like a force that’s overstretched, or a city gripped with disorder?

There is a difference between “obnoxious” and “criminal”, and that line exists to protect all of us. There will always be those who’d love to see armed men swoop in and carry off individuals who annoy them, and I’m familiar enough with indignant people to know that they always feel the law’s on their side. Politicians and the media tend to get a lot of traction out of these frustrations, since they correlate well with their wealthier and more influential customers. The problem comes when public safety becomes indistinguishable from middle-class social norms, such as those present in (private and heavily regulated) suburban shopping malls. The drive for “law and order” stems from desires which can never be satisfied, since expectations only rise with standards. Crime rates have been falling across the continent for a decade or two now, and that’s a big part of the reason these issues are suddenly such a big concern.

We don’t need a new force of almost-cops to deal with nuisance crimes. If we have enough cops for “high-visibility policing”, then we have enough cops to knock on doors at night and tell people to quiet down. A better question, though, would be whether it’s possible to deal with such problems without guns, such as sending somebody by the following day? Hamilton’s problems can’t be fixed by making our bureaucracies any more overbearing and hostile, or leaving our communities more reliant on organized force for basic conflict resolution. We don’t need any more tragedies, and most of all, we can do better.

In the wake of the release of the OPIRD’s recent report on the G20 summit in Toronto, condemning police for their actions, “around five” ranking officers and 28 front-line cops are being charged with “misconduct” relating to “unlawful arrest”, “excessive force” and other violations of the Ontario Police Act. After almost two years of trials, videos, complaints and denials, the Police are finally acknowledging that they did something wrong. Though these charges are likely to be more spectacle than substance, the symbolic victory here is quite satisfying.

The G20 security effort spent a billion dollars and mass-arrested over a thousand people to protect a meeting of world-leaders. In so many ways, what went on that weekend foreshadowed the last two years of austerity and uprisings, but at the time it seemed beyond shocking. Despite a thoroughly militarised police presence which occupied most of Toronto’s downtown, stopping, searching and arresting anybody they chose, a small contingent of black bloc rioters still managed to break a bunch of windows and two police cruisers were set alight with barely any interference from police. Since then, we’ve seen the scale of this destruction dwarfed by everything up to and including Vancouver’s hockey riots, yet almost never with anywhere near this number of arrests.

Those arrested included peaceful protesters in the “designated protest area”, bystanders and pretty much anybody downtown at the time, as well as a host of “organizers” swept up in targeted arrests for “conspiracy” before and in the weeks after the summit. Many I knew awoke to police raids before dawn the day protests began, and others I know were picked up in the weeks afterward (yes, even in Hamilton). Their trials revealed years of extensive surveillance and infiltration directed at anarchists in a number of Southern Ontario cities. The files they gathered were massive, covering all kinds of actions across the province. Though I had no involvement in the G20 protests (at least until “jail support” became a priority), I’d met at least one of the under-covers and was noted in court disclosures for attending an environmental action over a year before. And in case you’re wondering, I’ve seen him in Hamilton, too.

This crackdown imposed an atmosphere of terror and paranoia on activists all over the province. It’s hard to be open and to engage the community when any new person could be an undercover cop. It’s even harder to organize (or even relax) when anything you say could end up played back before a courtroom. “Incriminating phrases” included “kill whitey” and “Molotov cupcakes” (for a bake sale), recorded during meetings, car rides and long nights of drinking. This is exactly why infiltration tactics are used – beyond any useful data brought back, they make it very hard for people to trust each other in any kind of protest.

If this crackdown was meant to crush dissent, though, it failed. Utterly. In the years since we’ve seen a global reawakening of protest movements like little the globe has ever seen. As anarchist communities became consumed with (still ongoing) legal support work, we began to turn our attention to police and prisons. This, it turns out, was a very popular move, and it’s been a part of an enormous backlash against police brutality in the years since (with many marches held in Hamilton and elsewhere). Even in North America, massive protests are now becoming routine, with massive arrest tolls coming in almost daily from Quebec and elsewhere (over a hundred Wednesday, BTW). As for the anarchist movement, we probably haven’t seen this much attention or support in a century.

In other G20 news, Byron Sonne has been cleared of all charges! Sonne, a hacker and amateur rocketeer was locked up for 11 months on trumped-up charges which portrayed him as a terrorist and cost him his marriage. Also, keep an eye out for “Who’s Streets?“, a recently released anthology of academic works relating to the G20, such as Shailagh Keaney’s excellent (and horrifying) work on the way police targeted women during the protests.

The response now coming from the OPIRD is too little, too late, but at least it’s something. These processes move at a glacial pace, ensuring that they won’t interfere with post-summit demonization of protesters. Yet, with all that’s going on right now, it couldn’t be coming at a better time. This weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago and Charest’s new attempts to outlaw the student strike in Quebec are both likely to fill our papers with further “chaos” in the streets. The lessons of the G20 need to be learned – the “Miami Model” of militarized protest policing does not work – it only encourages rioters and brutalizes countess others. We need to take a hard line on police brutality before it takes a hard line on us.

Inspector Bologna, the now-infamous white-shirted officer caught on film pepper-spraying girls at the Wall Street protests last weekend is fast becoming a symbol of these protests, much like “Officer Bubbles” at the G20. Due to hundreds of complaints from the public, NY District Attorney Cyrus Vance has announced an investigation into his conduct. If only we saw such a swift response from the guardians of “justice”….

Not all is well with the authorities, however, as Mayor Bloomberg is now hinting at the possibility of a more severe crackdown.

Salon.com has an interesting tale from a citizen journalist caught up in last Saturday’s arrests. He talks a lot about the role of grassroots media in stories like this, as well as telling the stories of others he met in jail, arrested simply for taking pictures.

Business Insider has a list of unions lending their support to the Wall Street protests, including a recent vote from the New York Transit Workers Union, as well as support from the United Pilots union, Teamsters and IWW.

(Two stories in a row, outside the radical press, are mentioning the IWW. That in itself is an important victory.)

Pictures and clips are now rolling in from Occupied San Francisco and Boston is set for tonight after an assembly earlier this week. Oh, and Radiohead’s playing at the New York occupation site today at 4pm.

By last week, the need to write about police brutality was once again starting to overwhelm me. Despite all the attention over the last year, these incidents are still happening and in some cases are becoming more common. Then, this past weekend, the issue burst forth with a fury – London’s burning, and a young black man shot dead by cops provided the spark.

Stories about police violence have been rolling in from everywhere lately. Locally, the officer under scrutiny in the case of Po La Hay was found not-guilty. With this verdict, the judge issued a scathing statement directed at the officers involved for non-cooperation with the investigation. In Toronto, a mentally challenged man died in custody after being tackled on Bloor Street. In Chicago, shooting by police have reached epidemic proportions with 43 so far this year (as many as last year in total, mostly black). And in New Orleans, a group of officers were just convicted for shootings and a coverup which took place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In London, once again, the victim was young and dark-skinned. What began as a peaceful protest against this shooting and others has now led into three days of rioting, spreading across London and now into neighbouring cities. Like clockwork, Britain’s tensions seem to lead to explosions of rage in the first year of every decade, and it seems they still haven’t learned the lessons needed to prevent them.

Police forces across the world are beginning to deal with questions of legitimacy. The more cops get caught breaking the law without being punished, the more populations doubt both. And the more people feel personally threatened, the more they’ll respond with hostility. This is the kind of climate in which the British government just tried to “pacify” the population with large numbers of cops.

If your city were being torn apart by Canucks fans, would you summon a horde of Bruins fans to stop them? If militant vegetarians were looting shops and setting cars alight, would you throw bacon at them? So why, when the people of a city are outraged at the cops, is an aggressive show of force by police so often sought as the answer? These tactics only tend to antagonize crowds, and it seems that’s exactly what happened.

I’ve seen a lot of “action” over the years, and if there’s one pattern I’ve noticed it’s the relationship between rioting and riot police. When cops take a “hands-off” approach, protests go fairly smoothly – even if people showed up with the expressed intention of starting a riot. On the other hand, even avowed pacifists loose their patience pretty quickly while watching friends and comrades tackled and stomped for no apparent reason. Once the sense of police as “our protectors” disappears, they become simply another group of people, albeit a very organized, armed and often hostile group. When this happens, people are far more likely to respond in kind – with hostility and violence of their own.

If it wasn’t obvious from the number of these cases that involve people with coloured skin or mental disabilities, we are not all equal before the law (or its enforcers). The issues of racism and bigotry involved here are very well documented in academia (and government reports), but virtually taboo in the media. Morally, this is mighty ugly, but it has practical downsides as well – when an entire community feels targeted by police, they begin to view cops like an occupying army (because that’s exactly what they are). People lose trust, they stop “snitching” or cooperating and scatter when they hear sirens. This helps cement the community’s reputation as a haven for crime. If persecution persists, people may even start physically resisting. Chicago, as well as other cities, have reported a rise in assaults on officers in recent years.

The shock and befuddlement which accompanies “fighting back” is thoroughly predictable and more than a bit clichéd. In our society, it’s tantamount to sacrilege. Much like the response when occupying troops are hit in Afghanistan or Iraq – there’s no shortage of condescending commentary. “How dare they…” and “…but, they’re on your side…” come first, followed by a long string of insults. A journalist can say whatever they want about people in these situations (“cowards”, “thugs” etc) without any evidence whatsoever – as long as it isn’t positive. A chorus of ignorant and emotional responses follow, in which readers and listeners parrot these lines and offer their pronouncements about what life is “really like” for people far less privileged than themselves, and how easily they could solve all their problems if they were as “clever” and “motivated” as rich white suburbanites.

If there’s one thing that the media has gotten right about these riots, it’s the many vague references to “underlying tensions”. Social problems like poverty and racism cannot be expected to simmer indefinitely simply because those in power don’t feel like dealing with them. They can’t be solved with bullets, beatings or jail time, but they can get much worse if that’s tried. People, in general, don’t respond well to threats and intimidation – sooner or later, hatred and rage conquer fear.

Maintaining our social structure with violence means maintaining a social structure of violence. And that will never be sustainable.

In a stunning new investigation, the Toronto Star has made a number of extremely troubling and all-too-familiar allegations regarding police in Ontario. Looking into the affairs of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the Star has found that, not surprisingly, police in this province exist above the law.

In twenty years and 3400 investigations three officers have gone to jail. That’s a pretty sad number, even among the police. The star has turned up plenty of evidence of obstructing SIU investigations (as a general rule, promoted by their union) and judges refusing to sentence those found guilty. Despite this, questionable incidents, including shootings, beatings and traffic deaths which simply go without punishment on a very regular basis.

There’s a blatant contradiction and double standard here, and it’s not hard to understand. When we commit crimes, cops are justified in doing anything (even breaking the law) to punish us. When cops break the law, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Hypocritical? Yes, but it makes sense in the twisted logic of power. Since police (as armed enforcers of the state’s will) are higher up “the ladder” than us, they are more “people” than we are. They are entitled to special character considerations, sympathy and doubts that we just aren’t. Moreover, as enforcers of the state’s will, they take part in one of the deadliest components. While we don’t officially have “the death penalty” in Canada, the option to use deadly force on those “resisting” means that you could die for nearly any crime. because crimes like “obstructing justice” or “resisting arrest” or “contempt of court” exist, you can be charged, beaten or shot at even if you’re found completely innocent. And as anyone who’s familiar with assault-cop charges knows – they tend to come along with assaults BY cops much more often than assaults ON them.

If police are really so noble, why are they so afraid of being investigated?

This might my favourite article ever from the Toronto Sun. It certainly ain’t known for breaking stories, but this one is just…golden. The mainstream press directly cites insider police sources stating that cops were told to “stand down” during the G20 protests in Toronto, while the Black Bloc smashed up Queen Street and trashed a few cop cars.

“The officer said that eventually there was “a clear order from the command centre saying ‘Do not engage’ ” and, at that point, smelling weakness and no repercussions, the downtown was effectively turned over to the vandals while police, up to 19,000 strong, were ordered to stay out of it.”

Of course we all know what happened next. Over a thousand virtually random arrests, massive human rights violations, and an almost unbelievable number of clear violations of Canadian law. There are still people in jail on trumped-up “conspiracy” charges – why is nobody investigating the police? Who will police the police?

At the time of this posting, the top comment is from a restaurant worker who was arrested, beaten and witnessed some ugly stuff. He concludes with “I will protect myself from police from now on even if it means prison or death. I am not alone.” I don’t know that I’d ever have the stones to post something like that online – I know people being accused of bomb-making for baking cupcakes.

This kind of repression does not work. It only enrages people. If the bloody and violent history of our species shows one thing, it’s that people eventually compensate for fear with anger and aggression. 19000 cops can easily handle some anarchist rioters – admittedly, most of us ain’t that big. There’s a few million more people in Toronto, though, and many of ’em are a lot bigger, and a lot tougher (look at the Stanley Cup Riots). They gave these cops a billion dollars to stop rioters, and not to go overboard on everyone else. Not arresting people at random with make-believe charges is a basic request of police – they’re trained for it. And now that the summit’s over, they have to walk the streets without a Roman Legion backing them up. How will they, personally, be able to make this up to everyone who trusted them?

More News updates:

The Federal Conservatives are fillibustering to prevent the the opposition (a majority in parliament) from launching an inquiry into policing during the summit, and their role in particular. Link.

A Globe and Mail Timeline of the Make-believe “five metre rule”.

Provincial liberals backpedal, claim they gave the police no extra powers, and are condemned by the conservatives.

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