Teaching a Lesson in Democracy

This group was organized by the Movement Defence Committee (MDC), a committee of lawyers and law students committed to providing support to the social justice movement in Ontario.

The primary function of legal observers was simple, we would ascertain the names of the arrested and facilitate legal support for bail hearings.  This involved being on the front line of the protests.  We identified ourselves by wearing bright orange hats reading “Legal”.  We were infiltrated by the police, so there is no question that they knew who we were.

My account concerns the events following the Labour March and the now infamous “Black Bloc” actions (which should be understood as equivalent to Montreal Canadiens riots, only with political undercurrents and far less participants).

On Saturday night/Sunday morning a group of demonstrators had formed to participate in a “Jail Solidarity Rally” outside the make-shift Film Studio Jail in Toronto.  The group consisted of drummers, dancers, persons in fairy costumes and those adorned in glitter.   After 30 minutes of dancing in the streets, at around 1:30 am, the police called in the riot squad and we were surrounded.  They snuck up on us from all corners.  The first warning the crowd heard was “This is your second warning, disperse immediately or you will be arrested”.  Inconveniently for us, the riot police left no exits.  We begged for an exit for 2 minutes before they made a small opening.  They made us weave through them.   I would like to admit that they shoved us back and forth, but given the brazen dishonesty of the folks in the blue, that could serve as fodder for an assault charge.

The group of us slowed down about 200 metres away to take stock of who made it out and who may have been arrested.  Within 10 seconds there was a row of riot cops sprinting to catch up with us.  We were under arrest for “not dispersing fast enough”.

As we were bound and interrogated about our possessions, I witnessed a police officer say to a legal observer beside me “so this bandana with vinegar means you’re preparing for an unlawful assembly… This water must have been intended to wash out pepper spray….”.  It was clear some kind of farce had begun.

We waited half an hour in cramped dark holes in the police wagon.  When we were released from the wagon we were thrown into cramped wire cages.

As introductions were made amongst the prisoners it became apparent that the police had an appetite to meet a quota.  Included in my cage were a 15 year-old non-protestor, a uniformed TTC subway ticket collector who emerged from beneath the earth to a swarm of riot cops, and a world-cup fan who left the wrong bar at the wrong time.  The young kid was held for almost 30 hours and the TTC worker was held for 36 hours!  I presume these prisoners posed an exceptional threat, that is, media would have plastered their faces across the wall on Sunday.  The TTC was furious.  Hence, the police set them free in the dark of night on Sunday, threatening them with further arrest if they were found in a G20 related crowd.

Back to the conditions.  There were over 20 people in my cage.  The cage was 10X15 feet.    The port-a-potty smelled like a port-a-potty and faced directly towards the officers monitoring you.   There were no beds.  One small bench for 4 people.  You could not lie down.  With hands bound you would often fall when trying to sit down and many needed help to stand up.  We had to share what was left of a wet (yet relatively unspoiled) clump of toilet paper.  The first person to defecate became a hero for inspiring the rest of us.

The police were amused by the animals/prisoners they had captured.  We played games to entertain ourselves, such as trying to solve the riddle of which police officers were genuinely hostile or which officers were insincere in their antagonism, but just following their shepherds.

At between 3am and 4am we were provided with a bun (the vegans and vegetarians were grateful they didn’t serve us pork).  The bun was small with a clump of butter and a small piece of cheese.  It could not have been more than 200 calories.  The 150 ml of water they gave us was not enough to wash it down.   You could hear prisoners choking and coughing as they ate it.  I was one gulp away from an unhealthy choke myself.  At 5am we were provided with water.  This was the last drop of water for a long time to come.

Throughout an 8-hour stretch (3am to 11am) we demanded the right to speak to a lawyer.  The police would reiterate that we were being “processed”.   Many people, including myself, demanded to know what we were being charged with (it is significant whether it was the criminal offence of “unlawful assembly” or the less serious matter of “breach of the peace”).  The police would not let us know.  They told us only one person was doing paperwork…for 900 people!! Respecting our constitutional rights as prisoners was very low on their list.  And in any event, they didn’t want to let us out into the streets to re-join our friends and loved ones or speak to throngs of media waiting outside.

At around noon we were taken to a new cage located in the “Court Processing Facility”.  This new area was Orwellian (it was the word of the day amongst the incarcerated).  The cages were still wire cages and 10X15 feet.  However, there were cameras facing the toilets, cameras facing everything.  We assumed that we were mic’d.  There were never any clocks visible (but a cellmate of mine smuggled one in and would yell out the time).  The temperature would fluctuate from room temperature to absolutely frigid extremes.  The port-a-potties stunk.  Although, the stink would diminish as the deep freeze kicked in.  And once again, no fresh toilet paper.   Only a small wet clump.

The police in this new area were incredibly hostile.  A person in my cage, who had been detained five hours longer than myself, had called a police officer a “human rights violator”.  The officer didn’t appreciate his tone and grabbed the young man’s zip-ties poking out of the cage (he was 18 years old).  The officer pulled the man against the cage and said “you want to see me violate your human rights, you haven’t seen anything yet”.   The prisoner had to beg to have zip-ties loosened for five minutes as his hands literally turned blue.

At this point I yelled to other prisoners in the facility that they should remember badge numbers and we would file complaints against the police when we were free.  I discovered that remembering 5 digit numbers and juggling the disorientation caused by starvation made simple tasks very difficult.

At roughly 3pm after seeing fog coming from the walls (which none of my new friends could see) and almost falling over on my way to a video-taped piss in port-a-potty, I decided I needed to do something.  I waited for the supervising 3 stripe official to pass my cage.  I got his attention and identified myself as a lawyer.  My law firm argued the injunction that prevented the use of the sound cannons.  I informed him of ties to both the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Labour Congress.  His ears were now open.  I told him “Sir, we both know the parameters of what is reasonable and lawful concerning the treatment of prisoners, unfortunately we have descended into some kind of lawless territory.  Maybe that is the result of the unprecedented scale of these mass arrests, but that will not abdicate you of responsibility or culpability for starving prisoners and depriving us of our constitutional rights to due process”.  He responded by stating “look bud, we’ve arrested a lot of you and we will be arresting a lot more, what goes on in here is not my problem, it’s a legal problem for the courts to deal with”.  I asked him “are you admitting to knowingly and willingly violating the law”.  He reiterated his point, “those are legal issues the courts can hash out”.

Despite his defiance water came within 10 minutes.  Apparently, the specter of culpability for starving people spooked him enough to get us water.

The euphoria of receiving half of a small bottle of water (250ml) did not last long.  We were still starving.

Chants broke out for food.  In the cage beside me, a German tourist dressed in expensive clothes, and apparently arrested coming out of a bar after a soccer game, was having his 3rd diabetes related medical emergency.  His hands were covered in band-aids from the EMS clinic.

Our chants were of no use in securing food.  The same officer who assaulted my cell mate now had a new plan, provoke the hungry.  This officer sat down in view of several cages.  He asked us if we had “learned our lesson” and whether “we’d be going back out into the streets”.  He ate his lunch in theatrical slow motion, savouring each and every bite.  The cage beside me erupted.  It was one of the most vile acts I’ve ever witnessed by another human being.  I yelled to a supervisor that the officer needed to be controlled before he incited a riot.  Seasoned activists in my cage were concerned the police were trying to provoke a camera worthy incident.  We had several more hours of his verbal assaults and provocation.

I spent this hour between 3 and 4 pm trying to engage senior officers and raise the specter of legal liability for torture.  By this point the starvation could only be described as torture.  Many of us had not slept for 30 hours, we were being frozen, we were bound, we were being ridiculed and antagonized, and we were being starved.    Fortunately, just prior to 4pm my fellow prisoners mustered the strength for a raucous begging for food.  Shortly after 4pm the food carts were approaching.

My cage was served only one small bun each and a small cup of water.  Once again choking and coughing could be heard all around you.  You could feel the dry bun in your esophagus for an hour afterwards.

From 4 to 6 pm we attempted to sleep.  My hip remains bruised (5 days after prison) from snuggling up to a concrete floor.  Whenever you moved your arms your zip-ties would poke you in the face.  The farther you brought the zip-ties from your face, the tighter they became and the greater the scraping of your wrists.  When I managed to get close to sleeping I’d have visions of riots cops.  I couldn’t sleep.  Two of my cell-mates did.  They both shook furiously in the frigid temperatures.  I would constantly check to make sure they were ok.  We were so deprived of essentials and so weak that grave outcomes seemed a reasonable possibility.

From 6 to 10 pm there was great theatre.  They began “releasing” us.  This meant shuffling us between cages until 10 pm, giving us the impression of progress to the outside.

A group of officers congregated in front of my cage.  The one assuming leadership lambasted the others, “What?? You didn’t let these people into the processing centre to speak to a lawyer? You lost their paperwork? This is a nightmare”.  This had our caged convinced that we had been lost in the system, that our mistreatment was the result of an administrative mistake.  Later, as the sole prisoner remaining in my cage, I found out there were no administrative mistakes.  An officer, not part of the theatrics, spilled the beans.

I sat alone in the cell for 20 minutes reflecting on what it meant to be detained for 19.5 hours and starved by those hired “to serve and protect”.  I thought about the physical violence.  The taunting.  Being bound.  The freezing cold.  Videotaped shits.  Mocking our starvation.  Starvation.  And the manipulative theatre meant to diffuse and obfuscate our horror at what just happened.

They prepared us to be pacified once we reached the outside.  However, I was not and am not.  My fellow prisoners were fed 400 calories over a 19 to 24 hour period.  We were starved.  We were emotionally and physically victimized.  Myself and other prisoners continue to suffer nightmares and day-time paranoia.

We were students and victims in a 1000 strong workshop on democracy held by the Toronto Police Service.  However, the lesson we learned was not that we should fear democracy and protest, but that we should fear and fight back against the criminalization of dissent and a new era of unregulated police authority.   If this incident is not investigated, and those responsible not held accountable, we will have learned the lesson they want us to.