Whenever the television news media shows violence stemming from a protest on TV, the tacit assumption is always that the protesters started the violence: they chose to protest, they must have chosen to be violent. When the protesters come prepared for tear gas and the like, it is all the easier for the television media to look down on the protesters as instigators.

We the viewers come to these images of violent protests with the same assumptions: the protesters started it because, had they not protested, there would be no violence. Both media and audience believe that any violence by the police is justified as retaliatory. But why?

Throughout the history of liberal democracy, a major factor for creating change to make our country a better place is the act of protest. This was true in liberal societies that were less democratic and in democratic societies that were less liberal. It’s also sometimes been true in countries without liberal nor democratic institutions. The reason why the freedom of association is enshrined in so many constitutions is because the drafters of these documents recognized the importance of gatherings of like-minded individuals in private and public were necessary to preserve liberal and democratic institutions. And we don’t vote very often. When we’re not voting, we have only a couple ways to let our representatives and bureaucrats know that we disagree: writing letters, canvassing others to write letters, attending public meetings (if public meetings are called in your jurisdiction about the issue you care about), or protests. That’s it.

We need protests. And yet, most of us think protesters are inherently violent and think it deserved when they get gassed or beaten up on our TV sets. (Some of us enjoy watching that.)

Disproportionate Force

I am a civil libertarian. I believe that, whenever possible, the rights and freedoms of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms should not be violated for any reason. 1 Because of these beliefs, I have, on occasion, volunteered with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA, basically Canada’s ACLU). So when the G20 decided to hold its conference in Toronto in 2010, and the CCLA called for volunteers, I volunteered. But I lived in Hamilton at the time, so I could only volunteer for the weekend.

This is the part where I try to gain your empathy by saying I did not support the various groups protesting, only their right to protest. That’s true to the extent that a) I did not even know what some of the groups were protesting against and b) I believe the globalized world is a fact and fighting that fact on the supranational front is less effective than fighting it locally, regionally or nationally. But, I shouldn’t have to say this. I only say this because I know how everyone thinks about protesters – that they are wasting their time; that they are just spoiling for a fight. Anyway…

On June 26 and 27 2010, I acted as an “observer” of the protesters and the police during the protests organized against the G20 summit in Toronto. The experience was traumatic. 2 I’d like to quote at length from my experience. (Please note: “Yesterday” means June 26, 2010 and “Today” means June 27, 2010.)

Skip to the rest of the article.

Yesterday I watched a peaceful union protest go down university from Queen’s Park and turn onto Queen. Freedom of movement was a little restricted but there were few police at first, except around the US Consulate.
Once we got near Queen things changed. There were police everywhere, blocking each street in two rows (one of regular cops, one on Richmond of riot police). The union members were all very well behaved. They were marching in their groups and listening to their marshals. The problem, I guess, were the people following at the back (whom I was with, in order to see what happened).
At Spadina and Queen, the main protest went north, but some people tried to get to the fence by going south. I don’t know why the police picked Richmond and Spadina to stop them. They did. I watched a standoff for probably over an hour and a half. Tear gas was threatened multiple times. I saw people pushed unnecessarily. Four people were detained, although one was arrested and three released. I saw some horses charge people on Richmond. But on the whole things were fairly civil. People who lived in the area weren’t allowed to go home, but it definitely wasn’t a terrible situation. For the most part, the protesters grew less and less interested and sort of drifted away. By the time my monitoring buddy and I left, there were maybe 1/4th the protesters who had originally showed up still at the intersection. The police recognized this by replacing the riot cops with a bike fence (a tactic they have used a lot of times [this week]). Though I recognize the restriction of freedom here, the whole thing really wasn’t a big deal. It turned out that what was happening on Queen itself was a whole other ballgame.
I never saw these “black bloc” folks that ran up queen beating the cars and windows, I just saw the aftermath. People continued to break the cars and this one guy (who has been all over the news) was using the PA system and sirens as his personal turntable. From where I stood, the police could have easily come around the corner and stopped this at any time. They have stated their priority was otherwise. Either that was the case, and they thought these cars were some kind of distraction to lure them away from their defensive positions, or the cars were left there deliberately, to make some kind of scene to justify the budget. I am leaning towards the former, but at the time it really did seem like the latter. I should mention that this was the only place in the entire city that I thought was chaotic. At no point do I agree with the media that the police “lost control” of Toronto. Blocks away people were acting like nothing was going on because many were unaware that anything was indeed going on.

We roamed around downtown for a while, which was like a ghost town (but in no way dangerous). We saw more riot cops chasing some protesters up York. We got there late so we don’t know what happened. We went along the fence and watched people get randomly searched for no reason, and we watched the cops hassle every single person (with special passes to get inside) attempting to enter the restricted area.

Trying to find our way to some form of transit, we headed in the direction of Spadina again (we were farther downtown). We realized we were near the broken police cars and, assuming they had been towed away, we went to see what was left of the mess. We found that the crowd had changed but the cars were still there. The DJing guy was clearly drunk and / or high (he could barely walk, his pants were falling down) and was lighting one on fire (by the way, never once did we see him in any march anywhere, I think he was just a lunatic). At first the fire was under it and then it engulfed the thing. The crowd was just curious. I didn’t recognize anyone from earlier. After the car lit on fire three cops appeared from nowhere and arrested him. Three cops. It was at least 1 hour and 20 minutes later. A few other cops came by to escort him away, but it just proved my point that they could have stopped this earlier if they had really wanted to (whatever their reasons).

On the way to Bloor we asked some cops why they hadn’t stopped the fire. Playing good cop bad cop, one told us they had didn’t have enough resources (despite my hearing rumours of 20,000 police and private security personnel in Toronto and Huntsville [combined]) and the other ordered us to go home, not knowing anything about who we were, where we lived, [what we were doing there] etc.

The shit hit the fan later. I don’t know a whole lot. I know that two of the three night protests I heard of were supposedly violent, but that the one at the detention centre (where everyone was supposedly eventually arrested) was peaceful. Two of our monitors were arrested and last I heard they still hadn’t been released over 12 hours later (despite ample documentation which we carried to show our intent and purpose).

Today was a totally different story. We went to observe a protest at the detention centre that was supposedly low risk. We went because we were told that the police had, because of last night, classified all protests suddenly as “high risk.” When we got to the organization point, there were few visible police (though many more hiding in unmarked cars around the corner) and few protesters. They were negotiating about where it would be. It seemed civil.

Nothing was happening…so we headed down to the detention centre. There, my partner and I were detained for several minutes for writing notes. We were also mocked for our stated purpose, as the bad cop (in this situation again they were playing good cop bad cop) didn’t seem to think that civil liberties were worth protecting, or that the two of us could do anything to protect them.

Learning that the protest was a go and was coming down to Eastern Avenue, we ran over to the cross street. We observed a totally peaceful, orderly protest march up Eastern to the film studio. There the police asked the protesters to move onto Pape and eventually they did so. Everyone was very respectful. The police were as polite about asking them to move as I could imagine and the protesters were only taking so much time to move because some of them were singing and not paying attention. It seemed totally innocent. We almost left.

A van was sitting in the middle of eastern Avenue. We thought they were locals because they didn’t look like cops, until we realized it had been sitting there for minutes. Then we saw a walkie talkie inside.

Without any warning from anyone, another van pulled up behind it and seemingly ten (but it was all so fast I don’t remember) plain clothes “officers” rushed the crowd through police lines. None identified themselves as police. They attacked the crowd. They didn’t enter it, they attacked it. They punched people. They used those wands that extend from a small little thing to a 2 foot long stick. They grabbed two people, beat them, dragged them across the pavement, threw them in the vans, and took off. A couple of the plain clothes officers retreated into the detention centre but before they did they threatened all of us repeatedly. These two people could have probably been arrested by four riot cops, had they really been the anarchist ringleaders they were supposed to be (it’s hard to know when people estimate 200 vandals but the cops have locked up 500 people, that is pretty terrible arithmetic). While and after this happened the [clothed] police charged the crowd and beat them back even though nobody had done anything. Riot cops began to show up. Two more people were arrested (one of whom was severely beaten and had his head between a curb and a cop’s knee) and who knows how many were beaten. The cops took someone’s bike. We weren’t able to see the riot cops rush them so much, because the regular cops ordered us back around the corner. One told a member of the media, “I don’t care if you’re media, if you come forward you will get hurt.” We heard shots (rubber bullets? blanks? don’t know) and a loud bang (attributed to both tear gas a smoke bomb). The riot cops were being led by the very same officer who had coordinated with the protest [not so long ago]. They told them it was okay, then they beat the shit out of them.

Once we had circled the block to come down Pape from the north (Queen) to get a better view, all (or almost all) the protesters were gone. But the police insisted on clearing Pape of all people. They ordered the media to back off, they searched people, they ordered people off their porches and inside their homes. They ordered a woman trying to walk her dog to get back in her house or run up the street. There was one guy with a megaphone who I don’t believe was present as the centre earlier. I saw no one else I could place from the protest. Only media and residents.

By the time the cops (in two rows like yesterday, regular cops followed by riot cops) made it up to Queen, they had created a new protest group: the residents. Residents were screaming at them about not being able to access their homes, about having cops in a residential area, and so forth. The respective ages of these groups were markedly different so I really believe they were two separate groups of people. The police would not let anyone back on Pape, though they were letting those on Pape to exit their houses.

As we walked along Queen (as the police on Queen weren’t going anywhere or doing much of anything except blocking the street) we saw that all streets heading south were blocked, as if they had created a perimeter around the detention centre.

On both days, nearby neighbourhoods were totally oblivious to what was happening so I really don’t see how anyone can claim the city was gripped by chaos, or that the police lost control of the city (should police be about controlling a city? it isn’t a military base).

The actions of the cops today shocked me and alarmed me to an extent I was not expecting. I have never participated in a protest. I am sure this stuff goes on much more than I know, but it was new to me. I think the actions of the police were totally unjustifiable. Unfortunately, all we have are license plates pretty much. But anyway, I am appalled. I think that this is a low point, at least in my personal experience, for the respect of rights and freedoms in Toronto. I did not feel like I was living in a free country this afternoon. As the lawyer I was with said, even if those two were serial killers, they still could have arrested them properly without harm to themselves. Instead they pulled some fascist bullshit.

Six and a half years later, I still feel kind of gross reading that. For years after witnessing this, driving or walking through the intersection of Pape and Eastern made me feel ill. (I have lived nearby for the past 4 years.)

Protesters Deserve It

When I started to tell people about what happened, I got two responses: One was a response of concern; the person hadn’t paid much attention but what I said was really alarming and they thought that if I was telling them it, it must be true. The other response, far more common, especially, among older people and those who didn’t live in Toronto was, “Served them right.”

How exactly does it serve them right? The people who were dragged by unidentified men into vans while being clubbed? What did these people do to deserve this? As the lawyer paraphrased above notes, suspected murderers get more consideration when they are arrested than these people did. There is no justification for beating the shit out of people for suspected property destruction. Well, I should say that there “should be no justification,” because there is a justification, and it’s called the Just World Fallacy.

 

The Just World Fallacy and The Guilt of Protesters

When we get home from work, we enjoy sitting down on the couch and watching TV. Sometimes we have our shows, sometimes we just flip mindlessly.

And then we get to the news. And some assholes are rioting, breaking glass and burning stuff. And the peace that we have vegging out is disturbed. Our feeling of relaxation is disturbed. Whatever these people are rioting over, it isn’t important to us.

Every single one of us has watched a protest on TV, watched the media call it a riot and agreed with that description regardless of what was actually happening.

 

Maybe we’re particularly indisposed to dislike protesters when they invade our peace and quiet through forcing their issues onto the news broadcast. But I think it’s more than that this is just the worst time for us to be aware of the issues they are raising. We are receptive to believing protesters are rioters and criminals more at this time because it’s our time to relax. But we are predisposed to already believe these people are criminals by something called the Just World Fallacy. The Just World Fallacy is the fallacious assumption that the world is fair.

Of course, the world isn’t fair. But we secretly believe it is fair and just. One of the consequences of this belief is that we think other people are not justified in complaining – only we are.

 

When people tell me they think it’s justified for cops to beat, gas or even shoot protesters, I always wonder how they think the world works. Do they believe that the individual rights that (usually) protect us from our governments just fell out of the sky? Because that’s not what happened. What happened was struggle – often violent struggle – between the people who wanted to make changes and the many more people who didn’t (because we humans do not like change, even if it’s positive). The protests we judge on TV are far milder than the events of the past that brought about our current bills of rights, constitutions and other institutional protections. (Compare any protest you see on TV to the beloved American “revolution” for instance.)

 

The Just World Fallacy prevents the vast majority of us from having this historical perspective. Instead, we feel relatively content in our lives – that, for the most part, life is treating us fairly – with a few minor gripes that we would certainly never riot over. But these people on TV are publicly demonstrating about something we don’t even care about. Not only do we not understand why they’re out there, but we tell ourselves that, because the world is fair, there are “better” ways of making change (whether we tell ourselves it’s calling our representative, writing a letter, calling a radio show, volunteering somewhere, whatever). We, the guys on the couch, know how to affect change the right way because we know how the world works. We know the rules and those people who know the rules are treated generally fairly. But these people on TV, they clearly haven’t followed the rules or they wouldn’t have to be out there protesting. And, well, anything they get for being out in the street when they shouldn’t be, they deserve.

And if the break a window…well, there’s no excuse for breaking a window. Property damage is the clearest demonstration that these people do not follow the normal rules; they deserve to be chased, beaten, gassed and, yes, even shot. I would never break a window. I know there are consequences for breaking a window. I know how the world works.

That’s the Just World Fallacy at work, convincing us that the behaviour of others – non-violent protests trying to affect change in the world – is somehow unwarranted because we don’t think we’d do it ourselves and the suffering of others – clubbing, gassing or even shooting of protesters – is warranted because these others don’t know how to follow the rules, or have done something (protesting) to deserve it. The vast majority of protesters are not only non-violent but they are fighting for things that will benefit us. But we can’t see it because we daydream that the world is a fair place and everyone is treated justly.

  1. I am no longer a civil liberties absolutist, however, and recognize that there are times when rights clash and compromise is necessary.
  2. “Riley, I can’t believe that was traumatic. You’re such a wuss!” The emotional trauma I experienced brought home two fundamental things: 1) I am so lucky to have been born in Canada and 2) if I can experience emotional trauma from witnessing violence, the emotional and mental trauma of experiencing actual violence against oneself must be much worse.
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