Friday, August 24, 2007

Questions for the Montebello Inquiry

The Globe and Mail had it right this morning, and the Ottawa Citizen shamefully wrong. First, from the Globe editorial:

If the Sûreté is telling the truth, its ineptness was staggering. Sending agents posing as violent anarchists into a crowd of middle-aged unionists seems straight out of a film parody of police tactics. But could the force really have been so comically inept? Or were the infiltrators there, as Mr. [Dave] Coles [the CEP union President] has alleged, to stir up trouble so police could move in?

Neither scenario is appealing. But if it is the latter, this is a scandal on the level of the Mounties' pepper-spraying of protesters at the 1997 APEC summit. And given that the RCMP was working alongside the
Sûreté at Montebello, it must also be asked whether it was complicit in this plan.

Whatever the strategy, the summit will be remembered for police behaving badly while demonstrators remained peaceful. Now, a full investigation is needed to determine just how bad this really was.

Now, from the Citizen editorial:

A violent confrontation would have served only the demonstrators' ends. The police would have been negligent if they hadn't had some kind of plan to watch the protesters from within. Someone like Mr. Coles knows that just about every anti-globalization protest has seen real demonstrators trying to provoke the police. Rock-throwers hide behind Raging Granny types and teenagers flashing peace signs--if the riot police want to get at the dangerous protesters, they're guaranteed to be filmed and photographed pushing their way through the meek ones. Better if the police have an officer or two behind the protesters' lines who can identify troublemakers later, or step in immediately if the situation gets seriously out of hand.

If the officers were just supposed to keep an eye on things and then accidentally found themselves standing with a mere few dozen demonstrators and looking like the most militant types around, they should have put down their rocks and gone back to the command post. Truly, there was nothing to see, or to be gained, by sticking around in disguise.

Still, democracy and the right to dissent are safe if our police forces' undercover operations are run as ineptly as this one was.

Mr. Coles, Maude Barlow and the rest need to find victories where they can, but if this was a win, it was a small one indeed.

I have never been a fan of bloggers' dismissive "MSM" shorthand, but if all newspapers were as singularly inept as the Ottawa Citizen, I might have joined those ranks. While the Globe rightly calls for an inquiry, the Citizen tries to make the whole thing look like the protesters' fault. The police were just doing their duty, but weren't very good at it. And their very ineptness is a democratic safeguard.

Here's one observer who isn't laughing. Whatever the police were up to, the Keystone Kops explanation is plainly insufficient, and doesn't make me rest any easier. Certainly those of us following this story enjoyed watching the mask, both metaphorical and literal, gradually slide off this week. Police denials, following a lengthy silence, were obviously hedged. Pictures of two of the "anarchists" were all over the place, and it was only a matter of time before the truth was discovered. But that truth, partial though it is at the moment, has uncovered a genuine threat to democracy. If the only thing keeping our fragile freedoms alive is police incompetence, then I, for one, fear for the future.

Now, in any case, we get more police hedging. To quote from the Sûreté du Québec press release yesterday, their officers "avaient le mandat de repérer et d'identifier les manifestants non pacifiques pour ainsi éviter les débordements" ["had the duty to spot and identify non-peaceful demonstrators to keep things from boiling over"]. "[Les agents étaient] repérés par les manifestants au moment où ils ont refusé de lancer des projectiles" ["The officers were spotted by the demonstrators when they refused to throw their projectiles"]. That last bit was too much even for the Citizen, which found this a "questionable claim."

It is important, for those of us who believe in the right to public dissent in Canada, to take the Citizen editorial very seriously. We shall see echoes of that nonsense on the starboard side of the blogosphere, as those who ridiculed the original claims of the protesters scramble to do damage control. The best way of picking this nonsense apart, and to get at the truth of the matter, is to ask questions--lots of questions. One of my commenters, Nbob, starts us off nicely with the first two in this list:

1) Until the SQ statement, were there any reports of "projectiles" being thrown in the area at the time?
2) If some were, was an SQ incident report filed, and is it now available?
3) Was anyone except an undercover SQ officer* spotted with a "projectile?" (The SQ was doing its own video surveillance, h/t Gazetteer. Will this recording be kept?)
4) Were the "anarchists" urging violence, as members of the crowd alleged?
5) Were they "taunting union members" as stated in the Globe and Mail's front-page story today?
6) If the "anarchists" were spotted by protesters because they didn't throw "projectiles," and their job was to maintain order as the SQ claims, does this mean that others were throwing things? Were any arrests made? If not, why not?
7) Why was a peaceful crowd of demonstrators targeted by the SQ? Were they not in the so-called "Green Zone?"
8) Was the RCMP involved or complicit in this action?
9) Was there police involvement at Montebello in some other clashes that took place? Were those clashes initiated by agents provocateurs?
10) How high up the chain of command was the decision made to use the "anarchists" in this fashion? Were the tactics allegedly employed (provocation to violence, carrying a rock, taunting the union folks who were trying to keep order) approved at that level?
11) Is this SOP for the SQ and RCMP? Is there a paper trail?

We won't get this kind of questioning from the ideologically hidebound Ottawa Citizen, of course. Its agenda is all too clear. But perhaps more professional journalists--and, ultimately, an inquiry of the kind called for by the Globe--will get to the bottom of it all. In the meantime, readers are invited to pose additional questions of their own, or to provide information that can be compiled here.

*The YouTube video showed one undercover officer with a rock in his hand. Is this the same officer shown here, with a beer bottle in his back pocket? H/t CUPE, and Mark (comments 6 and 7) at Stageleft's place. Close-up of beer bottle here. Better one here, h/t Joe Blakesley. Note the "SQ" written on one undercover's forearm in Joe's Flickr gallery.

[Footnote UPDATE August 24] Commenter "riles" notes that the beer-bottle officer is not the same one who carried the rock. The commenter also draws our attention to splashes of yellow paint on the three infiltrators, visible on the YouTube video--the first time, to my knowledge, that this possible identifying sign has been caught by anyone.


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