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GLOBAL JOURNALIST: A look at G-20 Summit protests

Saturday, July 3, 2010 | 6:18 p.m. CDT; updated 11:20 a.m. CDT, Sunday, August 8, 2010

Charles Davis, National Freedom of Information Coalition, Missouri School of Journalism: Freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, of course citizens in democratic societies like the United States and Canada enjoy these rights and these freedoms, but it is not always so clear-cut as we saw in Toronto this week. Canadian police arrested more than 900 mostly peaceful protesters at the G-20 Summit – a biannual meeting of global finance ministers which often attract activists, lobbyists and demonstrators. These meetings often result in clashes among police and protesters, and this week's summit was no different. Did police overreact? What is the status of peaceful protest in North America and around the world? Are governments becoming increasingly authoritarian in their response to protesters? Christopher Pike, can you walk us through the events as they pertain to your life in the last week? How did you get arrested, and what was your experience like?

Christopher Pike, Freelance Photographer, Ottawa, Canada: I shot the protests for about 11 hours. At the beginning of the march, it was very peaceful. There was the odd skirmish, and then somewhere around midday, 50 to 75 violent protesters, "the Black Bloc" starting running down Queen Street, one of the streets in downtown Toronto, and started their 90-minute rampage. I was right along with them with probably about a dozen other journalists, and we followed them through the streets of Toronto where they were unchallenged by police. Police literally let protesters burn and vandalize cars. They did not confront them at all. At the end of that 90 minutes, the action kind of went in a lull. Police would stomp forward and police would start snatching people out of the crowd for five or 10 minutes, and then they would stop for half an hour. I was personally shot at, and I feel I was targeted as a photographer and a member of the media. I was shot at with rubber bullets. I was pepper sprayed. They trampled a number of people with horses, and they just continually pushed people back. Everyone was kind of standing around saying: "Is this Canada? Is this real?" A number of my friends that are working journalists for national media outlets were arrested without cause. There was a small group of protesters that were literally singing "Kumbaya" and sitting down in the middle of the street, and out of nowhere within a two-minute span a group of maybe 200 police officers boxed us in. We were never given a chance. They never communicated with us. I was snatched and put to the ground. I had my official press pass; I was not accredited through the G-20, but I do have my freelance press pass. My pass was ripped from my neck, and I was told by a police officer that it meant shit and that I would be arrested. One of my cameras was broken, and in the whole melee of everything, one of my memory cards was misplaced. I spent 24 hours in jail without a phone call, without legal counsel and 12 hours without water. I was in a cell with a guy whose wrist very easily could have been broken, it was that swollen. It took 20 hours for him to receive medical attention. Then I was released 10 minutes short of 24 hours without charge after being arrested for breach of the peace.

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Davis: That is quite a story. Arnold Amber how common is this story?

Arnold Amber, president, Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression (CJFE), Toronto: Too common. I would say there was upwards of 15 to 25 journalists who may have been detained for at least some time if not actually as long as Christopher was. This is the highest number of Canadians ever arrested in any one time; anywhere in our entire history. And it is quite obvious that it got completely out-of-control on the police side and one of the things that might have led to it partly was the fact that we had 90,000 people in the security detail in Toronto. I suspect there was a total lack of communication about what was going on in the street. It was basically police chaos at the end.

Davis: Bill Tilton, this must bring back memories for you. I know you represented several reporters that got arrested in 2008.

Bill Tilton, Civil litigation attorney, Tilton & Dunn, St. Paul, MN: In 2008, St. Paul, Minn., which is a peaceful little place with a very mellow police department, had almost the exact same experience when it hosted the Republican National Convention. It is almost as if a minuet where the police let the crazies go crazy for a while and then have justification to corral and harass hundreds of people. They target journalists. Journalists don't have any extra protection under the law than the average citizen, but journalists are the canaries in the coal mines. If a journalist is there acting peacefully, it is sort of an indication that other people are there acting peacefully, and if the journalist can be arrested, it means other people can be arrested. If a journalist was arrested improperly, it suggests that the other people around him were arrested improperly.

Davis: What happened to the reporters who you represented in St. Paul? Were their charges ultimately dismissed?

Tilton: Ultimately the charges were dismissed. Sometimes it took a while. If they were from the AP or a prominent local station, the charges were dismissed quickly. If they were sort of a fringe journalist who didn't have quite so much cache, sometimes it took a little bit of effort. I believe that these police agencies sometimes purposely grab the journalists in order to establish who is boss.

Davis: I have read reports ranging anywhere from $900 million to $1.2 billion in terms of the security cost. Arnold, do you think that when you're spending that kind of money, it sort of ratchets up the tension and that people sort of expect this kind of drama?

Amber: The federal government paid for all this using taxpayers' money, and when the federal government talked about this, they said this would be an opportunity for Toronto to present what a great city it is, and we would probably all get our money back because we would entice people as tourists to come to visit our fair city. I can tell you nothing about it was flattering about the city of Toronto because of the violence that occurred. So it all backfired. The costs are rising as all these people are being released without any charges, and they are joining with the Civil Liberties Association, getting private lawyers and starting many suits against the government and the city. This actually left many citizens of Toronto feeling less safe and less free.

Davis: I am also struck by the irony that meanwhile the G-20 was inside a room sort of embracing an austerity budget and talking about slashing national deficits in half while spending $1.5 billion on security. Chris, do you think that fueled in part the demonstrators on the street? What were people protesting?

Pike: There was everything from AIDS activists to abortion activists. Then there were a number of people there who were just there for the spectacle.

Davis: Give me a sense of the streets while you were covering before you were detained and ultimately imprisoned. How free were you to move; how intimidating was the police presence? Give me a sense of what was going on.

Pike: I covered the main march on Friday as well, and I feel that the police handled everything great on Friday. There was one small incident where people were just being bumped around, and there was a shoving match with the police for about five minutes. They handled it fine. They diffused the situation. The next day it was like a whole different world. They used intimidation tactics. They were slamming their shields. They were using horses. One of my big concerns is the level of escalation. In my mind you use pepper spray; you use tear gas before you start shooting rubber bullets. I was never tear-gassed; I was shot at with rubber bullets. In my mind that is an escalation by the police. In my mind that shows that they were out to just crack skulls.

Davis: Bill, what is your general advice to a journalist facing Chris's situation? What should a journalist do if they are facing arrest in a protest situation?

Tilton: Well, first of all recognize it is going to happen. Journalists do not have any more Constitutional rights to be near an unlawful assembly than your average citizen. Be aware you don't have any extra rights. Sometimes you're going to be a target because you are going to take a picture and then maybe get a cop in trouble. Sometimes you walk into the middle of the maelstrom. You're going to get caught up in it.

Davis: What do you expect the long-term effects of this to be in Canada?

Amber: I think the federal government learned that bringing something like this to a city like Toronto is a bad idea. City officials had been telling them don't bring it here. Also, there is a request out by a lot of people into a public inquiry into the whole thing.

Tilton: There was a public inquiry in St. Paul; it really didn't amount to much. The problem is with every successive generation the executive takes more power. They use these demonstrations to test out their additional powers.

Davis: Chris, when you were on the streets, how organized were the various interests on the streets?

Pike: Not very organized. There were small groups. For the main part, there was not one main group that had more than 50 people in it for the most part.

Davis: Though the streets of Toronto have cleared out, and the summit has finished up, the controversy continues to brew. Several organizations including Amnesty International, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a Facebook group with 13,000 members are calling for an independent probe into police action at the summit. They say police acted with disproportionate and excessive force.


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