Early Sunday morning (or late Saturday night–depending on perspective) police raided the offices and space of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) at the University of Toronto. They arrested approximately 70 activists who were billeted there, using the GSU’s pub and small gymnasium as temporary accommodations for the G20 summit protests. Along with the visitors, police arrested Daniel Vandervoot, the GSU’s External Commissioner, and another executive who is as yet unidentified. Thus far they have not yet been released from custody.
The GSU has issued a press release condemning the arrests and they are supported in a similar statement by other student groups and by Canadian Union of Public Employees. This is essentially the same group of organizations that opposed campus closure in the first instance and which defied it by maintaining their own operations to the greatest extent possible.
Anton Neschadim is an Executive-At-Large with the GSU and he has the unenviable task, at present, of fielding inquiries from the media, from university administration, and from distressed friends and family members of those detained. Anton stresses that he was not on site for the arrests and was not responsible for coordinating the billeting of visiting activists, but with the two executives who were responsible still in police custody he was willing to answer some questions for us.
In their press release, the GSU “categorically denies any involvement in any undemocratic activity.” This seems a vague claim, so I asked Anton to clarify. He says “we did not provide the use of our space for any kind of illegal, undemocratic activity.” Although not blind to the possibility that one or more guests of the GSU might have committed some crime during the protests, Anton states that there is currently no evidence of this.
The GSU took steps to acquire signed waivers from all their guests. So there is, somewhere, a reasonable list of who was staying there. Unfortunately police took these documents with them when they raided the space and so that information is unavailable. Anton states that guests of the GSU would have been people from the student movement, and that some collaboration with the Toronto Community Mobilization Network was part of this arrangement.
The worst case scenario, naturally, would be if those responsible for any of the violence in Toronto were using the GSU offices as a staging ground–either as invited guests or else by mingling with them. Clearly police are attempting to convey this idea and raided the space on that theory. They describe “weapons of opportunity” in the form of bricks and sharpened sticks, as well as black clothing found on site. Anton points out, quite rightly, that these objects are fairly ubiquitous. The GSU has sticks for their picketing signs on hand and there are bricks and stones all over the U of T campus. The suggestion that there is something inherently suspicious in owning a black t-shirt is too absurd to even engage with it.
What if, despite all this, one or more GSU guests really are guilty of something violent? Anton confronts this possibility head on. “We’re really not responsible for any individual’s actions. Steps were taken but we’re not police. The type of accommodation we provided was for allies and friendly individuals and organizations that we commonly work with.” He likens the GSU’s relationship to their guests as similar to that of any hotel or hostel. And while that may be a little disingenuous it does raise an interesting point. Everyone from outside Toronto who was here this past weekend was surely staying somewhere. Are the friends and family members of every outside visitor made personally responsible for their actions simply by giving them a place to sleep?
To their credit, the university administration seems to be adopting a “wait and see” approach to these arrests, and is not willing to condemn the GSU simply for hosting guests in its space. While understandably very concerned, Anton reports that the university is still “gathering facts and information around what happened” and is in close communication with the GSU. Anton also states that the university was informed the GSU would be billeting people, as it has done in the past for similar events and occasions.
Looking at the arrests as an outside observer, it’s hard to agree with demands that “all arrested activists be released.” No one is currently in a position to know what charges may be laid against the guests of the GSU, and it may indeed be the case that someone was involved in genuinely criminal acts. But it’s also obvious that even if this were true, it would be only a few out of the 70 or so arrested on site who fall into this category. Most (if not all) were simply in the wrong place, at the wrong time, yet for the right reasons.
It may fly in the face of the “arrest ’em all!” mentality that has pervaded the media in wake of some truly regrettable violence on the streets of Toronto, but the mass arrests at the GSU offices should be a reminder to everyone that Canadian law does not promote guilt by association. While the GSU may have been inviting problems by hosting friends and like-minded activists for this event, they hardly become guilty by extension even if someone did something criminal and stupid elsewhere in the city that day, and neither do the other activists who were arrested on site with them. As more news develops around these arrests, it should prompt some tough questions about just how much freedom we are willing to surrender in the name of security.