Lock them up: Why the G20 thugs don’t deserve any leniency

We cannot allow international summits to become an excuse for roving lawlessness


For most Canadians the lasting memory of the $1.2-billion G8-G20 summits will be the sight of a burning police car, and not the contents of any final communiqué. Such an unfortunate situation demands the continued pursuit of all lawbreakers involved in the summit riots. And a rethink of how and where summits are held.

In downtown, Toronto gangs of highly motivated thugs torched four police cars and broke storefront windows of dozens of businesses during a wild spree of G20 violence. Police responded by arresting more than 900 protesters and bystanders. A journalist reporting on the scene claimed it was scarier than a Bosnian war zone, and one of those arrested called the 17 hours he spent in detention “tantamount to torture.” The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is demanding an inquiry into police tactics, calling them “disproportionate, arbitrary and excessive.”

What took place on the streets of Toronto was indeed a serious situation, yet anxiety over the behaviour of police is wildly overdone. Those responsible for the damage should be the focus of society’s anger. Only the professionalism and preparedness of police prevented circumstances from being much worse. Rather than an inquiry, we need further police effort to ensure every one of those lawless thugs is brought to justice.

Overheated arguments from the CCLA and others regarding mass arrests and claims of police brutality need to be kept in perspective. Many of the complaints seem to involve the quality of the sandwiches in detention. Or that the police banged their batons on their shields in an “intimidating” manner. It’s possible many of those arrested for breach of the peace were not directly involved in any violence. But they were released in a matter of hours. Canadians’ constitutional rights have survived the ordeal unscathed.

It is necessary to keep the violence that did occur in perspective as well. Recall that when the Montreal Canadiens beat the Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2007-2008 NHL playoffs, street havoc also ensued. And those Montreal rioters managed to torch or smash 16 police cars. So by at least one measure, the G20 conflagration produced only one-quarter of the damage created by a run-of-the-mill hockey riot. Further to the point, there were no injuries significant enough to mention and the riot earned only modest international attention. This was no Bosnia in the 1990s. It wasn’t even Montreal in April.

Of course with the leaders of most major nations in attendance, the security issues at the G8-G20 summits were far more significant than at any playoff match. For their $1.2-billion outlay, Canadians got a massive police presence, a lengthy fence in downtown Toronto and a raft of crowd-control innovations. This enormous show of force meant police outnumbered protesters in most circumstances. Even so, this wasn’t enough, as the burnt police cars testify.

But consider what might have happened without this massive investment in security. Had the “black bloc” anarchists responsible for the extant street damage penetrated the security fence and disrupted the actual G20 events, the international attention would have been much more significant, and the damage done to Canada’s reputation far greater. Whatever steps the police took to prevent this from happening were both necessary and welcome.

In fact the police should be commended for their vow to pursue any and all protesters associated with the vandalism. Merely detaining and releasing violent hoodlums is not a sufficient response to the threat they pose to civil society. The protection of free speech and assembly can only exist when there is proper respect for the rule of law. Legitimate protest acknowledges the existence of state authority while providing a different point of view. The same is true with civil disobedience. What we saw over the weekend, however, had nothing constructive to offer society. It was simply opportunistic chaos. It is thus imperative that we find and punish everyone responsible for this embarrassing period of disorder. We welcome the determination a Toronto police spokesman expressed to our reporters (page 26): “Our team will continue to work for the next two years, five years, if necessary to bring every one of these people to justice . . . Nobody is getting away with this.” Nor should they.

Beyond the role of the police, however, there’s another reason—largely overlooked—why a major security catastrophe was averted: the global protest movement appears to be losing steam.

The mass of protesters agreed on very little other than a general sense of unhappiness with the status quo, whatever it might be. Issues seen and heard from the crowd ranged from animal liberation to legalization of marijuana to the treatment of homosexuals in Iran. There was no consistent message, other than the minority position on the desirability of broken windows. Only after the fact have protesters managed to coalesce around a common theme of alleging police brutality. Yet it bodes poorly for the future of the protest movement if the only coherent argument it can muster involves the reaction of others to itself.

At the end of the day, debate over street violence, protest and police ought to be secondary to the summit’s practical achievements. And the G20 summit did conclude on a note worthy of some optimism: a pledge to cut government deficits in half by 2013. While this only applies to the most advanced economies within the G20, it is still a step in the right direction. Bringing the world’s major economies back to fiscal balance is crucial to closing the book on the Great Recession. Was this accomplishment, significant though it may be, worth the candle?

As we have argued previously, most of the real summit work is completed at earlier meetings attended by finance ministers and assorted underlings. The role of formal summits is largely to provide world leaders with an opportunity to mingle and pose for a group photo. Given the massive cost of security—and the fact that even $1.2 billion cannot prevent an embarrassing riot—there’s a pressing need for a more efficient means to this end. There are two obvious possibilities. Hold smaller get-togethers in remote locations that are more easily secured. Or designate a permanent and safe location for the G20, as is the case with the United Nations in New York City. We cannot allow international summits to become an excuse for roving lawlessness.