Media plays into policing strategy at G20 Summit

Toronto police have been under intense scrutiny for their handling of the G20 economic summit last June. But critics say they used more than batons and shields, launching a kind of “information warfare” to portray protesters as violent and dangerous, even before the summit began.

By Bethany Horne

Police handling of last June’s G20 summit has become the focus of much controversy. One Toronto police officer has been charged with assault, and a man who says police broke his arm is suing the Toronto Police Service for $250,000.  But critics say police also turned to “information warfare,” and the mainstream media went along.

Police used bikes, horses, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, batons, 'kettling' and mass arrests to control crowds (Bethany Horne photo)

By Bethany Horne

The people are gathered behind a steel barricade.

Ten police officers in riot gear stand shoulder-to-shoulder facing them, no more than a metre away across the barricade.

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The police have helmets, plexiglass shields and billy clubs. The shields cover their faces and bodies, protecting them from the people across the fence.

Another squad of masked officers with shields rides horses. Close behind is a tight formation of police on bicycles.

It’s a formidable show of force, designed to protect the world leaders at the G20 economic summit.

The only thing: the summit isn’t for another three weeks.

Today, the people behind the barricades are reporters. The Integrated Security Unit, a joint task-force of federal, provincial and city police from various municipalities, has called a news conference to demonstrate the weapons, equipment and training to be used during the summit, the weekend of June 26-27. Pepper spray, tear gas launchers, leather armour and sonar cannons are all on display.

Const. Wendy Drummond, a communications officer for the Toronto Police Service, goes into detail about how they can be used.

“Any interaction police have with demonstrators will be measured, balanced and appropriate,” she says, as the riot police and K-9 handlers pace up and down.

It’s doubtful that any of the watching journalists miss the implicit message: the police will be waiting and ready if anyone causes trouble.

Information warfare

The police say they’re merely sharing information, but anti-globalization activists and civil libertarians argue this kind of show of force is part of a calculated script, designed to portray potential protesters as violent troublemakers, and set the stage, even justify, a crackdown during the event itself.

A demonstrator objects to Toronto Chief of Police Bill Blair's conduct of the G20 (Bethany Horne photo).

Naomi Archer, a long-time, left-wing activist, says she has seen the cycle before. She calls it “information warfare” and says it starts early and continues through an event. Law enforcement presents itself as well-armed and trained, but restrained. The message to the media is that the event is a possible target for terrorism, but that police will protect people’s right to protest. However, anti-terrorism resources and sentiments are used against protestors. Archer has devised a full checklist and timeline to help identify what she terms the “Miami Model” of policing.

Left-leaning activists named the model after a security operation surrounding talks for a possible Free Trade Area of the Americas, in Miami in 2003. Archer was a community organizer there at the time. As media liaison for activists, she says she dealt first-hand with journalists who had adopted a police-inspired idea of protestors.

After this experience, Archer and other activists researched the policing model they had seen first-hand. She says the model is derived from military urban warfare doctrines, and relies heavily on a strong public relations campaign that gradually ramps up the tone in the weeks and months before an event.

And certainly the G20 summit was preceded by a number of information releases by police and other authorities. The following are some examples:

  • April 28: The Integrated Security Unit sets a “free speech zone.” The release says “it is our hope that people will take advantage of this area and express themselves in a peaceful, lawful way;”
  • May 27: Police announce they will use new crowd control methods such as tear gas and sonar cannons. (QMI Agency);
  • Various dates: police meet with community groups, office workers, etc, to talk about the possibilities of “violent” protests. They carry out terrorism drills in office buildings.
  • Please see the interactive Dipity timeline below for more
  • Civil libertarians in Toronto say that by the time the summit started, journalists were primed for trouble. Natalie Des Rosiers, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), says the right to protest was not respected by police that weekend, and the journalists she spoke to didn’t seem to object.

    Her organization had been busy in the lead-up to the events. The CCLA prepared an injunction against the integrated unit’s sound cannons, calling them untested and unconstitutional—an intimidation tool according to the Council of Canadians. Civil libertarians won some restrictions.

    Des Rosiers says the police messaging about protesters continued during the summit.

    The call for media examination

    On June 26, a massive protest march made its way through downtown Toronto. A group of 100 or so people split off in the early afternoon and smashed windows along streets in the business district. They also torched police cruisers. That evening, Des Rosiers went to the G20 media centre. While she was being interviewed by Al-Jazeera TV, she overheard Toronto Chief of Police Bill Blair’s remarks to the reporter next to her.

    “He was extremely dramatic. ‘The city is under attack. We will protect the city,’ and so on. The message was raising the temperature and trying to present a sense of urgency, justifying the means that were being deployed,” she says. She doesn’t remember what media outlet Blair was speaking to and there was no record KJR could refer to.

    The CCLA has come out against police use of tactics and tools such as rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, baton and shield blows, horses, ‘kettling,’ mass arrests of protestors and bystanders and extended detention at a temporary jail.

    “It’s interesting that the media, who after all benefit a great deal from democratic values like freedom of the press and freedom of expression, are not at the forefront, sometimes, of defending them.”
    –Natalie Des Rosiers, CCLA

    The CCLA says many of these tactics, including the mass arrests, are what it calls breaches to constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Although several small-scale reviews are underway, the CCLA is among the groups demanding a full public inquiry that would ensure accountability for the police and the politicians who had a role in shaping what happened. But Des Rosiers says the role of the media is just as worthy of examination.

    She says the media’s willingness to accept police portrayal of all protestors as dangerous comes from a generalized “lack of respect for public assembly,” and a readiness to trust “security experts” who say freedoms must be sacrificed to maintain order.

    “It’s interesting,” she says, “that the media, who after all benefit a great deal from democratic values like freedom of the press and freedom of expression, are not at the forefront, sometimes, of defending them.”

    Scott Taylor, a former soldier, has covered the military as a reporter and commentator for “more years than he cares to remember,” currently as editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps magazine. He says he has seen reporters fall under the influence of message-control tactics when they are embedded with troops in Afghanistan. At the G20, he says the security forces were touting a storyline he has seen many times before. “By creating a false threat—it’s an age old tactic—people will willingly forfeit their so-called liberties of free speech in order to be safe.”

    Demonstrators in Toronto asked for public inquiry into police conduct of the G20 (Bethany Horne photo).

    When the images of the burning police cars appeared on newscasts, people readily accepted that message. “From the moment those images were flashed around the world … no one questioned the expense (of security arrangements) anymore,” he says. “It’s not Paris and it’s not Lebanon and it’s not New Delhi. It’s Toronto.” He believes this created a sense of wrongness for people.

    Tom Godfrey, a Toronto Sun reporter assigned to the G20 beat, says he can see how the media played a role in raising the temperature prior to and during the G20 weekend. He says the police started using words such as “troublemakers” to refer to protestors in January. One of his stories was written based on a Canada Borders Services news release that issued an alert against “professional agitators” in April.

    Covering the same event over the course of several months, he says he saw a change in the rhetoric. “That language kinda ramped up.” The media contributed to the police’s strategy with “extensive coverage day after day” which became a sort of “screaming frenzy.”

    But Godfrey thinks the message needed to be sent.

    “At the time the cops were trying to send a signal that: ‘Hey, we’ll be ready for you.’ They were speaking to the people who were going to come here to cause trouble.” But he’s not self-critical about his role in helping to “ramp it up.”

    “I don’t mind it. I’m a reporter, I’m not a politician, I have no objectives. I go out and cover it. Shit: I’m proud of it.”

    Competition helped move the story along, he adds. “We have four daily papers in this town, 12 weeklies, three all-news stations … If you don’t break a story, the (others do),” he says.

    And it’s easier to take police at their word. “When the police say they have these sound machines, they can show it to you, but so many of these protestors are just talking innuendo. You can’t find them in an hour from now.”

    Police-media relations

    Archer contends intense competition helps the police spread their message.“With the way that the corporate news environment is today, too few people are just willing to parrot what the police are saying without actually breaking it down and examining what that’s going to lead to.” One example of this, she says, is the unquestioning way reports used the word “violence” to refer to vandalism, while police were shooting rubber bullets into peaceful crowds.

    Toronto Police spokesperson Drummond says she “can’t comment as to exact language that was used” in Toronto Police communications. She says Chief Bill Blair’s language was his own, and she defends his dramatic words on the evening of June 26. “It’s something that this city has not seen before. When it’s being done to police vehicles, it’s something that one would take to be an attack on the police.”

    Toronto chief of police Bill Blair faces the media after a hundred or so protestors vandalize the downtown core of the city (Bethany Horne screen capture)

    RCMP Sgt. Michele Paradis was in charge of all Integrated Security Unit communications related to the event, and reported directly to the head of the unit, RCMP Chief Superintendent Alphonse MacNeil. She says her main objective was only to “get as much accurate, timely and transparent information out, in the most effective way.”

    Paradis has worked on summit security communications five times in the past. The first time was in 2000, when the Organization of American States came to Windsor, Ont. At the time, in an interview with Naomi Klein of the Globe and Mail, she did acknowledge borrowing American tactics for summit security.

    She says the Pittsburgh G20 caused public concern when the decision to erect a security fence around the summit wasn’t announced until two weeks before the summit.

    “(In Toronto) we wanted to create an environment of no surprise for the community.”

    The news conferences and releases referring to protestors as possible causes for concern weren’t “inflaming by any means,” and were mainly meant to honour the “very good relationship between the media and the police” that exists in Toronto, she says.

    But the tough language about protesters was picked up by many officials, including political leaders. In the lead-up to the summit, the minister in charge of the RCMP, Vic Toews, used the fire-bombing of an Ottawa Bank as an example of why so much money was needed to secure the summits. After the G20, still facing tough questions from the opposition, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that the vandalism caused by “thugs” justified the billion dollar security budget.

    But John Thompson, a researcher at the Mackenzie Institute with an interest in analyzing  riots, doesn’t think there was a coordinated media strategy and even if there was, the police wouldn’t acknowledge it publicly. “For the most part, police services aren’t that sophisticated. Also, for that matter, the Prime Minister’s office isn’t that sophisticated, either.”

    Still, Archer argues journalists need to get the story right from the start. She argues if what she calls the police version of information becomes dominant, the fear created will be used to justify the growth of a “protest industrial complex,” the cost of which grows from summit to summit, and is passed on to the public. For her part, Des Rosiers say journalists need to cultivate a higher respect for the freedom of assembly, and question the rhetoric that would paint every protestor as a criminal.

    “We should not criminalize dissent. It’s a dangerous trend. It leads to a totalitarian regime,” she says.

    Interestingly, after the 2002 Miami crackdown, human rights groups brought a suit against the city, and last year, Miami agreed it had violated peoples’ rights to free speech. They settled out of court with Amnesty International. The ultimate story of the Toronto summit has yet to be told.

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