Toronto Police Name Santa A Security Threat
Police Threaten Arrests as They Block Access to Sidewalk in front of U.S. Consulate During Xmas Eve Walk of Hope to Set the Captives Free
(photos at http://johnb.smugmug.com/gallery/1068864/1)
DECEMBER 24, 2005 -- The fact that Iraqi police are receiving failing grades from international human rights organizations might have something to do with who is providing the training. Indeed, the same Toronto police who are involved in "training" Iraqi police forces were also involved in shutting down democratic dissent on the empty sidewalks of downtown Toronto Xmas Eve.
A Walk to Set the Captives Free, focusing on everyone from Jim Loney and his fellow CPT members in Iraq, to the tens of thousands of security detainees held without charge in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and Canada, almost went off without a hitch today as about 35 people joined Santa Claus at the offices of CSIS at 12 noon.
But as soon as individuals bearing banners and pieces of cake showed up at the doorstep of Canada's scandal-plagued spy agency, groups of yellow-jacketed police swarmed the area to remind those gathered that they are always one step away from arbitrary detention right here at home.
From Christian Peacemaker Team members and the Friends and Family of Gary Freeman to the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada and the Law Union of Ontario, it was unclear how the small group could have started a riot even if they wanted to.
Following a beautiful opening by Father Bob Holmes of CPT (who himself was recently in Iraq accompanying Palestinian refugees trying to leave the country) and the singing of alternative carols led by Margaret Rao, the group walked up to Queen Street and over to the west side of University Ave, where they were blocked by a number of police who said the group had to walk on the other side of the street. Santa and the group nevertheless walked through the police, who perhaps thought the use of a couple of bikes might prevent our passage. Confused police retreated further up the sidewalk, setting up a permanent barricade of men and bikes about 60 feet south of the Consulate.
As regular pedestrians walked by, it was only those bearing signs of peace and good will who were not allowed in front of the Consulate. To drive home the point, squad cars and a police wagon suddenly appeared as well.
As a member of the Law Union of Ontario tried to negotiate with police, informing them that there is a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the group sang carols and remarked that it is often democracy itself which finds itself in detention. The point was well delivered by a representative of No One Is Illegal, who spoke of the detentions ongoing in he United States, and by Natercia Coelho, who discussed how the extradition act allows the use of false and contradictory evidence to rubberstamp the "removal" of people like her husband, Gary Freeman, held 18 months while fighting extradition.
She also read a powerful call to love one another penned by her husband, a call which was so "threatening" that police must have congratulated themselves on the decision to keep it from being read in front of the consulate. Coelho noted the irony that a few short weeks earlier, a much larger crowd supporting her husband's fight for freedom gathered in front of the consulate while she and her family were actually invited in to meet with U.S. officials.
As Santa tried to dialogue with police, he was informed that he and the group posed undisclosed security risks to the consulate, and that police were only following orders. Santa found this ironic, since one focus of the demo was the secret trial process which continues to hound five Muslim men in Canada, who are also called security risks for undisclosed reasons.
There are no demonstrations allowed in front of the consulate, the police repeatedly told us. We pointed out websites that had scores of pictures of recent demos on front of the building, including one in which Jim Loney and members of the CPT, hooded as if in Abu Ghraib, stood atop the steps to the front of the building with hundreds of others on September 11, 2004.
Santa asked how many people had attended a demo in front of the consulate in the past few months. Almost everyone raised their hands. After 9/11/2001, there had been a no-protest zone set up in front of the consulate. This was done in an arbitrary fashion, with no public debate, no court order, simply a decision by police, no doubt acting on orders from the U.S. consulate. That zone was eventually liberated by Toronto Action for Social Change (TASC), which defied the injunction and opened up the space, with no arrests being made. Police must have known that arresting us would have been futile, for no court (hopefully) would have upheld such a ridiculous practice. But whenever they can, the police try and re-establish that zone, despite the fact that dozens of small gatherings have taken place there in the past few years.
And while some in the group could have tried to defy this arbitrary decision on Xmas Eve, that was put off for another day, perhaps out of recognition for how busy Santa was. Santa suggested that last-minute shoppers get copies of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and, circling sections relevant to today's lesson in repression, fax them in to Police Chief Bill Blair and 52 division. The group eventually moved on to the Peace Garden at City Hall, though the few who stayed behind to say they were amazed at this arbitrary use of authority were told to move on or be arrested--for standing on the sidewalk!
After a closing reminder by Brian Burch (himself a TASC-ite who has been banned from Queen's Park for, er, praying, singing, and the planting of vegetable gardens) that those who are faithful to such ideals as love and freedom truly are dangerous to the authority of injustice (watched over by a large group of bike cops and city hall security), members of Food not Bombs magically appeared to provide hearty vegetarian fare.
Later, on their way back to Santa's sleigh (parked near CSIS), a small group accompanied Santa back across University Avenue, with banners rolled up and placards wrapped up, and again tried to walk in front of the building. Held up on the traffic island on University Ave by a long red light (they did not want to jaywalk with so many cops around), they watched as about a dozen individuals, without signs or banners (though some carrying very sharp objects such as ice skates), walked past the consulate without being stopped by police.
When we crossed the road and tried to do the same, we were again stopped by the police, who told us that they did not know our intentions and therefore could not let us pass.
"What about the intentions of complete strangers who have walked by? You've spent two hours watching us, surely you must know our intentions by now," we explained.
"You've been part of a demonstration without a leader. We asked for your leader, no one came forward, and a leaderless crowd can be very dangerous," we were informed.
"Why are you doing this to us?" someone inquired.
"We're just following orders."
Police then explained there was a violent demonstration once that involved eggs and molotov cocktails (this in reference no doubt to an incident in 1998, a full 7 and a half years ago!). By this logic, nothing should ever be allowed to happen because something bad once happened.
But in the end, it was clearly a case that the US Consulate's footmen, 52 division police, object to the presence of ANY message that contradicts US policy being held in front of the building. For when the group gave up and walked west, going directly behind the American consulate, no one tried to stop them, even though the group could have made much havoc behind the building, perhaps even unfolding one of their banners! It was the signs, and the intentions of the people (perhaps to enflesh the messages of peace and social justice) which so threaten the empire. The threat of a good idea.
(report from TASC's Matthew Behrens, who along with four other vigilers -- including Father Bob Holmes -- received a lifetime ban from Queen's Park in 1998, the legality of which remains before the courts).
For those who would like to send a message of protest accompanied by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the Chief of Police, call 416-808-8000 and FAX 416-808-8002
WE ARE A DANGEROUS PEOPLE
Notes for a statement by Rev. Brian Burch
Saturday, December 24th
Peace Gardens, Nathan Philips Square
Concluding the "Set The Captives Free: From The Don Jail to Guantanamo Bay" Walk
The Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara made a statement that has stayed with me over the decades since I first encountered it -- "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, the true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love." People of faith must all be revolutionaries. We love the gift of creation and seek to preserve it; we love our neighbours and respond to the needs of the hungry and homeless and the refugees of this world; we love our sisters and brothers who are in captivity around the world. We are people of many faiths who share a desire for peace and justice for all.
For those of us who are Christian, we are in a time of waiting that culminates on Christmas day. We hope that once again God is shown to be with us, a new born, trusting infant who experiences intimately what it is like to need others, to be vulnerable, to be dependent on others. Like all of us, Jesus was afraid and lonely and angry and hopeful. He grew up to be a grating presence on the powers that be as he walked the lands of the occupied middle east, talking of peace and justice and the need to set the captives free.
Our Jewish sisters and brothers are preparing to celebrate Hanukkah -- a reminder of a miracle for an oppressed people, a time of dedication This dedication festival grew from a successful resistance to foreign occupation. The lighting of the menorah is a sign for all people living in darkness, a statement that there is hope for justice, even when everything appears hopeless.
Jim Loney, one of the CPT captives, reminded me of the long history of Muslim resistance. The west needs to remember those such as Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Muslim leader from the Pashtun tribe who was imprisoned by the British for over fifteen years in the struggle for Indian independence. He managed to mobilize 100,000 non-violent Muslim soldiers. This army was called the Servants of God, and they were essential to the winning of Indian independence. All of them signed a ten-point pledge in which they swore to serve God, to sacrifice their lives and wealth for their people, to oppose hatred, to live by non-violent principles, not to expect or desire rewards for their service, and to seek to please God in all their undertakings. As a devout Muslim leader, Khan successfully unleashed the non-violent force of Islam. "I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it," he told them. "It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it." (taken from www.forusa.org/fellowship/sept-oct-04/abu-nimer.html)
We are dangerous people. As people of many faiths, we come together to remember all those who are in captivity, who are detained, who are imprisoned unjustly. In our diversity, we find common ground in our love for others, in our love of the divine, in our love of justice and of peace. Today we have found a way to be of one voice in our call for the release of all detainees. Together, we have proven Che right.
Toronto Action for Social Change, PO Box 73620, 509 St Clair Ave. West, Toronto, ON M6C 1C0, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.homesnotbombs.ca
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