Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Designated Olympic Protest Zones: Not Just in Beijing!

Designated Olympic Protest Zones from Beijing to Toronto (a report from Toronto Action for Social Change)

(Left, Kamila Talendibaeva, holding bullhorn, calls on those inside the Chinese consulate in Toronto to meet about bringing her husband, Huseyin Celil, back to Canada)

As many “Westerners” sneered at the Chinese government for its designated protest zones during the Olympics, it was terribly convenient to forget that this experiment in Beijing-style “democracy” was nothing new. In fact, it’s how the Chinese have learned “democracy” from those who boast most about it, countries like the US and Canada, where designated protest zones, police repression, and denial of freedom of assembly are all too common.

Anyone who is familiar with large or small scale Canadian protests has been subject to the insult of designated protest pens, mini-jails that are nowhere near the spot where the protest makes the most sense. In last summer’s Montebello protest (where the leaders of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico gathered and RCMP undercover agents were “uncovered” holding rocks after trying to rile a crowd), a field in the middle of nowhere was “given” to protesters, who smartly refused it. In the G-8 summit at Kananaskis, all roads were simply cut off, stranding individuals wanting to protest as closely as possible to the world’s most powerful warlords. And the 2010 Olympics on stolen First Nations land is already shaping up be a police paradise of secret warehouse detention centres, street sweeps of “undesirables”, and protest zones that will likely be as near to the games area as Kamloops is to Kazakhstan.
In downtown Toronto, anyone who has dared raise a placard or held the end of a banner knows from experience that the area is full of what might charitably be called Charter–free zones, where the guarantees of free expression and assembly do not exist. Such zones spring up at the whim of Metro police and the RCMP, and are usually aimed at individuals who, for lack of a better description, are not terribly satisfied with the status quo. For example, the sidewalk in front of the U.S. consulate on University Avenue is open to anyone who wishes to walk by, provided they are not carrying a sign. The minute that happens, they are told by police to move across the street or face arrest. Of course, if you want to have a 9/11 memorial right on that sidewalk, where businesspeople are invited to leave condolence notes, the area is open to you.

Similar police behaviour occurs during protests at the Metro Convention Centre, where ordinarily public sidewalks are suddenly declared “private property”, off-limits to such gatherings (even as Blue Jays and Argonauts fans throng by waving their team flags and banners and placards.)

Anyone who questions such behaviour is told by Metro Police and RCMP that this is the way things are. Further questioning is met with cold stares or threats of arrest. One can challenge such arbitrary edicts, of course, but there is a risk that this may result in an overnight stay in downtown lockup. It is strange indeed – and no small matter of intimidation -- that people planning to attend simple, peaceful protests in a “democratic” society must build in possible jail time as part of their daily planners.

For individuals who work in groups such as Toronto Action for Social Change, this is nothing new. One of our members found this out the hard way almost a decade ago when he decided to protest a gathering of terrorists at the Royal York hotel. It was a celebratory meeting of NATO war ministers who were then gladhanding themselves over the terror bombing of the former Yugoslavia, a campaign that had renewed the manhood of the allegedly flaccid military alliance. This mild-mannered gentleman (then 64 years of age) decided to take his one-person protest, wearing an anti-war sign, to the front of the hotel shortly after midnight (having first enjoyed a mellow night of jazz at the Rex). He was told he was not allowed on the sidewalk because it was “private property.” He argued the point, then insisted that if he could not be on the sidewalk, he would stand in the street, whereupon he was arrested, assaulted by police, and held overnight with an assault charge that was eventually dropped.

Anyone familiar with street protest in Toronto knows this is common police practice. Other TASC members have been banned for life from Queen’s Park for planting vegetable gardens or singing persistently.

While these are annoying inconveniences on the road to justice, they certainly are nothing compared to the police behaviour directed at anyone in this city who does not enjoy white skin privilege or a certain amount of financial assets. Incessant harassment of the homeless, area bans issued against young people because of their skin colour (police essentially tell them not to enter the downtown shopping district upon pain of arrest), and the standard crimes of driving while black or flying while Arab remain daily signs that Canadian democracy is limited to those with the largest amounts of cash and privilege.

So all the holier-than-thou coverage of what happens with the Chinese protest scene during the Olympics takes on the stink of high irony. Nowhere was this made more clear than during a series of protests we organized this summer at the Chinese consulate on St. George Street with the Canadian Committee to Free Huseyin Celil, a Canadian wrongfully jailed for life in China on trumped up charges.
Celil is a Uyghur who spoke up for the rights of his brutally repressed people and eventually escaped China, coming to Canada as a refugee with his family and children, and eventually becoming citizens. He was arrested in Uzbekistan over two years ago and illegally handed over to China, where he was threatened with unspeakable tortures into signing a “confession.” Celil was not allowed to present a defence at his “trial,” nor were Canadian consular officials allowed to attend.

Since China had promised to improve human rights if it were given the 2008 summer Olympics, we decided to organize a series of walks and rallies encouraging that government to keep its promise while calling on the Canadian government to appoint a special envoy to go and do whatever is necessary to get Celil freed.

The first demonstration we held, a hot Sunday afternoon in late June, got off on a bad footing when four of us, quietly enjoying the shade of the trees at the consulate, were told we were on the wrong side of the road by the RCMP. When we explained that we had been on this side of the road numerous times before over the years, we were informed that did not matter, and the new rule was that everyone had to be across the street (in front of a seniors’ home which no doubt did not appreciate the appearance that its practices were being protested!)

The RCMP, in a fashion that the Chinese back in Beijing must have picked up on quickly, demanded to know the names, addresses, and birth dates of protest organizers. We refused and then asked why, and they said it was for their file. Why, we asked, did they need to create a file on a group of peaceful people, many of them Uyghur refugees, who were simply exercising democratic rights? Was the file to be shared with the Chinese in the hopes of intimidating the Uyghurs who DID have the courage to speak out, or harassing their family members still under Chinese occupation? Would names and other information be shared with the Chinese to be used in their torture chambers just as the RCMP and CSIS did in the cases of Canadians tortured in Syria—Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin?

The June rally, which had come together rather quickly, planned to walk to Queen’s Park, the grounds of the Ontario legislature. This was a Sunday afternoon, so the building and large grounds were empty. Nonetheless, Metro Police told organizers that the gathering could not be permitted and that certainly, no speeches would be allowed, since there had been no permit issued. When we explained we did not require a permit to gather in a public place, we were told to stop being so “mean.” Eventually, the police backed down, though when we did arrive at the empty legislature, they insisted we gather further from the building’s front steps because of the “rules.”

The second demonstration, held in late July, was similar in tone. While we decided to avoid hassles and gather in front of the beleaguered seniors’ home, we were confronted with a rather difficult situation. An ambulance pulled up to go in and get someone, but getting to and from the building was difficult for the ambulance crew, even with our relatively small numbers (about 50 people). So we decided on this Sunday afternoon, when the Chinese consulate was closed anyway, to go across the street and stand on the sidewalk in front of the building that made the most symbolic sense to be protesting.

As we stood where we wished to stand in the first place, the Mounties and Metro police again gave us the third degree lecture about how this was unacceptable. We explained that there was a health and safety issue across the way, and that our presence was a possible impediment to the health care crew. We insisted on staying there until the ambulance had gone. One individual from the China Rights Network complained that he had been on this very spot dozens of times, and wanted to know why things had changed. Rather than receiving an explanation, he was asked for his name and other personal details.

After the ambulance left, and as speeches continued in front of the seniors’ home (a great video overview on the Celil case and the plight of the Uyghurs is available athttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLyLUXEqM-U), a number of us decided to try a further discussion with the RCMP. An officer explained that no matter what reason he gave, he would be seen as “wrong” by the protesters, so had decided not to give one. When we pressed, he came up with a story about concerns for our health and safety, because cars go by and might hit someone who steps off the sidewalk. Given that there is a stop sign not 50 feet from where we were standing, we explained that this was a highly unlikely scenario and that, in fact, someone was more at risk on the OTHER side of the street. Needless to say, the concept that a small group of adults carrying placards could not resist darting out into the road spoke to a bizarre RCMP view of protesters as infants who required extraordinary forms of physical protection.

Subsequent gatherings were just as strange. On the opening night of the Olympics, a group of about 50 people again gathered at a downtown intersection before undertaking the 25-minute walk to the Chinese consulate, this time arriving in front of the building. While nervous RCMP looked on, they said it was okay to be there as long as we did not block the entrance. We wondered why they had suddenly changed their policy—was it because they were afraid of analogies being drawn to the protest zones in Beijing? Or were they simply unprepared for our protest which, given the wall to wall Olympics coverage, no doubt got lost in their daily media mix?

Given that we were not harassed during Olympics opening night, we figured that closing night would be just as carefree. Wrong. As a group of about 30 people showed up, quietly standing around, we were immediately accosted by an RCMP agent who told us we were not allowed to be in front of the empty consulate on a Sunday evening at 8:30 pm. When informed that we had been in the exact same spot two weeks earlier with no problems, the agent seemed confused, and returned to the line that such protests were not allowed. When asked for an explanation, she called in backup, who shortly arrived with the same old story. We explained that we would only be here for about 15 minutes, but were informed that after that time, we would be removed to the other side of the street.

What had changed? We asked.

“We have received information,” the agent cryptically replied.

“From the Chinese? About us?” we countered.

“I can’t reveal that information,” was the reply.

Since it was our intention to leave shortly anyhow, we informed the RCMP that we were heading out, but not because we had been ordered to do so. We also commented that just as there is a race to the bottom when it comes to the “globalization” of labour and environmental standards, so there is when it comes to human rights. As corporations complain that strict environmental guidelines make it hard for them to do business in one country while another openly dumps its toxins into the water and air, one can imagine countries like Canada complaining that other countries get to openly repress and torture their protesting citizens, so why can’t we?

It’s a slippery slope, one we continue to glide down at our peril.

Those wishing to help out on the Huseyin Celil case are encouraged to contact the Canadian Committee to Free Huseyin Celil, c/o Wilf Ruland, deerspring@hwcn.org, (905) 648-1296, or Toronto Action for Social Change at (416) 651-5800, tasc@web.ca

In the meantime, please consider sending a short note to Prime Minister Stephen Harper urging that a special envoy be appointed to go to China and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the safe return of Mr. Celil to his family in Burlington, Ontario. Harper’s office can be reached at pm@pm.gc.ca, or (613) 992-4211.

And don’t forget to join the Caravan to End Canadian Involvement in Torture, through Southern Ontario, October 17-23.

No comments: