The Toronto Star has a new article out about the testimony of Cmdr Norn Miles, a York Regional police officer, in disciplinary hearing of Supt. David (Mark) Fenton, who allegedly employed civil rights-violating tactics against citizens during the 2010 G20 debacle in Toronto. The G20 meeting was a disaster for so many reasons, but the focus of the disciplinary hearing is Miles’s use of the kettling technique, where rows of riot gear-equipped police box in a group of citizens – in that particular case, for hours on end and during a torrential downpour. Miles testified that during the kettling at Queen and Spadina, he would fake arrests so that he could allow certain people to leave the box.
Quoth the Star, “It was abundantly clear that we were to maintain the line and hold onto protesters,” and then “At no point were police given discretion to allow people who appeared to be innocent bystanders to leave, he said.”
Like the G20 farce itself, there are many things about this account that bother me, and i feel compelled to call them out to cut through this carefully constructed message. For one, we haven’t heard from Norn Miles about the G20 until now. Yet out he steps from the safety of retirement to give this testimony, one that evokes a lone brave WWII commander who balks at the atrocious orders of his Nazi superiors and saves people from an unjust fate. (World War II is a hackneyed comparison here, but it comes immediately to mind whenever the spectre of “just following orders” is invoked.) Through this testimony, Miles is essentially retconning his own heroism into this story.
While Norn Miles may have committed many acts of heroism throughout his career as a police officer, in my opinion, this was not one of them.
i demand more from my heroes. An actual heroic act would look like this: a police officer on active duty with real mouths to feed and a real job to lose speaks out against kettling practices the week after the G20. Or better still: that active-duty police officer refuses to follow the unjust orders of his superior during the actual event. He breaks rank, and goes home. That’s what a goddamned hero looks like.
The G20 did not give rise to any such heroes. Four years later, Miles’s hindsight heroism doesn’t stack up.
Innocent Until Proven Protester
The other glaringly insidious observation stemming from this story is that Miles appeared to be deciding on degrees of innocence of the kettled citizens. Miles says in his testimony that the crowd was passive, that he didn’t see anyone with weapons, no one damaging property, and no one covering their faces (a proviso that will come to a “head” during Toronto’s next protest involving niqabs – but that’s a different story). Despite determining that all assembled were behaving reasonably, Miles says he opted to fake arrests in order to smuggle out “people who appeared to be innocent bystanders,” including a “Chinese family” and “two shivering teenagers.”
What’s unacceptable here is the suggestion that the non-protesters were innocent, but that police felt it would be somehow instructive to keep protesters kettled. Shivering teenagers get a break, but shivering protesters should stay kettled. A Chinese family (why not just “a family”? This was at the foot of Chinatown. Seems like an odd distinction) should be let out of the box, but protesting families – brothers and sisters, fathers and sons – are somehow more fit to be detained. It’s the duty of the police to arrest citizens who break the law. According to Miles, no one being kettled was breaking the law – all were innocent – and yet some assembled were deemed more innocent than the rest.
Innocence and guilt are not decisions for the police to make. That’s why we have courts. “Law-breaking” and “law-abiding” are the purview of our police. If no one at Queen and Spadina was breaking the law, then Miles should not have made a distinction between “bystander” and “protester.”
But this was the G20, i’ll remind you. This was the event where police set up a “designated protest zone” – already a disgusting and dehumanizing concept – at Queen’s Park, five city blocks away from the actual subject of protest, and then arrested everyone in the park anyway. If the G20 taught us anything, it’s that we should demand a higher level of service from our police, and by extension, our heroes. A true hero does not write a post-retirement memoir about how he decided which concentration camp-bound prisoners looked the most innocent, and smuggled them off the box car. A true hero pulls everyone out of the box car, and blows up the fucking train.