The use of police terror and violence against protesters, trade unionists, and community activists reached a high point in 2010, incomparable to past years and perhaps the last couple decades in Canada. The routine harassment of working class youth and minorities, particularly in Canada’s working class districts, has also intensified.
Police intensification in working class districts
Unemployment is on the rise. Well-paying full-time employment is scarce. Educational opportunities are out of reach of more and more Canadians as tuition fees rise. Student debt has reached new heights while social programs continue to be gutted. Public housing is a wreck and waiting lists for affordable housing have reached criminal lengths. The result—working class communities are left in disarray.
Youth from working class backgrounds have nowhere to turn towards. Parents struggle to make ends meet. Homelessness, evictions, and hunger are all on the rise across Canada.
Untouched, however, are the bloated police agencies and military spending. That, and of course, the obscene profits of a small minority of Canadians.
As working class communities break apart, the police have played a major role in sweeping the impact of austerity cuts, unemployment, and the broader crisis under-the-rug. To do this, police have been granted sweeping powers and placed above public accountability, and the result has been the massive overcrowding of Canada’s prisons (which are set to expand under Harper’s Conservatives). Instead of solving the pressing needs of the majority of Canadians who work for a living, the response of various levels of government has been to terrorize the communities we call home. The symptoms of this “policing solution” are clearer to the public then ever before.
The murder of working class youth by the cops has sparked public attention across Toronto and Montreal. Not a day goes by where social media sites, flocked by North American youth, do not post new videos of police brutality and killings. In Ontario, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), supposedly set-up to oversee cases of police misconduct, has come under intense scrutiny even in the mainstream press for a near-perfect track record of letting police off for their crimes.
Over the past years, we have seen a sharp increase in mass police raids of housing projects in various working class districts, which often leave innocent families traumatized by gun-toting and indiscriminate cops. Illegal harassment and brutality is a common part of the urban scenery, with no recourse provided to youth to challenge their mistreatment. Even older Canadians, perhaps once shown a degree of respect, are roughed up in public for challenging the unlimited power of police authorities in their communities.
Political repression by the Canadian state
More telling, however, is the stark rise of police being used to intimidate, detain, and attack labour, socialist, student and community activists. Political repression isn’t anything new to Canada. However, there has undoubtedly been a sharp turn towards policing bodies being used to curtail political freedoms and clamp down on dissent.
The massive detainment of over 1,100 protesters during the G20 summit in the makeshift prison-cages of “Torontonamo” was a striking testament to what democracy really looks like in Canada. The G20 summit’s purpose was to plan out the massive austerity cuts against working class people across the advanced capitalist world. A massive army of cops protected them, and brought down its batons on the labour-organized demonstration of workers and youth who rallied against the austerity measures, increasing poverty, widespread layoffs, and environmental destruction.
New laws were improvised on the spot to deny people the right to protest. Creative bail conditions were placed on hundreds of arrested protesters to deny them the right to organize and express political opinions. The use of police kettling tactics, which indiscriminately detained hundreds of people (including passing pedestrians), were provided justification under the so-called “law”. Furthermore, over 700 protesters were locked up and then released without charges within 24 hours, having been denied their right to protest, access to lawyers, and even basic treatment during detainment.
During the G20, the Conservatives and Liberals made it clear that Liberal Democracy is a façade that can be thrown away to meet the needs of the ruling class. The supposed cheerleaders of “law-and-order” bluntly showed us that our political rights are only upheld if we remain silent.
The G20 mass arrests, the largest in Canadian history, did not come from nowhere. Trade unionists have seen themselves under more intense state repression in the recent period, with back-to-work orders becoming more common and even police attacks on union rallies. Employers using aggressive private security teams, often breaking labour laws, have been able to squash union organizing drives and avoid legal repercussions. Community and students activists over the last few years have regularly seen peaceful demonstration result in mass lock-ups, as well.
The economic crisis and the police
The use of police against the working class movement is indicative of a system in decay and crisis. The world crisis of capitalism requires that working people bear its burden, so that the rich can continue to live in extravagance.
As the crisis in capitalism continues to bear down on the backs of working people, the bosses are making it clear to us that they will accept no alternative. The message of the G20 is clear; if we do not put our heads down and accept cuts and layoffs, then we will be forced to. Resistance to austerity measures will not be tolerated.
This trend is visible across the world. Whether it is public sector workers in Greece, oil workers in France, students in the UK, unemployed youth in Tunisia, or hotel workers in the United States, the police are being used to quell the struggle of working people, which has intensified in response to the crisis in capitalism.
Marxists understand the state apparatus (police, army, prisons, etc.) to be armed bodies of men in the service of the capitalists to ensure the continued exploitation of the working class. Over 100 years ago, Friedrich Engels explained:
“The ancient state was, above all, the state of the slave-owners for holding down the slaves, just as the feudal state was the organ of the nobility for holding down the peasant serfs and bondsmen, and the modern representative state is the instrument for exploiting wage-labour by capital.”
In periods of economic boom, this fact may remain somewhat hidden beneath the façade of bourgeois democracy. However, when working class people begin mobilizing to protect their livelihoods, the role of the state apparatus, as a coercive tool in the service of the rich, becomes evident. The G20 mass arrests were a brutal illustration of this fact for many Canadians.
How do we move forward?
The labour movement cannot ignore police violence and state repression. Unfortunately, the labour leadership has often relied on the state apparatus itself to ensure our political rights and safety. This is an incorrect way to move forward, and has been shown, repeatedly, to be ineffective. The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), mentioned before, is an example of the way in which the police departments deflect public anger while continuing to avoid accountability. Individual police may be turned into scapegoats and gently slapped on the wrist, while the status quo continues. We cannot depend on the courts, the police, or the capitalist parties (the Liberals and Conservatives) to protect us.
At the same time, many genuine activists have attempted to “go-it-alone” by building isolated anti-police brutality campaigns. These efforts, while important, lack the resources or social power to represent a sustained and meaningful challenge to the impunity of various sections of repressive state apparatus. The efforts of the Esplanade Community Group (who have written for these pages in the past), for example, has shown concretely that isolated community activists are targeted by police for speaking out against police brutality. Although these campaigns are important, they will lack teeth as long as they are unable to link up with the broader working class organizations.
The only solution is to rely on the strength of our class. The labour movement in Canada has a rich tradition of struggle. The Canadian working class is today organized primarily in the trade unions and the New Democratic Party (NDP). These organizations were built through the heroic efforts of Canadian workers who fought employer-hired goons, scabs, and police in the struggle to gain a decent standard of living. Many of the gains we enjoy today, such as good jobs, universal healthcare, the right to organize unions, pensions, workplace safety, and the minimum wage could not have been possible if workers had not been willing to defend themselves and their picket lines.
We must return to the tradition of relying on our own strength if we are going to be able to defend our jobs, our healthcare services and our access to affordable housing in the period of economic crisis. Organized labour must take a lead in the fight against police brutality. This means challenging union-busting attempts, protecting its rallies from police attacks, preventing the terrorization of working class neighbourhoods, and maintaining solid picket lines to protect good jobs.
Unfortunately, the leadership of trade unions and the NDP regularly back down from these tasks. It therefore falls on workers, students, and youth to ensure that our organizations take a fighting stance. Two resolutions, one on the G20 and one on police brutality, which were passed with a strong majority at the recent Ontario New Democratic Youth (ONDY) convention in Hamilton, are steps in the right direction. This is a reflection of the growing mood of discontent among the rank-and-file of the trade unions, the NDP, and the broader working class.
If the present leadership refuses to protect the working class, then it should step aside. At stake is the very survival of our class in the period of economic downturn. A good first step would be to return to the basic program of the Regina Manifesto, the founding document of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the predecessor to today’s NDP), where Canadian workers uncompromisingly put forward that:
No C.C.F. Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full program of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.
The task of the labour movement is to address the roots of the problems. The brutal capitalist system, which benefits a tiny minority of Canadians, must be abolished. With it, the state apparatus, which today serves and protects the interests of that tiny minority, must be abolished and replaced by a state that is directly and democratically controlled by the working class. We are the vast majority and we demand nothing less than the fruits of our labour.