Monday, August 27, 2007

YouTube leaves police facing tough questions

Two years ago, I wouldn't have been writing a column suggesting police posing as anarchists tried to provoke trouble at the North American summit in Montebello. hadn't made its official debut two years ago. There was no way for someone like Nanaimo filmmaker Paul Manley to share his work with the world.
And without the evidence, most of us would have likely dismissed claims by a union leader that police, dressed us as protestors, were trying to encourage confrontation - and perhaps justify police action against demonstrators.
But YouTube exists. Manley went to the Quebec summit where Stephen Harper, George Bush and Mexican president Felipe Calderon met. He shot video of three aggressive, masked men - pretending to be protestors - clashing with other peaceful demonstrators. One is carrying a big rock. They're belligerent when told to clear off, that it was a peaceful demonstration. One shoves a demonstrator; they won't take off their masks. Then they push through the police lines, and appear to be arrested.
Weird, eh? Protestors who shove through police lines to get taken into custody?
The people at the protest had guessed the three men were police. Manley's video supported that conclusion. When the men were being "arrested," they were laying on the ground. Their boots were clearly shown, and the soles were distinctive and identical to the boots worn by the police officers kneeling beside them.
The star of the video is Dave Coles of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers' Union. He confronts the three masked aggressors, and keeps on questioning them and insisting its a peaceful desmonstration even when he's pushed around. It's impressive.
Coles went public with the claim that police were acting as agents provocateur. The RCMP wouldn't say if the three masked men caught on video were Mounties. The Quebec provincial police said the three men definitely weren't officers from their force.
But that turned to be untrue. After two days of denials, the Quebec provincial police came clean. The three masked men pretending to be hardcore militants were undercover agents. But they weren't doing anything bad, just monitoring the protest, the force said.
It's justifiable for undercover police officers to mingle with protestors if they have reasonable cause to fear some within the group will commit crimes. Undercover officers could help head off violence.
But there wasn't a whole lot of violence at Montebello.
And in the video, the biggest problems, and source of potential conflict, were the actions of the three police officers, masked and pretending to be bad guys.
The police explanations have sounded a little desperate. One officer was carrying a rock because "extremists" had handed it to him to throw and he didn't want to blow his cover.
The option of dropping it somewhere along the way never crossed his mind.
And the Quebec police never explained why the officers were so confrontational and abusive with Coles and others.
Again, two years ago, this would probably have been the end of it. Union leader says police were trying to provoke conflict at a peaceful demonstration. Police deny it.
But today, people with a good Internet connection can watch Manley's video of the incident and make their own judgments. (It's at; just search YouTube on Montebello.)
At best, viewers would likely judge the officers incompetent; at worst, they could decide police were trying to provoke a violent conflict.
It should be alarming. When people show up to protest, because they're concerned about some public issue, they should be free to exercise their rights. If they break the law, of course, they should be charged.
But the undercover police threatened protestors and created a real risk of violence.
Public Security Minister Stockwell Day has brushed off calls for an independent investigation of the affair. He seems to have forgotten the roots of his party, and the commitment to protecting the individual from the powers of the state.
Footnote: It is noteworthy that the story exists only because of an individual filmmaker, and, the website that lets people share videos. Manley's video has been viewed 243,000 times on YouTube and referred to in reports by every major news media in Canada. (The CBC nightly news attracts about 600,000 viewers.) The age of Citizen Journalists has arrived.