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.


Anonymous said...

another great column, thanks Paul.

You nailed it, the internet and YouTube are empowering citizens and letting us share real information rather than accept corporate spin.

This technology increases the potential for a meaningful democracy which is responsive to citizens, rather than corporations.

Anonymous said...

But this was not a case of corporate spin, this was a case of Police spin. Paul did a good article several weeks ago about the need for Police to no longer be able to police themselves. Perhaps with YouTube, this may finally happen sooner than later. Difficult for Stockwell Day to suggest an investigation of the RCMP when the RCMP decided not to investigate him for allegations he bought his current seat. Quid Pro Quo ?

Anonymous said...

A lot of union folks learned a long time ago to carefully watch and body wishing to help out at legal picket lines as thats the place that can have friendly fellows do something real stupid and bring in the wrath of the authorities. The cops have video taped such things for years. At public events it is much harder to keep an eye on who shows up. Nice to see that the citizens are recording things as wll. The CN, in one of thier latest derailment went on and on about no fuel was spilled into the river, yet ciizens took pictures of fuel burning in the river. Credibility goes quickly after such stories.It's sort of amazing that some cops are so dumb they can't even gigure out not to wear parts of their uniforms when doing sneaky things. So who's police force was in overall control, if any force was in control of security?

Anonymous said...

This was really an SQ provincial police matter. Perhaps the RCMP should have been in the loop. But they have enough problem already. Don't they?

Anonymous said...

After being confronted with the video evidence AND the Quebec police admission, I found Stockwell Day's defiant response strangely off key. He wasn't protecting his own federal agency - they'd been cleared at that point - so why was he still defending the Quebec officers and suggesting that they were provoked by militant union people? (His earlier response, before Quebec police had fessed up, was to refer reporters' questions to the Quebec force, since it was their gig.)

Anonymous said...

Do the Quebec provincial police have their own videos of the event?
I would think so.

Who was the 'lead' force in charge of security? RCMP or Quebec?
I don't think the feds would let the Quebec police take the lead for a federal summit meeting.

Did the RCMP know what the Quebec police were planning?
As the lead force the RCMP should have been in the loop for every aspect of the security plan... including the use/role of the agents provocateurs.

CUPE leader Dave Coles has said he may initiate a suit against the police for their actions - that would probably be the only way to get ALL of the evidence under the harsh light of day.

Clueless, Confounded or Confused?
Federal Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day denies knowledge of Quebec police actions:
"Allegations that police agents were planted among the protestors to incite violence at this week’s Montebello summit are described as nonsense by Okanagan-Coquihalla MP Stockwell Day. Day, who attended many of the summit sessions as federal public safety minister, said in a telephone interview Wednesday he knows nothing of such a scheme, which has also been denied by the RCMP and the Quebec provincial police."
"Day dismissed the allegations. He noted as public safety minister he went on a fly-over of the summit site prior to the conference and talked to some of the RCMP members stationed around the perimeter." - John Moorhouse, Penticton Herald, Thursday, August 23, 2007.

RossK said...

One of the things I find most powerful is the ready availability of so much source material in the toobz that the citizen journalists that Mr. Willcocks refers to can peruse at their leisure.

Small case in point....

The anon-o-mouse directly above suggested that he/she 'would think' that the QPP have their own videos of the situation under consideration. The thing is, you don't have to just think about it, you can actually go right to Manly's video (ie. not a clip of it or a summary of it), scrutinize it in its entirety and come up with some pretty compelling evidence that the such QPP video footage very likely does indeed exist.