Colin Powell showed up in Vancouver to give a talk on 'leadership'. I suppose it was inspiring because We Are Change was there leading the demo. And Vancouver's finest were there to lead the repression. And the police felt inspired to arrest an independent journalist.
About 50 activists were there to pass out literature documenting Powell's long history of war crimes dating back to his participation in the coverup of the My Lai massacre. Once those who had paid $200 a ticket had filed into the hall, most of those demonstrators faded away. That left about 15 members of WAC to make themselves heard inside the hall from outside on the the conference centre promenade. Believe me, we made enough noise, with Johnny and myself working the bullhorn and a little help from our friendly, neighbourhood bagpiper. And given the history of Colin Powell, and his neo-con buddies in the Bush administration we never ran out of things to say on the microphone.
For the most part, the police were fairly well behaved for the first hour of the event. They were highly visible but made no effort to prevent us from demonstrating. After about an hour, a representative of the conference centre came out and spoke with us. She acknowledged our right to be there – in the presence of police officers and security guards – and went back in side.
About half an hour later the police gave an order to disperse, threatening arrest for criminal trespass if we failed to comply. They went from being totally relaxed to insisting that we had to leave right then – and we had the distinct impression that they had been given an order to make sure we were no longer there when the crowd filed out of the hall.
The police gave almost no time for us to disperse, immediately moving to clear us from the promenade. People were complying but were walking backwards and asking the police some basic questions. Why weren't they doing their jobs and showing enough initiative to arrest a well documented war criminal? Why were they devoting their efforts to removing peaceful protestors whose democratic right to protest had been acknowledged when inside the hall was a man guilty of capital crimes. Certainly, since the theme of the day was 'leadership' they could show some and stand up for justice and not for totalitarian rule. Couldn't they?
Apparently not, as it quickly became apparent that the cops were keen on arresting someone now that they had been given permission from on high. The sergeant seemed to have his attention mostly on me, and seeing that it was his intent to make an arrest, I quickened my pace to move away from him.
Now there was a guy there named Mike. I learned later that he had been invited there by WAC but worked in the film industry – which might explain his very expensive looking camera and the professional manner with which he wielded it. He certainly struck me as someone who hadn't been to many demonstrations: a newbie activist, but highly professional with a camera. And if I could see all that then so, presumably, could the police. All of which is relevant because Mike was about to get arrested.
When I quickened my pace to avoid being arrested, Mike planted his feet to get a pan shot of the events. This quickly made him the nearest person to the cop with the three stripes. The officer quickly refocussed his attention on Mike and announced that he had already given an order to leave and that Mike was now in violation. Mike replied that he wasn't there as a demonstrator but as a journalist, assuming, as any reasonable person would, that he was thereby exempt from the order and permitted to document the events. In a free society that is exactly what journalists are supposed to do in this sort of situation.
The officer had options. He could have placed his hand on his cuffs and given the order to disperse again – as I have seen cops do many times when they want people to leave but don't want to be forced to arrest anyone. He could have explained to Mike that he was not recognizing his rights as a journalist and he had to leave anyways. Instead, he was gung ho to make an arrest.
What surprised me most was the amateurish way he went about it. This sergeant grabbed for Mike's free hand to apply a joint lock, the type of technique known in Martial Arts as a compliance hold. Now his skill in applying the joint lock was not so great because it took him two tries to apply it successfully. I had the distinct impression that he had learned this move at last weekend's karate seminar and was dying for a chance to try it out.
Now at no point was Mike making a physical effort to resist arrest. In fact, his completely calm demeanor made the officer's use of the joint lock look slightly ridiculous.
At this point I saw that Mike's camera was about to fall to the ground when the officer went to cuff his other hand. I reached out and put my hand on the top handle of the camera. When Mike recognized me as someone who was with the demonstration, he released his grip on the camera. I then took the camera, its film, and my own person away from the scene of the incident. When I got to the street, it was time for me to go to work and I witnessed no more of the events at that demo.
However, I heard later that the cop told Mike that it was his intention to break his camera by letting it fall to the ground. Certainly, it is typical of the police to look for extra-judicial means of punishment. By proactively allowing a journalist's camera to be destroyed, they effectively are issuing a fine of hundreds or thousands of dollars for which no paperwork needs to be filed.
A further footnote: tickets to the event were sold with the promise that no question would go unanswered. Inside were four WAC activists who had bought tickets on the assumption that they were serious, only to be disabused of their illusions two days before the event. Courageously, they stood and asked their questions anyways, only to be escorted out of the hall. No criminal charges were pursued, yet the first thing they saw when they emerged from the hall was our journalist, Mike, handcuffed and under arrest.
Obviously, no one in authority was showing enough leadership to effect a coordinated policy on what justified punishment. All of us working to disrupt the event went home unscathed. Yet a guy documenting the event in the public interest now has to deal with criminal charges of assault by trespass.
Another curious facet to this event was that Powell's visit was sponsored by an array of local TV and radio media outlets. It makes it a little difficult for the media to provide objective coverage of an event when they have endorsed it before the fact. I would understand if this had been a triathlon or a music concert; it seems totally inappropriate for a political speaker to be so endorsed by the media. Unless of course, the media are tacitly acknowledging that they are not, in fact, independent but properly considered part of the ruling elite.
I would like to add one further comment. We were unprepared for Mike's arrest and had to scramble around to find him a good lawyer. Fortunately, one of the best showed up to take his case pro bono. Nonetheless, it seems to me that those of us in We Are Change are unprepared for the legal consequences of our actions even though the nature of our methods regularly puts us at risk of being arrested. There is an opportunity for us here to hold trainings covering the nature of civil disobedience, how to deal with the cops, jailtime, courtdates, what the law says and what will happen in reality, and how to defend yourself in court. And by holding such trainings we can leave a legacy of hundreds or thousands of activists who are able to be effective agents in the struggle for 9/11 truth and for political progress even after the 9/11 issue is resolved.
-- Patrick Borden
June 13th, 2008