The police did too little to stop vandals, and too much to stop protesters. The police might have lied or been misleading about the extra powers they had to request IDs, detain, and arrest people over the weekend. The police were misleading about the “weapons” they seized from protesters at the G20. The list goes on. Instead of repeating what has already been said, I want to talk about the classism in some reporting on the G20 and the way the protesters have been described.
The issue that has been bothering me is the way that some reporters, in criticizing the police over-reaction have described the peaceful protesters as “middle class.” For example from Steve Paikin’s twitter feed on June 27th (you’ll have to scroll down for these quotes, I added the emphasis not Paikin):
i can appreciate that the police were on edge today, after seeing four or five of their cruisers burned. but why such overreaction tonight?
the demonstration on the esplanade was peaceful. it was like an old sit in. no one was aggressive. and yet riot squad officers moved in.
police on one side screamed at the crowd to leave one way. then police on the other side said leave the other way. there was no way out.
so the police just started arresting people. i stress, this was a peaceful, middle class, diverse crowd. no anarchists
literally more than 100 officers with guns pointing at the crowd. rubber bullets and smoke bombs ready to be fired. rubber bullets fired
i was “escorted” away by police so couldn’t see how many arrested, but it must have been dozens.
we must make a distinction between the “thugs” who broke store windows and torched cop cars and the very reasonable citizens who…
…just wanted to remind the authorities that the freedom to speak and assemble shouldn’t disappear because world leaders come to town.
I agree that there should be a distinction between the peaceful protesters and the vandals. But I think it is a mistake to make this distinction in terms of class. I would also understand if this description only turned up in the twitter feed. The situation was tense, things were happening quickly, the police were being very intimidating, and so there might not have been much time to choose one’s words carefully. But this description turns up repeatedly, for example in this interview at about 10:20:
And it turns up in Paikin’s piece for the Ottawa Citizen. These last two uses of “middle class” to distinguish the good protesters from the bad happened well after Paikin should have had time to think about his choice of words.
The problem is that Paikin is using “middle class” to mean “one of the good ones,” or “not doing wrong,” or “not involved in vandalism.” But this has nothing to do with class. I am sure that a number of those who were involved in the vandalism were also middle class. Making distinctions between good and bad protesters by calling them “middle class” uses already troubling classism in a way that reinforces divides.
[ETA: I wanted to move this comment up to the post, because I think it is important for understanding why this choice of words is problematic. It is problematic not only because of classism, but also because of its inaccuracy.]
It is important to remember that class is not so easily read off the look or behaviour of people. Some “lower class” people look just like “middle class” people, and would behave in a protest in the same way as well. He is saying something he cannot know.
Further, when Paikin is saying that these protesters are “middle class” it is in the context of saying that the level of police violence against them is unjustified. But the police behaviour is not unjustified because they are middle class. The behaviour is unjustified because the crowd was peaceful and law abiding. Making the distinction in terms of class carries the implication that it would be justified for the police to attack the group if they were “lower class” (or perhaps, although I find the implication seems less likely, “upper class”). But class should have nothing to do with how one is treated by the police.
I am not arguing (as some of my friends have mistakenly understood me to be arguing) that there should be no economic differences. That is, I am not arguing for complete equality in income and wealth. One friend responded to my objection to this kind of coverage by saying:
i don’t know, but it seems that as long as there are Material “Have’s” and “Have-Not’s”, there will always some kind of Class system…and as technology is forever evolving, let’s hope it will be ‘worthless’ in its Material value, therefore evening -out the playing field? I don’t know – I’m sure parents of younger children are still bombarded withtheir kids wanting the newest, coolest shoes or clothes etc., and that’s even in Uniformed-based Schools where everyone is supposed to appear “equal”
But I am not arguing that incomes should be leveled, or that everyone must dress the same in order for things to be “equal.” The way that Canada has understood itself as an “equal” society is that things like class, religion, gender and so forth should not affect how one is treated before the law. There is a world of difference between the situation in which some kids are able to buy the most trendy shoes while others cannot and the situation in which people should accept (or expect) different kinds of treatment from the police because of their class. The former situation in no way violates the Charter, for example. The latter situation denies people equal treatment under the law, and therefore violates the Charter.
As a respected journalist, Paikin should be careful about the way he chooses his words and the implications of the distinctions that he makes. There are other ways he could express that the protesters were harmless that would be less problematic and more accurate. For example, he could have said the protesters were “law abiding” or “peaceful” or something like that. What he did say was both inaccurate and reinforces problematic class distinctions in a classist way.
Click the Photo to embiggen.
Link Round Up:
The full version of the video embedded at the top of this post.
A video in which you can see some of my friends surrounded by cops in a “kettle” (the same one as in the picture above). These friends were not protesting, they were walking home from a baseball game.
A video in which a looter gets told not to steal by a citizen who has politely tackled him.
A Video of the protest near Eastern Ave. at the Film Studios that were used as a temporary detention centre.
14 essential G20 videos as chosen by the Torontoist.
A video of Naomi Klein on using the vandals as an excuse to justify the $1.2 Billion security budget.
Jesse Freeston’s video report on the G20 and gets attacked by the police.
Queen’s Park was supposed to be a designated free speech zone, but in this video police round-up protesters there, too.
A friend of mine criticizes the Austerity Agenda.
Iran criticizes Canada for violating the civil rights of Canadians (ha, ha, ha).
Police make a mistake and raid the wrong house at 4 AM.
Shakesville on alleged human rights violations at the G20.
CBC coverage of the G20.
Toronto Star coverage of the G20.
Now coverage of the G20.
The Globe and Mail coverage of the G20.
National Post coverage of the G20.