I spotted a pretty clever tweet a few weeks ago that went something like: “Police are beating you for slight or nonexistent legal transgressions? Wow… shocking!” – Black people. The joke being, of course, that the kind of ham-fisted tactics that police are turning against peaceful protesters have been leveled against black people, particularly young men, for decades with scarcely any comment from the majority.
That’s one of the galling facets of privilege – it completely skews what your view of ‘normal’ is. Faced with stories about cops brutally beating young black men, many people reacted with incredulity. “I’ve never seen an officer hit someone. Are you saying that all cops are racist? I find that hard to believe.” I had a similar conversation with a friend when we both saw a police officer pull over a young black man driving in a nice car with dealer plates. When I cynically observed that the driver’s first mistake was driving a nice car while being black, my buddy expressed his disbelief, saying that dealer plates come with certain restrictions, and that he didn’t see it being a case of racial profiling.
I can certainly understand the instinct to dismiss these kinds of stories as exceptional or delusional. Five years ago, if you had told me that police were infiltrating political groups to drum up phony charges against them, I’d have called you a lunatic. Then again, five years ago I wasn’t reading stories like this:
In early 2009, two strangers started mingling with the activist communities of Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph. The first was a man. Those who crossed paths with him say he ingratiated himself by chauffeuring people to protests in his white van and buying them pitchers of beer at the bar after. The second, a woman, told people she had fled an abusive relationship, acquaintances say.
Both were undercover police officers infiltrating organizations planning protests against the Toronto G20 summit in June, 2010. They were part of the Joint Intelligence Group, an RCMP-led squad with officers seconded from the Ontario Provincial Police and other forces, whose task was to gather information on threats to the summit.
Now I am not so blind to the realities of crime prevention in our modern age that I think police officers shouldn’t be able to infiltrate and monitor groups that may potentially become violent. There are organizations that are hell-bent on causing massive destruction to property and harm to human life. If one has to lie to a criminal in order to save someone’s life, I will lose exactly zero seconds of sleep. I am certainly sympathetic to the need for innovative and ethically grey techniques when it comes to terrorism.
That being said, my sympathy is more than a little diminished when I read stuff like this:
That summer, protesters set up a makeshift encampment at the proposed site of the Hanlon Creek Business Park. The male officer was there, Mr. Ichim said, and pushed for radical action. “[The officer] was saying ‘we need to take monkey wrenches and [damage construction] machinery,’” he said. “The occupation had a lot of support and he was talking about wrecking machinery, which tactically makes no sense.” (Sgt. Chamberland said officers can break the law, but only with “prior, specific” permission from higher-ups.)
The undercover officer had a tendency to play up divisions between activists, they said, such as by telling Mr. Ichim that student protesters were insulting him behind his back.
This goes well beyond the simple observation of criminal organizations – this is a directed attempt to exacerbate plans for peaceful protest until it becomes a radical, violent organization. What these officers did appears, from my admittedly outsider’s perspective, to be an attempt to create crimes that can then be pinned on the unwitting accomplices, thus tarring a defensible protest movement with offenses they would not have otherwise committed.
Leaving the ethical problems alone for a minute, there are serious practical concerns with engaging in this kind of reckless ‘law enforcement’. The safety and rights of the protesters are thereby compromised, since violent protests almost always end with a higher body count for those instigating violence than those trying to stop it. If the violence was stoked by the same people wielding the billy clubs, then what is happening is not so much crime prevention as it is collusion to frame and then stomp kids for stepping out of line.
The most disturbing aspect of this story for me isn’t that the majority of the people charged following the G20 violence were not convicted of anything. It’s not that the people under surveillance weren’t the kind of violent anarchists that needed this kind of supervision. It’s not even the gross misrepresentations or attempts to start crimes by the undercover officers. It’s this:
At a show-cause hearing that day, prosecutors told court about the investigation. By the time Mr. Ichim got out of prison two days later, he was resigned to the fact that one of his closest friends had been a cop. “I kept on calling his phones and leaving messages,” he said. “‘Look me in the eye, explain why you did this.’”
“You go through something like that, and how are you supposed to trust another person again? How are you supposed to approach people honestly without being suspicious of them when you’ve had an experience like that?” Ms. Pflug-Back said. “That’s sort of a really surreal situation that no one really wants to imagine themselves in.”
The infiltration involved gaining the confidence of the subjects – their pasts, their beliefs, their hopes were all shared under an entirely false pretense. The undercover officers became what the subjects believed were real friends. It wasn’t simply the ideals of the movement that were betrayed; it was the very idea of trusting another human being. I can’t imagine what it would be like for me to learn that my most important friendships were the product of an intentional deception aimed at causing my downfall. I am certain that it would be devastating.
I’m not certain what the moral of this story is, and I definitely don’t know enough to give a full accounting of everything that happened in this story. I have no idea what it’s like to be an undercover police officer, and I’m sure the assignment took its toll on them as well. What I will take away from this story is that the accusations of infiltration and deception by police into political organizations is not paranoia or delusion – it’s real, and so are its consequences.
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