Home > criminalisation of dissent, G8/G20 > G20 conspiracy prosecution and the criminalisation of mass organising.

G20 conspiracy prosecution and the criminalisation of mass organising.

Update, November 22 2011: This blog post faced much bullshit. The Crown Attorney’s office threatened to throw a few charges at me for it had I not made some edits and redactions.  With the Preliminary hearing over,  I am now able to return this post to its original form. Unredacted sections are in italics. 

I will have a new piece, about the deal we took today, up shortly. 

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G20 Charges in Toronto, Tar Sands Arrests in Ottawa, and Occupy Wall Street

On Monday September 26, more than 100 people were arrested when they engaged in an act of mass civil disobedience on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. They were there to protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, and to send this message to the Harper Government: The Alberta tarsands are environmentally destructive and socially irresponsible, and the extraction project there should be understood as “ecocide”.

Some reports indicate that as many as 1000+ people rallied in Ottawa to protest, listen to speeches, and to support almost 200 people who risked arrest.

The Ottawa action followed a prolonged action earlier last month in Washington, where, in a two week period, more than 1000 people were arrested out front of the White House, in an attempt to urge President Obama not to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline when he has the opportunity in November.

Both of these actions were highly coordinated by professional activists, with the backing of large NGOs including Greenpeace, 350.org, Indigenous Environmental Network, and others. The arrestees in both actions included a number of celebrity activists. In both places, most of the arrestees and many others attended professionally facilitated trainings and workshops to prepare themselves for the actions and the arrests. The organisers met and planned for months in advance.

In many ways, minus the celebrities and the NGO funding, much of the work that went into planning the week long convergence against the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010 was very similar; months of meetings and workshops were held, as well as training series conducted in several different cities. Unfortunately, unlike in Ottawa and Washington, many of the over 1000 people arrested in Toronto during the G20 had not prepared for the experience of being arrested, nor did not they volunteer for it. In Toronto, people also had a much more real version of what being arrested more often feels like: violent, scary and uncertain. In staged acts of civil disobedience like the ones in Ottawa and Washington, the experience of arrest tends to be more, well, “civil”.

There is tremendous amount of space already devoted to critiquing the tactics employed in these two very different actions—the marches and the accompanying black bloc tactics in Toronto, the staged arrests in Washington and Ottawa—but what I’m interested in here is the organising and the threats posed to this kind of organising by the type of prosecution that the Ontario Crown Attorney’s office is perpetrating against me and 16 others in the “G20 Main Conspiracy Group Prosecution”.

While the Crown is likely to present to the court, all kinds of inflammatory comments, including quotes from my blog, for most of those accused, the only suggestion of any “conspiracy” on their part, will be the allegation that they were merely present at protest planning meetings when “unlawful acts” were discussed. That is to say, the Crown will say that they agreed to be part of a conspiracy to, for example commit mischief, merely because they were present at a meeting where someone said that windows would likely get smashed during a given rally or march.

While some of the unlawful acts that get mentioned over months of protest organising may be inflammatory and distasteful to some, it should be stressed that it is the “unlawful nature” of such acts that creates the alleged “conspiracy.” The fact that some of these acts that get discussed may be considered by some to be over some arbitrary line of acceptability should be inconsequential. The type of “criminality” is not what is relevant; what is important is that the acts discussed at these meetings are technically against the law.

If this is enough for “conspiracy” charges to stick to organisers, the future of protest organising is actually in jeopardy.

Conspiracy law is inherently confusing; that’s part of the problem. In Canada, the current conspiracy laws exist on the books mostly for the purpose of prosecuting gangsters, such as mobs and biker gangs. However, occasionally, the state has tried to used these charges against activists; there was a case in Quebec after the 2001 FTAA summit in Quebec City, and another one right here in Ontario after the so-called “OCAP riot” in the same year. Ten years later, they are trying again.

In the United States, conspiracy charges have been used similarly, however there they also get conflated with pseudo-fascistic domestic terrorism laws. The RNC 8 and the SHAC 7 are two examples of cases where counter-terrorism laws have been conflated with the application of conspiracy law against protest organisers.

In Canada, the application of laws designed for the Hell’s Angels and the Mafia against political organisers and community activists is the same type of dangerous slide towards fascism that we have seen in the US with the types of cases mentioned (and unfortunately, many others as well).

The G20 Main Conspiracy Group Prosecution is yet another attempt by the Canadian government to manipulate the laws so that they can use the so-called criminal justice system as a weapon against political organisers. This is a very dangerous road to travel.

***

The meetings to plan the g20 protests happened over the course of 2009 and 2010. Now flash forward to 2011, and imagine the planning meetings for the recent Ottawa and Washington anti-tarsands actions. What do you imagine those meetings to have looked like? Obviously in the meetings to plan these acts of mass civil disobedience and pre-arranged arrests, organisers put forward a plan that included coordinated unlawfulness.

According to the precedent being set in our case, if we lose on the conspiracy charges, the implication will be that organising for mass civil disobedience will be similarly criminalised alongside more “confrontational” mass actions. The crime that could be alleged against such organisers would likely be conspiracy to commit mischief and conspiracy to obstruct justice, potentially indictable offenses that carry potential serious prison time.

And there is more. In addition to the “conspiracy” charges that all 17 of us have, I have an additional six counts of “counselling” to commit various indictable offences. All of these charges stem from workshops that were conducted over the course of preparing for the g20 protests; facilitating workshops for new activists has been one of my primary sources of income over the last few years. One ramification of these charges is that these workshops—one of the primary means by which activists share skills with each other, and a primary activity for building movements—may become understood by the courts as inherently criminal. That cannot be allowed to happen.

Let me clear one thing up; I was not teaching people how to fight cops—not even close. I was facilitating discussions about what people could expect at major summit protests. Most of the workshops consisted of talking about what happened at past summits and about the policing tactics used at the types of protests that people could expect to take place on the streets of Toronto.  And for the record, what we told people to expect was pretty much exactly what happened. Maybe they’re just mad at us because we were right.

Most of the workshops in question were nearly identical to the same “Direct Action 101” workshops that I and many others have been conducting together for years with student groups, grassroots organisations, activist groups, NGOs, unions, etc. They are nearly identical to the same “Direct Action” workshops facilitated by experienced action trainers and coordinators across the continent and even the globe. They are likely very similar, in fact, to the trainings that more than one thousand people received before the Washington actions and more than 200 before the Ottawa actions. I feel that I can safely make that assumption because several of the trainers and coordinators for these actions are some of the very same people who trained me. 

These types of trainings and workshops are incredibly important at this current political moment in history. There are thousands of people across North America who are engaging in street activism for the very first time, as they are inspired by the incredible #OccupyWallStreet movement (also not without some very serious and necessary critiques).

Trainings demystify protest tactics and strategies, teach people the skills necessary to participate effectively in consensus processes such as the general assemblies that are the cornerstone of this new “occupation” movement, prepare people for the experience of potential arrest and other forms of police violence as well as their strategies and tactics, teach people skills to talk and interact with media, help people develop and hone political messaging and analysis, and many other really important things that are crucial to developing effective social movements. The state wants to prevent us from developing these movements.

The state is going to try to conceal what is really going on here by making their case against us all about the inflammatory comments made about tactics that the broader movement is not in consensus around. But disagreement about appropriate diversity of tactics has nothing to do with this case; it is a smoke screen. The important fact here is that they are trying to develop a structural weapon to criminalise organising in general.

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  1. T mann
    November 24, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Than you so much for writing this piece Alex. Also thank you for doing everything you do to support the movement xoxo

  2. November 25, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    great article alex, stay strong and keep fighting

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