Headlines this week describe the almost incredible story of five female police officers who, allegedly provoked by a sticker saying “Bad Cop, No Donut” on a citizen’s fridge, took it upon themselves to trash his house in the most childish ways imaginable. Why are we surprised when five police officers apparently feel free to commit criminal acts and then lie about them, even to the point of lying under oath? Why are we surprised when not one police officer steps forward to expose their colleagues’ malfeasance? This is part of the “culture of arrogance” that takes hold when a Mayor and a police force admire each other just a little too much. Think of Daley’s Chicago, or more recently Giuliani’s New York, where police officers actually shouted the Mayor’s name in triumph while they viciously beat and sodomized a handcuffed black man with a toilet plunger, nearly killing him. Abuses under such a regime are not only likely, they are inevitable.
Consider, for instance, the Vancouver Police Department’s “Y2-Krackdown”. On New Year’s Eve, we were treated to a stern-faced Vancouver Police spokesperson Anne Drennan on TV, simultaneously maternal and threatening. “Don’t think you’re going to come down and party on the street,” she warned us. “If people come downtown, they’d better have a place to go” she intoned. Hang on, er, why, exactly? Don’t the citizens of Vancouver have a right to enjoy public celebration on the streets that are, after all, theirs? While the great cities of the world encourage their citizens’ year 2000 celebrations (even cities which have known real civil unrest, like London, Paris, and New York), why do our City’s cops implicitly threaten us with retaliation if we have the nerve to meet one another in public? Maybe it was a Y2K glitch after all, and the VPD suddenly thought it was sometime around 1900. In St. Petersburg, Russia, that is.
All of Drennan’s huffing and puffing might appear deserving of only bemused dismissal, until you remember that she happens to be the mouthpiece of what is the largest armed power in British Columbia since the last regular infantry fled to Edmonton a few years ago. Vancouverites are therefore acutely conscious of the fact that Drennan’s tut-tutting is backed up by a large group of generally unsmiling people with guns, batons and body armour. And if you disagree with them, you’re met with something that in some ways is worse than a whack on the head: self-righteous lectures. “My God, man! Don’t you remember the STANLEY CUP RIOT???” Philip Owen, our very popular Mayor and (not incidentally) the Chair of the Police Board, trots out that hoary old gem whenever his authority is questioned. Don’t like the police unlawfully searching you downtown? REMEMBER THE RIOT!! Not fond of police moving you along Robson Street even though you’re not breaking any laws? THE RIOT, MAN! THE RIOT!!!!
Remember when there were pro-Serb protests at the Art Gallery last year? When one lone pro-Kosovar demonstrator showed up with a sign covered in pictures of refugee children, the police told him to leave. They were afraid that the other protesters might attack the man if he continued to exercise his freedoms with this gutsy counter-protest. The man didn’t want to leave, so the cops—guess what?—arrested him. It was easier, you see, than protecting him, or actually arresting the criminals who were threatening him. Now, the Police Board says that this was in accordance with Vancouver Police policy. Shake your head and then read that again. Imagine a police officer called to a domestic dispute, who, instead of arresting the assailant, decides that it would be far easier to arrest the victim, because the perpetrator is just too darned big and scary. This is the new attitude of law enforcement in Vancouver. Never mind if it’s right or wrong: is it cheap? Is it an efficient use of resources? The B.C. Civil Liberties Association complained to the Police Board, presided over, you recall, by the Mayor. The response? The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was never actually designed to protect rights when it isn’t convenient. OK, I’m paraphrasing a little, but not much: Clearly, it looks good on the Mayor if there aren’t any incidents downtown, and the Mayor is very popular.
Then there was Vancouver’s brilliant “protest tax”. This policy decreed that, if your group wanted to hold a demonstration in the city streets, you had to pay for whatever security the City deemed appropriate. If you had any kind of disputed message, naturally, you needed more security, so you paid a higher cost. How progressive. This little MENSA-grade brain nugget ensured that if you were poor or your issues controversial, you wouldn’t get to march your filthy banners through the streets of this fair burgh. Apparently, it has now dawned on the City that this policy does not encourage cooperation and plan-sharing between protesters and police, and may actually have exacerbated that bizarre Third World spectacle at the Hyatt in 1998. Why institute such an inane idea in the first place? Presumably, the Mayor liked it, and the Mayor is very popular.
And how about the little piece of Mussolini’s Italy visited upon our neighbourhood during the Symphony of Fire? A friend of mine, a visiting law student from Ontario, was stopped in a SkyTrain station and forced to stand there while a burly man with a gun poked through her private possessions (she had no booze, natch). In Vancouver, our police force (unsupported by law or logic) thinks that it can search anyone downtown with a backpack. Moreover, our police—they are supposed to be our police, right?—our police say that they won’t let us watch the fireworks if we don’t let them do this kind of Riverdance on our constitutional rights. Think about it: the petulant Elementary School standby of “if I can’t get my way, I’ll take my ball and go straight home” has become official policy. Where do the police get such arrogance? Well, the Mayor’s behind them, and the Mayor is very popular.
At the same time, after promising all kinds of public consultations before they install video surveillance in the Downtown East Side, the police went ahead and set up—unannounced—surveillance cameras on Robson Street. That’s right, it’s The Riot again: with that unfailing prescience unique to law enforcement bureaucrats and TV evangelists, the police convinced themselves that because the Stanley Cup riot started at Robson’ intersection with Thurlow, it follows that any future riot will start there, too. Giddy with this certainty and apparently drunk with their technical prowess, they then arranged to have surveillance footage of unknowing Vancouver citizens and tourists played all over the planet on the World Wide Web! Don’t ask why they would do this. The Mayor is very popular.
So, those who decry our Y2-Killjoys should understand that the thuddingly dull New Year’s non-event was not an isolated outburst of the peculiar genius of our City leaders, but rather business as usual in Vancouver. Sadly, any of our aspirations to live in a world class cosmopolitan city are being systematically thwarted by a Mayor who values expedience over liberty, a police force that has become the enthusiastic storm troopers of an increasingly autocratic City Council, and, alas, by a citizenry that doesn’t care enough to even object. Are we really to be surprised when vandal cops run amok in our homes?
Mayor Owen has said (I wish I was making this up) that Canada’s other city leaders should join him and petition Parliament to do away with his citizens’ pesky Charter protections. Without that “constitution thingy”, he apparently thinks nothing would get out of hand, no glass would be broken, the trains would run on time and re-election would be virtually assured. Consider it a policy of “enlightened self-interest” without the enlightenment. Oh, yes, and the cops will just do whatever the hell they want. And don’t think the Mayor’s dream of a Charter-free town will necessarily remain our City father’s private fantasy because, hey—the Mayor is very popular.