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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

When public institutions fail us

Just finished listening to a ridiculously shallow and badly scripted interview by Robyn Brown on CBC Radio's Here and Now with Farrah Miranda (was in the car, so I may not have the names right, and I'll correct if necessary) from the Toronto Community Mobilization Network. TCMN is conducting its own investigation of the violence and brutality inflicted upon peaceful demonstrators by police during the recent G20 summit in Toronto. Not surprisingly, this grassroots initiative stems, in part, from a recognition that there isn't going to be any meaningful institutional response. No one is going to be held accountable by the Police Services Board, the city, the province, or Ottawa.

So what's Robyn Brown's approach to this, but to badger Ms. Miranda for signs of “balance?” It sounds to me like you've got your minds made up already, she said – are you going to talk to the police and get their side of the story?


Where to begin? How many things can you find wrong with this?

Well, let's start with intellectual laziness. That's very much in evidence in Ms. Brown's attempt to impose a facile “he said / she said” framework on the story. There aren't many stories that boil down to that. Framing it as “protesters say this, but police say that” makes it possible to ignore all kinds of complexities and shoehorn the story into a simple one-size-fits-all model. That may work for an eight-minute segment before you break for the news on the half-hour, and it may mean you can file your story without any conscious effort, but it doesn't do justice to the story or serve your listeners especially well.

And the suggestion that the Network organizers have their minds made up? Or that they ought to be talking to the police to get their side of the story? Let's see now. The Network is asking people to come forward with pictures, video and first-hand accounts of their treatment at the hands of police. In other words, anyone who was:
  • gassed
  • beaten
  • tasered
  • kicked
  • shot with plastic bullets
  • subjected to racial or ethnic profiling
  • “kettled” in the rain at Queen and Spadina
  • held without charge in the gulag on Eastern Avenue
  • threatened with gang rape
  • degraded by sexist and / or homophobic slurs, etc.
Associated with the CBC interview, I also heard one citizen describe how the bones in her finger had been shattered by a police baton. I also heard a doctor who was treating people for trauma, broken bones and concussion describe how police confronted her and confiscated her gauze, bandages and other medical supplies.

Just an observation, but I'd say those folks have already heard the police side of things quite clearly.

And it's not as if the traditional media outlets are going to devote any further air time or newsprint to these stories. They've got their images of broken windows and burning cop cars, and their interest in revising the narrative is pretty much non-existent. (Time to move on. Didn't Mel Gibson say something rude or something?)

If anything, the TCMN's initiative is just a further demonstration of the impotence of regular institutional responses – and of how traditional media outlets fail in their responsibilities. We already know that bodies such as the Police Services Board, not to mention all three levels of government, aren't even going to pretend to care about the citizens whose rights they're supposedly charged with safeguarding.

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