Maybe people are used to it in Ottawa, but still, it’s startling. The police presence, that is.
Since the last time I was on Parliament Hill, the place has sprouted stone barricades to stop vehicles, fences with narrow gates to slow protesters — and there’s now a regular and hefty police population, RCMP officers in electric-green vests with, let’s face it, not very much to do except let their vans idle in the cold and make small talk back and forth.
But that wasn’t the real surprise: that was being passed, when walking near the Byward Market, by a convoy of unmarked white passenger vans, a police wagon and a paramedic unit, all of which took up position on a side street. Looking hard through the tinted windows, you could see police officers wearing balaclavas and body armour: a card in one windshield identified the unit as the “‘A’ Crew.”
A little more snooping around found Ottawa police cars parked on several side streets, but the real show of force was at the American embassy. In front of that building were some 30 fully dressed riot police with shields and long clubs, along with two riot police carrying electronic stun weapons. Behind them were five or six fully armed SWAT officers with goggles,
helmets, body armour and semi-automatic weapons.
All in all, on the street and nearby, more than 75 officers — and that’s not counting the vanloads of A Crew officers waiting just around the corner in case they were needed.
For what? Well, after a half an hour or so, protest banners and signs came around the corner, and you could hear whistles, drums and slogans. The protest was made up of Congolese Canadians protesting what they called tacit support by the Canadian and American governments for the government of Congo — a government the protesters said has been complicit in eight million deaths in the region.
The issue is probably a familiar one to many people: Congo is a leading source of coltan, a mineral used in most cellphones and high-end electronics. The argument is that countries that need the metal simple turn their backs on abuse and murder; there have been plenty of news reports suggesting that’s exactly the case.
It was a pretty orderly protest: perhaps 150 people who, at the height of it, sat down in front of the embassy to make their point.
There was chanting and occasional sharp words spoken through a megaphone, while the riot squad stood stockstill, police shields in their left hands, two-and-a-half-foot-long polished wooden batons in their right.
As threatening protests go, though, this was not really scary: a healthy proportion of the crowd was elderly, and several people had brought toddlers — and even infants in strollers — with them.
Still, several police officers videotaped the protest, and some officers discussed which of the protesters were the obvious leaders, right down to what they were wearing and where they were located. Police hemmed in the protesters on all sides: Ottawa police behind them, RCMP and SWAT officers in front.
Men dressed in plainclothes — who had been talking collegially to police officers in front of the embassy before the protest arrived — blended their way in amongst the protesters. The protesters were more concerned with stopping passersby, handing out leaflets and explaining their position. After a half-hour or so, the protesters marched away, stopping and blocking a busy intersection for 10 minutes or so with another brief sit-down. It didn’t seem to be all that newsworthy: a CTV cameraman made a brief appearance, and what appeared to be a single news photographer.
It made me wonder, though: is this what peaceful protest looks like in Canada now, or is it more what a law and order and “tough-on-crime” country is going to look like?
You might say that this is how things are supposed to work: protesters get to make their point and the police presence ensured nothing had a chance to get out of control. But I wasn’t even a protester, and I was alarmed at how threatening — and how massive — the police presence was. Over-armed, over-manned and over-the-top.
Scary new world we live in.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.