Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Canadian civil liberties question -OR- The consequences of going about one’s business during a global summit while wearing a forest-camo t-shirt

The context:

What’s described below happened a few minutes ago (about 3:25–I’m writing this at about 3:50), as I was walking down Yonge on my way from the Queen streetcar to the Go Bus terminal at Union Station, intending to catch the 3:40 back to Markham. I’m wearing a forest-camo tee, new jean shorts, Blundstones and my headphones, and carrying a Penguin satchel in which I’ve got my laptop and some books. At King, I pass a group of eight police officers. I’m listening to a podcast. Halfway down the block I realize that two of them are calling after me and jogging lightly to catch up, a man and a woman. I stop and take off my headphones.The female officer asks, not in an unfriendly way, where I’m going. I tell her Union Station to catch a bus up to Markham. She says she thinks the station is closed (it isn’t, but I don’t know this for sure at the time).”Really?” I ask. “You sure? I figured the subway would be, but I didn’t think the Go Bus terminal was.” She says that she isn’t sure. She asks me if she can search my bag. I ask her if she’s asking. She says she’s asking. I say alright, but that I’m not thrilled about it. I open my bag. She asks me to take out my laptop. I do. Satisfied, she says I can put it back. In addition to my laptop, I have 4 books in my bag. She takes out the fourth book, which is called Antwerp. It’s a small, black hardcover, plain except for two gold strips cut like stencils to outline the letters of the words “Antwerp” and “Roberto Bolaño.” On the back, in gold print, is the translator’s name and a quote from Bolaño about the book.

“Ansterd?” She’s trying to read it upside down.

“Antwerp. It’s a city in Belgium.”

She reads the quote from the back out loud: “The only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.” She hands it back to me. “You’ve got a lot of books in your bag.” Her voice is still cheerful but that statement carried an air of judgment, or it reminded me of the possibility of judgment.


She pulls out another book—this one has a pull-quote from “New Republic” at the base of the cover declaring the author to be “The most dangerous philosopher in the West.” Beneath a title like  Living in the End Times, there’s no doubt that that seemed ominous. I feel culpable as I see her eyes tracking the line and her expression tick a notch towards concerned. And then I’m upset that I feel culpable for carrying a book on Yonge Street for reasons completely independent of the G20. I resolve that I’ll refuse to justify myself if she says anything, but she doesn’t comment. Instead, she hands the book back to me and asks, “What have you got in your pockets?”

“My wallet, iPod and cell phone.”

“Can I see?”

I’m really finding this invasive. I say as much.

The second police officer: “You know there are 20 presidents in the city right now, right?”

I’ve started to shake a bit. I want to tell him something like “Can’t do anything about that, now, can we?” but I don’t. Instead, I say something like that I do know there are a lot of world leaders in the city, but that I’m over a block from the security cordon and am not going to get any closer to it, that the terminal is right at the bottom of the street and that they’ll be able to see if I go anywhere else, and finally that, considering our distance from the security area, my understanding is that they need reasonable grounds to demand to search a private citizen.  He says something vague about how there have been “incidents.” I ask him if there have been more today. I’m actually curious about this and concerned, and I think my tone conveys it, at least judging from the reaction of the first, more friendly police officer. She replies conversationally, saying something like “unfortunately, yes.”

The other guy isn’t down for small talk. “So, can you show us what’s in your pockets?”

I ask him if he’s asking. Throughout the whole exchange I’m very conscious of staying polite and keeping my voice calm. The friendly police officer clarifies that they’re asking, and so I say that I would prefer not to. She asks me if, in that case, I would mind if she accompanied me to the bus. I say that I wouldn’t, so we start walking.

As we’re walking, I ask her what happened at the incidents she mentioned. Before she has a chance to answer, her superior officer, K Hancock, badge # 5793, catches up to us and takes her aside to berate her for leaving her post “just like that.” I ask the hostile officer, who’s run up with K Hancock, 5793, if I can keep walking since my bus leaves at 40 minutes after the hour and that’s only ten or so minutes from now (I take my cellphone out of my pocket to show him). The hostile police officer says no and tells me to wait.

Missing the bus means I’ll have to wait around the station for an extra hour, and I think my frustration at the prospect comes across in my expression. The officer says something like that he doesn’t like my attitude. I don’t really know how to respond so I just shrug. I wasn’t a fan of his attitude either, in case that hasn’t been clear.

K Hancock, badge # 5793, comes up to me and starts to explain in a friendly but authoritative voice that there have been “incidents” and that he would like to search me because “people wear clothing.” This was how he put it: people wear clothing. It’s not that his meaning wasn’t obvious to everyone present, but jeesh. Had I been 18, I would have been all over the opportunity a statement like that presented. I might have launched into an argument that his having to put it in such a lame way betrayed a recognition that what he was doing was problematic, or I might have just said something smarmy like “You’ve noticed that, have you?” Alternatively, I might have just been a total puss, and submitted meekly to the search from the start. He was probably thought he was being diplomatic.

I point out that while it’s true that I’m wearing a forest-camo tee, I’m also wearing Bose headphones, which are attached to an iPod, carrying a Penguin shoulder bag, which contains a Mac laptop which I’d shown them all earlier, and that that’s not exactly anarchist wear. K Hancock, badge # 5793, agrees blandly but asks to see what’s in my pockets anyway. I say something like, if you’re asking, then no. K Hancock, badge # 5793, says “I’m not asking.” I say something like that I don’t think he has reasonable suspicion and remind him that we’re a ways away from the cordon. K Hancock, badge # 5793, tells me that people carry knives in their pockets. I tell him that I’m not carrying a knife, only my wallet, iPod and cell phone. K Hancock, badge # 5793, asks me if I have drugs. No. K Hancock, badge # 5793, makes a jerking head motion towards  a nearby alcove and says, “if you want privacy, we can go in there.” It probably wasn’t meant to be threatening, but in the moment, it was hard to keep myself from reading it that way. An image flashed through my mind of myself in the alcove, hands on the wall being shaken down by K Hancock, badge # 5793, and his hostile associate as passers-by avoid looking. Yes it’s melodramatic, but again, it’s not everyday in Toronto that one is picked from the anonymity of the sidewalk and confronted with the kind of suspicion I was being confronted with in a climate as tense as that of this weekend. But I’m still not really sure why I would need privacy to empty my pockets. I tell him again that I don’t think he has reasonable suspicion to demand a search, and that if he does have the right to demand that I submit to a search, that he explain to me the basis for that right. K Hancock, badge # 5793, says that he just explained to me that he did. It hadn’t been at all clear to me that that was what he was doing. “Yes,” he continued, “I’m demanding a search.”

I say I’ll submit to it if he gives me his badge number. K Hancock, badge # 5793, says that’s fine (obviously). So I reach into my pockets and pull out my wallet, cell phone, and iPod. I also discover a pen. I take the cap off, hold it up to them, and say something a bit petulant (in hindsight) about how it’s just a pen. I think I sighed as if I was sorry to disappoint them. If I could take anything back from the exchange it would be that, but, to their credit, they didn’t react.

The hostile police officer patted my pockets lightly, which seemed to me to be pushing the rules of engagement we’d implicitly agreed to, though at this point I wasn’t going to make a fuss.

I put my wallet cell and iPod back in my pockets, but keep the pen in hand. I pull a piece of paper out of my bag and remind K Hancock, badge # 5793, that he owes me his badge number. “5793.” As I write it down, my hand is really shaking. I’m surprised. I don’t feel like I’m as upset as the shaking suggests. On reflection, I’m kind of happy about it though. I hope it dramatized to them that being submitted to quasi-arbitrary searches on the implied threat of arrest isn’t an emotionally neutral experience for anyone. All three were watching me try to get my hand under control as I formed the numbers, the shaking making my writing even worse than it usually is, and they at this point knew I wasn’t hiding anything.  “Your name is K Hancock?” I ask, reading his nametag. He says yes. I write “K Hancock” above the badge number on my piece of paper.

“Am I okay to go?” He says yes. So I go.

At this point it’s about 3:39. Lucky for me, the bus ended up being delayed. I got there just a few seconds before it pulled out.

I’m writing this from the DVP.

The question:

In light of these circumstances, did K Hancock, badge # 5793, have the authority to demand that I submit to a search?

Update: From CTV today:

Civil libertarians were fuming after hearing Friday that the Ontario cabinet gave police the power to stop and search anyone coming within five metres of the G20 fences in Toronto for a one week period.

However, the Ministry of Community Safety says all the cabinet did was update the law that governs entry to such things as court houses to include specific areas inside the G20 fences — not outside.

A ministry spokeswoman says the change was about property, not police powers, and did not include any mention of a zone five metres outside the G20 security perimeter.

When asked today if there actually was a five-metre rule given the ministry’s clarification, Blair smiled and said, “No, but I was trying to keep the criminals out.”

I submitted a report to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.


3 Responses to “Canadian civil liberties question -OR- The consequences of going about one’s business during a global summit while wearing a forest-camo t-shirt”

  1. Whoa. That’s some Kafka-esque shit right there. I’d like to think that I would’ve told them to go fuck themselves, but I probably would’ve done pretty much what you did. Good on you for getting the badge number. Shame on Canada for engaging in creepy anonymous and unjustified searches of private citizens going about their business.

    I mean, I thought that only happened in the States, with brown people.

  2. I guess I’m glad that I wasn’t not searched because I wasn’t brown. If that makes any sense. That’s a pretty guilt-inducing reason to not get harassed by the state. Go Canada?

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