Image Credit: Still from upcoming film Fortress Toronto, “a film examines the issues which motivated tens of thousands of concerned protesters to take to the streets, and scrutinizes the actions of politicians and police which led to the largest mass arrest in Canadian history.”
BY DAVID WEINGARTEN, WEARECHANGETORONTO.ORG
January 30, 2012
Peace is a concept that widely lends itself to interpretation. It can represent profoundly a halt to military hostilities, or simply the refreshing slumber that comes with a clear conscience. Peace may be found externally among the policies of nation-states, or within the accomplishment of an individual who has struggled and achieved their own personal objective.
In order for peace to thrive – in any form – the role that truth and transparency play within that grand ideal must not be forgotten. The pacifying role of truth and transparency is easily illustrated in instances like the Iraq War, where greater transparency would have sustained peace by shattering the West’s impetus to invade. More obscure, however, is the peace that can be found in the disclosure of evidence against a criminally accused suspect because, as the Canadian Supreme Court succinctly puts it, “(Evidence is)… the property of the public to be used to ensure that justice is done.”
With justice comes peace, and whether it regards evidence of a fraudulent war, or justification for the infringement of personal liberty, truth and transparency provide the fair context necessary to achieve it.
It’s been my personal experience that video documentation serves as a highly effective tool for achieving justice, though my path to that realization was an unlikely one. I was raised in a white, suburban, upper-middle class family. My Father, a Princeton-educated physician, had instilled in him a strong work ethic that he passed on to his children. My Mother, an equally hard-working administrative professional, fondly supported the Canadian government, having immigrated from communist Poland at a young age. Growing up, my parents rarely discussed politics, and social justice issues were hardly a topic of conversation amongst my friends and classmates. These conditions formed to provide me with a safe, comfortable existence, and as I look back I realize it may have been that insulated life contrasted against the daily realities of the world – and the immense shock of discovering that disparity – which led me to become an activist videographer.
Throughout public school I cultivated my ability with the English language and, despite losing interest in traditional academic pursuits, came to the conclusion as a young man that an education would be the most effective way to do something important with my life. I figured my command of the English language would assist me in the field of journalism, as would my affinity for storytelling. I enrolled at Seneca College, gaining acceptance into the Broadcast Journalism course.
Broadcasting seemed like an attractive field to work in, with sociable colleagues and the potential to create unique and individualized work. Meanwhile, I found the craft was less wordy than print journalism, using the power of images and sound rather than text to deliver a story in its entirety. Since then I’ve often thought, if the pen is mightier than the sword, and a picture is worth a thousand words, video documentation must be worth 30,000 words per second, and makes small foe of the sharpest blade. It was a moment of my life full of great optimism; the impression had been set upon me that with hard work I could attain a high-ranking position in a noble field that provides valuable information to the public. If I was really good I might even become the talking head of a major media outlet, reading the evening news to an audience of millions.
That train of thought eventually changed during a night shift, while working for CIUT-FM at the University of Toronto. I was researching the events of September 11, 2001 and came across troubling information regarding the attacks of that day. Conspiracy theories aside, I will say there is substantial evidence contradicting the official 9/11 story many people believe, publicly regurgitate, and allow to dictate their personal lives. There is information which, if analyzed in a proper and unbiased manner, would force the public to confront a very sobering reality as I did.
At least some of that information came to me in the form of an internet documentary entitled Loose Change, produced by New York residents Dylan Avery, Jason Bermas, Matthew Brown and Korey Rowe. These young men transformed years of research into an engaging 80 minute video, raising questions about 9/11 which many of us didn’t know existed. Loose Change was my first exposure to video footage of World Trade Center Building 7 (WTC 7), a 47-storey building that collapsed mere hours after the Twin Towers did.
WTC 7 was not hit by a plane, yet collapsed in a fashion similar to WTC 1 and 2, by crumbling vertically into its own footprint with a speed and totality previously only accomplished by controlled demolition. What caused this building to disintegrate? Why was its collapse omitted from the 9/11 Commission Report? Having been introduced to this footage so late in 2006, I initially thought the WTC 7 footage was a hoax. But as I came to accept the truth about WTC 7, other questions began to gnaw at me. Specifically, with the glaring enigma presented by WTC 7, why was I forced to learn of its existence from internet documentarians whom most in the mainstream media would call “kooky conspiracy theorists”?
Loose Change was impressive for the fact that, with a budget of less than $10,000, it was such a critical work and reached such a wide audience. More astounding was that the seemingly alchemical combination of passion, information, video-editing software, and the force of the internet could produce something so revolutionary, despite its simplicity. At the root of this revolutionary gesture was one basic element: the truth.
Facts largely ignored by the mainstream media were placed front and center in Loose Change, and it seemed that independent journalists and filmmakers were filling the informational void left by our fourth estate. It dawned on me like an epiphany how truly effective independent videography was at making a real difference by sidestepping editorial control and letting the facts take us where they may, as uncomfortable a place it may be.
Had the media seized upon the mystery of Building 7 with the same tenacity it did upon the culpability of Osama Bin Laden, perhaps public opinion would have demanded a full independent inquiry into 9/11 rather than a full-scale war in the Middle-East. Where would a true investigation have led us? What would it mean for the lives of millions of Afghans and Iraqis, had the media diligently forced us to confront the questions raised by the collapse of Building 7?
The answers to these questions illustrated for me the true power that video has to compel real transparency and justice, and realizing the neglect of our media to use that power to such effect, I was drawn closer to video activism.
Over the course of a year, disillusionment with the mainstream media shifted my focus to one less geared toward society’s paradigm of success. I became less concerned with grooming myself for corporate-media stardom, and more inclined to research the real inconvenient truths behind current events. Investigative journalists like Greg Palast and Gary Webb convinced me through credible, methodic research that North America isn’t the beacon of democracy many of us are raised to believe. In fact, their respective investigations into U.S. election fraud and CIA involvement in cocaine-trafficking reveal a country that could easily resemble a despotic regime. Although Palast’s report wasn’t broadcast in the U.S., and Webb’s career dwindled away before he sadly committed “suicide” with two gunshots to the head, these gentlemen succeeded in bringing powerful information to the light of public scrutiny. How widespread and effective such scrutiny becomes is uncertain, but this is the manner in which transparency brings about justice. Once an ugly truth has made itself apparent, we are forced to remedy it for we can no longer live in ignorance of it.
Further research and a desire to contribute locally led me to investigate Canada’s largest post-9/11 anti-terror operation. In 2006, the “Toronto 18” arrests appeared to be Canada’s definitive “homegrown terror” sting, arriving on the heels of the London 7/7 subway bombings in 2005, and the Madrid train bombings the year before that. The “Toronto 18” were originally presented as a core group of eighteen individuals, ranging in age from 15 to 43, who were plotting to bomb targets in southern Ontario. We were told they had the intent, they had the resources, and that an attack was imminent, although my cursory research on the matter indicated otherwise. I set out to produce a video that would critique the true threat posed by the “Toronto 18”, hoping to emphasize the important, lesser-reported facts of the case. With the help of my college mate Adil Lakhani, I released Unfair Dealing via internet in early 2008.
Through this humble video project, we established that the “Toronto 18” was a loosely connected group, rather than the organized “terrorist” cell being depicted by the government. The group was so loose, in fact, that some of the suspects only first met each other after being arrested. Of the eighteen suspects, only five were involved in the bomb plot, which itself had only been realized with the extensive assistance of a paid government informant, described by his handlers as “vindictive”, and “motivated by money”.
The remaining suspects were, in one way or another, involved in a winter camping trip that was arranged with the help of another government informant. It was during this camping trip that many of the participants displayed their ineptitude – and even outright rejection of extremism – leading the informant to dub the expedition “operation potty-training”. Many of the suspects were simply unaware of the “sinister” nature of the camping trip, and their activities were apparently benign enough to elicit a shocked reaction from the informant upon hearing of the arrests. Although our information was easily available to the mainstream media, Unfair Dealing was the only source that depicted the warehouse where the bomb-making materials were delivered – and the fact that it is next door to a detachment for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
In the case of the “Toronto 18” – and many, many others – the government held a monopoly on information. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) declared the guilt of the suspects during a stately press conference, and security agents solidified the perception of homegrown terrorism through anonymous, often untruthful, leaks to the press. With the myth of the “Toronto 18” firmly established in the Canadian psyche, a publication ban was subsequently enacted, ensuring the myth was all the public had access to.
But what would the public’s reaction have been if they were shown imagery of an RCMP detachment next door to the terrorists’ “hideout”? Would they have questioned the extent of the informants’ involvement? Would they as easily have fallen prey to the RCMP’s frightening portrayal of a self-sufficient homegrown terrorist threat? Consider for a moment that amidst all the sensationalism, the “Toronto 18” were used as justification for many things including increased security funding, and continued Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan. It’s interesting to think how public opinion, and ultimately our collective willingness to go along with a law-and-order agenda, would have been affected had our mainstream media given scrutiny to these details rather than grudgingly mention them in passing, if at all.
In the end, 11 suspects were convicted and 7 released. At least 3 of the convicted suspects “should never have faced charges” according to the RCMP informant, and 7 Canadians spent eighteen unnecessary months in prison, much of that time in solitary confinement. I believe Unfair Dealing was successful in defending the “Toronto 18” suspects, but to what extent I’ll never know for sure. We received nominal media coverage, and I’m told that Crown prosecutors were well aware of the video, but I doubt any of them would reveal what influence we had on them dropping charges against the 7 suspects.
There are countless, more easily quantifiable, examples of video documentation bringing social justice. For example, in 1988 director Errol Morris released his documentary The Thin Blue Line. Many are already familiar with this film, which retells the story of a murdered Dallas police officer through interviews and reenactments. Through investigative work, reexamination of the facts, and an entertaining visual presentation, Morris was able to compel the release of a man imprisoned for more than 12 years who, at one point, had come within three days of execution. By revisiting the facts and presenting them in a calculated manner through video, Morris was able to bring justice and closure to a situation that threatened the life of an innocent man.
In another more recent example, video evidence has provided some justice and peace for the family of Robert Dziekański. The Polish immigrant arrived in Canada at the Vancouver International Airport in 2007, where he lost his life after being tasered multiple times by the RCMP. Since the incident, the RCMP have accepted many recommendations of a federal watchdog agency, the Dziekanski family has received financial compensation, and the police have publicly apologized to Dziekanski’s mother. Even the Polish government has become vocal, calling for criminal charges against the four RCMP officers involved in Dziekanski’s death. The interesting thing is that this reaction came only after video footage of the incident surfaced – video footage the police tried to suppress, and which disproved the RCMP’s version of events. The release of the Dziekanski video managed to discredit the police, shift public opinion, and elicit the governmental response it did by simply showing the truth. While Dziekanski died at the hands of the RCMP, perhaps his family can be afforded peace in the fact that video documentation has preserved his character.
While not as dramatically as the Dziekanski case, the video camera has also proven for me to be an invaluable source of protection against dubious police behaviour.
In the summer of 2010, the city of Toronto became a police state in the weeks leading up to the G20 Summit and I, with my co-producer Shaun Hanley, set out to document the transformation of our city. It was our prerogative to keep the cameras rolling during encounters with the RCMP, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) agents, and private security. While private security attempted to detain myself and Shaun, a camera captured the interaction as we asserted our right to retain the footage we had shot. We posted the video online, entitled Detained at the MTCC Prior To G20 Summit, to demonstrate that our actions were civil and peaceful. It was probably a wise thing to do, since the encounter prompted CSIS agents to show up at my home, and visit Shaun at his office. Weeks later during the protests, we preserved evidence of Shaun’s arrest on video, importantly, because the charges against him – and many hundreds of other activists – later vanished without a trace.
For those unfamiliar with the Toronto G20 Summit, it was venue to the largest mass arrest in Canadian history, and one of the most egregious violations of Canadian civil liberties. It was during this summit that the public was fooled into believing the police had special, temporary powers to search residents without probable cause, and arrest any citizen who dared step within 5 meters of the Metro Toronto Convention Center without identification. In reality no such police powers existed, and the propagation of that lie is one example of how police transparency would have preserved the personal peace of Toronto’s citizenry.
Had the public – and the police, for that matter – been fully aware of the true extent of the temporary legislation, hundreds of incidents would have been prevented in which innocent Canadians were, sometimes violently, forced to empty the contents of their knapsacks. Though the Toronto Police Service would like to give the impression that no illegal searches took place that week, it is because of myriad videos posted online we know for a fact they did. Likewise, the police would be happy to bury the notion they made countless illegal arrests at Toronto’s G20. The fact that over one thousand arrests were made, yet only a small percentage pursued in court, shows that police greatly overstepped their authority. Because there was no documentation for most of the arrests – including Shaun’s – the police avoided accountability for their actions in a court of law, and detained protesters were unable to find closure by facing their accusers. The injustice to hundreds of detainees was left a painful, unresolved memory.
For many of the protestors victimized that weekend by state-sanctioned abuse, the complaints system was not an option for reaching justice either. During the protests, many police officers had concealed the names and badge numbers on their uniforms, hiding information required by the public to file a complaint against a specific officer. This problem was exemplified by the case of Adam Nobody, who suffered a broken nose and cheekbone at the hands of the police. Although Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair characterized Nobody as armed and violent, video footage surfaced disproving the allegations. More importantly, one of the police who concealed his name and assaulted Nobody was eventually identified through the video, leading to the first charges against an officer for assault at the Toronto G20.
What a relief it must have been for Nobody, after being assaulted and publicly vilified, to have tangible video evidence that he’s not the bad guy the police want you to think he is. As in the Dziekanski case, video of the Nobody assault discredited the police by exposing their lies. For the hundreds of other, similarly “violent” detainees, I wouldn’t doubt their credibility enjoyed a small personal victory too.
Recently the police have threatened to damage my own credibility, and were it not for video documentation they may have succeeded. Near the end of 2010, I was shaken during an incident in which police cruisers pulled up to my home, shining powerful floodlights into my residence, in what seemed like an obvious attempt to intimidate me. To this day, despite multiple correspondences with my local police department, I have not been able to determine the purpose of that particular visit. Instead, I have been given several, demonstrably false explanations in regards to the incident, as I’ve documented online in a video entitled Police Brutality and Harassment in York Region – Police Caught Lying On Hidden Camera. I posted this video online because since I’ve complained about this episode of harassment, the York Region Police have tried to convince me it never happened. Additionally, in my pursuit of an explanation for the visit, I have had investigating officers accuse me of having “mental health issues” for my desire to hold them accountable. Knowing, as I do now, the power of video to expose the truth, I have decided to forfeit the approval of a systemically flawed police complaints system. I believe that by letting the camera tell my story, any viewer will be able to reach their own conclusion, and I will reach a far better standard of justice than the police would allow.
One commonality among such varied circumstances as cause for war, the imminent execution of an innocent man, the death of an immigrant, or deception by the police, is that greater transparency can achieve justice in each of them. Citizens must not forget that their right to video-document is as inalienable as their right to free speech and peaceful public assembly. As long as we continue to exercise that right, the greater chance we have for truth, transparency and justice to prevail, and with that the opportunity for peace to remain a constant in our lives.