Police repression of students: Another brick in the wall

Note: I wrote this article last summer, and it was published in Canadian Dimension, but in a highly edited way. This is the original, unedited version.

POLICE REPRESSION OF STUDENTS: Another brick in the wall

I learned that policemen are my friends
I learned that justice never ends
I learned that murderers die for their crimes
Even if we make a mistake sometimes
And that’s what I learned in school today
That’s what I learned in school

— Tom Paxton, “What Did You Learn in School Today?”

For the first time in over thirty-five years, the University of Toronto’s administration pressed charges against fourteen campus activists, who were arrested in late April by Toronto Police, for alleged forcible confinement, mischief to property and forcible detainer. The criminal offences allegedly occurred over a month before the arrests, at a peaceful sit-in staged on March 20 by over forty students and activists to protest fee hikes. The sit-in ended when administrators ordered campus police to violently remove protestors.

This group of protestors, who with other allies would later form the Committee for Just Education, argues for free education, questions the legitimacy of the administration’s authority, and makes its points through constant direct action. This kind of resistance is quite unsightly when UofT’s administration is publicly calling for the deregulation of student fees and massive commercialization of the university, as demonstrated in its Towards 2030 plan. Among other things, this plan blames poor people for not having the initiative to “assume debt” to finance their pursuit of postsecondary education (http://www.towards2030.utoronto.ca/sec3.html).

UofT doesn’t want its shiny but shallow edifice of commercialization challenged by vocal students arguing for the elimination of all fees, including even student housing fees. Questioning intensified commercialization — making the links between the university being run like a business, students being encouraged to become pliant cogs in a corporate machine, and research increasingly being conducted for the highest bidder — is dangerous. And calling for the freedom to practice education could lead to calling for “education as the practice of freedom” — freedom from the very conditions that produce barriers in the first place. Nothing could be more threatening to the professional university administration and its corporate/government overlords.

Students at UofT are not alone in resisting commercialization or in facing draconian repression. Nineteen students and onlookers were arrested early April at the University of British Columbia after a peaceful protest against commercialization of campus space. Well over a hundred students were arrested late last year in Québec during student strikes and demonstrations against fee hikes. Students at York University were beaten and arrested in 2005 for protesting the university administration’s links to corporations and George W. Bush. In all cases, we see a pattern of students engaging in peaceful protests that push boundaries, and police being sent in by university administrations to violently escalate the situation, ending in the arrests of students and their allies.

The pattern is hardly restricted to universities. Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) activists have routinely been harassed and arrested by police only to be acquitted or to have charges dropped. Indigenous activists like Bob Lovelace, Shawn Brant and the KI-6 have been arrested and imprisoned, sometimes for simply intending to protest the exploitation of their lands and peoples. What is happening on university campuses is not an exception, it is the rule: Dissent is criminal, and if anyone wants to be disagreeable they can do so through magazines that white, middle-class crypto-revolutionaries read, and through esoteric academic papers that no one reads.

Politically motivated arrests of activists are merely symptoms of deeply rooted modes of oppression practised by the Canadian state’s security apparatuses, especially against racialized groups. Indigenous people are disproportionately incarcerated in Canada’s prison system, while reserves are underfunded and commercial activities continue unrestrained on indigenous lands against the wills of the people. “Don’t fix the problems, lock ’em up,” to quote Brant.

In Toronto social services have been gutted, with community and recreation centres being closed and city housing falling apart, while the police budget has grown larger every year to facilitate the ominous presence of more cops in the city. Crime is decreasing, but the police force has justified its presence by conducting several massive raids over the past few years in marginalized neighbourhoods, ostensibly to look for guns and drugs, resulting in the arrests of hundreds of racialized youth. Carried out with maximum brutality, police tear apart homes and detain or arrest people at random. The press lauds the police for making the city safer, but never follows up to show how many of the trumped-up charges are dropped and how many people are acquitted.

The raids are simply methods of terrorizing poor people to make those with privilege feel safer. There is great outcry when white, middle-class youth are shot (a rare occurrence); but the police can shoot and kill racialized youth like Jeffrey Reodica, Alwy al-Nadhir and Byron Debassige with absolute impunity. The press, police and politicians pander to the privileged by picking on the racialized poor, calling for tougher sentencing and handgun bans instead of focusing on the root causes of whatever criminal activity does exist.

In a different vein, but in similar ways, several security agencies were involved in arresting eighteen Muslim males in and around Toronto. Terrorism-related charges were hyped up in the media, through which the eighteen were tried, harangued and all but convicted long before the actual trials began. The pre-trial hearings were abruptly cancelled, until now seven of the accused have had charges dropped or stayed, and the rest of the trials will probably also collapse into insignificance. Many are still in solitary confinement. All have had their lives devastated.

And that’s precisely the point. Getting arrested and going through trial and legal hearings is a tremendously stressful experience, for the arrested and their supporters. Criminalizing dissent is an attempt to deter activists from participating in direct action, and a warning to others to stay away, too. Arrests also drain time and resources away from actual organizing and mobilizing. Moreover, many people immediately assume that the accused did something wrong: “If you didn’t do anything, why were you arrested?” Those who oppose the goals of the activists can latch on to the arrests as evidence of the criminality of radicals; and self-serving liberals and social democrats can indulge in intellectual masturbation about the virtue of reasoned debate and argument while their misguided radical friends are taken away in paddy wagons.

If criminalizing dissent delimits the boundaries of acceptable forms of disagreement, criminalizing entire groups of people (indigenous, black, Muslim, poor, etc.) delimits the boundaries of acceptable forms of existence. Defining then criminalizing groups of people means creating fear, using difference as an effective way of mitigating class-based alliances. It’s not only the white population that fears people of colour, people of colour fear each other, too. And, of course, the middle-class is afraid and disgusted of the poor. The government keeps reminding everyone that it is maintaining safety, security, and order. Police and military budgets skyrocket, while social services (like postsecondary education) are gutted and shuffled off to the government’s buddies, private for-profit corporate enterprise. Any protest that may seriously challenge these realities is policed, criminalized, and cut off.

Police repression against student struggles is just another brick in the fragile wall of the state’s grip on power. Opposing the police and the rest of the security apparatus is therefore a fundamental part of the struggle for social justice.



Kabir Joshi-Vijayan, “Police Raids: How Cops and Landlords Work Together to Destroy Toronto Hoods.” BASICS Community Newsletter, 9.

Toronto 18

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP)

Student Struggle

Committee for Just Education

Students for a Democratic Society UBC

Association for Solidarity among Student Unions (Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante)

Indigenous Struggle

Tyandinega Support Committee

Ardoch Algonquin First Nation

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug 6 (KI-6)

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