Originally published on Tyler’s blog, Man Descending
Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a Government without Newspapers, or Newspapers without a Government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Thomas Jefferson, 1787
There’s an almost otherworldly idealism in the words of Thomas Jefferson quoted above. His sentiment smacks of an era now seemingly lost to history, when a democracy was not seen as merely a form of social organization that supported a free press, but indeed one that couldn’t exist without a free press. For Jefferson, press freedom was tantamount to political freedom, and all other aspirations of Modernist natural and universal philosophy- freedom of assembly, expression, and the freedom for each individual to self-fashion and chart his or her own path through history.
While Jefferson’s words in many ways today suggest a kind of Libertarian ideology- one where citizens, left to freely engage with one another may forge a more successful society than any government could provide, that is not the idea I hope to bring forth here. Rather, it is the spirit of the phrase I hope to draw out- the notion that a free press is nothing short of a properly filled out ballot on election day; a virtual public square made of pulp and ink rather than cobblestones and mortar. In light of this past weekend’s assault on free press and media democracy in Toronto, such a sentiment is perhaps even more relevant today than it was in the 18th Century.
With the outbreak of violent anti-G20 protests on Saturday, summed up in the image of a burning police car (suspect though that event may be, as Naomi Klein points out in this interview with Democracy Now!), came a rash of arrests over the course of the weekend. In the end, Toronto police had staked claim to the largest mass arrest in Canadian history, with over 900 individuals taken into police custody, a total that does not reflect the hundreds more who were detained for hours on end in Toronto streets without cause or explanation, many of whom had no relation to the protests whatsoever.
Just as at every G20/G8 conference, debate on the issue quickly polarized. Black Bloc tacticians were vilified for smashing windows and committing reckless acts of violence, and simultaneously, police were called out for undue displays of force, and accused of putting public relations, politics, and the allure of cash above the preservation of public safety and order. There is truth on both sides, but as a tweet I read the other day put it: “Conversations about tactics are secondary: democracy is getting the shit kicked out of it right now” (@trevornault).
Nothing could be truer. I’m not willing to engage in discussions of to what extent certain police and activist tactics are justified under what conditions here. That’s a debate that’s happening as we speak just about everywhere you go online- join it if you want to. The deepest wound inflicted upon our nation’s fabric over the weekend was not a smashed window or a burned-out police car- it was the attempt to shut down the free press and staunchly control what information journalists were at liberty to share with the nation.
All kinds of journalists- citizen and professional alike- were subject to a brutal crackdown at the hands of the Toronto Police. Reporters from the Globe and Mail, The Guardian, CBC, CTV, the Real News Network, and community/citizen media organizations were forcibly removed from protest areas, in many cases physically abused, and detained in outdoor holding areas and makeshift detention centres. From following Twitter closely over the course of the events, it seems many photographers had their cameras stripped from them upon detention, and had them either disappear into the vacuum of security office backrooms, or had them returned with memory cards missing or destroyed.
It was a vain attempt at sterilizing the public image of a police organization essentially left to run amock. With an extravagant and bloated $ 1 Billion operational budget for the summit- besting the previous summit’s security budget by ten times- the Toronto Police were left the task of proving to the public that they were necessary to stop this conference from turning into another Seattle. To no avail.
From under the fist of tight media control have emerged hundreds of personal accounts- photographed, written, videoed- of the conditions on the streets, in the detention centres, and throughout the city. Professional journalists from around the globe who witnessed the tumult on the streets have shared their stories with a worldwide audience, citizen journalists have distributed their groundbreaking and often disturbing content through massive networks of activists and citizens, and regular people who had cell phones, iPods, or cameras on hand have made distressing footage of this weekend’s events widely available.
This is ample proof that, no matter how hard you clamp down, people will always talk and share. There’s just simply no way around this fact, and those acts of talking and sharing are the cornerstones of a free press, and, if Jefferson’s words have any resonance today, that same free press- professional, citizen, unaccredited, global, regional, local, or accidental- underlies our inalienable rights as citizens under a democratic system of social organization.
If a police organization intervened in our right to freely vote for who we wanted, even if it was the most unpopular of all candidates running in an election, we would be furious. Our right to vote is equivalent to our right to participate in the governmental process. As members of this society, we enter into an implicit agreement with our leaders that we will empower them with our vote, provided they defend our right to mobilize that vote in any way we so choose- even if it isn’t in their favor.
Throughout Western history, the ability to write and publish opinion freely without fear of intervention from an ideologically restrictive interlocutor has consistently been equated with this notion of the vote. As early as the 1500s, just as print culture was opening its eyes in Western Europe, debates quickly flared up between old structures of power that legitimated their authority by controlling the spread of information (read, the church) and reformers empowered by the ability to spread new ideas cheaply, quickly, and in formats accessible to a wider audience. Nearly 300 years later, Jefferson among others firmly codified this link between a free press, the ability to share ideas with others, and the maintenance of a healthy participatory democracy.
The press was attacked in Toronto at all levels- from average citizens, to tech-savvy self-accredited journalists, to old-guard reporters working for papers with 100-year histories. But if we accept the link between our right to engage in the political process and our means of communicating with one another, something much more insidious happened: we didn’t just lose memory cards and news flashes. We got locked out of the goddamn voting booth.