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Coffee, Tea & Controversy

On the morning of Saturday, January 6th, an unnamed individual purchased coffee for pro-Palestine demonstrators at Avenue Road and Wilson in Toronto. They were unable to deliver it, due to a police closure. Instead, the coffee was passed along to the demonstrators by a masked member of Toronto police. After a video of that morning surfaced on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, outrage began swirling across headlines over what amounts to little more than a kind gesture. Laurie McCann, a spokesperson for Toronto police, assured the Toronto Sun that officers’ were, as a top priority,  “maintaining order in a tense environment on the Avenue Road bridge. In performing a helpful act today, our officer’s motivation was to help keep tensions low and should not be interpreted as showing support for any cause or group.”


From the moment the coffee changed hands, and before it could even be distributed or consumed, the slant of these trivial events was made. In the video a man is asked by the cameraman how he “got coffee” from the police. The simple statement implies that the officers – on site to monitor the safety of both drivers using the overpass and the demonstrators themselves – were somehow in league with the demonstrators and their cause. In response, Laurie McCann, a spokesperson for Toronto police, assured the Toronto Sun that officers’ were, as a top priority,  “maintaining order in a tense environment on the Avenue Road bridge. In performing a helpful act today, our officer’s motivation was to help keep tensions low and should not be interpreted as showing support for any cause or group.”


Without aggression, this brief interaction between police and the demonstrator being interviewed is cordial and polite, smiling as he explains that the barricade prevented whomever brought coffee from getting through. He elaborates though unnecessarily “So the police is now becoming our little messengers between us,” clearly indicating the police acted simply as a go-between. But this too has now become cause for anger and vitriol, as the video clip shared online is cut to showonly the moment officers handed off the coffee. Despite having little or no substance apart from human decency (considering temperatures on January 6th warranted a special weather advisory for the city), it was more than enough for online reactionaries to latch onto.


Context is, of course, important. The peaceful demonstration took place at an overpass that’s located near a large Toronto Jewish neighbourhood, the residents of which have claimed they felt threatened. Most notably backlash from the coffee event also comes in the wake of a Toronto police investigation into a fire at a Jewish-owned grocery store just two days earlier that same week. In early December, the violent arrest of a pro-Palestine demonstrator brought consternation from both sides of the issue. As the Israel-Hamas conflict increases in intensity, so too have the frequency of demonstrations across the globe. And, at the end of December last year, 58-year old Nicole Ziegler was charged for uttering death threats at a counter-protest on Christmas Eve. The world has born witness to an active genocide that, as of this writing, has gone unabated for more than 90 days since it’s original inception in 1974. And this in turn has contributed to a sharp rise in anti-semitism, both in Toronto and beyond. Needless to say, tensions have been running quite high in the city of Toronto. 


That increasing tension is being reflected in the tone and tenor of media coverage, further stoking rage, division and hatred that has been dominating news headlines since October 7th, 2023. The media atmosphere is such that, even a simple and apolitical act like passing along some coffee, becomes a perceived slight against one side in favour of the other and sparks cries for more enforcement at the expense of curtailing people’s civil liberties and their right to peacefully demonstrate. Since the incident, police have banned protests in this area and will arrest anyone who does not comply.


Beyond Canadian media, coverage of such a small act of kindness was syndicated through Fox News and Jewish publications like The Jerusalem Post and Israel National News, with a decisively negative slant. Sky News in the UK picked it up, and even reached the small town of Llanelli in Wales, with less than thirty thousand residents, picked up the story. Coverage even reached as far as South Asia, Karachi and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the far-right reactionary news and opinion website Breitbart. In all of them, the blatant mischaracterization of police actually serving the demonstrators coffee – instead of escorting it on someone’s behalf – is used. 


 Toronto Sun columnist Brian Lilley said the gesture “was not an act of de-escalation, it was an act of encouragement of an illegal act” before continuing on the perceived hypocrisy of the police. Lilley makes certain to purposely misconstrue the situation as a delivery rather than a handoff which is clearly articulated in the clip in question.. Despite this, Lilley characterizes the harmless demonstration as a “protest opposed to Jews; there is no other way to describe this.” Enraged, Lilley openly uses vaguely threatening language with regards to Toronto police Chief Myron Demikiw and Deputy Chief Lauren Pogue, referencing the failure of Ottawa police to enforce the so-called Freedom Convoy, and the subsequent resignation of former Chief Peter Sloly: “That’s something Demkiw and Pogue should keep in mind as they ponder their next steps.”


Among other Canadians writing from verified accounts on X, Canadian Members of Parliament were also eager to expound upon the non-event, likely as declarations to their constituents more than any real informed opinion. Anthony Housefather, Quebec MP for Mont Royal, spurned the gesture as a “very poor decision” on behalf of Toronto police. Weighing in on the helpfulness of Toronto police was Liberal MP Marco Mendicino, who fretted that such a gesture would serve to “undermine public safety and add to local frustrations.” 


Perhaps most sensibly in the sea of vitriolic coverage was recently reported on by Ben Cohen, staff reporter at the Toronto Star. In a memo to the Star from the Toronto Police Association it said that its officers had merely been keeping the peace and were categorized unfairly as "ineffectual and negligent in their duties." Rightly so. 


How could such a simple gesture be twisted, spun and slanted to serve the highly dubious claim of ‘politicized policing’? The state of this reporting is largely to blame. Use of incendiary language, choosing whom to give voice to regarding the incident (notably none of the demonstrators, apart from man in the original video clip, were reached by any news publication for comment), and the obvious alarmist prose found in the articles herein represented is highly negligent and irresponsible. It verges on journalistic malpractice.


The National Post followed up on their original reporting of the video with an article on January 8th, broadly claiming the incident “has intensified calls for cops to enforce the law on disruptive demonstrations.” As if to diffuse the tension from the opening paragraph, a quote from retired Toronto police detective Mark Mendelson follows later on. Mendelson clarified “I don’t think for one minute, as some have suggested, that this is the police showing sympathy for one side or another – but this young copper on Saturday, I’m sure thought they were doing the right thing.” The quote itself appears to disregard the article’s fearmongering, pot-stirring nature. Mendelson calls it what it is: a harmless, apolitical act overblown by any who might suggest otherwise.

Ultimately, the question of whether police being helpful warrants restricting citizens’ right to gather and demonstrate without disproportionate enforcement – indeed, the claim that they should not be allowed to demonstrate at all, or that these demonstrations equate to, as Lilley comically describes, ‘mob rule’ – is one that we should not entertain with any seriousness. While this conflict continues, it can become extremely difficult to suspend our initial reactions and emotions to events surrounding it. To see the forest for the trees. We cannot allow the cheapening of the fifth estate to be reduced to nothing more than tawdry propaganda here at home.  The path forward is up to us: to approach the news presented to us with a healthy skepticism, critical thinking and sensibility.

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