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(Un)Reasonable Search and Seizure in Québec City:
Lessons from an Emerging Documentary Filmmaker
By Malcolm Rogge
© 2001 by Malcolm Rogge
Toronto Video Activist Collective
I travelled to Québec on the weekend of the Summit of the Americas
as a member of the Toronto Video Activist Collective, and as part of
a group of about fifteen independent Toronto filmmakers. I hadn't been
in Québec city for even half an hour when I was roughly apprehended
by a burly RCMP officer, searched, interrogated, and treated like a
suspected terrorist. My mistake was to arrive in Québec city
at 2am, and to pull out my video camera within the still unsecured perimeter
area. The protests hadn't even started, and I had already come frighteningly
close to being arrested. I learned some valuable lessons about the theory
and practice of reasonable search and seizure, which I'd like to share...
We had just arrived in Québec city after the nine hour drive
from Toronto. Looking at the map, I could tell that we were only two
blocks from the infamous "wall of shame" that surrounded the
heart of the city. I started filming. The anticipation of seeing the
fence reminded me of when I saw the Berlin wall for the first time in
1987. I was seventeen. I shot several rolls of film of the political
graffiti that covered every square inch of the wall in downtown Berlin.
Waiting to see the fence in Québec city was eerily similar to
my experience of waiting to see the Berlin wall.
As our car rolled to a stop at the corner of Côte d'Abraham
and Dufferin, I caught my first glimpse of the fence.
"There it is... Do you see it?"
"That's it?! That's all it is?" the driver replied.
A row of concrete slabs topped with a chain link fence lined the side
of the road. There were no police in sight. Cars were driving along
like any other night. The perimeter area was still open to traffic.
As I looked at the fence, I remembered that Berlin wall started with
just razor wire and wooden barricades.
We kept driving. As we turned on to Boulevard Réne Léveque,
I saw a bright electronic sign: "Bienvenue au Sommet des Ameriques".
I jumped out of the car, as any other documentary filmmaker would, and
I began videotaping. It was a perfect shot for my film: "Welcome
to the Summit of the Americas!".
As the brightly lit welcome sign switched from French to English and
back again, two RCMP officers emerged from the shadows and walked quickly
towards me. They shouted at me, asking me what I was filming.
"Any reason that you're filming?"
They came right up to me. They were very fast. They began to hurl
questions at me rapid-fire, hardly giving me enough time to process
one question before lobbing another my way. One of the officers
pushed my camera down and told me to stop filming. I kept it rolling.
The burly officer told me to show him what I'd been filming. It's not
easy to keep your cool in highly tense encounters with the police, but
somehow I managed to ask the right question at the right time:
"Am I doing anything illegal? Am I free to go?"
They told me that I was in a secure area.
"Oh, I didn't know that... I didn't see any sign or anything..."
I said, quite honestly. I told them we had just come around the corner
and saw the electronic sign. I pointed to the sign and pronounced in
"Bienvenue au Sommet des Ameriques".
"Well, take a hike" said the burly officer. So I did. I
started walking quickly towards the car, my heart racing into my throat.
That was a very close call, I thought to myself. I learned my first
lesson in political documentary filmmaking: if you're not part of the
corporate media, then carrying a camera is like carrying a gun
you're automatically a suspect. Lesson two was also simple: don't expect
the cops to put up signs telling you where you're not allowed to go...
As I got into the back seat of the car, I said to the driver, "Ok,
let's get going". But before I could close the door, the burly
officer came up from behind and held the car door open.
"Get out of the car!" He ordered.
Needless to say I was confused, having been just told by the same
officer to "take a hike". Before I could say anything else,
he grabbed me by my leather jacket and pulled me out of the car. Fuck!
I thought to myself, I haven't even been in Québec City for half
an hour and I was going to be arrested. He pushed me against the side
of the car and took my video camera. He began to fumble with it clumsily.
He looked into the viewfinder for a few seconds and then shouted out
to the other officers:
"He's been filming all of our secure sites...". He repeated
this point several times.
Moments before, I had been free to go; but suddenly, I had become
a suspected terrorist. I strenuously denied the accusations of filming
secure sites. I told them that I had just filmed the outside of the
fence as we drove around the corner.
The burly officer whom I later learned was named officer Fedor
took the video tape and confiscated it. By this time, about six
frantic RCMP officers had surrounded the car.
Officers Fedor and Scott began to interrogate me aggressively. It
was scary shit, so to speak. I had to make a quick decision about whether
I would insist on my legal right to remain silent and almost
certainly be arrested; or whether I should answer their questions and
hope that they would eventually calm down. I had done nothing illegal,
and I had no plans to engage in illegal activity. I had just arrived
in Quebec. The last thing I wanted was to spend the next 24 hours
in a police station, or spend five days in jail. I opted to answer their
questions as truthfully as possible without compromising any other members
of the group I was travelling with.
Officer Scott tried his very, very best to make me out to be a liar.
I learned my third lesson: the cops will call you a liar over and over
again, just ignore them, and don't let them get a rise out of you...
They demanded to know what I was really doing in Québec. They
asked me why I was filming secure sites. When I insisted that I had
only filmed the outside of the fence, officer Scott asked me if I was
calling them liars. I didn't answer that question. They took my wallet
and searched it for my ID. They demanded to know what organizations
I was a part of. That is absolutely none of your business, I thought.
Legally speaking, I didn't have to answer any of their questions. But
strategically, I thought it would help me if I told them that I was
a member of the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of the Toronto and
the YMCA. They checked out the license plate of the car, and asked my
why we would rent a car and come all the way from Mississaugua. I repeated
over and over again that I was an independent filmmaker and that I was
there to film the demonstrations. They called me a liar. They called
me an idiot. They told me I didn't act my age.
They kept asking me:
"What are you really doing here? Why were you filming all
of our secure sites? Tell us the truth..."
They were relentless.
In their eyes, I was a subversive, or even worse, a suspected terrorist.
While I was being interrogated, a third RCMP officer took my backpack
and searched every pocket meticulously. He emptied contents onto the
back of the car. He examined my heavy battery pack. He found my filmmaking
notebook and began to read it carefully. I explained that the notes
were for film projects I had worked on a year earlier. One of those
films was called Scar(e). He stopped on the page that said "Scar(e)"
and started reading very carefully. I learned my fourth lesson for documentary
filmmakers: don't carry scripts for surrealist erotic films into potential
danger zones that are crawling with cops who are trained to be paranoid...
Soon the Québec municipal police arrived. This was a lucky
break. The Québec police officer actually listened to me as I
tried my best to speak to him in broken French. He appeared to believe
my story. He wasn't as paranoid as the rest of the gang. But, he was
a cop too, and he also searched me. He found my safety goggles in one
pocket, and found my bandanna soaked in lemon juice in a zip-lock bag.
"Why do you have these goggles?" he asked.
"To protect my eyes in case of any emergency, " I replied
in broken French.
"But you already have glasses," he retorted.
"Exactly," I said. "I need to protect my eyes and my
glasses or I won't be able to see anything..."
He looked at the soaked bandanna.
"Citron." I said. "C'est pour le gaz, s'il y a du gaz
cette fin du semaine..."
He took my safety goggles and my lemon-soaked rag into his car. Meanwhile,
the RCMP officers opened the trunk of the car. The burly Fedor frantically
searched the entire contents of the trunk, presumably looking for anything
that could be construed as a weapon, or any evidence of a sinister plot
against the summit. He found my computer in the back of the trunk.
"Why do you have a computer? " he asked. I told him that
I used it to do my editing.
He pulled out one of my friend's bags and ordered me to open it.
"It's not my bag," I stated bluntly.
He pulled the straps apart, zipped the bag open, and rifled through
the clothes. Fedor stood upright triumphant when he found a gas mask
and goggles buried among the clothes.
"So you're making a documentary, eh?" he asked sarcastically
shaking the gas-mask in front of my eyes. "Why would you need these
if you were just making a documentary?"
Officer Fedor seized the eye-wear and the gas-mask, adding them to
the collection of articles that he had already happily confiscated from
Then Officer Scott turned and shouted at me:
"If you just told us in the first place that you were here to
demonstrate, then we wouldn't have had to go through all of this. If
you didn't lie to us about why you were here, we wouldn't have to have
done this. You can demonstrate if you want. There's nothing wrong with
demonstrations. It's a free country. There are things that I'd like
to demonstrate about too. But why did you tell us you were making a
documentary, when you're really here to demonstrate?!"
I told him that the two activities aren't mutually exclusive.
He actually stopped talking, for just a second...
Another officer started to rummage through my bag. He pulled out the
copies of my zines that I had brought with me. He held them under the
streetlight and started reading them.
"Poetry," I told him.
It worked: after reading a couple of pages of my poetry, he put the
zines back in my bag. Lucky for me, he didn't look through all the zines.
One of my zines is filled with satirical collage art made from images
and text culled from military journals. That zine is called "Welcome
to the Reagan Years: 2001" and it is dedicated to George Bush and
his son George. I made the collages about two months ago after being
struck by how much it felt like we were back in the Reagan years. The
zine is filled with diagrams of ICBMs and advertisements for guns and
tanks that come from the Canadian Military Journal. If the RCMP had
seen that one, I'm quite sure that they would have taken me to jail.
I learned lesson number five: don't bring French-situationist-inspired
agit-prop into red zones unless you're planning on explaining Dadaism
to a bail-hearing officer...
Officer Fedor was a bit miffed that he didn't find anything incriminating
in the trunk. He tried to slam the door shut, smashing the top
of my lime green iMac. Fuck! I thought again.
"You damaged my computer," I said to officer Fedor. He pushed
the computer into the back of the trunk and slammed it shut.
Then they searched the back seat of the car . One of the officers
made me take out my Super-8 film camera and ordered me to play it back
"I can't," I told him, "...it's film, it needs to be
"I think you're lying to me," he said, as he grabbed the
camera and examined it.
I showed him a box of unexposed film and explained to him that it was
Kodak film, just like the film used in a normal film camera. I told
him that I have to send it to the Kodak lab to be developed. He
still didn't believe me and called one of his supervisors.
"He says that he can't play it back to me, but I don't believe
him," the officer said to his supervisor. They looked at the camera
and tried to figure out how it worked.
"What's on the film?" they asked again.
I told them the truth: "Beautiful construction sites in Toronto..."
They gave me back my camera and I breathed a sigh of relief. They
were beginning to lose their steam, and they had found absolutely nothing
to incriminate me with.
Eventually, a very high ranking RCMP officer arrived on the scene.
The officers had a conference at the side of the road. Officers Fedor
and Scott stood quietly on the sidewalk away from me.
After enduring almost an hour and a half of interrogation and searches,
the big cheese RCMP officer came up to me. He gave me back my video-tape
and the rest of the items that his underlings had seized, including
the page from my notebook about my film "Scar(e)".
"You seem like nice people," the supervisor said to me.
"The area has not been secured yet, and you haven't been
doing anything illegal," he continued. "But we are on full
alert here though, it is a very tense situation... so please understand..."
What he's saying is that he'll argue in court that it was a
reasonable search, I thought to myself.
"Are we free to go?" I asked.
"Can I get the officers' badge numbers?"
I walked up to officers Scott and Fedor and asked for their name and
numbers. I went up to the window of the Québec City police
car and asked for the car number and the constable's number. They were
polite. There were no more insults. No more accusations. They played
good cop. The interrogation was over, and now they were my friends.
I wasn't a suspect anymore. Now we were "nice" people.
Maybe the shit was about to hit the fan now that the big cheese was
there. Maybe they were embarrassed. Maybe they didn't care at
all. Maybe it was just practice. Maybe it was just all in fun... Maybe
it was a reasonable interrogation.
I got back into the car, and we started off to Laval. Just a block
away we saw another car at the side of the road surrounded by police
officers. The trunk was open, and people were being searched. I learned
lesson number six: This is only the beginning, we are all suspects now...
After witnessing the events in Quebec city on the weekend of the summit,
I have concluded that the police really did need the wall-or something
like it to keep thousands of well-prepared protesters from spoiling
the summit. A very large number of loosely organized, decentralized,
and highly politically motivated protesters were determined to be heard.
Some will say that the provocative actions of the protesters show that
the police were justified in building the wall. We ought to remember
that the East German authorities also had many official justifications
for their own wall. In East Germany, the wall kept the citizens in,
and sheltered them from the rest of the world. In Quebec city, the wall
kept the so-called anarchists from spoiling the summit, and sheltered
the international delegates from the truth about what was really going
on outside the perimeter. In both cases, truth was the greatest casualty.
The real question to ask is why were these walls thought to be needed
in the first place...
PLEASE FORWARD TO ANYONE
WHO YOU THINK MIGHT BE INTERESTED
Malcolm Rogge is a multi-media artist and writer based in Toronto.
He has written for the Texas International Law Journal, New York's BUST
Magazine, the Canadian Journal of Development Studies, Toronto's KISS
MACHINE, the University of Manitoba Graduate Students Newspaper, Refuge:
Canada's Periodical on Refugee Studies, and Valparaíso's Journal
of Third World Legal Studies. He is a member of the Liaison of Independent
Filmmakers of Toronto, and the Toronto Video Activist Collective.
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