Drop the charges against Indigo ‘Peace 11’ protesters

People peacefully protesting a Canadian business for openly supporting the Israeli military as it commits egregious war crimes should not be branded antisemites and treated like common criminals.

Since 2006, Indigo bookstores have faced protests and boycotts due to the HESEG Foundation’s overt support for Israel and its military, and consequent complicity in the oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people, writes Kutty [Wikimedia commons]

On November 22, Canadian police conducted coordinated pre-dawn raids on seven homes across the greater Toronto area and made 10 arrests. They broke doors, ordered suspects out of their beds, and went on to completely ransack every single room and confiscate computers, cars and other private property, in some cases in the presence of terrified children and the elderly.

Looking at its ferocity and size, involving dozens of officers and presumably costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, you could be excused to think the raids were part of a massive counter-terror operation or targeting high-level, violent and hard-to-pin-down drug dealers and gang members.

Shockingly, this was not the case.

The suspects, known to their supporters collectively as “the Peace 11” – including one that was arrested separately on November 14, were professors, community organisers, legal workers and labour activists, targeted for the ostensibly dangerous offences of plastering posters and splattering washable red paint on the window of a Toronto branch of the Indigo book store chain. They had taken action against the store, like hundreds of others across Canada, to protest the material support Indigo’s owners have long been providing to the Israeli military.

For their transgressions, the 11 suspects were all charged with “Mischief (property damage) over $5000” and criminal harassment. Ten of them were further charged with “conspiracy to commit an indictable offence”. If the prosecutor decides to proceed by way of indictment, which is a very real option, the accused can receive prison sentences of up to 10 years.

Considering the suspects caused no physical harm to anyone, posed no imminent threat to society, and displayed no flight risk, why did the police, who had already secured warrants to search their homes, opt to conduct incredibly expensive and aggressive early morning raids on their homes? Why was this apparent show of force, this act of intimidation, necessary?

It seems the raids were designed to terrorise, and scare into silence, Canadians who have been taking to the streets in large numbers in Toronto over the past few weeks to call for an end to Israel’s war on Gaza.

And these early morning raids, during which peaceful protesters were treated as violent criminals and humiliated in front of their family members, are not even the most troubling aspect of this intimidation campaign.

The media coverage of the protest action and its aftermath, the nature of the charges, and the police messaging on the case, raise serious questions about abuse of police powers and systemic anti-Palestinian discrimination in Canada.

Founded in 1996, Indigo Books & Music Inc stands as the largest Canadian book retail chain, with CEO Heather Reisman and her husband Gerry Schwartz controlling more than 60 percent of the company’s shares.

In 2005, Reisman and Schwartz, who are Jewish Canadians, established the HESEG Foundation for Lone Soldiers, which provides financial support and educational opportunities to foreigners who have served in the Israeli military.

Since 2006, Indigo bookstores have faced protests and boycotts due to the HESEG Foundation’s overt support for Israel and its military, and consequent complicity in the oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people. According to the Canada Revenue Agency, in 2022 alone the foundation paid at least $5.5 million Canadian dollars (US$4.1m) in scholarships and grants to foreign Israeli military recruits.

Given HESEG’s efforts to increase foreign recruitment to the Israeli military, Reisman and Indigo are undoubtedly legitimate targets for protest, especially amid Israel’s continuing bombardment, siege and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip which, in just under three months, has killed more than 22,000 people, many of them children, and led several UN experts and genocide scholars to warn of a “risk of genocide”.

Nevertheless, merely for gluing posters accusing Reisman of “funding genocide”, and pouring red paint representing blood on the doors and windows of an Indigo branch, the Peace 11 were immediately accused of committing an anti-Semitic act.

All news reports on the protest action included references to “anti-Semitism” and most implied Indigo was targeted only because it is a “Jewish” or “Jewish-owned” business. Most media organisations did not even touch upon the store owners’ long history of support for the Israeli military or the protests that their business has faced because of it for nearly 20 years. The reports on the protest were also bundled in with the coverage of rising anti-Semitism in Canada, which led to people protesting for peace being branded as hateful anti-Semites taking advantage of the current moment to target Toronto’s Jewish population and businesses.

This was, of course, a horrible smear against protesters, some of whom are themselves Jewish, that harmed their reputations and led to them facing suspension from their jobs and other serious professional and personal consequences. Furthermore, the media’s amplification of this misleading narrative allowed the Toronto police to treat the protest as a “hate-motivated offence” and use it to further state-backed efforts to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

In an undoubtedly calculated move, the police force even announced the arrests of the Peace 11 alongside a statement on the rise in anti-Semitic incidents across Toronto, which further reinforced the perception that the protests against Indigo bookstores were anti-Semitic.

Instead of swallowing the official narrative hook, line, and sinker and blindly joining the race to accuse all who dare to criticise Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people of anti-Semitism, had the media done their job of uncovering facts and putting the acts of the Peace 11 in a relevant context, they would have found a real story to report: A leading Canadian business providing material support to a foreign military force presently accused of committing war crimes, and even genocide.

The police and state’s forceful response to peaceful and justified protests against Indigo and its owners was an egregious overreach, which not only inflicted immense harm on the Peace 11, but also damaged Canada’s credentials as a democratic state where residents’ right to peaceful protest and free speech are protected.

While acknowledging that anyone vandalising property should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, when the Peace 11 appears in court again next week, prosecutors must act with the legal system’s integrity in mind. Proceeding with these charges as standard summary conviction vandalism offences, rather than indictable charges, is crucial to prevent disrepute to the concept of hate-motivated crimes, and the Canadian justice system.

Better yet, given the damage already done to their reputations, and the reputation of the state, the charges should be stayed or dropped against the Peace 11.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.