What happened last weekend in Toronto?
All I hear about is how some "Black bloc" riots started in the streets of Toronto, after breaking away from a massive peaceful demonstration organized by others, such as labour groups, women's organizations, anti-poverty groups and development organizations (like World Vision).
Unfortunately, the media missed the massive demonstration and the messages were lost. I am in contact with literally hundreds of folks who either were part of the protests, or who just happened to be in Toronto at the time of the "riot". What appeared to happen was "surreal", as described by one of my contacts.
Between 10,000 - 20,000 people arrived on the streets of Toronto early in the day, some bussed in the night before, some arriving that morning and others who live in the Toronto area. I watched wearily from the couch as the all-news stations gave blow by blow videos of the events.
For some time, there appeared to be large gatherings of people and even larger gathering of police, many on bikes, others in riot gear. For the most part, the police were there to keep an eye on things. Many of the organizers of peaceful protests were actually working with the police and included them as parade marshals to ensure no nonsense prevails.
However, at some point in the mid-afternoon, individuals previously hiding among the legitimate protesters grab themselves and relocate elsewhere to get changed into black clothing. The black clothing is par for the course for this method of rioting - a way to remain anonymous and organized for a short period of time and then vanish back into thin air. So, as the stories were told, about 100 of these people all black clad ran ahead of the others and began to do destructive things, smashing windows, throwing projectiles at police and eventually torching police cars. Many also spray painted various themes on other buildings and vehicles, mainly "No to G20". It was interesting to watch, as these people were on film.
They did not actually vanish, as the media did portray several of them changing clothes by Queen's Park, trying to hide behind legitimate protesters. What was interesting was, did anybody else notice somebody who first came in their street clothes, and then suddenly returning to the sidelines to change back into them? A media cameraman noticed this, and inquired about their change of clothes and one of them attempted to block the camera so as to hide who they were protecting. One would wonder how stupid these people are to do this openly in front of multiple cameras, and likely undercover police officers and other hired hands taking pictures of the events.
The television then showed several police cruisers going up in smoke, and there were strangely no police around for some time. There were lots of witnesses, as well as probably the people that started this arson. It was hard to tell who was who, as people naturally being curious creatures, many would creep in there to take pictures or simply stand on the sidelines to watch the action. Some reported that a few people cheered as the cruisers went up in flames. I can't confirm or deny this.
Eventually it appeared that arrests were being made. As protesters were headed back to Queen's Park, police using video tapes and photographs of the scenes and watching as people changed, they managed to grab a few of them, cuff them and bring them to a temporary detention centre set up for this event. I heard it was even worse than this. There was cause for criticism and concern.
Prior to the G20, or the G21, as I called it, coming into town, all sorts of stories entered the media, and new words or phrases were added to our collective vocabulary: perimeter, security, integrated security unit, public works protection act, etc. Most lawyers interviewed for these stories hardly heard of the Public Works Protection Act, although government advocates cited this as being in effect since 1937. However, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came in later and has precedence over all of this, or so we thought.
Anyways, people were told that if they walked within five meters of this "red zone", which was within the perimeter protecting the world leaders, one would be forced to show identification and explain why they are there. Normally, one does not even need to speak to a police officer, let alone show identification (except in lawful circumstances, or if done so voluntarily). Well, if you were also carrying a purse, a book bag or back pack, the police would automatically assume the right to search as well. They were allegedly looking for bricks, rocks, home-made bombs, weapons or even sharp objects. However, news of this new law was not made clear to most people walking their dogs, taking a stroll or going for their morning jog ...
I was told that not everybody was questioned. For example, if I showed up by the perimeter, I don't think I would get the same treatment that a young man would get, particularly if the young man was also of colour, or of a south Asian descent. I am in my late forties and look it, and in general, when I am in Toronto, I dress well, so the police would assume I have nothing to do with the protesters or any "Black bloc", so they did target certain groups. I know this because colleagues of mine in Toronto told me they were never bothered, while many young and racialized persons were hauled in for questioning.
However, after the "Black bloc" incident, the police were under severe criticism. The federal government promised about $1 billion worth of security, although this tab kept going up and up as time progressed. As this tally increased, the amount of criticism from armchair protesters like myself went up. Armchair protesters are people that write about protesting and criticize governments without actually physically showing up. Some of these people also include reporters and editors in our favourite newspapers, among those that remained inside. Others did go out and report on the external "events", while others were allowed in to report on the actual G20 discussions.
There were questions about how much security dollars were being used for this international gabfest among the twenty richest nations of the world, and prior to that the eight largest countries. The G8 was held in Huntsville, at Deerhurst Lodge and despite some protesters showing up, this event ran swimmingly. Things just began to turn bad when the G8 became the G20. Helicopters, motorcades, police cruisers (mostly RCMP), were traveling on closed highways or in the sky into the city, and somehow, they got into the Metropolitan Toronto Convention Centre. Some leaders brought hundreds of staff, others only brought a few. Hotel rooms were completely booked across the downtown.
Anyways, many of the demonstrators wanted to approach the perimeter. I always think this would have been a good tactic, but not to do anything violent. Once there, all of them would sit or stand purposely with their signs and chants, but no violence, no rocks, no Molotov cocktails, or even any attempts to get beyond the fence ... but police were too wise on this. They not only wanted to keep demonstrators out of the perimeter, they wanted to keep them completely out of the whole area around Front Street, University Avenue, etc.
But it was the lack of police presence when the Black bloc went wild ... we are spending over a billion dollars and we couldn't even get a few police officer to put an end to this rampage on time. As a result, many businesses were destroyed, vehicles defaced and the whole streets looking more like Afghanistan than Toronto. Toronto Police Chief Blair did a press conference later on, some questions answered, some he refused to, and some he genuinely didn't know ... he cut the conference short, not wanting to make this G20 gabfest an international embarrassment to the world. Police continued to work through the night, rounding up anybody they thought could be connected to these crimes, although many of these people weren't even protesters, and there were considerable complaints - hence, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms vanished by Order in Council by Cabinet on June 2, 2010?
Demonstrators then moved their protest to the temporary detention centre where they demanded the release of various detainees. Apparently, it was not pleasant in there. People were denied phone calls, being asked to use buckets for toilets, and not being fed for hours, and when fed, maybe a cheese sandwich. How true all of this was, will best be left to an inquiry, but these conditions did not even seem to meet the Geneva Convention for Prisoners of War, let alone protests ...
The next day, the police made up for lost time, as another one of my contacts said. They sent a video of police encroaching on a peaceful demonstration by the detention centre. After refusing to move back, there was tear gas applied and crowds moved back. My contact lived across the street, and her film showed a journalist coming into her house at the request of a police officer that warned her about the tear gas, that it can go through windows, go through doors. She went inside, closed all the windows and doors, and let the journalist come in as well, until it blew over.
There were many more arrests during the day. Some people reported being street blocked, another term I never heard before, where police would trap a group of people into a very small area and force them to stay, as one of their officers goes through to conduct searches, and arrests others. They employed buses to send people on, and according to my contacts, many of these people weren't even demonstrators. They were subsequently shipped off to the temporary detention centre to be processed, and only when somebody came for them, some were released without bail (on officer in charge), while others were held for bail hearings. Four courts opened their doors on Sunday in order to process about five hundred people, some of whom were let go and others were released on a couple of thousand dollars in bail. Some had court dates, others had their charges dropped.
Nevertheless, this was a terrifying intervention into the human rights of many of these people, some of whom were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Others were arrested simply because they "should know they should not be behind a police line". Others were searched randomly. Suddenly the purchase of a gas mask becomes a crime. Many did this because they anticipated if they had to get through some of these protest areas, they did not want to get caught in the blast. Lawyers from the Movement Defence Committee were organizing bail hearings, releases, sureties, etc. Some high profile individuals were also caught in the snag too.
Police did this overtime on Sunday, supposedly to make up for what critics said they did not do on Saturday. No, nobody died from any of these interventions, but it was certainly terrifying and possibly traumatizing for some. Raking them all in and letting the courts figure it out is not necessarily the best approach, but this is the approach the police eventually took. Perhaps to show the public that these billions were being spent in visible ways?
Another of my contacts told me that twenty people came from her city, half of whom were of native descent. She told me earlier this evening that virtually all the natives continued to be in hold, while the others (non-natives) were released. Another one of my contacts viewed the mayhem from a Wheel-Trans van, which liberally took her throughout the protest zone, as well as the riot zone, and she took pictures and put them on youtube.
It is said over 900 people were arrested, although many were released without charge. There is a call for an inquiry into this G20 Hop! Some want a complete audit by Auditor General Sheila Fraser of all the summit and post-summit costs Others want to see a review of how civil liberties were dealt with, and whether or not this was actually legal. Businesses and individual residents affected by this path of destruction want somebody to pay, notably the federal government for choosing this location for their billion dollar picnic.
I don't know what the outcome of this should be, although I am uncomfortable with the way so many arrests have been carried out without any apparent provocation. I recall my training and how people react when given the uniform and the authority to do things, unchecked. Stanley Milgram did a number of experiments, where up to 68% of his subjects knowingly "tortured" a group of a confederates in the other room by moving an electrical shock device up to its maximum. Zimbardo had led a number of experiments, where subjects were placed as prison guards and were permitted to discipline the confederate prisoners, and it appeared that abuses and breaches of authority were something also that came in with the donning of the uniform.
At the same time, if you were a police officer, what would you do? Whatever you do, you are going to be attacked either way. You will be attacked for being too soft if you don't do something, too hard if you go too far ... there is no happy medium, and this is an awful position to be put in.
Maybe we will throw all these issues in and let the courts figure it out.