Kathryn Lennon, a good friend and fellow protester in Toronto this weekend, has joined me in writing this post.
We’re upset, disturbed, frightened, and outraged after protesting this weekend on the streets of Toronto.
And now, back at home, watching the news, we’re confused. What we saw on the streets of Toronto and what we’ve heard from friends, shows a very different picture of the weekend than that coming from television news reports.
Overwhelmingly, what we saw on the streets were thousands of people taking time away from work, their everyday lives, and their families (or bringing them along!) to speak up and build solidarity around their concerns.
There were thousands of signs, stories, concerns, slogans, chants. There was no “collective message” other than a discontent with the status quo, with the G8/20, with Canada (and, really, the world) as it currently exists. We walked between No One is Illegal and anti-tar sands protesters for a while. We joined in behind a banner that read “India Quit Kashmir”, and later floated in with Amnesty International, to chant “What do we want? Human rights! When do we want them? Now!”. We smiled in solidarity with the Tibetans for a Free Tibet group, and laughed at the antics of a troupe of clowns who playfully mimicked the swagger of a cop. We sang with the Radical Choir, Faith Nolan and the Freedom Singers, and CUPE. We danced to the Rhythms of Resistance samba band. We ate delicious free food provided by the Toronto Community Mobilization Network. We admired the creativity of protesters with a giant clothes hanger and painted coffins, speaking for women’s rights to determine what reproductive justice means to them.
Some of the protesters we met questioned the G20’s legitimacy and wanted it to cease existing. Some disagreed with Harper’s stance on maternal health, or fiscal policy, or any number of other issues. Some wanted to add issues to the agenda that had been skipped altogether. Some felt the resistance presented an opportunity to raise concerns pertinent to specific communities with a broader audience (some popular reasons for resisting the G20 are explained here).
The mainstream media has shown very little of this. Even though there was no lack of reporters at any of the protests (in fact, it sometimes felt like those with media tags outnumbered those with banners), the majority of the news coverage has featured little other than the constant loop of a car on fire and a few windows being smashed.
Meanwhile we have entirely different images looping in our minds.
(I thought about bringing my video camera, but was afraid it might get smashed, or taken away by police to be used as evidence to convict someone. Rachel brought a camera to Friday’s march, but left it behind on Saturday, for the same reason. So all we have are mental images.)
Images of one protester carrying an open backpack labeled “Free Food,” filled with muffins and sandwiches for fellow protesters to help themselves to.
Of someone accidentally dropping a glass bottle on the street. Of another protester immediately throwing a cloth over it, of everyone nearby bending over to pick up shards of glass. Of someone else offering a ziploc bag for the shards, so that no one would be injured.
Images of a perfect act of street theatre. One woman sitting at a small table, in the middle of the street, facing oncoming protesters, calmly and quietly eating an entire, decadent, chocolate cake. A passerby called out “Let them eat cake!”
Images of a police officer unable to resist smiling when protesters chanted: “You’re sexy, you’re cute. Take off your riot suit!”
Of police officers cycling in formation around and around Allan Gardens in almost inappropriately short shorts, on bikes outfitted with bottles of Gatorade. We laughed.
Images of horses wearing riot masks and shin pads. Of a side-street, Elm, that we took to leave the main march on Friday, where cops stood beside their Budget rental vans eating takeout. The street was clogged with police vans and several Coach Canada buses, one of which was filled with cops in full riot gear, sitting in the bus seats, helmets on, waiting for…something. Absolutely chilling.
Images of cops bullying protesters. Making them detach sticks from signs. Searching bags and confiscating people’s goggles and vinegar-soaked bandannas (which help you breathe when teargas has been sprayed), saying “these won’t be necessary.” A protester quipped “Then that won’t be necessary either,” pointing to officers’ teargas canisters.
Images of police in riot gear with rifles that we hoped were loaded with only rubber bullets. Of them hitting batons against their shields outside of the American Embassy, while approaching protesters with small children. I felt scared to see guns on the streets of Toronto, then angry that the presence of police should make me feel intimidated enough to move to the other side of a street on a designated march route.
Images of protesters, plucked at random and arrested from the edges of a peacefully marching crowd (in the registered march that protesters were doing their best to ensure was “family friendly”).
Since then we’ve been hearing stories from friends, fellow protesters, citizen journalists and independent media.
Hearing about a friend’s daughter being knocked over by a cop on a bike, who didn’t stop. And being helped up and asked if she was okay by a second cop.
Hearing of the media getting arrested, seeing protesters wielding cameras against police batons. “The world is watching,” protesters shouted. (National Post, The Real News, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, and many other reporters were all arrested)
We heard from friends about the police violence that occurred just minutes after we left Queen’s Park. We left the park — the official ending point for the march, the spot designated by the police as the official protest gathering space for the weekend — because not much was happening aside from a scattered crowd milling around, chatting and listening to music. This video shows what friends experienced, people peacefully gathered in Queen’s Park being attacked by police: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaYbq484abs
The CBC had reporters in the park as well, who observed police deliberately encircling protesters. They repeatedly note that this was the designated safe protest zone: http://www.cbc.ca/video/player.html?category=News&zone=canada&site=cbc.news.ca&clipid=1531207920
We heard of peaceful protesters rounded up and encircled while being told to disperse at Queen and Spadina, and forced to wait hours in the rain.
The next morning, peaceful protesters negotiated with police around going to gather in solidarity with the hundreds being held at the temporary jail set up in a film studio. There, they were attacked, rounded up, and shot at with rubber bullets. All while chanting “We are peaceful, how ’bout you?” and “Peaceful protest, peaceful protest.” All of this was caught on film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiLt40d_AbU
I am struck by not having heard of a single case of any individual being injured by the actions of a protester. Meanwhile, hundreds of individuals have been injured by police officers. My friend Laura McDonald writes:
“I would like to pre-emptively ask anyone who might be upset about the vandalism to stop and ask themselves why they feel that damage to corporate property is such a big deal in light of a) the horrible things those corporations do and b) all of the police brutality and rights violations that have occurred this week. The police have trapped people while telling them to leave or they’ll be arrested. They have charged at and beaten peaceful protesters. They have randomly snatched bystanders off the street. They have stolen people’s property in illegal searches so that people cannot protect themselves. They have held hundreds of completely innocent people for up to 28 hours (the longest I’ve heard) without charge, often with no food for hours, in unlivable conditions, without allowing them their legal rights to phone calls or lawyers. My friends and I have seen this. There are videos. This weekend has been a truly horrifying experience for our group. We have been devastated to witness these events. That is the story. Please focus on it. A few windows and planted police cars are NOTHING in comparison.”
And so we feel offended, frightened, insulted, and confused when we witness what happened, what is still happening, and hear people dismissing protesters as thugs and criminals, and justifying violent and disproportionate police actions. From our viewpoint, these police actions seem completely disjointed from the “threat” posed by anyone protesting. We wonder how those in charge of security will justify violently attacking peaceful protesters and bystanders, far away from the small proportion who were violent near the fence. We hope they will have to justify their actions, that this will be demanded of them. How many people in Toronto this weekend felt their personal safety and human rights were threatened by anyone other than the police (and a government who mandated their presence)?
How many people will hesitate before peacefully protesting, openly dissenting, or actively participating in this supposedly democratic society?
How concerned should we be about doing the everyday, ordinary, community-building work we do? Will our names end up on some list that means we’re targeted for arrest, for being at protests, for being critical of authority?
This weekend gave us a wake up call and a small glimpse of what it might mean to always live in a state of fear from authority. Because of the communities we’ve been fortunate enough to belong to, we’ve more or less always experienced police as protectors, not as threats.
Back in the peaceful small city of Kitchener-Waterloo, we now find ourselves flinching when we hear sirens or a bylaw officers drive by. We don’t know how long it’ll take for these feelings to fade.
For information about the resistance, daily breakdowns, what’s next, and everything else: http://g20.torontomobilize.org/
For one take on the outcome of the G20 summit: http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/story/g-20-nations-race-bottom-will-continue/3899
For a mother’s perspective on going to the protests with a baby: http://femmemomma.blogspot.com/2010/06/this-is-what-police-state-looks-like.html
For Judy Rebick’s take on Saturday’s chaos: http://transformingpower.ca/en/blog/toronto-burning-or-it
For one person’s perspectives on the protests over the past week: http://www.janjolee.net/
For John Hilary’s criticisms of the policing and the G20: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/27/g20-toronto-policing-charade