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G20 Dispatches: Everyone Loses

Christopher Bird and Christopher Drost were Torontoist’s staffers accredited for the G20. They reported on the inside for the duration of the summit; Torontoist’s complete G20 coverage, including reporting from the streets, is here.

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Detainees at Queen and Spadina on Sunday night. Photo by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.


The story of Toronto’s Sunday—a long, wet, depressing day—is one of profound failure for every institution involved in the events of this horrendous waste of a weekend. After Saturday, there was the chance that maybe as a city we’d get past the mishaps, criminality, and overreactions, but as it turned out, nobody was interested in doing that.


Our first foray today was to attend the Toronto Community Mobilization Network’s press conference at 3 p.m., which was barely a press conference: it was in fact an extended chance for TCMN to whine at the press for being unsupportive. (At least when Bill Blair holds a press conference and bullshits to your face, he doesn’t need a crowd cheering for him.) It was exactly what you’d expect: cops are bad, we’re exercising our legal rights, the people who have been detained overnight are “political prisoners” (by the way, I’ve rung Aung San Suu Kyi on the phone just now, and she says “drama queen says what?”) and on and on—a long-winded stream of the biggest heap of self-righteousness not seen since, well, since the last time I heard Stephen Harper criticize the left wing in this country.
And for all of that, protesters, you still could have come out the good guys today. It would have been so easy. You only had to do one thing, one single goddamn thing: “We don’t approve of or condone the Black Bloc tactics and we don’t approve of or condone violent protest.” There you go. Say that, and you’re heroes, plain and simple: people who chose not to let their grievances against the government be tainted by malice, even in the face of ridiculously overwrought police tactics. One lousy sentence; that’s all we asked of you. Just show us a little good faith.
But of course it didn’t happen—not from the top. We got weasel words worthy of Parliament. “We don’t comment on the actions of individuals.” “That’s not the story here.” And the reason for the weaseling out is really simple: organizers don’t want to condemn Black Bloc tactics and bandana thugs. The radical protest movement in Canada (and let’s call it that for lack of a better umbrella term, to distinguish it from the labour unions and NGOs that vamoosed on Saturday the moment they realized the goon squad had ruined everything) long ago decided that the Black Bloccers are part of the movement and welcome at their rallies, and that the next time they hold a protest the thugs will show up again and they’ll break shit again, and the rest will just yell “solidarity” like a bunch of useless assholes.
We spoke to lots of protesters today while circling police lines, and near-unanimously they were disgusted with the thug movement and the groups like TCMN that have more or less claimed leadership of the radical protesters by fiat. A self-identified CAW worker watched the arrests in Parkdale, and she said to us, sadly, “we were supposed to have a rally yesterday.” One protester outside the Queen-Spadina fracas held up his Canadian flag. “You know the leader of that socialist bloccer group? Hassan something? I was at Allan Gardens on Friday, waving my flag, and he comes up to me and he says it’s a colonialist symbol and to put it away. I say, I’m here to support free speech and show that Canadians can protest. He says he hates the idea of Canada. Fuck that guy.” Even the ones who were a little bit sympathetic to “frustrated people” immediately added the “not that I’d ever do that” disclaimer.
What’s really depressing about all this is simple: the radical protest movement is never going to bring about any real change. Change comes in one of two ways: either by long-term peaceful demonstration or by a lot of really violent action. The protest movement isn’t disciplined enough to manage option one, and our violent protesters still aren’t violent enough for option two.
Go look back at footage of the Iranian protests from last year or the Thailand protests last month. Those protesters knew what to do with cops and soldiers: rush ‘em. Body armor and batons and Tasers and guns are all nifty, sure, but when you’ve got twenty protesters for every cop or soldier (and for all the hordes of extra cops we had this weekend, they were almost always heavily outnumbered), if they all rush the cops—yes, the cops will take some down with them, but they’re not going home.
Every cop on the line this weekend knew that it could happen here, which is why they were scared. I really think protesters underrate how intimidating they can get for cops when they parade or rally; protesters are in the middle of it and they only see their friends, but when you’re the people they demonize and there are more of them than you, it’s not good clean fun.
None of this, of course, excuses the performance of the police today. The cops had a disastrous top-down management strategy, to be sure, but over and over again the story of today was that some individual police were completely and totally willing to be bastards.
The stories got more and more ludicrous, sometimes so ludicrous we couldn’t begin to believe them until kids showed us pictures or video their friends had taken on cellphones or cameras of the incidents. Cops confiscating rainbow Pride bandanas. (Are bandanas illegal now? I know the Black Bloc movement is mostly comprised of very stupid people, but they proved this weekend they’re smart enough to change clothes.) Cops stopping people for having a black backpack. (Are people supposed to buy a new backpack because some idiots use ones the same colour?) Cops questioning a cyclist in the Critical Mass bike event after the cyclist stopped to see if a bike cop who had tumbled off his bike was all right.
I could go on like this for paragraphs more, honestly: cops snipping a megaphone cable to make it unusable, cops confiscating an electric shaver, cops detaining people for taking cellphone pictures of them arresting protesters, cops refusing to let people make cellphone calls in the vicinity of an arrest…
We saw that last one happen in Parkdale. After the protester press whine-ference, we were walking back to the car, and then saw a hastily formed bike cop line just outside the Parkdale Legal Clinic near Queen and Dufferin. The police had stopped a bus that was about to leave for Quebec City, taking protesters back home, and sorted the protesters out in the street as they went through their possessions trying to figure out which ones they could arrest.
Just looking back at that sentence makes me ill. The number of Charter of Rights and Freedoms violations that were committed here is beyond belief, and you can’t help but think that police, who are trained to know what the law will and won’t allow in detention and search procedures, knew that most of their arrests would be invalidated very quickly. Not that this stopped them from doing so.
But that wasn’t the end: they then expanded the line outwards as more cops arrived, and in doing so arrested more people they felt hadn’t moved out of the way quickly enough. The underpass at Queen and Dufferin was under construction, so about fifteen people were stuck there, not allowed to cross the police line to get across the street and leave, but theoretically, as one cop explained, “not exactly detained.” It’s not that the cops wanted anything with them, after all; they just weren’t allowed to go anywhere until the cops were finished their work.
The unprompted justifications police officers gave me all day were insane—there’s no better word for it. Most common was this refrain: “How stupid do you have to be to _________?” It’s not a new joke for cops—criminals frequently do really stupid things—but the context this time wasn’t funny. “How stupid do you have to be to wear black clothes today?” “How stupid do you have to be to walk up to a cop and wave a peace symbol in his face?” “How stupid do you have to be to have spray paint in your bag?” The more I heard it, the more I thought: maybe they’re just really, really in denial about how fucked this all is.
At this point, I’m sure of it.
Late in the day, as the rain started to come down at Queen and Spadina, we arrived just in time to miss surrounded protesters who had just finished singing “O Canada” get rushed by police. Those police then began the systematic snatch-and-grab tactics they’d used the day prior at Queen’s Park, because apparently guilt by association is the next big thing in Canadian policing. Sure, it’s pretty likely that some protesters knowingly concealed Black Bloccers within their ranks, but there’s no way in hell that constitutes probable cause.
I’d say that the crazy downpour squelched the chance that onlookers might do something, but realistically they were never going to do anything anyway. The peanut gallery has been in force all weekend at every corner, sidewalk, and anywhere else that’s twenty feet or more away from police. At least the protesters are willing to get arrested: that gives them a little bit of spiritual currency to catcall the cops. But for every protester, there’s three or four hipsters who are willing to yell out “PIGS” or “THIS IS NOT MY CANADA” and then cover their mouths or shrink back in the crowd or look inconspicuous really quickly so no cop would actually look their way. It’s the real-life equivalent of comments on YouTube: meaningless, disposable, anonymous, and annoying.
Sunday was also the day that the international press decided to cover the streets (and thanks to everybody for Saturday, just for that), and although most were quite useless, at least they were entertaining. Seeing the Fox News team get bum-rushed down Spadina by cops was probably the funniest moment of the entire day. More irritating than funny was the French journalist screaming “how DARE you?” over and over again at cops for refusing to let her cross the line. (Right in principle, perhaps, but we were talking serious screech factor on the voice.) An Italian media team asked us for directions because they couldn’t figure out which way was east, and then asked “have you seen the action? We are looking for the violence. Where is it?”
The entire day was a pathetic waste. At the end of it, journalists and delegates partied inside the International Media Centre; the summit was done, they could now go home, and there was free booze to spare, so why not? It’d be a shame to come to the G20 summit and not get hammered by the fake lake.
Actually, in retrospect, the fake lake is honestly kind of nice. It only cost about fifty thousand bucks, not the one-point-two million everybody kept discussing, and it’s really quite pleasant to sit in. But when a fake lake is the best part of your day, it’s been a worthless day. That’s the fault of pretty much every last one of us.

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