Christopher Bird and Christopher Drost are Torontoist’s staffers accredited for the G20. They will be reporting on the inside for the duration of the summit; Torontoist’s complete G20 coverage, including reporting from the streets, is here.
It’s difficult to sum up protesters in a single sentence, because they’re not simple people and they’re not doing a simple thing. Many people like to characterize them as dimwits, but that’s not entirely true. Others like to characterize them as defenders of freedom, and that’s not entirely true either. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Wandering through the buildup to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty‘s march Friday, you could be forgiven for occasionally leaning towards the dimwit side of things. Protesters tell you they don’t want their picture taken “because you might be a cop,” and some of them are entirely willing to get physical with you if they catch you trying. The concept that going out in public wearing outlandish costumes to generate attention might involve getting photographed by news media is one that some of them haven’t quite figured out yet.
Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, is there with his band of organized labour activists. As representatives of the Communist Party of Iran (really!) shout “Down with capitalism!” in the background, he explains that CUPE stands in solidarity with people on social assistance and in poverty, and that he believes that all the issues being shouted about today are important: “All of these things are important to people. Housing, and justice, and immigration issues, and income support issues, these are all important issues and not one of them—not one of them are being discussed by the leaders of the world’s richest countries, and so it’s important to be able for people to have opportunities to raise their voices like this. It’s part of what makes us a great democracy.”
Fred Hahn of CUPE Ontario.
As a man leads a crowd in a chant of “Hey, what does democracy look like? THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”, it’s clear that Hahn’s opinion is the majority one.
He’s not wrong—not entirely anyway—because that’s what’s most admirable about protesters. They’re engaged. They’re involved. They really give a fuck in a time when giving a fuck seems increasingly rare. They’re willing to pitch in for one another and support one another in a show of community spirit that, in other circumstances, would have the most hidebound conservatives standing up and applauding.
But I think there’s a problem here that many of the protesters don’t get, which is that it often seems that this isn’t really dedication to a cause.
This is not to say that protesters are dilettantes. There are always a few, but the vast majority are committed and idealistic. It’s not to say that they’re stupid, either (although it would have been nice if the anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists could have been shoved in a corner somewhere and forced to read actual medical books as opposed to half-deranged websites). And they’re not clone-stamped hippies: every one of them has a story to tell, and every story is different. Or mostly different, because every one of these stories has something in common: the person fell victim to a social injustice, or knew someone who did, and decided that a certain Authority was to blame.
That’s why you have a protest march where transsexuals demanding equal rights march right before the (awesome) Raging Grannies, who are followed by a legalize-marijuana group (well, in this march, pretty much everybody is for legalizing marijuana, but some of them have other causes, too), and then comes along No One Is Illegal—and calling No One Is Illegal a big group of confrontational, self-righteous idiots wrapped up in one large circular banner is probably being too generous to them by half.
The problem with all these circling, overlapping narratives is that they all blend together into a melange of outrage, which means when you ask someone why they’re there, they can never give you a straight, simple answer. “I’m here for human rights.” But they won’t tell you which ones. “I’m standing with the people.” Yeah, but why? “I’m here because somebody has to make a difference.” What difference? “We need to make the leaders of the richest countries in the world understand what they really need to do.” Goddammit, what are you talking about? At a certain point, it all blends together. It becomes a giant left-wing cover-band version of Somebody Should Do Something About All The Problems, and it’s why so many people have trouble respecting this sort of protester, because you can’t respect somebody who marches because they want everything to be better, sorta. The Tamil protesters, for example, everybody understood. Although lots of people hated their guts, everybody knew why they were marching. That’s a good thing, and it’s vital to the conduct of democracy, because the more people know, the better they can make an informed decision about any particular question of policy or matter of (in)justice.
And informed decisions can, unfortunately, be rare in these parts. Spend time at a protest march and you’ll lose count of the number of times that you hear how the G20 leaders have to work to prevent starvation in the Third World—from people who genuinely had no idea that global food security was one of the key issues being discussed at this summit. When they hear about the Muskoka Initiative and the seven billion dollars rich countries have promised to deliver for child mortality and maternal health issues in poor countries, they just shrug and say, “It’ll all go to their cronies.”
Which is the other problem protesters often have, and one they share with many of their detractors: the utter unwillingness to accept that maybe their political opponents aren’t demons in human form.
Late in the day Friday, stories spread through the collective of cops beating up protesters, mauling protesters, thrill-seeking while beating up protesters, the whole nine yards. But, like protesters, most cops are generally pretty decent people who choose to operate in tough situations. (And, like protesters, when cops get criticized or attacked, they usually close ranks and defend their own regardless of whether defence is merited.)
The police, for their part, mostly weren’t that concerned with the protesters today. Friday, they said again and again, was the warm-up, the lull before the storm. They’re worried about Saturday (not that any of them will admit it, but you can tell), when the international protesters, the ones who don’t live here and don’t have to care about what it’s like to be here the week after the summit, come in droves. Said one cop to us: “Today was easy; these folks just want to be heard, they want to do good things. Maybe not quite the right way, I guess, but their hearts are in the right place, you know? The shitheads are tomorrow.”
The police are right: the protesters’ hearts are in the right place. After a wildly hyped and mostly uneventful “clash” Friday afternoon, which resulted in a speedy protester dispersal, they decamped back to Allan Gardens for an all-night camp-in and block party, where they danced and sang and smoked a field’s worth of pot and fed each other vegan soy burritos. Parents walked hand-in-hand with kids. People worked in concert to put together tents. It was, in short, a hell of a thing for a cynic to behold: living, breathing people giving a damn, in real time.
Okay, perhaps the irony meter pinged a bit when Kevin Clarke, Toronto’s most famous homeless person, wandered through the proceedings holding up a sign that read “Give Change For Social Change” along with a bowl for coins, and didn’t get a whole lot from people ostensibly protesting to end poverty and homelessness. We gave him money, but in fairness that was mostly because we couldn’t help making the situation a little more ironic. Kevin shook our hands, asked us to support him in his bid to become mayor, then ran over to the cops at the edge of the park and posed with them. They were obviously all happy to see Kevin and asked how he was doing. Kevin said that “we must love our enemies,” and then—proving that God loves journalists and wants us to have really great quotes—went on: “We are all worried about what we can do tomorrow. What we need to worry about is what we can do after tomorrow.”
Kevin Clarke makes new friends and visits with old ones.
Meanwhile, though, a situation was developing. Saron Gebresellasi, a York University grad student and protester, was addressing the crowd in impassioned tones over a megaphone. She was a friend of one of the two protesters arrested today: a man she told everybody was deaf. He therefore hadn’t heard the cops demand that protesters withdraw, and couldn’t sign in ASL to explain himself. She told the crowd she was going to walk down to the G20 detention centre on the old Toronto Film Studios lot in the east end, and asked them to come along and support her friend. About forty people got up and followed her.
At the detention centre, the protesters gathered across the street, and were immediately outnumbered three-to-one by cops. Police formed a line of bikes between the protesters and the street, ostensibly to keep them from running into traffic, but more likely to prevent the protesters from crossing into the five-metre-wide border where the cops would be forced to detain them. (A squad of riot police with shields readied themselves behind the fence, but stood down after a few minutes when it became clear that the protesters weren’t going to try anything stupid.) Gebresellasi led the small crowd in chants of “No Justice, No Peace” and demands that her friend—Emomotimi, or “Timmy,” Azorbo—be given access to a lawyer and certified ASL interpreter.
A local resident walked past the protest and snorted, “Nobody asked us if they could set up shop here, you know.”
At first it seemed like he was talking about the protesters. “They were gonna set up over in Trinity Bellwoods, but all the yuppies over there complained. So they set up here without even asking, because it’s the east end,” he sighed. “Cops, right?”
Protesters near the detention centre on Eastern Avenue.
When we left at about 11:30 Friday night, the protesters were still there, still chanting (although they’d switched to ASL to save their voices) and occasionally chatting good-naturedly with the cops, who couldn’t help but be impressed. It spoke well of them all. If you were imprisoned, wouldn’t you want your friends to fight to the utmost limit on your behalf? That’s what these protesters did. As of right now, that’s what they’re still doing. They’re not going to give up any time soon.
Christopher Bird and Christopher Drost returned to the detention centre a few moments ago to check on things. Police on the scene told them that the protesters have returned to Allan Gardens to get some rest tonight, but are expected to return on Saturday. Hamutal Dotan
Photos by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.