G20 Dispatches: Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

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G20 Dispatches: Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

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.
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The protest march started at about 1 p.m., and peaceably enough. A massive assembly walked slowly down University Avenue, chanting all the standard chants—one of the more popular was “Hey hey! Ho ho! Stephen Harper’s got to go!”
Everybody you could possibly expect to show up was there: major labor unions like the United Steelworkers and Canadian Auto Workers, Greenpeace and Amnesty International, Tibetans marching to free Tibet, Sikhs marching to condemn India, homeless people marching to not be homeless. From balaclavaed anarchists to families with children, everyone was marching hand in hand and singing.
The march bottlenecked as it passed the American consulate because the consulate was ringed with bike cops and a riot squad. This was the first time today we’d seen cops en masse, and unlike yesterday, they weren’t in a good mood; this time they were tight-lipped and white-faced. It’s worth remembering many of these guys are cops in smaller Ontario jurisdictions, and even the Toronto officers have never dealt with anything on this scale. The cops looked scared, although whether it was fear of the protesters themselves or fear of what might happen if the protesters charged them is anybody’s guess.


As the march curved past Queen Street, we got our first true idiot sighting of the day: a dude perched on the head of the statue in front of the war monument in the centre of University Avenue. Sometimes he would try balancing on one foot; other times he grappled the statue’s outstretched arm like an orangutan. We watched him for about ten minutes, wondering if he was going to fall twenty feet to the ground and break his fool head open, but luckily he wasn’t so smashed as to lose balance.
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Spending that time staring at him, we’d fallen to the back of the parade. We hurried forward to catch up, just in time to see protesters shouting at Canadian Federation of Labour march organizers. The march organizers were lined up in front of one of the police blockades that lined every exit south off the route, calmly saying “move along, it’s a march,” and “got to get to the rally at the end.” A protester wearing a bathsheet with slogans on it around his neck—much like when you were little and played Superman by tying a towel around your shoulders—started yelling at them. He screamed “YOU ARE TAKING AWAY OUR DEMOCRATIC RIGHT TO PROTEST!” apparently unaware of the fact that he was doing exactly what he said they weren’t letting him do. (It’s entirely possible that he thought the CFL organizers were cops; it would explain the chant of “SHAME! SHAME!” that he started after yelling a few complaints.)
(An aside: there are two types of people—those who can get chants started, and those who can’t. There’s some sort of divide, possibly genetic. Maybe it’s something to do with pheromones. Regardless, again and again over the day we saw people trying to start chants and failing, and then thirty seconds later somebody else would start the same chant and everybody would jump right in.)
In the exterior lobby of the Queen and John Starbucks, a group of protesters formed a human shield covering one of their own, who was apparently getting bandaged up after being struck in the head by cops (according to the group). The protesters got loud when an Italian reporter tried to take shots of the man, demanding their privacy. “You don’t have a legal right to privacy,” I pointed out, and the protesters rightly responded that “this isn’t about legal rights, it’s about being a human being.” And you know, that’s totally fair. What I should have said: “If you complain about being made the centre of attention when you’ve come out expressly to attract attention, you’re an idiot.”
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At that point, we saw a plume of white smoke at Queen and Spadina. As we ran towards it we realized that we weren’t choking on our own vomit, and so we walked over to some unmasked cops and asked them, “Hey, have you guys deployed tear gas?” To which one replied: “Fuck, I hope not.” Eventually, some other protesters walking past us on the way back said that the plume of smoke was a flare “that some Black Bloc assholes set off.”
That was the moment the whole idea of peaceful protest went to hell, as a wave of bandana-garbed agitators—at first only a couple hundred, but soon at least a thousand—broke out into a dead run, exiting the rear of the parade and streaming back along Queen. Literally seconds later, we were standing about fifteen feet from five or six of them beating the shit out of a cop car with clubs and bats and bricks, smashing every window on the vehicle, and finally a-monstering down Queen, smashing certain store windows as they went: Nike, Starbucks, various banks, and for some reason, 180 Queen (which isn’t a business, but whatever, it had windows).
(The BMV Express near Queen and John wasn’t attacked, possibly because, during the riot, it was open for business. “How’s business?” I asked. “Better than during the MMVAs,” an employee replied.)
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The next hour or so consisted of following the idiot brigade around downtown Toronto, which wasn’t easy because they ran with purpose, up Peter into the Chinatown back streets, then rushing out again and running down Queen. We saw, among other things, a pair of CBC vans at University with their windows smashed in—which, if anything, is evidence of how willing to lash out at just anybody the Black-Bloccers are. The standard critique of the CBC is that they’re “too liberal,” after all. But we had lost the mob as we spoke with the flabbergasted CBC journos (who really couldn’t manage much more than “What the fuck? Seriously, what the fuck?”), and stood for a while at University and Queen as protesters approached one of the police lines.
This first approach was fairly tentative—largely nonviolent protesters dipping their toes into the water. Initially, the protesters were outnumbered by the cops, but then as more and more of them converged, they eventually outnumbered the police and started drawing closer and closer to the line: taking pictures, chanting, singing, screaming invective.
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Then we heard that a cop car was on fire at King and Bay, which made no sense—weren’t the police blockades preventing movement that far south? But it had happened. (Police Chief Bill Blair, in his press conference later that evening, would explain this by saying the cops didn’t really know exactly how the protesters managed it.) We headed down to Adelaide and walked over to Bay, where a line of riot squad cops now blocked further southern access. At this point, most of the protesters remaining weren’t the labour unions and NGOs that had bulked out the beginning of the day; now the crowd consisted mostly of hardcores, gawkers, and journalists.
The story of the protester/cop interaction in that segment of the city—between Yonge and Bay, Adelaide and King—is pretty analogous to when you were a kid and your mom told your little brother to stop touching you because your little brother was annoying you, and what did your little brother do? He got right in your face and waved his hands at you, and started yelling, “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!” over and over again. Think of that, except instead of your little brother, it’s thousands of protesters, and instead of you, it’s hundreds of cops. This sort of behaviour can’t rightly be called “protest,” because they’re not talking about any issue or cause unless you think “WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS!” is some sort of elevated rhetoric. Call it what it is: baiting.
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On the southern streets, at least, the cops did not bite, time and again. Protesters would get agitated when riot cops would drum their batons against their shields, but each time they did so, it was only to signal that a riot squad line was changing position—and most times when the police lines were changing position, it was to fall back. When we left, the police had formed a sort of weird line which guarded the entire intersection on three axes.
We left because we heard things were heating up at Queen’s Park. We headed up along University and ran into another police line. The cops here had encircled a large group of protesters and were gradually whittling down their number by rushing forward and seizing a few at a time. Blair would later explain that police had video footage of Black Bloc–style protesters changing into different street clothes that made them look less like ninjas gone wild, and that the cops were targeting those protesters that they knew had committed violent acts. This isn’t entirely implausible given the number of security cameras that police ostensibly can access, but it seems fairly unlikely that the cops could pinpoint with such accuracy which of the wannabe ninjas were those who had committed violent acts or vandalism. There’s a reason they all wear masks and similar clothes, after all—it’s so they can stand up for their beliefs by breaking shit and then running and hiding among actual innocent people.
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That having been said, the protesters weren’t willing to give up those the cops wanted, for obvious and perfectly understandable reasons. At this point, mutual distrust meant that things could only go badly, which is more or less what happened. We missed seeing a woman who was interacting with the police line nearly get trampled by a mounted officer (which we have to assume was a basic fuck-up rather than an actual attempt to murder a civilian with a horse, because in situations like this, fuck-up rather than malice is the real cause nine times out of ten). But we did see protesters, hands ziptied behind their backs, being hauled off by plainclothes officers. One of the first got punched in the head by a cop, which started a round of “police brutality” chants from the crowd watching on the other side. This of course meant that every time an arrested protester struggled, the “police brutality” chant went up again, regardless of whether there actually was any. (Usually there wasn’t, beyond the usual struggling of a suspect who didn’t want to be arrested, although there was definitely some pulling of hair at times when they were trying to get a hold on somebody. Whether you consider that brutality is up to you; I go back and forth, depending on the pull.)
Making our way around to the north end of the protest, a sort of drunken guy was having a yelling match with protesters in front of the line. “My dad is a cop! You gonna wish death upon my family? You fuckin’ pussies, you chant and that’s all you do, if you had any balls you’d do something!” Protesters yelled at him that he was an undercover cop, which is certainly possible. He reeked of beer, though it’s possible that an undercover cop could just splash it on his shirt or hair.
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Incidentally, this is one of the lesser reasons agents provacateurs were such a bad idea for Canadian governments to ever use in the first place (beyond the obvious ethical and legal considerations, and the fact that it was undemocratic and stupid): they’ve essentially given protesters carte blanche to ignore any contrary voice. “He’s just a cop” was something we heard at least a dozen times over the day, even in response to mild disagreements with protester rhetoric. Way to aid the epistemological closure of an already-fringe political movement, RCMP.
The day was getting long for us, so we decided to peel back and start filing work. On our way out, we saw that Remington’s had been attacked by protesters, which demands that we ask: since when do protesters hate gay strip clubs? On Queen Street West and at Queen’s Park, more shit would soon go down, but at a certain point, it all starts to blend together. The protesters are mad about everything and the cops have given up on restraint. One cop, late in the day—a British ex-pat who used to be regular army in Northern Ireland and who you can tell is the sort of guy who just can’t stand to leave that line of work—told us emphatically that “they should’ve just cracked down right at the beginning, so the little bastards would know we’re not going to let them get away with this sort of thing,” and his sentiment was clearly shared by many of his fellows.
In the late evening, after hours of going through Drost’s photos and my notes, we headed out again, this time to the detention centre near Filmport where we’d been the previous day. We missed the action, arriving there only to see protesters cuffed with zipties and sitting quietly on the sidewalk, surrounded by riot squad cops processing them for arrest. One protester spoke to media, claiming that the cops had made a deal with them to have them leave peacefully and then gone back on their word and arrested them anyway. The cops we spoke to all said the same thing: no, we made a deal with them to leave and they started to leave and then they just stopped, why didn’t they leave? (Speaking with locals didn’t really tell us which side was truthful because the locals weren’t sure exactly what had gone down; however, when I asked about the mounted cops the G20Mobilize Twitter feed claimed had been on the scene, the locals all emphatically agreed that no horse cops had been around for the drama, so keep that in mind.)
But the important discovery of the night was that the cops are, by now, at their wit’s end. “We just keep standing back and standing back and letting them do their thing.” “Anyone tells you it’s all peaceful, they’re full of crap. I was on the line and they’re pushing, pushing, shoving, and that’s nothing, but you shove back and you’re the bad guy now.” “We get protesters asking us to fucking come running when they’re scared of other protesters and then they turn around and scream at us for not doing the job right.” “They complain about a couple hundred arrests, but that’s like one in ten of the people who were being violent.” Bitching like this isn’t anything new for cops—”We’re under-appreciated” might as well be the Universal Cop Motto—but they’re all tired and angry, and when you’ve got thousands of angry protesters and hundreds of angry cops?
It’s not going to be a pleasant weekend.
Photos by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.

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