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G20 Dispatches: This Is Narrative

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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“Ben.”


We’re driving down Spadina when we see a gathering of Canadian Federation of Students protesters, here to stand up for right-to-education. Our photographer, Christopher Drost, starts snapping pics when a couple of Quebecois yell “Camera!” and mask up.
After a minute hastily spent calming them down and convincing them that we are not The Man, they explain that they’re nervous because undercover cops broke into their place last night and beat them up.


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One of the protesters, who asks to be called “Ben,” explains how he came from Montreal with “a guy” who had a fancy camera and who none of his other travelling companions really knew. Last night, they caught this stranger filming them. “The guy, he says he is making a documentary about the protest experience. But he doesn’t want to tell us anything. We think maybe he is an undercover.” Eventually Ben explains that they asked the person to leave, and that the person did, although he wasn’t happy about it.
After that story, one of Ben’s friends wants to talk to us. “The cops, they strip searched me earlier today.” We ask him where, and he says, “Down that way. They took my journal, which has my own private thoughts in it, and they make fun of them to my face.” We thank Ben and his friend for their time and move on.
A cynic might think that these kids were lying, but “lying” doesn’t really do it justice. Ben and his friend were touchingly sincere when they spoke to us, genuinely hurt, and the fact that the guy with the camera never identified himself as a cop and never broke in or attacked them doesn’t register with them in the slightest. Being honest, I don’t really believe the strip search story either; at least, I don’t believe it happened as told.
But it’s not about whether it happened. Any criminal defense lawyer will tell you about how police witnesses can come to believe that they saw things they simply did not or could not have seen, and will swear on a stack of Bibles that these things happened even though they didn’t. It happens because the witnesses want to please the cops and help out: they tell the story over and over again until they literally alter their own memories of the incident. Objective reality doesn’t have any bearing on it. Look at this YouTube video, entitled “G20 Cop Hits A Guy.” The cop clearly isn’t hitting the guy or even trying to be violent: he’s trying to push people out of the way and he accidentally shoves a guy in the head. But that doesn’t matter—what matters is the narrative.
That seems a lot like what happened here: the protest movement, which is at the best of times more than a little paranoid, works on the assumption that cops are out to get them. (And, in fairness, some of them are.) That’s how you get from self-important “documentarian” to violent undercover cop in only a very few steps.
Cops do it, too, of course; we’ve heard stories from cops about freak protesters, naked protesters waving their bits at cops, protesters blowing pot smoke in cops’ faces. Again, in fairness, some protesters really are whacked-out freaks. But most of them are just well-meaning do-gooders, which isn’t satisfying.
Today we are approaching a situation where two narratives that don’t actually have much basis in reality—fascist cops and violent anarchists—are set to clash. The odds that it will end well, or at least nonviolently, seem to be dropping. This isn’t good.

Comments

  • http://bit.ly/accozzaglia accozzaglia

    Talk about reification of imagination.
    The Montréal guy could have electively stayed home, I suppose. That would have de-escalated things by one person. :P

  • http://undefined rek
  • http://undefined bippers

    I keep looking for “gotcha” clips, and I mostly see protesters acting like total dicks.
    Am I surprised if a few cops out of 10,000 go overboard? No, but then I don’t start taunting bouncers at nightclubs either. The summit is a total waste of money and brings out the worst in civil rights, but public protests never seem to do much more than reinforce stereotypes and invite tourist-vandals that have dime-store idealogies.

  • http://bit.ly/accozzaglia accozzaglia

    I’m sorry, Rex, but not everything is a perpetual, grand conspiracy.
    And not all protest groups are created equal.

  • http://undefined davedave

    “they explain that they’re nervous because undercover cops broke into their place last night and beat them up.”
    Dear agitator a**holes: go fu*k yourselves. Hopefully today you’ll lose some teeth courtesy of other protestors, not the cops. As soon as you start changing your clothes, people will be all over you. It will be so awesome to watch.

  • http://undefined lewarcher

    Good article, Christopher, but take a look at the YouTube video again (Toronto G20 protests 2010 – Cop hits a guy): about five seconds after the one cop accidentally elbows the guy, another unidentified cop shoots his arm out in a conscious act and puts the heel of his palm into the back of the protester’s head. It’s right around the 2:02-2:03 mark. I didn’t see it the first time either.
    Did the guy deserve to get shoved out of the way? Absolutely. Did he deserve an unprovoked blow to the back of his head for no good reason? Absolutely not.

  • http://undefined bray

    “The cop clearly isn’t hitting the guy or even trying to be violent: he’s trying to push people out of the way and he accidentally shoves a guy in the head. But that doesn’t matter—what matters is the narrative.”
    I really suggest that everyone watches this video because it’s a brilliant example of the author’s point. Just…not quite in the way he intended. I should maybe preface this by saying that I’m not a “fuck the police” guy by any means. I’m just a guy who has shoved someone at least one in his life. And to anyone who fits in that category (which is to say: pretty much anyone in the world), it’s incredibly obvious that the cop is hitting the guy in the head. That’s really just not how you shove someone.
    Seriously, Christopher? Have you ever shoved someone? Did you do it by jabbing at their head with your fist?

  • http://undefined The Explosively Talented Christopher Bird

    See, I watched the video a couple dozen times to make up my mind, and to my eye what happens is that the cop pushes his arm forward with his hand open, palm first, and it glances off the shoulder and then smacks him in the head. I think the cop was aiming for a shoulder shove and fucked up; I generally find that fuckups are a more plausible explanation than malice nine times out of ten.
    People may disagree.

  • http://undefined rek

    Really, that’s your reply akkozilla?

  • http://bit.ly/accozzaglia accozzaglia

    I concur.

  • http://undefined rek

    Are we talking about the same incident? Because that looks like a deliberate shot to the back of the guy’s head. It also shows how delusional the cops are if they think the centre of a crowd of people is able to move freely. This is how people get crushed to death at concerts.

  • http://bit.ly/accozzaglia accozzaglia

    Is that yours?

  • http://bit.ly/accozzaglia accozzaglia

    There’s your synecdoche — or more precisely, your metonym: “the cops.”

  • http://undefined bray

    Well, I respect I suppose that we should all respect that despite the fact that in the video “the cop clearly isn’t hitting the guy or even trying to be violent”, you watched it a dozen times just to be sure. That’s dedication.