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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.

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