What a difference a costume change can make. As police lined the front of the Toronto Police Headquarters at 40 College Street on Monday at 5:30 p.m. to face the Toronto Community Mobilization Network’s Jail Solidarity Rally across the street, they had shed the riot gear, masks, and weaponry of the weekend for casual police uniforms and cycling helmets. Instead of shields, all that they put between themselves and the more than one thousand protesters were their bicycles. And the protesters, while vocal and emotional, brushed past the rows of cops without so much as a nudge in their direction. It was just the way you’d think of a peaceful protest in a democratic city—a folk singer even busted out an acoustic guitar and the crowd joined in on “One Love” and “Give Peace a Chance.”
It was how the weekend of the G20 summit in Toronto could have been. There were police in riot gear behind the station and backup forces along the perimeter, but they remained distant and inactive. There was no violence or destruction. The “kettling” of Sunday night was abandoned, with everyone free to come and go as they pleased.
The sad thing on Monday night was not the way in which that evening’s protest unfolded—peacefully and with cooperation between police and pedestrians, who walked only steps away from one another as the rally became a march down University Avenue towards City Hall. Rather, it was that the rally only existed because of the arrests, in the wake of a number of instances of heavy-handed police force and apparent human rights violations over the weekend before. The protest also sought to shed light on the multitude of people who were still being held as of Monday evening as part of the largest number of mass arrests in Canadian history.
“I’m not usually a rally speaker,” an emotional Naomi Klein told the amassed crowd gathered on the street between Bay and Yonge, which police had blocked from traffic. “But I’m pissed off about what is happening in my city.” And make no mistake, so was the audience—shouts and chants from the amateurish “Shame!” to the more pragmatic “Whose streets? Our streets!” went up throughout the throng of people. But the outrage at what many had endured over the previous few days was also contained, as protesters chanted their frustrations but made no sign of antagonism towards the rows of cops facing them.
The speeches were short but powerful, ranging from Judy Rebick’s chronicle of the power of protest to anecdotes from a series of activists and organizers who were arrested and held over the Friday to Sunday arc. Their stories reiterated those that have emerged since the weekend but that politicians have skirted—details such as police refusing to released an identified minor, not informing individuals of the charges levied against them after arrest, denying access to legal support, refusing to allow detainees access to their medication or feminine hygiene products, and subjecting women to strip searches by male officers.
Once the speeches concluded, police directed the group west, pioneering a march down University toward City Hall and circling back to Queen’s Park. The mass of people making their way just south from the legislature building at College and University was in such contrast to the scene I witnessed there only two days ago that it was hard to believe such a short period of time had elapsed. People were laughing and singing, while some marchers played saxophones and others drummed and danced. Enormous peace flags were in the air, and the police, though following the march at every step, remained unaggressive and restrained. “This is what democracy looks like!” the crowd chanted, and they were right. What Toronto resembled over the past weekend, however, was something else entirely.
Photos by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.