When Roger Reis walked out of his gym at Yonge and Dundas last Saturday afternoon, he walked into his city being “torn apart.”
“Everyone knew the G20 was going on,” he says, “but I had no idea of the magnitude—I don’t think anybody did.” So, curious to know and see more, Reis joined the massive crowd of people going by on Yonge. “You walk around at a safe distance, but you want to see what’s going on, how bad it can actually get.” And when it got bad—when Reis found himself in the midst of a “handful of lunatics” smashing windows and looting stores, with no uniformed police in sight—he took it upon himself to make things a bit better.
As he stood outside the Bell Store on Yonge south of College, a man walked through the newly smashed window, grabbed a box with a phone inside, and walked out, which is right when Reis grabbed the man, wrestled him easily to the ground, threw the box back into the store, and yelled “Don’t steal!” A few feet away, Corey Surge recorded the whole seventeen-second encounter in a video that’s now been watched more than 700,000 times.
“There was no thought behind it,” Reis explains about his decision to tackle the looter. Burlington-born and thirty-seven years old, Reis is a Bank of Montreal employee with the appropriate job title of “Six Sigma Black Belt,” who also happens to have a real second-degree black belt in Goju karate (“But that was a long time ago,” he laughs). “It’s not like a big premeditated thing: there was no storyboard, there was no whiteboard with a grease pencil,” he says. “In retrospect, I should have been a little bit more afraid. But to be honest, I didn’t think about it…the video itself was seventeen seconds, the thought process behind it was a couple of seconds.”
When he tells the story now, Reis sounds like he was concerned more about the looter’s safety than his, anyway. “It’s a younger guy,” he explains. “You don’t want to hurt him, obviously.”
Reis stayed with the crowd when it turned to move west at Yonge and College. At College Park on the southwest corner, “people were throwing bottles and rocks….and a bunch of them were trying to rush the doors,” Reis says. He tried to help again, standing with the building’s security guards who were “trying to convince everybody to back up. Which is,” he laughs, “a completely ridiculous thing to do in hindsight, but at the time it seemed to make sense.” (A photographer for Getty caught him there, helping to hold back the crowd.)
Throughout the afternoon he spent with the crowd—of rioters, looters, bystanders, and media—Reis realized just how small the group of violent protesters was. He figures there were “only like a core group of ten or fifteen people that were actually vandalizing. The overwhelming vast majority of other people were just like us. They were just curious. It’s like, ‘Wow, how could this happen?'”
Still, Reis, who by all accounts should not have needed to be the one to tackle looters, won’t blame police officers for their apparent absence. “I think they did a great job,” he says, of the Integrated Security Unit’s work over the weekend of the G20. “I’ve never been a police officer, but…what are you really going to do? Are you going to hold the line, and keep each other safe, and look out for macro-level crimes? Or are you going to go after every wacko with a lighter and a camera? What would you do? You can’t monitor every finger and every hand in a mob. You’re probably just going to sit back and watch for people getting hurt.”
As for being the centre of attention now, Reis says, “I think it is pretty cool—I mean, nothing like this has ever happened to me before—but I think that a lot went on where people tried to do the right thing. A lot of people wanted to protect the city, wanted to protect property, but they just didn’t get lucky being at the right place at the right time for someone with a camera on them to spread it around.” (To their credit, Bell is giving Reis a smartphone, and a $1,000 donation to the charity of his choosing, for protecting their property.) “I think,” Reis concludes, “all of Toronto wants a do-over. If we could only do it over, it would be different, because I think everybody would restrain everybody breaking everything.”
Plus, Reis explains, he can even understand some of the more violent protesters’ cause, if not their methods. “Certainly there’s a polarization of wealth and power happening in the world,” he says. “But there’s probably more constructive ways [to challenge it] than smashing a Mamma’s Pizza.”
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.