Police in riot gear face Tamil protesters during last year’s Gardiner protest.
The weekend of the G20 may still be looming, but Torontonians are already over it. With the anticipation of traffic roadblocks, delayed transit, and identification checks, the security measures that one billion dollars can buy are starting to feel like more of a nuisance than an infringement of individual rights. Shouldn’t this be over by now so we can get back to enjoying the post-work patio at Jack Astor’s in peace?
Underneath all the daily irritations bound to besiege Toronto this week, however, is the reality that this weekend marks the most amount of money spent on security for seventy-two hours in Canadian history. Whatever one’s opinions on the politics and effectiveness of the G8 and the G20 summits themselves, a one-billion-dollar shindig seems pretty damn pricey when measured against the London summit (a mere thirty million dollars) and the most recent Pittsburgh meetings (eight million dollars). But there’s more to the summits than just the staggering cost. It’s what much of the money is for: a security plan reflecting the sum of all fears, one that seems bound to pit protesters and police against one another even as its stated aim is to do the opposite.
Wendy Drummond, a Toronto Police constable, points out that since Ontario is playing host to both the G8 and the G20, the Integrated Security Unit (a team comprised of The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Toronto Police Service, Canadian Forces, Peel Regional Police, and other law enforcement agents) faces added obstacles. “We’re dealing with two summits back to back, which has never been done before and possesses its own unique challenges,” she says. “Essentially this is a security event, and law enforcement has the duty to protect everyone, including protesters.”
The money spent on security, Drummond says, is designed to ensure everyone’s safety, and she confirms that the police have been in communication with several organizations in hopes of facilitating peaceful activism. It may seem odd that anyone’s safety would be seriously jeopardized in a publicized peaceful protest—which most of the G20 protests are expected to be—but her stance reflects the logic that brought about the ISU’s existence. “In the post-9/11 climate that we are in, it would be remiss if we did not take all security precautions,” Drummond says.
The second article of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to peaceful assembly to every Canadian. To what extent do these rights become malleable in a security situation? When asked if protesters will be protected—and to what degree—from unreasonable search and seizure (Article 8) or arbitrary arrest (Article 9), Drummond remains vague. “It will all depend on the actions of [the protestors],” she says, adding that “our response will be a measured and balanced one.” She confirmed that police defence tactics, such as LRADs (sound cannons) and pepper spray “are not new techniques” and will be implemented if necessary.
As the weekend draws closer, new security instruments seem to be popping up every day. Last weekend, police officers confirmed that they would have weapons to shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at their disposal, and this week the ISU revealed that they will also have a water cannon.
Syed Hussan is an organizer with the Toronto Community Mobilization Network, an umbrella organization that represents a range of groups and activists that have come together in opposition of the G8 and G20 summits. For him, such security measures are baffling. “This isn’t a billion-dollar security project,” says Hussan. “It’s a $1.2 billion harassment project. The sheer intention is to create fear to try and limit people’s ability to organize.”
If the ISU is set on creating a culture of fear, as Hussan attests, it’s somewhat hard to see why, given the history of summit protests in Canada and abroad. The 2009 London G20 summit cost a whopping £1,600 per protester to fund Operation Glencoe, wherein police employed the controversial kettle tactic of quarantining up to five thousand protesters in a cordon with no access to food, water, or restrooms. The physical clashes between protesters and police resulted from tensions on both sides, yet the only publicized violence perpetrated by protesters was their smashing of a Royal Bank of Scotland window and the looting of the office. (Meanwhile, Ian Tomlinson, a bystander who was caught up in the protest, passed away shortly after being pushed to the ground by police.)
No serious injuries or deaths were attributed to the actions of the protesters later that year in Pittsburgh, either, although activists did do some damage—an estimated fifty thousand dollars worth. The result was a flurry of controversial arrests, including those of a group of University of Pittsburgh students who have since claimed they were unlawfully arrested and subjected to rough police action.
“It’s utter nonsense that police would be needed to protect protesters,” says Hussan. “On the other hand, we know the police have started a riot, we know they have beaten people at the G8 in Italy,” he argues in reference to the Genoa summit of 2001, “and we know that they killed a person”—protester Carlo Giuliani was shot by a Carabinieri officer during the protests.
Hussan cites the debated use of agent provocateur tactics in Montebello, Quebec, in 2007 as an example of police going undercover in an attempt to create violence amidst a peaceful protest. “Under Harper’s watch there was Montebello, where the police instigated violence,” he says. “Now we have another protest under the same man.”
One possible alternative to beefed-up security is an increase in communication between protest groups and police, but that seems a long way off. Drummond says that the ISU has “reached out to a few groups,” but adds that many haven’t been eager to work with the security forces. “We are not interested in communicating with the police,” Hussan says about the TCMN, arguing that the dialogue should be between activists and the G20 leaders, without police involvement. “I think it’s absolutely irresponsible to [involve police] because it creates serious tension in an already stressed situation. There’s nothing safe to me about ten thousand fully armed cops.”
Already, the two organizations—the TCMN and the ISU—have contradicting reports of the same event. When the TCMN held a twenty-person press conference two weeks ago at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Hussan says they were met with one hundred police officers bearing automatic weapons and gas masks, sixteen police horses, and eleven squad cars. When asked to confirm the numbers, constable Natalie Deschenes, representing the ISU, initially declined releasing any information other than to claim that Hussan’s assertions were “inaccurate.” (She would later tell us that there was a presence of forty officers and four horses.) Hussan stands by his group’s count, arguing that the police did not list officers and multi-passenger vans that were stationed a mere few feet away from the site.
With conflicting facts already emerging, the likelihood of animosity between protesters and police this weekend runs high—even if the G20 remains peaceful. If the tensions do come to blows, it won’t be much of a fair fight; batons and bulletproof vests are one method of self-defense for officers, while water cannons and rubber bullets are something else entirely, the kind of security tools that Canada rarely sees. Hussan tells potential protesters, however, not to worry: “We have our own weapons of hope and ability and solidarity,” he says, adding that TCMN has organized medics and legal teams on-site to assist protesters. “We’re not just building a protest [at the G20]; we’re building a long-running social justice movement in the city.”
But for this weekend at least, that movement remains less a cooperative effort between demonstrators and the ISU and more a fine balance of conflicting agendas. And if the levees break, Drummond says it’ll be hard to know who’s responsible for it. “If violence happens, we won’t be able to tell who is instigating it,” she says, despite the multitude of security cameras stationed around downtown. “Our officers will be responding if the need arises.”
Consider yourself warned.
Photos from last summer’s Tamil protest on the Gardiner by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.