Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist.
Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.
Seeing people snatched from crowds of peaceful demonstrators at the G20 felt like a violation. These were the faces of everyday Toronto, pulled from cabs for uttering the wrong remark, or torn from their family’s side just for being there. A wholesale punishment, it seemed, in which everyone was guilty until proven innocent.
When journalists were targeted, though, it became something else—an assault on our right to know, from street level, what was going on in our own city. Wielding a camera may as well have been a weapons offence.
The allegations of Amy Miller were among the most telling. “I was told I was going to be raped,” the Alternative Media Center journalist recalled, raising statements made by police at the Eastern Avenue detention centre. She was further threatened, she said, with promises she’d be repeatedly “gang banged” in jail, they’d make sure of it. Afterward, she “was never going to want to act as a journalist again.”
Even beyond their surface-level horror, such threats proved dangerously toxic to the discussion that followed. In a vacuum of hard questions, at least at first, many just shrugged and fell in line. “We’ve seen the footage from other countries,” wrote soccermom101 in a comment on the Star’s website, “and I believe our cops did what they were supposed to do.” So did the many unarmed journalists on the ground, a force of public accountability rewarded with extrajudicial brutality—and elsewhere, the reason soccermom10 could boast the knowledge she had.
But in their midst was Steve Paikin.
The venerable broadcaster and TVO anchor was at the Novotel Hotel on the evening of June 26, observing the peaceful rally that, later, would become iconic of press repression at the G20. “It was like an old sit-in,” he wrote, tweeting about the incident. “No one was aggressive.” Foreshadowing what would happen the next evening at Queen and Spadina, Paikin noted that when police moved in at eleven that night, they “screamed at the crowd to leave one way,” while “police on the other side said to leave the other way. There was no way out.” But what shocked many was what he saw afterward.
“I saw two officers hold a journalist,” he reported. “He talked too much and pissed police off.” Two fully armed and armoured cops then held the man in place, while a third punched him in the stomach. “Totally unnecessary,” Paikin tweeted. “The man collapsed. Then the third officer drove his elbow into the man’s back.”
The journalist and Guardian contributor turned out to be Jesse Rosenfeld. “No cameras recorded the assault,” Paikin wrote, “and it was an assault.”
Like others of the G20 weekend, it seemed like a proxy assault on the public at large, focused on information. That many of the targeted journalists were independent makes the assault brutally direct—and the intervention of Steve Paikin that much more powerful. When a voice chosen to moderate the English-language debates of two federal elections joins the chorus of a critical, dissenting media, the effect is extraordinary: a potent defence of democracy at its most essential, furthering the discussion beyond black-and-white matters of supporting the police. After a while, it becomes a matter of “never again.”