Toronto G20 Protests: A View From a Distance

Toronto has erupted in chaos in response to rioting that broke out during the G8/G20 Conference.  What I’m posting here is from the perspective of someone who was not in attendance — is not even in Toronto — but has followed the goings-on and can add the perspective of someone who has been in in the middle of similar (but smaller) situations.

(more below the fold)

What is clear so far is that things proceeded peacefully until about 3:30 yesterday.  I don’t know how many people turned out to protest, but am certain that whatever number shows up in the news will be ridiculously small compared to the actual turnout — these things are always understated by at least 75% (that’s not an exaggeration) to make it sound like the crowd is small, marginal, fringe, etc. as a deterrent from other people being inspired to join them and to make people care less about the treatment of protesters (i.e. “it’s just a small bunch of kooks that probably deserved it”).

I want readers to understand that we’re looking largely at two different groups involved.  Over 99% of those in attendance will have been there for peaceful protest.  They wanted to march to the fence around the compound, were diverted several times in their attempts to do so by police, and finally marshalled back at a Safe Zone at Queen’s Park.  There was apparently a small contingent all labeled anarchists (now dubbed the “Black Bloc” and I don’t know if that’s by media or themselves) that undertook the violence that we’re hearing of, and apparently, that rioting took place initially nowhere near the peaceful group.  In fact, that was what enabled the whole thing: the security miscalculated and focused entirely on protecting the fence around the conference compound, and not at all at the downtown business district (Yonge Street, etc) which was trashed by rioters.  The police cars shown burning in TV footage were the cars belonging to first responders to the scene, at about 3:45.

Where things became muddy later is that police needed to cover up their serious misjudgment and decided to justify their choice of location by dispersing the other crowd and arresting anyone who didn’t like it. At about 6:00pm, they reportedly started moving toward protesters with shields and clubs, without telling them what to do.  There also seems to be some confusion about exit routes, some or all of which were said to be sealed off and surrounded at the Safe Zone at Queens Park.  Police advanced, tensions raised at the overbearing nature of the action, people felt trapped and scared, police started shoving, people protested, and occasionally some fought back.  The more people (and their friends, relatives) were treated unfairly, the more people objected.  Arrestees included women & children, and tear gas and pepper spray were deployed on the crowd.  Like the protesters, it’s a smaller group of police who escalated the situation, but unfortunately, they were also calling the shots.

There are also reports of the same happening near Novotel Hotel on the Esplande and I don’t know if this is the same confrontation or another one.

Among the incidents: 2 cop cars were torched, one nude protester was swarmed and beaten (YouTube video now removed for TOS violation), a CTV producer was arrested while their crew was filming a live feed, two National Post photographers were arrested along with just about anyone with a camera, it seems (NP is now touting “extraordinary professionalism” of the police — they’re excusing this by saying the photogs had taken off their media credentials, but reports are showing others with clear media credentials also being arrested).  Guardian reporter Jesse Rosenfeld was seen being roughed up by police and is still missing.  One Globe and Mail reporter tweeted a Twitpic of pigeons, joking that they’ve stormed the police line.

From one of many tweets, person kept anonymous: “if you were down here you would see that it was peaceful and that the violence is coming from those armed with serious weapons and riot gear. not folks holding a sit in.”

As I write this, the number of detainees being given is 530, and rising this morning. Four people were arrested this morning coming out of manholes at Richmond & Bay Streets.  70 people were arrested this morning at the graduate Student Union Building at the University of Toronto campus, and still rising. Even media is commenting that it’s uncharacteristic how arrested persons are being paraded in front of cameras and showing off any bags of black clothing (some of which were found discarded in the bushes outside campus), shin pads and “street weapons” (bricks, etc) they might find.  It looks like anyone who bussed in from Quebec to join the protest (some but not all of whom were anarchists) are being arrested judiciously — many of the arrestees are shouting to the media as they’re being paraded before cameras that they were there for peaceful protest.

Aside from the rare person being released (i.e. a motorist who had to abandon his vehicle when swarmed by protesters), they’ve all been taken to an old movie studio, and held for breach of peace.  Most of these will ultimately not be charged, only held until the Summit is over and dignitaries are gone from the compound.  I’ve been hearing that there are no Civil Liberties Association personnel observing the arrests and treatment of people.

And this morning, everyday folks who were upset about the police treatment marched on the detention centre, there was a sit-in, someone got rough, and police used the occasion to fire tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd.

With the violence from the police and the small contingent of people who’ve helped justify the heavy-handedness, what is completely obliterated is the messages the protesters intended to convey.  Here are some of the many reasons that people were there:

Environmental abuses and resistance from leaders to adequately address Global Warming.

It’s the obvious issue, but one that is most often understated.  There has been a push from far right conservatives to rebrand Global Warming as “climate change,” a semantic difference that sounds like, “oh, the temperature is getting a little warmer” rather than a global crisis.  Governments are relying on distorted “science” to disprove or lessen the facts in order to justify the continued exploitation of the Earth’s resources without concern for the consequences to the world around us.  Religious groups have compounded this by mobilizing faith communities to spread the misinformation: to some faith communities (those that believe in Armageddon prophecies), the collapse of the Earth is something that is Biblically supposed to happen, and should not be stood in the way of.  But when it all comes down to it, whatever a person believes, we do know the consequences of chemicals and ecosystem destruction, we do know the consequences of not doing enough safety research (hello Deepwater Horizon?) and we do know that what we do to the planet in the name of commerce cannot be good to the Earth or to we as people — as good stewards fo the planet, it is our responsibility to do what we can to minimize and reverse the damage we cause and have caused.  This is beyond an issue of dollars.

Dependence on oil.

And I don’t mean the dependence on “foreign oil,” as all oil is sold on the world market and pooled as a commodity, so by the time we buy it, it might be our oil, it might be from somewhere else, who knows?  But total dependence on this one source of energy has driven many of our environmental issues, it has driven the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has led to subversions of governments and ongoing inter-nation abuses.

Iraq and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan might have at one time been the “right war” (who was it they were after again? some BinLaden dude?) and certainly we respect the military personnel who have been deployed with intentions of stabilization and peace (though that’s not what always happens), not to mention understanding the problems associated with just pulling out of a nation wholesale.  But not enough is being done to put rule back in the hands of the people.  Weren’t people once chanting democracy?

International human rights violations.

One of many examples that come to mind is the use of torture as an interrogation method and illegal detention at Guantanamo Bay.  But figureheads from several major powers have converged for this conference, and violations by many of them offer several open=ended causes for unrest.  US, China, Brazil, Middle Eastern and African nations… there is plenty of guilt to go around, including here at home.

Social Conservatism as Public Policy in Canada.

The Conservative government has undertaken many regressive social policies and activities that fly in the face of progressive people, and has sparked protest.  There is the defunding of scientific research into HIV vaccine development and use, defunding of non-profit organizations that are even remotely engaged in pro-choice, LGBT or feminist causes, funding initiated or increased to private far-right schools and institutions, all of which the government has attempted to fly under the radar.  Most recently and visibly, the Conservative government spearheaded an initiative to improve the lot of women worldwide, but has taken great pains (sometimes succeeded and sometimes not, given the publicity) to exclude anything that might be inclusive of abortion and at one point even contraception, any forms of population control that are not abstinence-only in nature — it almost seems like a new concern is being uncovered every few days.

With the social conservatization of Canada, there has been a rise in Christian Nationalism, fostered somewhat by some political elements.  Christian Nationalism is not indicative of all Christians, but encorporates some of the further right-wing elements into a political wing that pushes for a government to govern by their interpretations of scripture, with multiculturalism, feminism and all LGBT rights being fair targets for defunding, maligning or even criminalization in the most extreme cases.  Many have heard of the controversy triggered by Toronto Pride’s decision to ban Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) which they recently backed down on, but might not be aware that part of the Christian National movement has consolidated alliance with Catholicism and some of the Jewish community.  In Christian Nationalist lore, the battle of Armageddon will be in Israel, and God will be fighting on their side.  So it allows them to take a strict one-sided stand with allies and turn a blind eye to abuses in a conflict where neither side is innocent in any way (but some of us tend to take the side that’s not sporting jackboots and semi-automatic weapons, and starving out entire populations).  QuAIA might have better carried themselves by not going over the top last year with swastikas and all, but independent of anything they’ve done, there has also been a heavy social conservative agenda using threats of withdrawn funding to drive huge wedges between elements of Toronto’s LGBT community this year.  And up until recently, it was working.  So that’s how muddled this trend has become.

Economic Collapse.

We are facing the largest economic crisis the Western world has experienced since the Great Depression.  The banking industry has raped the US economy, taking massive bailouts and provided nothing to people in return.  Throughout the west, there is the ongoing weight that the lower and middle classes bear, with shrinking incomes and rising cost of living all to funnel more money into the pockets of the upper 1% of the population.

This, of course, is the main motive of the groups actually conducting the violence, too.  There were plenty of advance statements made in months prior that the banking industry and commerce were the anarchist groups’ primary targets.

Harassment of marginalized communities.

As is typical of any major international event, downtown Toronto experienced a “sanitization,” to remove the homeless, harass or arrest sex workers, harass queer communities, and sweep away any non-affluent people that could be seen as an embarrassment.  Usually, this is done at great personal cost to the people displaced and/or victimized by the action.  This previously occurred during various Olympic events (Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal), the Commonwealth and World Games in Edmonton, and more.

The Summit Itself.

There are a lot of concerns locally about the cost of security (city police, OPP, police services from across Canada including Calgary, some military, possibly private security firms) — over a billion dollars for security that can’t distinguish between peaceful protesters and rioters — the anticipated (and now actual) overbearing nature of the security (just look at the footage), the extravagant cost of the summit (which included an indoor man-made lake for ambiance to entertain dignitaries), the strategic cutting off of downtown Toronto from the rest of reality (which some of us Canadians will joke is not a new phenomenon), and far more.

I’ve understated any and all of these issues, and glossed over or forgotten many more.  But the point is that there was no shortage of reasons to protest, and we shouldn’t miss that in all of the media taking place over the circus of conflicts being trumpeted on TV.

Footnote: On “anarchist”

I think it’s important for people to understand the “anarchist” label, because it’s used to mark as fringe and dismiss people with often serious and valid issues to raise.  It can often be applied to a wide range of people, from those spurring violent actions to, well, lippy transsexuals standing around with picket signs calling for human rights protections.  “Anarchy,” of course, refers to no government, no order, etc and that’s typically not the end objective for people, only the means of protest that they wish to use to draw attention to things that people believe are gross abuses of military, financial and political powers.  We’re not talking unreason so much as the fervency of making a statement.  I don’t always believe in anarchic actions, and feel that often (like here) chaos and violence do more to erase the message than otherwise.  But “anarchist” is more often than not a convenient excuse to look the other way and pretend that there isn’t a problem, and doing so is a convenient barrier to stall social change until something boils over in ways that shouldn’t have been necessary if people had listened in the first place.  Violence is an awful way to communicate, but when tempers reach the point where people feel that’s the only speech that will be acknowledged, then something is already seriously broken.

(Offered to Daily Kos)


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