Walking through the streets of downtown Toronto yesterday was like being transported to some dark alternate reality. Instead of hipsters and tourists, there were riot police and onlookers taking photos of smashed store windows and anarchist graffiti sprayed on abandoned streetcars, their drivers having jumped the ship at the first signs of chaos.
Of course, if you were watching the news on T.V. (or if you were following Twitter at the time), you would have been told two things: 1) the day started peacefully, and 2) the vast majority of protestors were peaceful demonstrators. But that being said, it wasn’t exactly Woodstock out there, either.
When the organized and scheduled march left Queen’s Park shortly after 1 p.m. on Saturday, it was exactly what I imagined it would be. Groups from Greenpeace to Oxfam to CUPE marched with banners and chants; individuals carried signs and posters promoting every cause under the sun; and hundreds of photographers and onlookers took thousands of pictures from the sidelines. Oh, and one guy teetered atop the statue at Queen and University.
As the march passed by rows of police officers – some in riot gear – guarding the southern border, some yelled out calls of “shame!” and others just stopped to take pictures. The only real confrontation I witnessed was between a handful of protestors and one guy in a suit with an “Everything is O.K.” sign who seemed to be spewing pro-G20 rhetoric. That’s it.
Then the march reached Queen and Spadina. There was a giant sign with a green arrow that seemed to be directing the march north up Spadina, but hundreds of people (possibly thousands) congregated around the intersection, climbing up streetcar shelters, chanting and waiting. A flare was set off in the middle of the crowd at the intersection of Queen and Spadina, and the smell of pot and – I think – vinegar was in the air. There had been talk earlier from some groups about heading towards the security fence, so I assumed part of the crowd was diverting for that reason. So I waited for whatever was going to happen next.
Then a group of cops ran through the crowd in a flash. Everyone around me broke into a run towards the action, cameras at the ready. When we arrived at the scene, protestors and cops seemed to be at a stand-off. People were yelling “fuck the police!” and, on closer inspection, a police car had been vandalized. The windshield was smashed, along with its headlights and the lights on the top. After a few minutes, riot police marched in and the day seemed to take a drastic turn at this point.
As soon as the first signs of violence appeared, it was as if the crowd split into different fractions: onlookers, media, protestors who seemed bent on aggravating the cops to the point of violence, and the rest of the protestors who held up peace signs to cameras and sat cross-legged in front of rows of riot police. But for everyone, the march wasn’t about Tibet or free education or environmental concerns anymore – it was about yelling “these are our streets” to the police, taking pictures of smashed windows and graffiti, and wondering what was going to happen next.
You couldn’t walk 10 feet on Queen West without seeing a smashed window. You also couldn’t navigate through the streets without being confronted by a row of faceless riot police. Towards University, we found abandoned streetcars with anarchy symbols over the TTC logo (with what I hope was locally produced, organic spray paint). Mailboxes were strewn across the street and there seemed to be more curious onlookers taking photos than protestors.
Trying to leave the area to go home ended up being a difficult task. At every turn, a row of riot police were in a confrontation with angry crowds. Anyone will tell you that the vast majority of protestors were peaceful, but most of the people on the streets were bent on verbally attacking the police, practically begging them to demonstrate some of that notorious police brutality to justify our animosity. I understand the whole “fuck the police” mentality and the tradition of police prejudice that demands that, but I was still surprised by the level of hatred that radiated from the crowds towards the officers. Later, watching unmasked men and women trash police cars on T.V., I was still in awe.
It needs to be noted that in every instance where we were blocked from moving by rows of riot police, the officers never communicated with the crowd. There was a complete lack of communication from the police; no instructions of how to mediate or assuage the situation. All anyone could do was face the police and chant. Even those who were just trying to go home – like me – couldn’t get past the police blocking our way. I understand – to a degree – why they can’t break the lines to let a couple of well-intentioned people pass by, but it’s still frustrating when we assume the police want us to disperse, but at the same time prevent us from doing so.
Eventually, however, we managed to squeeze past the police lines and out of the hot zone. Reading my Twitter feed on my iPhone and getting texts from others in the crowd, I continued to hear rumours of tear gas being deployed, cop cars being set ablaze and more and more property being damaged. As we headed south, the last I saw of the police was a group in riot gear pounding their shields and advancing on the crowd.
I don’t need to relate anything else that happened yesterday, or that continues today, because you can watch all that on the news. But let me end with a couple more things to note:
Black Bloc: If one more person explains to me that there is no “black bloc group” and that it’s actually a tactic where people hide their faces and destroy symbols of capitalism before disappearing into the anonymity of the crowd, well, I’m going to smash your face in. I understand the definition, but I have to make the case that there was a specific group intent on destruction and violence yesterday. During the march from Queen’s Park, there was a very distinct group of people clad in black clothes and masks who physically obstructed photographers from taking their pictures. My half-serious, half-joking explanation was that they were probably planning on doing something illegal later on. These same people were later seen setting flares off at Queen and Spadina. The definition of “black block” may be a tactic, but there was a very specific group employing this tactic yesterday.
The Police: I think I may scrutinize the actions of the police this weekend for days to come. Why were cop cars left abandoned in streets, just waiting to be vandalized? Why were people able to completely destroy the cars, set them ablaze and then watch them burn to the ground well before any firefighters or police showed up? Why were the police concentrated in certain areas where the worst protestors were doing was trying to hand them flowers? They were obviously prepared for black bloc tactics, but could they have done more to prevent the damage that was done? Did they allow it to happen to create public condemnation of the protestors? Were innocent onlookers and media hurt during confrontations with more violent demonstrators? (I guess we’ll have to wait for confirmation on that.) And what was going through the heads of the officers while all this was going on?
From my perspective, the protestors and the police slipped seamlessly into their ascribed roles from the start. Crowds yelled “fuck the police!” and “shame!” while holding up peace signs, while the police remained defensive, waiting for the crowds to get violent and understanding that the only way to hold on to their precarious control was to be intimidating and unsympathetic. There was no other way for things to unfold, it seemed. We the Protestors, they the Man. And the issues lost as casualties in the fray.
The Media: Today, local media is abuzz with 500+ arrests, burning police cars and unfazed diplomats. There’s no doubt that your Facebook status is correct: Violence is ineffective. It obscures the message (although, to be fair, there were dozens of competing and unfocused messages being shouted from the crowds of the march well before chaos broke out, the effectiveness of which is also questionable, but that’s another blog post). Violence also drains public sympathy for protestors and their issues. This doesn’t need to be said; I think we’re all in agreement. And I suppose the media is limited in what it can report because a crowd yelling “Free Tibet” just isn’t as relevant as violence in our streets. So I suppose all I can do is shrug my shoulders and sigh.
Now, I hope the focus returns to the actual G8/G20 Summit. Let’s see what the fucktards have actually accomplished while we were tearing the streets apart. Toronto paid a high price for this summit, so I think we deserve an appropriate return on our investment. Time to pay up, Harper.
You can see my photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zalinaalvi/sets/72157624365003924/