Campus under siege

Update: G20 protest turns violent

With G20 protests just ramping up in Toronto it’s worth remembering one thing. Whatever may happen on University of Toronto campus grounds, the university sure didn’t ask for this.

Update: G20 protest turns violent

Also see: On the front lines at the G20

Although it’s still uncertain just how much action to expect in and around the “designated” protest site at Queen’s Park North, what is certain is that the university isn’t taking any chances. The decision to essentially shut down the main campus for the duration of the G20 was swift and, for many stakeholders in the university, quite sudden. But then this sort of decision making has been a hallmark of the G20 from the start. With little warning the summit was suddenly in Toronto. Then the protest site was relocated from Trinity-Bellwoods Park (far from U of T) to the virtual centre of the university. And then the university announced it was closing shop. This will extend from the evening of June 23rd through the weekend, with the university resuming business as usual on Monday the 28th.

Two days of classes and numerous events on campus have been canceled. This period also includes summer exams, so some students will face difficult rescheduling while others may simply be glad for the extra time to cram. Those living in residence–an eclectic group of resident summer students, visitors from other institutions, guests and tourists–have been required to move out and either stay away for the duration or relocate to other housing provided for them. Graduate students have lost access to their laboratories and research facilities. Thousands of students have been affected, to varying degrees.

Dr. Cheryl Misak, Vice-President and Provost of U of T, describes this process as “a very complex and difficult set of decisions” forced on the university. When the residents around Trinity-Bellwoods complained about damage and disruption in their community, summit officials dropped the problem unceremoniously on the university, with buildings and facilities on three sides of the park and the provincial legislature to the south. If protesters end up spilling over in any direction they aren’t likely to overrun the legislature, so the alternative consequence is obvious. In anticipation of this, campus residences have moved their students elsewhere and every door that can be shut will be. But then universities aren’t well designed to go on lock down.

What the university should have done may be a moot point, now, but it presents an interesting problem to groups on campus who simultaneously sympathize with the goals of protesters but also have their own members to think of. Leslie Jermyn, Chair of CUPE local 3902 (representing university employees) defines the problem in terms of conflicting responsibilities. “I think there are motivations (for closure) that I can comprehend. On the other hand, I feel that the university is a public institution and as such has a greater responsibility to the public and to the community.” Meanwhile the University of Toronto Faculty Association, in debating the issue, was only able to arrive at a motion stating that the university should have consulted them first. Professor George Luste, President of UTFA, expresses concern for faculty research and dangers associated with it. “We have buildings with chemicals, radioactive material, animals, etc. I don’t think they could have kept it open with business as usual.”

Student groups, meanwhile, seem less restrained in their opinions and have gladly launched a No Campus Closure movement. They are simultaneously calling on the university to reverse its decision (not remotely possible now, if it ever was) and vowing to maintain their own operations as much as possible. They were also surprisingly hard to interview for this story. The Graduate Students’ Union referred only to their press release for information, while the University of Toronto Students’ Union, which represents undergraduates, missed three separate invitations to air their views. Presumably they are all too caught up in the event at this stage. But Jermyn, on behalf of CUPE, took up the challenge of offering a more nuanced view in dissent.

“The panic around where we’re going to locate the protesters suggests that the protesters are the problem. There are always people who want to do property damage, or want to make a statement that we may not agree with, but the bulk of people are there to make a peaceful statement and to stand in solidarity.” For Jermyn, it isn’t so much the university’s decision that is objectionable as the terms in which it is presented. “It feeds into the kinds of images that the mass media wants people to see–rioting and violence.” Unfortunate though it may be, coverage of the event thus far bears out this theory. And the expectation of violent confrontation only builds tension and makes it that much more likely.

Amid all of this cynicism around campus, and the expectation of violence, one small island within the university has defied the general trend and intends to remain open. Massey College is an independent graduate and professional residence on campus and therefore not beholden to the university’s orders. Though it has a reputation as a conservative institution it appears less concerned about the idea of unruly protesters than most. John Fraser, as resident Master of Massey College, promotes a more laissez faire approach.

“I won’t second-guess the university, but I don’t think it’s necessary to close the college. I believe the mounted police will be forming on Devonshire Place, so I’m not too concerned about anything happening here.” This is quite the comment, when you consider how many other groups seem convinced that it’s police presence that actually inspires violence. But it isn’t that Fraser hopes the protesters will be intimidated. Rather, he says, “if people want to protest they should be allowed to protest. But shouldn’t an official protester be irritated at being told where to go?” This view is echoed by Professor Luste, saying “who knows where the real protesters actually will be?” But if experience is any guide, once a protest site has been designated something, at least, will happen there. If only through sheer force of attraction, people will be drawn to wherever they imagine something is happening.

Leaving aside the circus-like atmosphere of both the G20 summit and its accompanying protests, it must be remembered that most participants are trying to achieve something meaningful from the experience. Expressions of hope regarding the possible outcomes of this event all echo similar themes. Dr. Misak says, “there are some rather serious problems facing the world at the moment. We hope that the G20 Summit goes some way to resolving some of them. We also hope that those groups and individuals who exercise their democratic right to protest are able to do so in a violence-free environment.” If Leslie Jermyn is less sure of the G20 itself, she has similar hopes for the protests. “I hope that people are able to express their views and voice their opinions meaningfully and that there is no provocation. A beautiful example of the potential of free speech and the right to assemble and demonstrate.”

In terms of worst case scenarios, concerns are again quite similar. Professor Luste worries “that some unintended accident or some serious harm will be done to students, faculty, or to the public.” The Provost’s Office is “concerned about any action that threatens the safety and security of our students, faculty and staff, or any action that results in damage to our campus.” And Jermyn again puts emphasis on her concern that violence may be provoked either by police or by other authorities, but adds that her fear someone may get hurt extends to “all people, including those in uniform.” It shouldn’t be so surprising that within the university everyone’s best and worst case outcomes look quite similar–there’s just very strong disagreement about how to best chart a path towards the favoured result.

One question that seems to have stumped everyone at the university is the same question currently vexing merchants and citizens of the city of Toronto. When the whole whirlwind is over, just who is going to pick up the tab? Even in the best case scenario it seems unlikely that the university will escape without at least some damage and a big clean up bill. John Fraser’s irascible reply is likely the most honest. “I can’t answer that; I find no one wants to take any responsibility.” Likely the university will be left bearing a significant portion of the costs. But perhaps when the G20 is over the various constituencies around the university will remember they have this much in common, and do not wish to see students and the institution made poorer by the event. There could be worse outcomes than a united front on at least this one issue.

Toronto and Canada will be judged by how we handled the G20 and so far our score isn’t looking all that good. More than a few observers agree and sympathize with Professor Luste’s suggestion that “we should put these guys on some island – let them talk to each other there.” But practically speaking world forums are going to occur year after year and someone, somewhere, is going to have to deal with them. If we can’t provide an example of how to do this well, perhaps we can at least learn positive lessons from our experiences.

“If we could do it again I’d want to see much more consultation,” suggests Leslie. She believes the suddenness of decision making, and the lack of communication, has contributed to an atmosphere of tension and confrontation that may become self-fulfilling. “People are afraid, and frankly this is our city. We’ve done wrongly if, in hosting an international event, we end up creating fear in our citizens.” And that is one message that’s very hard to disagree with.