No room for peaceful protest

Legitimate demonstrators are frustrated by both anarchists and police

In my last piece on protest at the G20 summit in Toronto some seem to have missed the most essential point I was trying to make. I was almost arrested in a confrontation with police that came within a hair’s breadth of becoming violent, yet the action I was a part of was as non-violent and as peaceful as any action on the streets could be. As I prepare to head downtown for the second day of continuing protest activity–in the genuine hope of avoiding anything violent–I’m left wondering what could possibly be done differently.

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We were gathered on the sidewalk and within the bike lane of the street in a largely industrial area. Organizers were making genuine effort to keep everyone in that space and to avoid impeding traffic, even though there was little enough to impede. Even at the point where police blocked off traffic themselves we tried to stay on the sidewalk to avoid giving them any excuse. We were loud. I’ll give them that. And it was 1am. If that’s sufficient grounds for arrest then we were all guilty, and if anyone reading this genuinely believes that a bit of noise is an unfair imposition on the life of Toronto streets then so be it. But I want everyone to understand what we’re talking about here.

If protesters are not allowed to peacefully congregate and make noise without being threatened with arrest and forcibly removed from the areas where they have gathered then we are inevitably faced with the circumstances we now have. People are milling about aimlessly and then congregating in new places. What police call tactics I call the logical consequence of dispersion. You can’t tell people they are allowed to protest on the one hand and then push them off every space where they attempt to do so without creating frustration and problems. If a peaceful demonstration on a side street outside the largest concentration of police in the city (we were demonstrating directly outside the detention center) and far away from the G20 security fence isn’t going to be tolerated, then what is?

Bill Blair has repeatedly claimed that violent black bloc protesters are infiltrating peaceful demonstrations and hiding behind the “curious and the naive.” While this may at times be true it omits consideration of the fact that peaceful protesters aren’t entirely stupid and those who wish to avoid violence are reasonably good at policing themselves. But this only works when peaceful protesters can congregate and successfully establish a sense of identity and community spirit. When strangers are wandering around together no one is going to step up when violence happens. It would be dangerous and foolish. Even police are traveling in squads. But when peaceful protesters are gathered in groups with other peaceful protesters they can protect their action from outside elements. And they try really hard to do so.

I do not fault the police for their response to violence and aggression. There is no doubt in my mind that at least some of the people detained genuinely deserve it and a good number of people who aren’t presently detained deserve it too. But enough of this stuff about how protesters have “ruined it for themselves.” The fact that police response is justified in one or more occasions does not justify a citywide crackdown. And it’s insane that police have tried to characterize people who simply want to witness for themselves–rather than trust the official narrative of events–as part of the problem.

I hope nothing goes badly this evening. I really really do. But in the event that it may, I’d urge everyone to remember that even the most peaceful of protests have been repeatedly shut down by police and that they’ve already overrun the site that was officially designated for peaceful assembly. The resultant chaos is their own fault as much as anyone’s. Much as I’d prefer peace in my city to anything else right now, I can’t escape the sense that these are the occasions when our true commitment to free expression is tested. And I simply can’t accept a version of free expression that exists only until the authorities find it inconvenient. Even if someone on the other side of the city, earlier in the day, did something violent and stupid.