On the front lines at the G20

Images of violence, as striking as they may be, are not the whole story

I’m standing next to a nice young woman at the corner of Pape and Eastern as she calls her friend to explain how she is almost 100 per cent sure that she is going to be arrested, along with the 80 or so people still gathered with her on the street corner. I am certainly included in that number. She is trying hard to sound calm about it but there’s an edge to her voice. It’s really hard to know what is about to happen next. But I agree with her. It looks awfully likely that I’m about to get arrested.

Related: Violence and chaos in Toronto

Campus under siege

Saturday morning I started my day by addressing a room full of student leaders in Calgary. That’s an entirely different story, but my plane landed in Toronto around 9:50pm and from that point forward I’ve been on a mission to get the story of the G20 from the ground level. In my original coverage of the G20 I was most concerned about the “designated” protest site smack dab in the middle of University of Toronto. That site was overrun by police earlier in the day and I wanted to see what it looks like afterward. So that’s where I started.

Just north of Bloor I begin to feel the heavy police presence in the city. They’re traveling routinely in squads of eight. But as an upstanding citizen I figure the easiest way to get started is simply to ask them where stuff is happening. They point me at Allan Gardens, where protesters established a tent city earlier in the day. I thank them and make a note to check it out. Less than five feet away a helpful stranger named Kevin gives me the real story. The next place to be is outside the temporary detention center where those already arrested are being held. And boy is he right–but it will take me a while to get there.

Kevin is a part-time faculty member at Concordia University. He came down to Toronto for the G20 protests and to see his grandmother. These two activities are unrelated. He got his start protesting in Quebec City in 2001 and has stayed interested since. His opinion is that police have done an excellent job of separating and dispersing crowds. He says this with an air of appreciation. There are rules to this game and this far, at least, the police are playing within them. As a result things have stayed somewhat disorganized. But he also feels that the heavy police presence is beyond anything that could be called reasonable and that it’s provocative in and of itself.

As I’m talking with Kevin, another squad of officers have approached from the south and they are escorting a couple of young guys who look awfully unhappy. The two squads merge and they joke about the trouble makers they’ve caught. Now we’re surrounded by sixteen officers in full riot gear and the new ones are eying us suspiciously. We excuse ourselves and cross the street. I can already see Kevin’s point. I haven’t done a thing wrong and I’m already intimidated.

Queens Park north is a mess but it’s no more of a mess than I’ve seen many times. All sorts of things are organized in that park and clean up is always incomplete. I survey the campus for signs of damage and find nothing to speak of. From what I can tell the University of Toronto escaped relatively unscathed. But that doesn’t mean the administration was wrong to close the campus. Even on a Saturday buildings, staff, and any students who would have been around could easily have been caught up in the chaos of the day. Based on events thus far, the university seems to be vindicated.

Just about everyone has moved on from the site but an enterprising man with a shopping cart is collecting bottles and cans to return to the beer store. He’s all smiles and says it’s his second load and that he’s made a hundred bucks today. It’s nice that at least someone is benefiting from this and it’s a reminder that for most people the demonstrations are half political statement and half street party–one where they tend to leave their empties behind. The few images of violence, as striking as they may be, are not the true story. They are just a small part of it.

I realize that if I’m going to find the action it’ll be at Pape and Eastern, where the detention center is located. That’s quite a ways away and transit is questionable. Fortunately I’ve got my bike. The ride across the city at night is hardly safe but there’s a lot of people doing it. Dissent in Toronto generally travels on two wheels. Now I’m getting the nod from folks on the street who accept that I’m out to make a statement just like they are. As I get near the site I manage to join a small band of other cyclists. It’s nice to have some company. There’s safety–or at least a greater sense of it–in numbers.

We approach the detention center from an odd direction and it briefly seems as though no one is there. The site is huge and based in an old film studio. We find one young woman, all alone, who has staked out an entrance to the facility. Her name is Caroline and she’s from the University of Manitoba. Her boyfriend was arrested earlier in the day and she’s come to rescue him. She’s joking, of course, but there isn’t much else for her to do. She claims they were protesting peacefully and based on her views I have no trouble believing it. She’s upset at the violence and believes that it has “delegitimized the actual protest.” She finds the police presence to be “insane” but she has no desire to clash with them. She’s quite glad some company has arrived. On a dark night, in the middle of an industrial district, a little solidarity is a good thing.

As it turns out there’s actually a party in full swing just down the street and we haven’t quite found it yet. Another group on foot tromps confidently past us and we follow them. There’s a band with a tuba on the street corner and some dancing. People are having a good time. It’s 1am and we’re making a whole lot of noise. There’s no denying that. But otherwise there’s nothing threatening or destructive about the group.

Jonah is the fellow who seems most responsible for the gathering. There’s no one quite “in charge,” of course, but he seems to know the most about what’s going on. Originally there was going to be a street party around Church and Wellesly but it was called off, he says, because it couldn’t be done safely. The alternative plan, to demonstrate outside the detention center, is apparently something that was approved by the police. I wasn’t there for that discussion so I can’t comment. But the idea seems like a good one. People have friends inside the building who are probably feeling awfully lonely and maybe even a bit scared. Noise from across the street is just a way to tell them they haven’t been forgotten.

Police Chief Bill Blair has repeatedly gone on record as saying that violent elements in the protests are hiding behind “the curious and the naive” to cause destruction and to threaten the G20 summit. By this point I’m surely one of those curious and naive people as far as he’s concerned. Yet I have a hard time seeing what damage we might contribute to–aside from disturbing a few local people in their sleep. And sorry about that, by the way. We are incredibly far away from the security fences at this point. That people bothered to come out this far is a testament to their commitment. There’s no one to threaten and little property to damage. The one time a few protesters begin to move aggressively towards police Jonah jumps in between them and with the firm weight of the crowd backing him up he prevents confrontation. This is a group that firmly wants to peacefully demonstrate. And to dance. As Jonah says, “our revolution includes dancing.”

David is a young guy up from New York University. He came for the event and he’s been going “nonstop since yesterday morning.” He says his weekend has been peaceful and it’s clear that’s all he wants. Nahum used to attend Conestoga College where he was working on a degree in television journalism (he didn’t finish) and he’s got ideas for peaceful protest. He thinks if enough people buy big bags of flour (just $3!) and dump them in the streets the city will turn white. I’m really not sure about that but it’s an interesting thought. And before anyone gets too fussed about the waste of it, consider the nearly one billion dollars spent on security. The friend who is with him thinks a lot of empty boxes on the streets with egg timers attached would be an effective diversion. I guess there are a lot of different views on these things. Sammy, who is with them, feels the protests have been “such an amazing experience” and she “understands where the violence is coming from.” She speaks three languages and is returning to school this year at Cégep de Saint-Laurent.

I’ve talked with a lot of people and haven’t yet managed to find a student from Toronto. Finally, I spot a t-shirt with CUPE 3903 blazoned across it. That’s York University. Jamie, the fellow wearing it, is just leaving. The band has dispersed and the police presence is growing. Caroline is gone too, intending to return for her boyfriend on Sunday. Everyone has to decide just how far they are willing to take the point they wish to make. Those who leave are respected just as those who stay. No judgment either way. The folks who remain are the ones I’m about to get arrested with. They’re decent, peaceful demonstrators, who came to make their point and tell their friends that they care. And we’ve got solid police lines blocking every exit.

This would be a good time to mention that whatever my role in Macleans On Campus, I don’t ordinarily rate a press pass. And I haven’t got one. I’m just another dude in a crowd that’s thinned out a little but is rapidly getting compressed into a very tight space on the sidewalk. Across the street is the media. I mean “the real” media. There are a dozen cameras all pointed at us with news crews just salivating at the potential for violence. When the media first arrived we were cheering them. They offered an opportunity to project a peaceful message and to make the sort of coherent point that’s been so lacking in news coverage. But now they sense blood and they aren’t interested in what anyone has to say. They’re just hoping for some tear gas and would love nothing more than to see me get clubbed on the head. Of everyone here assembled–protesters, police, the “curious and the naive”–no one is more bloodthirsty than the news crews.

Police are issuing their final ultimatum. They’ve determined that grounds for arrest are present. No word on quite what those are, but it’s clear they mean it. In the crowd the mood has shifted. Folks who were defiant when lines were formed across the street are assessing the merits of arrest and realize there’s little to be gained from it. But there’s also a skittish fear now. Police are insisting that we leave but there’s no exit available. There’s no way any lone protester wants to approach their lines but if we move as a group it will provoke confrontation.

Jonah brokers a deal and a hole forms in the western line. We’ll be allowed to leave, or so they say. Jonah can’t contain his skepticism, reminding everyone that police have lied once already (promising that protest, here, would be tolerated) but he adds that he 100 per cent believes that they really will arrest everyone. He’s got a point. Protesters link arms in ragged groups so that no one has to approach police lines alone. I join a couple of strangers and we walk out together, past police with their shields and their batons. A few threw minor taunts at them. I may have done so myself, if “try not to hurt anyone” is a taunt. At this point in the night it’s hard not to say something.

Leaving the site of the demonstration and near mass arrest, I find Janice who’s also from York and pursuing a PhD in Environmental Studies. She feels the police presence has been draconian and excessive, and “really nothing something [she] would want to see in Canada.” She sounds disappointed and I can’t blame her. Ramsey, the fellow with her, cites police intimidation and bullying at this and other protest locations and praises the restraint of protest leaders such as Jonah. There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a lot more tolerance and leadership emerging from amongst the protesters than from the police. I think it’s cultural. Before things got really tense there was a pretty chill police officer in from Peel Region who was chatting with us. He wouldn’t go on record and looked uncomfortable when his colleagues came over. That sort of thing isn’t encouraged.

There’s nothing for me to do except go home. I walk my bike past knots of police officers who make no attempt to hide their contempt for me. This morning, less than fourteen hours ago, I was delivering a keynote address to student leaders halfway across the country. Now I’m just inconvenient rabble on the streets of Toronto.

On the way out my new friend Maxim Winther, who biked in with me, offers to send me his photos of police lines for my story. His photo accompanies this article.