Monday, June 28, 2010

G8-G20 Protests - Saturday, Part 3

We moved along Wellington until we got to Yonge. Looking North, there seemed to be some action. Some protesters wanted to come south. A mass of riot-gear armed cops held them back. They seemed peaceful enough, but the cops soon pushed them back and took up as much of Yonge as they could. Why they were trying to occupy as much of Yonge as possible didn't make any sense to me. I didn't realize that Yonge was, in fact, the seat of much destruction, and that they were driving people away from the scene. The cop-tactic of forming a rectangle seemed to be the rule of the day. Their batons and riot gear, backed up by tear gas didn't make me want to challenge it.

We noted a bunch of "outs", places to run so we couldn't get fenced in, but by the time the cops started moving we just decided to head south where they hadn't covered yet. At this point no protesters had been "kettled" - that would come later.

We ended up on Bay and King, right back at the spot of the burnt car, minus most of the car, but with a giant burned mark where it once stood to remind you what went down. Some people had taken pieces of it, souvenirs, I suppose. A war souvenir, maybe? I picked up something too - it was a disgusting, burned, drenched, floor-mat. I put it back.

The standoff scene that I had now grown accustomed to repeated itself. This time, though the cops weren't taking more space, they were simply blocking a large, orderly group of from what I could tell mostly labour protesters from going south, from getting only one block farther and reaching the fence. Why these protesters didn't just peel off and split up in smaller groups and go around seemed strange to me - like earlier that day, all I could think was if you really wanted to let your voices be heard as close to the fence as possible you should just get there on your own. Perhaps it's the principle of the thing. For whatever reason, they decided to hold a standoff with the cops, which remained calm and emotionless. Well, for the most part - when a buddy of mine suggested we play "red rover" he couldn't help but laugh behind his gas mask.

I couldn't see it but the Starbucks at the northeast corner was smashed in.

We hung around the cops a bit, looked for outs just in case they moved, but they didn't really do much. A bunch of protesters dressed in pink danced, to no avail. A broken plastic screen on a bust stop was smashed - no doubt by the car-torching anarchists. People were sitting/standing atop it. I resisted my natural urge to climb everything in sight.

Someone was discussing getting lifted up to the security camera so he could cover or spray-paint it. He hated those cameras. would rather cover it so that's not technically vandalism, but he found a can of spray paint, and that would do the job. My friend and I declined to help him.

I thought about the police tactics, and the efficacy of keeping people from reaching the fence. I came to the conclusion that all you have to do is stick a row of cops anywhere and some protesters won't bother going to the fence, they'll just try to get through, demanding passage as their civil right.

What was the goal of the protesters? Was it to tell the G20 that their capitalist, Earth-raping ways were no good? Was it to demand women's rights or free Palestine? Was it to add bulk to the mass group in a show of solidarity? Was it to smash the state? Or was it to simply exert the right to dissent, the right to demand that Toronto not be turned into a city controlled by the police? I saw more of the latter than anything else - the protesters vented their anger against the cops, not at anyone who actually could do anything, just because they were there. They chanted, shamed them, and begged them to join them. The protests stopped being about capitalism, women's rights or the environment. They were just about telling the cops to go home, telling them that they didn't need to stand guard, and that they were working with the bad guys.

This, for me, was one of the central take-home lessons of the day - more than anything, the protesters wanted their voices heard and they didn't want anyone saying this couldn't be done.

We decided that the standoff wasn't going anywhere and retreated back down Bay St towards the fence, where anyone on our side could be, if they weren't more interested in the King St. blockade. We passed the main downtown Scotiabank, which was spray painted with "capital kills", windows smashed in methodically. The spider-cracks in the glass, some which stretched metres, were eerily beautiful.

By the fence people were taking just hanging out. Someone was walking around in a Tibetan flag. No one was actively protesting, as far as I could tell, unless touching the fence and having your picture taken counts. On the way back to our bikes I called my girlfriend. She informed us that things were getting really hairy near Queens Park.

Shit. That's where we left our bikes.

G8-G20 Protests - Saturday, Part 2

Well fed, my buddy and I decided to head south.

The goal we had in mind was simple: how far could we get? It looked like it was possible to head through the police blockades if you're just a few people, and even easier to go around them. If the goal of the protesters was getting to the fence, could they do it?

As it turned out, the answer was yes - anyone moving in small groups with a moderate degree of knowledge of Toronto's structure could walk right up to the fence, which was mostly along Wellington. We were baffled why no else though of this. Maybe if we were in a large group this would be hard. After all, for two people with no signs to veer off path is one thing, to take a massive blimp or coat hanger down Bathurst is another.

Over the past few days, the laws granted to police regarding people near the fence were frightening. Within five meters, the police had the legal right to ask you why you were there, to search you, and if refused and didn't leave (or maybe just refused - it was unclear to me), you could be arrested on the spot. Furthermore, in court, the police's word was God - no witnesses could save you from whatever the cops said on the stand.

As we neared the fence, we stood back, as far from it as could be. Yet for all the hype about having to be away from the fence, it turned out that no one cared. People (from what I could see regular folks who weren't protesting) walked next the fence. Some even walked up to it and touched it. This was clearly not what I had imagined.

We moved away from the fence a bit and decided to walk along King. As we approached Bay we saw a line of cops. Maybe the protesters were coming down there. Had they broken through? Were they getting to the fence?

Then I heard the Band. I never saw the band, but from the way they sounded I was sure it was the Anarchist Marching Band (or at least parts of it) from yesterday, their jovial arpeggiated tune heralding the coming of red and black flags. I was only half a block away and there was a dozens of cops in the way, yet we could see the flags wave while people clad in black ran through the intersection, then quickly away. As they left smoke began to rise.

We had just witnessed the lighting of the cop car in the middle of King and Bay. A handful of cameras were on the scene, but not too many. Police moved in and yelled at us to get back. We complied.

Standing half a block we waited, while our cameras and video recorders did their job. Would the protesters be hemmed in by the cops? The cavalry came in, dwarfing the yellow-jacket cops on bikes. We saw riot police put on their masks and march to the scene, flicking out their batons. As we took pictures one of the more conversationally-inclined cop asked us "So we're the bad guys, eh?" My friend responded that he didn't think so, and that there's no reason for setting a car on fire. I didn't think so either - up to now all the action taken by the police was marked by personal restraint - God knows I would've wanted to smash some guy's face in if he was yelling at me for hours.

I was both disheartened and excited - the protests would not be remembered for violence, not the peaceful chanting I saw yesterday and earlier today. No would remember that earlier this morning, Greenpeace, Oxfam, and Amnesty International demanded a better world. Yet seeing the beginnings of "who knows what" was admittedly thrilling. And besides, I'd never seen a burning car before.

From all the way back there was some confusion. Was it one car on fire or two? Where were the anarchists? Did they move south? Were they diverted? We wondered aloud to each other if they had reached the fence.

The car was set on fire a little before 1PM, and it took nearly 20 minutes to put it out. By this the things had moved elsewhere. We down to Wellington to see if the fence had been reached, or even breached. No sign of anyone here. Police on horseback came marching through, followed by a truck carrying water bottles and hay. Horses relived themselves. We couldn't help but laugh.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

G8-G20 Protests - Saturday, Part 1

Saturday morning, high noon. It was raining hard but a friend and I braved the weather to bike into town for would be a day to remember. The big question hanging over our heads as we peddled to the Student Rally at Bloor and Spadina was whether or not things would turn out as peacefully as they did Friday, where, despite arrests towards the end of the day in Allan Gardens, the march itself remained peaceful.

We rode up to the scene to find a small group of students, led by the Canadian Federation of Students, huddled around the speaker, armed with a megaphone. She spoke of high tuition fees, affordable education as a universal right, and criticized the cost of the summit and war in Afghanistan, money that could be better spent on students. There were a group of people dressed largely in black, some sporting bandanas. Overhearing them, they seemed to be mostly from Montreal. Cries of "So-So-So! Solidarité!" could be heard before the by-now tiresome (and questionably accurate) "No G20 on Stolen Native Land!" started up and the group moved off. We grabbed our bikes and accompanied what seemed to be a pretty reasonable protest of between 50-100 people as they trekked through campus towards Queen's Park.

Queen's Park was packed. If the rain kept the numbers down it didn't by much. There were speakers who talked about social justice, environmentalism, the rising cost of education, labour rights, and the like. It was one of the big-tent rallies, with grievances of all types welcome. From yesterday, the communists (of both Iran and Iraq now) were there, as well women's rights activists, trade-unionists (e.g. CUPE), and the Anti-Israeli Apartheiders, who held up large letters: "B" "D" and "S", representing boycott, divestment and sanctions. But there were a lot of new faces, too. The Toronto-Danforth NDP showed up, as did at one person supporting the Green Party. The Steelworkers union were there, giant blimp in tow. Greenpeace and other environmental activists also showed up in force - definitely a larger show of environmental support than yesterday. There some other groups I never anticipated either, like Kashmiris demanding independence from India, Sikhs pissed off about the 1984 raid on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. And, of course, general protesters pissed off at the sheer cost of the summit.

With the beat of the clown-faced "Samba Squad", we were off, marching down University Avenue, towards the fence. I walked with my buddies, trying to keep somewhat apart from any one particular group - the last thing I need is to be held up at the Indian border during some future flight because of my proximity to the "Free Kashmir" banner. As we walked south I saw a bunch of black-clad protesters, with no signs, running through the crowd. It looked as if the black block was here. The question is what would they do?

I spoke with, or more accurate, was spoken to, by a woman dressed up as a sort of militant clown who was having a wonderful time banging her garbage pail lid which said "Clownarchy". She said that she hoped people were going to go all the way to the fence. When I responded with "that's the plan!" she cackled with glee, banged her makeshift shield, and took off, probably to encourage someone else to go "all the way". I tried convincing myself that the Joker wasn't real, and that I didn't just have a conversation (apparently) her. I'm not sure I bought it.

There were a bunch of police out, but not too many lining the roads. Nowhere near as many as Friday, at least. The American consolate was blocked off, and some fool who tried to make a run through the barricade established around it was easily taken down. Not the best thought-out plan, really.

Some guy was balancing on the war memorial in the middle of the road. His shaggy blond hair, black button-up shirt and grey suit made us wonder if he was actually protesting or shooting an album cover. Apparently after we plodded on he took his clothes off. Word is that he was arrested later for setting a cop car on fire, and was last seen lighting joints and a crack pipe while in the driver's seat. Who'd have thunk it?

As the march went past Elm Street, I wondered where the cops would block us. Queen street was to be the protest's final destination, as it was led West, to Spadina, and up again. A thin row of cops in street closed signalled that no could go further. One block back a phalanx of riot police showed they meant business. You could still get through the first line of police, if you went through as an individual. If you wanted to buy a hot dog, from a nearby vendor, you actually had to. A few people were coming and going, but there was no way the large crowd was getting through. As they walked up Spadina, my buddy and I ducked into Gold Stone to get some cheap and delicious grub. We checked with people we knew around town to see what they were up to and planed our next course of action.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

G8-G20 Protests - Friday, Part 4

The march that started out from Allan Gardens appeared to consist of three main groups: protesters, people photographing/recording the protest (to which I include myself), and police. Lots of police. Lots and lots and lots of police.

I've never had much interaction with the police. I've never been pulled over (though I don't drive much), never been questioning on the street, never been arrested, etc. I have a general idea of how to talk to the police - be polite while respectfully asserting your rights - but I can't say I'm particularly enthusiastic to strike up a conversation, at least not while they're on the job.

The protest was flanked with cops. Bike-cops held the sides, brought up the rear, stopped traffic and generally led the way for the protest. Despite the riot gear and tear gas guns (which took me a little by surprise), the protest was almost entirely peaceful and the cops weren't going to be the ones to strike the first blow.

A scuffle broke out in front of the College Park building, on College, just west of Yonge. The rumor was that someone went after someone else, and that when the cops interfered, he took a slug at them. I have no idea how accurate this is - that's just what people were saying at the time. Cries of "Let him go!", "shame", and "This is what a police state looks like!" reverberated throughout the crowd. People closed in on the police, demanding his release. More cops conga-lined through the crowd to their rescue, shoved protesters out of the way and made some space for themselves. The protesters (and photographers who had swarmed the event) didn't shove back. After some more chanting, people realized that there was nothing they could to do help the arrested guy. The crowd begrudgingly moved on.

The protest went towards University Ave, and then turned down it, to my surprise. I though everybody was heading up to Queen's Park, but those in the know had other plans. The police did an immense amount of crowd control here, steering the protests as far down as Elm St. but blocking them from going any further, presumably from reaching the downtown convention centre where the summit is being held. An immense wall of cops, some mounted, stood between the protesters and their destination, and a standoff commenced. No one decided physical confrontation was worth it, so the the crowd turned towards West the Hasty Mart, only to be blocked again a short distance later. Funneled North again, the crowd returned to Queen's Park, making their message heard along the way, loud and slow.

This is where I checked out for the day. The entire event was noisy, but peaceful; the strange unspoken truce between the cops and the protesters carried the day, but the blocking of protesters from reaching the wall was frustrating to many.

I'd return tomorrow to continue following the events. I've got a feeling that for all its emotion and noise, Friday was just a warm-up.

G8-G20 Protests - Friday, Part 3

The march itself started from Allan Gardens with the purpose of heading West. For everybody but a few march leaders, its final destination, where a "tent city" was to be established, was unknown.

Not having been anywhere near a G8 protest march, I had a hazy idea of what it's makeup would be like. I remember watching the massive Battle of Seattle, where anarchists trashed stores, obscuring the message of save the sea turtles. Would this march be the same? There were certainly many voices, many of whose messages appear to only marginally overlap - which ones would get heard?

I decided to make a list of all the groups I saw. I may have missed a few, but here's my best crack at it:

- No One is Illegal, a migrant rights group
- 911 Truthers
- Damn 2025, a disability direct action group ("You don't need to stand up to fight back!")
- The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
- The Canadian Union of Public Employees
- The Animal Rights Kollective II
- PETA (or at anti-sealers holding a PETA sign)
- The Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid
- Christians (the let's all live in peace kind)
- Feminists
- Environmentalists (though their showing was rather small)
- Anarchists - the "black bloc"
- Communists (a lot of Iranian communists, interestingly enough)
- The Frontline Partners with Youth Network
- Natives' rights supporters
- Marijuana advocates
- Anti-capitalists of all stripes

Interestingly absent from the march was the Falun Gong. I think they took up their quiet protests in Queen's Park, where I rode past on my way back. They were dismantling a giant bloody hammer and sickle. I wonder if the communists would get along with them, citing China as an oppressive capitalist nation, or oppose them on the basis of their imagery, if not their views. It's hard to say.

Standing on College St. you could hear the roll of slogans as the crowd passed you by.

No G8 on stolen native land!
Communities and youths under attack! What do we do? Stand up fight back!
Down with capitalism! Long live socialism!
Viva viva Palestina! Viva viva intifada!
Stop the war on the poor! Make the rich pay!
1! We are the people 2! A little bit louder 3! (I never quite caught the last bit of this one but it goes back to 1!)

While certain groups were easily identifiable, some of the general chanting seemed to cut across group lines. If the crowd was speaking with a single voice, it was mostly to exert their presence, their right to protest. This is the impression I got from most of the "We won't go away!"-type chants, in particular from the group call-and-response "Whose Streets? Our streets!" Most people had their issues, but everybody just wanted to tell the world, and especially the G8-G20, that their voices aren't heard at the meetings, and that they have the right to be heard nevertheless.

It'd be a miracle if the G20 actually met any actual demands - clearly "No G8 on stolen native land" is out. As many of the groups were directly anti-government (e.g. the anarchists, communists), it seems unlikely that they wouldn't be satisfied with the addition of women's rights on the agenda, or even the creation of an independent Palestinian state. It's easy to march together if you're for and against ephemeral concepts - pretty much everyone was against "capitalism" and I'd say a good number of people were for "socialism". What exactly those mean, aside from a hand-wavy description of governments/societies being for corporations versus being for the people is hard to say. What's apparent was that people were pissed off at the state of the world and damn well weren't going to keep quiet about it.

As one girl's t-shirt said, maybe the protest was about "defending my right to dissent". If getting the leaders' attention was the goal, or even raising awareness among Torontonians, I doubt Friday's march did anything. However, if you just wanted to reinforce your claim to free expression, then I suppose Friday's protest was a success.

G8-G20 Protests - Friday, Part 2

The whole thing began at Allan Gardens at 12:30. I rode up, locked my bike, and exchanged greetings with the police who were standing near the entrance. They seemed pleasant - maybe they thought that a simple hello might help win them some favour. So far, though, the cops were looking a little lonely: the reporters at the scene easily outnumbered the "protesters", at this point a handful of 20-somethings, most of whom appeared to refuse to discuss matters with the media. Was this due to a deep-seated distrust of the established media? Was this because the reporters asked "hard-hitting" questions, like the one reporter who asked a protester with a "For Sale: G20 ₤€ader$" sign whether he was opposed to the actual meeting or their particular agenda? Whatever the reason, those around decided to save their voices for the street. Who knows. The sign-bearer in particular seemed uncomfortable with the reporter's pretty tame line of questioning. Maybe he was just more comfortable parroting slogans than answering actual questions.

A park local, clutching his 1L bottle of Labatt Ice seemed to have taken issue with the slow but stead trickle of protesters. Clearly their struggle against capitalism, their championing of the poor was lost on this individual, who appears to have the unfortunate experience of actually being a have-not. A useful police-woman biked over and consoled him, while gently removing his bottle. Maybe he just wanted someone to listen to him. Soon enough he was enlisted into the cause, and was handing out leaflets for gatherings (one for women only) at the feminist circle which, at 1PM, composed the totality of anti-G20 activity. Not to worry, though, there was more to come.

A man with his arm in a sling came by on his scooter and spoke to anyone who would listen. He claims that his disability prevented him from leashing his dog, and that when he went to the human rights board they turned him over to the cops, who dragged him down to the Don Jail and horribly beat him. It was a sad story of police brutality, and his obvious suffering was hard to bear. His suspiciously porous narrative and obvious screw loose didn't gain him the total sympathy he might otherwise have deserved, though; somehow Royal Bank is involved in this as well - I'm not sure how. He also is not afraid to die, since he was dead for a bit, saw Jesus, and came back. I'm glad he's got at least that going for him.

I wandered off site then back again an hour later, around 2PM. Apparently police where demanding to check people's bags who were entering into the park and were confiscating gas masks. For "security", of course. This is, of course, entirely illegal - there are no such laws in place in Canada for any public places outside of the fence that require people to consent to personal searches on the mere suspicion of having a backpack and being dressed somewhat in black. You don't even need to show police your ID. Reportedly, one individual stood his ground, and was supported by the growing crowd in this endeavor. The police backed off. I'd say "one point for civil liberties", but I'm not convinced keeping score would be very encouraging.

The time was drawing near and people began preparing for the march. The feminists, who had started the whole get-together had painted created three coffins - one in white symbolizing violence against women ("He though that once I said yes, I couldn't say NO."), one in red, covered with coat hangers symbolizing women who died from unsafe abortions ("SHAME"), and one draped in rainbow-coloured flags, representing all the trans-people unfortunate enough to have been born in times and places where being themselves was not an option. I though about Alan Turing, the computer pioneer who was chemically castrated by the UK for his homosexuality and omitted suicide shortly after. Point made, I suppose.

There were a handful of t-shirt vendors, communists/socialists handing our pamphlets and multi-lingual literature (mostly criticizing Israel, the demon-de-jour - I suspect the communist interest in Israel is not because of its deeds, which isn't as relevant to their global anti-capitalist agenda as, say, Wall Street, but because it's the most fashionable thing to protest these days), a (the?) guy from (he's committed to spreading unions through music and rock venues, and claims to be super-successful at it - easily my favourite guy in the park), and meal-servers, who provided me some of the most delicious free food I've ever had. There were feminist singers, communist changers, and an anarchist marching band. Hell, there was even a lone dissenter, proudly sporting a black t-shirt saying "Hey ANARCHISTS ANALKISSTHIS!", sporting a green sign with with personalized "fuck off" messages for several organizations (including CUPE - the union of which I'm a part of). There were anarchists in black, communists in red, and a guy in a pink pig suit with a white-collar office-worker of sorts shoved up his ass. And there were photographers. Tons of photographers. Armed with cameras better than my own and audio recorders which far surpassed my $40 factory-direct mail-in-rebate-special, I felt a little outclassed. But there was no time to cry over my (borrowed) point-and-shoot: the march was starting and it didn't appear to be t waiting for me to acquire an SLR.

G8-G20 Protests - Friday, Part 1

Well, it’s time for the world leaders to get together again and decide our fates. This strange phenomenon, which is characterized as either a necessary meeting to discuss improvements to international monetary policy or a secretive closed-door session to further stuff the pockets of the fat cats of Big Business, depending on which side of the fence you’re on, is called the G8. This year Ontario has the great privilege of welcoming not just eight, but 20 political leaders from the most important (i.e. richest) countries in the world. Ah, the G20. This should be fun.

For Toronto, the G20 has meant one thing: "security". Well, two things if you count security and reckless spending that makes the American Military look thrifty as discrete entities. Yes, Toronto the Good has reverted to its original title: Fort York, updated for the 21st century. Complete with giant fences, severe laws for those who stray 5 metres within them, water and sound cannons, and hundreds if not thousands of cops.

But is it necessary? Is there any possible justification for what appears to most Torontonians as a lapse of judgment usually reserved for terrorist attacks? Well, the argument goes, security needs to be in place to save us all from violent protesters, who wish to tear down the fence (as stated online), and assault innocent investment bankers dressed in suits (as stated nowhere).

Word on the net was that a large march was to happen Friday, starting at Allan Gardens, going to some undisclosed location, where a temporary "tent city" would be established, to implore the world leaders to consider the poor. A protest! I would have to attend - not to join in, but to observe, to witness.