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A year later, bitter G20 memories linger for many activists

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Amalia Savva experienced the ugly side of last year's G20 summit protests in Toronto first hand when she saw a friend and fellow organizer with 11 staples in his head and a severe concussion after a police baton cracked open his skull.

When she saw one of her friends dragged away by riot cops for allegedly speaking up too loudly in the designated protest area at Queen's Park. And again when she was rudely awakened from a nap in a makeshift jail at the Eastern Avenue detention centre by a guard who threw a cheese sandwich at her.

"This type of police and state violence is not new and it will not get old," said Savva, a member of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa. "The use of excessive violence to undermine the rights of people is used very often and in many different situations."

But for many people like Savva, who go about their daily lives without fear of police violence, it was the first time they were victims of these kinds of unprovoked attacks.

A year later, Savva and two of her colleagues were sitting on a panel in the upstairs café of the Graduate Students' Union building at the University of Toronto on Saturday addressing an audience of student and community activists.

Under the glaring spotlight of television cameras and video camcorders, the public finally got to see, said Savva, "the reality that some communities face on a day-to-day basis."

On Thursday, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair issued his long awaited review of G20 policing, admitting that the police were overwhelmed and under-prepared.

"But against what?" asked Savva.

She said protesters were there fighting for better pensions, a more accessible health care system and against high tuition fees and violence against women. Not to pick fights with police.

"The right of people to organize, assemble and protest was taken away that weekend."

In the weeks prior to the G20 summit, rumours were already circulating that the University of Toronto administration was closing down the campus during the last weekend in June. So labour and student groups came together and made every effort to keep open the spaces that they controlled.

Around the same time, they received a callout from the Toronto Community Mobilization Network about a need to billet student and community activists who were coming to Toronto but couldn't afford to stay in downtown Toronto hotels.

The bus from Quebec arrived around 2 a.m. on Saturday morning of the G20 summit weekend, followed shortly thereafter by the Toronto police who allegedly kept on eye on activists from an unmarked van in the laneway beside the Graduate Students' Union.

On Saturday night, Daniel Vandervoort was awakened by the sound of stomping boots and yelling by Toronto police as they attempted to raid the Graduate Students' Union building gymnasium. He came out of the gym and explained to police that there were roughly 70 guests staying in the building over the weekend.

Vanderboort said the place was surrounded by over 200 police and when he asked them for a search warrant the police couldn't produce one. After several failed attempts to convince Vandervoort that they had the right to enter the premises, the police simply told him that everyone was under arrest.

They stormed the building -- guns raised -- and began taking people out of the building.

"My arrest was kind of rough," said Vandervoort. "An unidentifiable cop grabs me, shoves me around and then put me in a choke hold with my head up against the wall. As he let go of the choke hold he stomped on my leg."

An older person was allegedly beaten with a baton because he was walking too slowly up the stairs leading out of the building. Others were allegedly roughed up during their arrest.

Vandervoort, a member of the Graduate Students' Union at the University of Toronto, has been attending anti-globalization protests since the late 1990s. He was in Quebec City for the "wall of tear gas" in Montebello and expected that sooner or later he would be arrested.

"But the actual conditions in the detention centre were the surprise," he said. Originally charged with unlawful assembly, the charge was later changed to conspiracy. So Vandervoort and his colleagues spent two and a half days at the detention centre on Eastern Avenue.

"Even my lawyer couldn't find me. The court guards couldn't find me. They were walking down the hallway just calling out names because they had no idea where they'd put people in this place."

Over one thousand people were arrested that weekend, the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Most were held in make-shift cages without access to lawyers, medical care (including prescription medications), adequate food or water.

Of those, many were never charged with a crime and 59 per cent of those charged have had their charges withdrawn.

"They clearly wanted to fill up the film studio," said Vandervoort. "They'd built all these cages and it wasn't a surprise to them that they were going to be throwing hundreds inside."

Many organizers were also charged with conspiracy, before and during the G20 summit weekend.

"This is a charge that's been used in the U.S. and the U.K. against organizers," said Jessica Denyer, an organizer with the Community Solidarity Network (CSN).

In the lead up to the G8/G20, the Toronto Community Mobilization Network, a collection of Toronto-based organizers and allies, facilitated and provided support for various groups to get together during the last week of June.

"It did so in the face of repression and infiltration," said Denyer. Some organizers were picked by "snatch squads" in vans. Others were taken at gunpoint in house raids.

After the G20 summit, the CSN took the TCMN's infrastructure and continued to support those charged and traumatized during that fateful weekend. It's organized billets for activists coming from out of town for mass court dates, supported those facing harsh bail conditions and carried out fundraising and media relations work.

"This repression has just solidified bonds between organizations. It's done the opposite of what it was intended to do. In some cases, it's even expanded our networks."

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