Observations from the G20 march: From Queen's Park to The Congo

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Along with a friend, my partner, and my 30-year-old son, I attended the rally at Queen's Park on Saturday, June 26, 2010 and the subsequent march. I confess to being somewhat fearful about attending, what with all the warnings about expected violence and public safety, but it was exactly because of that fear that I felt I had to attend.

I decided that I did not want to feel afraid in my own city, in the place that has been my home for some 35 years. I love Toronto with a passion -- its cool ravines, shady parks, the hard white of winter, not to mention the incredible music scene that this city has developed over the last couple of decades. I stayed here rather than move to the U.S. because I always found it a livable city. There was good available and affordable daycare -- at least there was some 25 years ago. And although there is an incredible shortfall between the reality and the many touted glories of multiculturalism, there is still a profound pleasure to live in a place that is home to so many people from so many different backgrounds. To see so many peoples of colour on the streets is a joy. I feel at home.

So, when on Thursday evening (June 24) a friend and I walked along the entire the security fence that stretched along Front Street, I felt a mixture of emotions. I was astonished, angry and saddened. I looked up at the fence stretching some five to six feet above me -- it was entirely hard to the touch, although it gave the illusion of being some sort of mesh -- and believed I was in some sort of Kafkaesque or Orwellian nightmare. How could this happen? Here in this city? Who was the architect of this? As we walk east from Bathurst, we pass policemen and women along the route, some writing in notebooks, others talking on walkie talkies. A couple of them acknowledged us by saying hello, I nod, my friend answers. We get the once, twice, sometimes thrice over from others.

Little did we know then that had we been stopped, asked for identification and had refused, as we believed we had the right to, we could have been arrested and detained. Because on Friday (June 25) the populace was told that a regulation has been passed by the Ontario government on June 21, granting the police the right to do just that within five metres of the security fence. It also gave them the right to declare huge areas of Toronto public works within which the same requirements for identification and possible arrest could apply. (NOTE: The most recent update states that some of the information released about this regulation was deliberately inaccurate.) As we head north on Bay at Queen we observe a security guard removing a man who was attempting to bed down for the night outside the Starbucks.

I had decided to join the public demonstration before walking around the fence. The Harper government's decision to defund abortion counselling or services as part of its international maternal care aid package had incensed me. Even more so, the shut-the-f-up comment by the Conservative senator, Nancy Ruth. Her using the us versus them tactic -- us being so-called first world women and them being the poor women of the world, disturbed me deeply.

I know what a third world back street abortion looks like. It is not pretty. I also know how much it differs from an abortion in a sterile environment. So it was thrilling to attend a meeting early in the week leading up the G20 at which maternal health, including abortion, was the topic, and to find that Canadian women would not allow themselves to be divided from women in those places that have been impoverished through a combination of colonialism, imperialism and discriminatory, exploitative economic practices. Our rights here cannot be taken for granted, particularly under a Conservative government, and an attack on women's health through defunding abortion in Africa or Pakistan means it becomes easier to strip us of that right here in Canada. And such practices have to be named for what they are -- racist. And lest we think that all is well here in Canada, there are no abortion services offered women in Prince Edward Island, and the availability of abortion for rural women and first nations women on reserves and in certain parts of this country is abysmal. The unions were going to be demonstrating on Saturday and had asked women to lead the march. That seemed to be the place to be, sound cannon and police notwithstanding.

Was I nervous? Most certainly, because everything I was hearing or reading seemed to suggest that it would be unsafe to be there. There is talk of sound and water cannon. On the CBC, Toronto's Police Chief Blair warns about violence, and although his warnings appear to be addressed to those whom he anticipates will be there to wreak mayhem, one can't avoid the feeling that he is suggesting that it would be better if we all stayed away. But this is my city where I have demonstrated countless times, so why shouldn't I be there? I worry about the potential effects of the sound cannon if it's used and am relieved to hear that the courts have ruled that they can only use it to make announcements. But I will and must go, because if I let myself be afraid in my own city, then where will it end?

We arrive at Queen's Park just as the various groups are moving off and I see a banner for keeping our education public and free and suggest we join them. Being there is energizing, as demonstrations always are: there are drums and other musical instruments, there are chants. "What does democracy look like?" the chant goes up, "This is what democracy looks like," we chant down University Avenue, and I think, "yes, this is what it looks like" -- messy, a bit disorganized but with a principle at the core: that we all matter. Equally.

I notice an elderly woman holding the hand of an obviously mentally disabled woman making their way through the crowd. Mother and daughter, perhaps, and I am moved that they too are here. This, indeed, is what democracy looks like. At one point we are overtaken by the group chanting, "No one is illegal!" I join in. We aren't allowed to go down the south bound section of university as we approach the U.S. embassy. The area around it is cordoned off and the show of police force is massive. Many of them stand with their hands on their batons and glare at us. Some of us approach the metal barricades; we say we are there for them and for their children as well. We ask if they have children. They remain impassive. At that time the chant is, "Whose streets," the reply, "Our streets," rises up around us.

Among ourselves we question the reason for this display of raw brute force as we continue on our way down to Queen Street. At one point, we see to our left a group of young people clad in black running alongside the march, but think nothing of it. A man does yoga postures perched on the head of a female figure that is part of a monument to the Boer War at Queen and University. People laugh and cheer him on while fearful that he might fall. It is here, however, that we are met with one of the most awesome displays of police power I have ever seen. There are police across the entire southern boundary of the intersection; behind them are phalanxes of officers, helmeted and at ready. This is the scenario at each southerly intersection of the march along Queen Street.

It is disturbing, it is confusing. "Why is this necessary?" we ask each other. People are stunned and angry at the display of force. It seems that every time we look south from Queen Street at an intersection, not only would there be the officers stationed there, but there would be other groups of black-clad, helmeted police running along the streets. There is talk along the march that they are clearing out the alleyways. We continue west along Queen to Spadina where the march seems to have come to a stop. Everyone is milling around wondering where the march is going next. Some people go south to Richmond where the police have blocked the street. We mill around outside Lettieri, use the bathroom, buy an espresso and wonder what to do next. There is an announcement by someone on a megaphone that the peace march is going north along Spadina and the justice march is going back east along Queen street. The march has split.

We, along with hundreds of people, simply continue to stand around chatting and talking primarily about the massive police presence. At one point a pink flare is released too far away for us to see who is responsible but, strangely enough, there is no panic. Smoke rises, people continue talking. Suddenly a line of police mounted on bicycles emerges out of the crowd and aggressively moves east along Queen. We aren't sure what that means, but something is happening we conclude. We aren't sure what to do, but then decide to walk back east along Queen. There is no longer a march as such, simply people walking or talking in groups.

At the Rivoli, a confrontation occurs between scores of police officers and demonstrators. There are no black-clad people here. They appear to be young people who had been in the demonstration. A police car with smashed windows is in the middle of the street. I still can't figure out why they would need to bring a police car there, given that there were police -- scores of police, in fact -- at each and every intersection within easy reach. This was one of the cars that was burnt later. Why was it left there and, having been set on fire, why didn't it explode? For that matter why didn't any of those cars explode? Were their gas tanks empty? People come out of their stores to watch what is happening. The police form a circle in the middle of the street and begin to be more aggressive, shoving the people back against the store fronts, although I do not observe any aggressive actions by the crowd. The police begin donning gas masks which makes us think things will be getting out of hand if not ugly, so we head further east.

We were on the streets of downtown Toronto for some five hours, walked some five to six miles and at no time did I witness what the media refers to as the rampages that took place in Toronto. Also, the streets north of Queen are eerily absent of police officers. At University Avenue on our return journey, I witness a brilliant intervention by a young man who holds a microphone and in a soft, almost intimate, voice asked questions like, "Will you remove your facial recognition security cameras after the G20?" It is powerful and effective: this quiet voice against this massively brutal array of force.

I myself challenge individual officers at the barricade, asking why it was necessary for such a show of force, insisting that this was my city, too. I feel strongly that their foreboding presence says that I am off limits, that I don't belong there; that I am illegal somehow. And I resist accepting that. They remain stone faced, unlike another group of Waterloo officers further east whom we tease good naturedly and get some five of them to smile, at which we applaud. A group of clowns bring a delightful sense of whimsy and humour as they balance on an imaginary tightrope in front of this same group of officers, and as they manage to make it over the to the other side the people standing around applaud them. These interactions aside, however, the overwhelming image that I am left with, in this city of astonishing ethnic and racial diversity is a virtually monolithic, white and male police force suited up for war against its inhabitants most of whom are peoples of colour. And that is a sea change in this city.

All of which brings me to the property damage which becomes obvious as we walk east along Queen, starting with the Starbucks and TD Bank at Queen and University. At Queen and Bay there is more evidence of it. The very Starbucks where the homeless man was moved on from two days earlier has been smashed. The bank next door as well. North along Yonge from Dundas the property damage is more widespread -- de Boers, American Apparel, Tim Horton's -- but I observe very few independent Mom and Pop stores. Someone has brought a tall coffee table out from a Tim Horton's and placed it in the middle of the street with coffee cups on it. Zanzibar, the seedy exotic dancing lounge has had its windows smashed. Is this intended as a feminist gesture perhaps? There is a Second Cup with a sign advertising (incorrectly, I might add) that the business is independent and Canadian owned. Its windows remain intact. Essentially, the violence appears to be directed against franchises and banks. Right across from the police station on College, where a line of poker-faced police officers stand at attention, the windows of the Winners store are shattered, as is the bank machine next door.

Most of the people on that march were not involved in acts of violence against property. The debate rages as to whether this has, indeed, justified the $1 billion price tag. Many, led by Stephen Harper, now believe that to be the case. I have no doubt that in among the crowds demonstrating were some who had come with the intent to destroy -- to mash up the place, as they say. And while I believe violence should only be a last resort, I do know for a fact that people have had to do violence to accomplish something different and better. Two examples leap to mind -- the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle by the French underground against the Nazi occupiers in World War II. Am I equating those who carried out those acts on Saturday with those two groups? I am not, but let us not forget that there is a long tradition in this country of allowing a certain amount of rioting by young, white males in celebration of sporting victories. Similar acts of sports-related vandalism occur in Montreal almost annually. In 2008, a string of police cars were torched after some sporting event, and as recently as May 2010, when Les Canadiens beat the Pittsburgh Penguins one national newspaper stated that "rarely had so much testosterone been unleashed onto Montreal's streets with so little consequence." This with the added factor of drink. There, the police were reported as emptying and removing beer bottles and generally trying to allow people to enjoy themselves without harming others. In 2007, some 300 people were arrested after a Grey Cup match here in Toronto. And in those cases there is no redeeming social agenda, other than boys just wanting to have fun.

As a Black person, rioting white people, particularly males, conjures images of lynch mobs, and helmeted white police in full riot gear remind me of how African-Americans were attacked in the streets by police using water cannon and attack dogs. I would certainly prefer to know who this group is that is now labelled as the Black Bloc. What is their agenda, what their aim? Are they being elevated by the media to a stature beyond what they actually are? But the acts of vandalism and violence against property, carried out by whomever, should give us pause and encourage us to think about violence and how much violence we are prepared to tolerate and live with. It is what Frantz Fanon calls the "peaceful violence that the world is steeped in...."

The response to these acts has been to deplore violence out of hand -- after all peace, order and good government is the foundation of this country. Our mayor raced to suggest that it was all outsiders who were to blame for the destruction, and I am reminded of how the Canadian sprinter, Ben Johnson, was disavowed and became Jamaican as his steroid use was revealed. As if violence and the propensity to violence exists elsewhere and we in Toronto are somehow immune from it. This country has carried out unspeakable acts of violence against its first nations peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee notwithstanding. That violence continues today in many, many ways, not least of which can be seen in the disproportionate numbers of first nations women who go missing and are believed murdered, and in the breakup of first Nnations families by the removal of their children.

There is the daily violence with which communities of colour are policed here in Toronto and Canada-wide. There is the violence wreaked on low-income families in this very city when their dietary allowances are cut. And whenever some big attraction rolls into town, whether it be the Vancouver Olympics or the Toronto G20 conference, it is perfectly acceptable to move the homeless, the poor, the downtrodden out and away. This, too, is violence, perpetrated against people, not property, but very few people complain about it. And when, through the actions of speculators, bankers and investment houses, thousands lose their homes or their jobs because someone somewhere thought it was oh-so-clever to develop some new way of bundling and selling mortages, that too is violence.

Much has been made of Mom and Pop stores that have been damaged this weekend past in Toronto, but many of those very type of stores have had to close -- several in my neighbourhood -- because of the havoc and violent upheaval wreaked by a financial system untrammelled by regulation. A financial system that those selfsame powers -- the G8 group -- turned a blind eye to and then bailed out with taxpayers' money. Not to mention the enormous violence, with fatal consequences for species, if not life itself, that corporations are allowed to unleash on the world under the guise of projects like the tar sands, off shore drilling, or logging. And many, many of those who smugly decry the violence of the Black Bloc, or whoever it was, this weekend that vandalized property, which on a scale of things was minor, live comfortably with these acts of violence and seldom if ever raise their voices in opposition.

Have we as a community of people ever demanded to know how many Iraqi were killed in the U.S.-led invasion. Do we know how many Pakistani civilians are being killed by drone aircraft or other acts of war? We are told whenever a Canadian soldier dies but never how many Afghanis. Do we even care to know? And, when we use our cell phones to take all those pictures as part of what the media now refer to as riot tourism, do we think of the internationally supported struggle taking place in Congo for minerals, not least of which is coltan so essential to the construction of cell phones. When our children play violent war games on Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo, do we think of the real war raging in Congo that results in many violent deaths -- real deaths -- not to mention the rape of Congolese women. Even as I write there are some eight to 10 Canadian mining companies operating in Congo. This is the "peaceful violence" we all live with.

I have felt for a while that the entire exercise of holding the G20 in downtown Toronto was a dress rehearsal of sorts. Perhaps I have watched too many MI 5 shows, but what I saw on Saturday -- such a massive display of police force as to be a provocation, even an incitement to respond to or challenge them -- along with the subterfuge in passing the regulation granting police special powers during a time that was not a declared state of emergency, has made me think that my initial feelings were not misplaced. Add to that the way in which the Harper government has attempted to do end runs around long-established democratic practices such as proroguing Parliament, and has attempted to avoid transparency and public accountability, and I would say that this country is headed down the road towards a scenario I even hesitate to name.

There is talk that the messages of the demonstrators were drowned out by the violence, but in the week of demonstrations and meetings leading up to the G20, the media paid scant attention to the issues raised by these groups, and had the violence not occurred there would have been no greater coverage of the issues and demands that these groups care so passionately about.

I, for one, am guardedly hopeful about the future of the world and, therefore, the future of my five-year-old grandson because of what I saw on Saturday: young people who care passionately enough about this world to take to the streets with their messages of hope and struggle. Maybe he will learn the lesson of speaking truth to power which is what the demonstration was all about. "Whose streets?" the young Asian woman on the megaphone calls out, "Our streets," we yell back. These are our streets. This is our city and, therefore, our home. We should never have been held hostage in it by police forces that presented themselves as an invading army. Nothing, not even Stephen Harper's dislike of Toronto, warranted that.

M. NourbeSe Philip is an award-winning poet, essayist, novelist and playwright who lives in the space-time of the City of Toronto. She practised law in the City of Toronto for seven years before leaving to write full time. She has published four books of poetry, one novel and three collections of essays.


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