Thursday, July 8, 2010

G20 Blog: Tracy's Experience

This is What Harper’s Canada Looks Like

One word describes the 2010 G20. Ridiculous.

I was in the big march on June 26th, and was on the streets for 9-hours. Once home, at around 8:30pm I watched news coverage of stand-offs I was at, and the media made them seem heated and frightening, when the reality was very different. Most of the police lines were boring – for both sides. Each waiting to see what would happen next. Often nothing did.

The most fear I felt was when I was up at Queen’s Park. The police charged the protesters three times in the hour I was there, and each time retreated again. I didn’t see anyone throwing anything at them, but certain individuals were yelling at them. The feeling amongst us was that the police were waiting until enough of the crowd had dissipated so they could easily arrest and gather everyone up. The feeling something bad was going to happen was immanent, which is why we left about an hour before the massive arrest of 70 people began.

On the way home, I stumbled upon my absolute favourite direct action out of the entire experience. Someone had placed grass and plants in the middle of Adelaide that spelled out NO G20. It was a grassy oasis in a sea of concrete and it was beautiful and simple and inspiring. Everyone that passed by was drawn to it. This is the sort of direct action I’d like to see more of. Then, half a block away at Bay and Adelaide I noticed a group of people, and three or four rows of police blocking Bay Street. I wandered over; the crowd mood was jovial. I talked with several people in the crowd about our experiences from the day. It seemed many were simply onlookers, trying to get photos of the extreme police presence. After about 20 minutes, a clearly mentally disturbed man started pacing in front of the police yelling non-sense from what I could hear. This caused a surge of media and onlookers to gather closer and take photos. This went on for 5-10 minutes, and then suddenly the police grabbed the man and rushed him behind the police line. The news coverage showing this incident was misleading.

I continued home, and made the conscious decision to leave on the silk-screened Council of Canadians fabric squares I had on my leg and backpack. As I walked by a gaggle of police between Lakeshore and Harbour, an older officer noted the patch on my leg and took out his notepad and pencil. I found this amusing. I’d been careful all week to dress in a way that would not look like ‘protester’ wear (which it seems, means nothing alternative) since I live and work on the borders of the security zone. I walked home from the Imperial Pub on Friday night in a dress and heels and lost count of how many cops I passed, and they barely noticed me. But a Council of Canadians patch on my leg was apparently note worthy.

I truly felt like we were living in a police state. I needed to get groceries on the 27th and put serious consideration into what I should wear, and what bags to take (choose the canvas bags over my backpack) so that I wouldn’t draw attention of the police along Queen’s Quay. I internally questioned my paranoia. On my way home, I saw four officers searching a young man’s backpack and questioning him. Hmmm…

And then the Queen and Spadina incident happened on Sunday night. Who exactly was responsible for this debacle? And with egg on their face, the police state ‘intelligence’ of a criminal element in the crowd. Is this good enough? This doesn’t explain why members of the media were also arrested. This also highlights the problem of police trying to clump activists, protesters, anarchists and terrorists together. We are not the same.

Activist (def) – an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, especially a political cause.

Protest (def) – an expression or declaration of objection, disapproval or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid.

Anarchist (def) – a person who seeks to overturn by violence all constituted forms and institutions of society and government, with no purpose of establishing any other system of order in the place of that destroyed.

Terrorist (def) – a person who terrorizes or frightens others.

Terrorism (def) – the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.

After living through the build-up to the G20, the massive gates and police I had to pass by everyday on my way to and from work, the People’s Summit, Week of Action, and then the actual G20 weekend, I have the following observations and thoughts:

- The People’s Summit was amazing, and the many activist groups in Toronto should try to hold one every single year. It would be great for the many organizations and individuals to get to know each other and work more effectively together, and this would allow the solidarity and connections to be rekindled each year.

- The media deserves a failing grade. They chose to endlessly replay burning police cars and the few who broke windows instead of covering why 10,000 people were out marching and protesting. CP24 even had the gall to cut off Harper’s speech on the 27th to let their viewers know that protesters were moving towards their location, as if this was more relevant then what the Prime Minister of Canada had to say. Whether you like Harper or not, what he had to say was certainly more news worthy.

- Michael with the Toronto Chapter suggested to me that the June 26th March could have being covered like the Santa Claus parade; highlighting the different organizations and the messages they were trying to bring awareness to. Perhaps the alternative media can look into this for the next big march that we have in Canada. This type of coverage would be refreshing and much more informative then what the traditional news gave us.

- The 77 cameras that were put up in downtown Toronto to allow for massive surveillance of the public need to be removed, and the citizens of Toronto should call for their sale. Do we really need to hold on to them? The existing cameras (pre-G20) were put up as an experiment and have not proven their cost is worth tax payers dollars. They give a false sense of security where none exists. Studies have shown it is ineffective in preventing crime (look at the UK which has 4 million cameras), and money would be better spent hiring more police officers.

- It has been suggested the protesters imagine what it is like to be a cop on the front line. I agree, they should. But I also think the police should imagine what it is like to be a protester, sitting on the ground and singing songs, before being stampeded and beaten and arrested without warning, thrown into a detention centre that was dehumanizing, being watched and sneered at as they are forced to go to the bathroom with zip-tied wrists and without toilet paper, and called ‘rats in cages’ and ‘dogs in kennels’. And then they should imagine their grandmothers, mothers, wives and daughters in the same situation.

- To the people who feel that all protesters deserved to be thrown in jail for disrupting their city, I’d like to remind them that it was our government that chose the G20 location. And then, I’d like to ask where they think we would be as a society and country without the work of activists that have lived and died before us. Without citizens fighting for their rights, we would still have slavery, women would be considered second class citizens and not have the right to vote, gay marriage would not be possible anywhere, and workers would be forced to labour in unsafe working conditions with no recourse. Canadians need to start appreciating the true value of the people who are willing to actively participate in the way their city grows and changes. Without people fighting for us all, we will be left with a dire future. Clean water to drink, cook and wash with is not a guarantee. We’ll be forced to pay enormous prices to corporations for the dirty water they have cleaned for us. We will not be able to breathe the air, because it will be so polluted. And we will not be able to grow our own food since companies like Monsanto would like to see all edible plants genetically modified to commit suicide after one growing season, making us all prisoners to their seeds. Is this the future we want? It isn’t necessary that everyone become an activist for changes to be made, but those who don’t want to be an activist themselves need to support those who are – especially those who are fighting for basic human rights for all – access to clean water, air, land and food.

- The public needs to demand people lose their jobs over this G20. The elected federal official(s) who decided to hold it in downtown Toronto should be fired. Any elected provincial officials who were involved in selecting the financial district of Toronto - fired. Miller for not protecting Toronto by enforcing, “not in my city” should be fired if he weren’t already leaving. Police Chief Blair and OPP Commissioner Fantino for not saying, “no, it will be a logistical nightmare” should be fired. At some point, someone should have had the common sense to suggest a more isolated location. Like the Alberta Tar Sands – perhaps a lovely yacht on one of the tailings ponds. A cruise liner in the ocean. The far north. Somewhere other than in the hub of the financial district in downtown Toronto, surrounded by condo buildings and theatres and sports arenas. What were they thinking? Was anyone thinking?

- This leads into my next observation. It really seems impossible that the police weren’t hoping for trouble with the way things have being handled. Eye witness accounts of a police car being driven into the middle of a crowd, the window purposefully opened, and the police officer getting out and walking away. Really? People setting this car on fire, and jumping on it for five minutes with riot police watching and doing nothing. Really? Protesters sitting on the ground and singing ‘Oh Canada’ at the detention centre protest, arrested instead. Really? People waiting for their streetcar on that infamous Sunday night, being held for hours in the cold and pouring rain because there was a ‘criminal element’ in the crowd, only to be released shortly after being corralled onto six TTC buses for the detention centre. Really? And what about the criminal element amongst them? Suddenly not so criminal with the public outcry ringing in Blair’s ears?

- Inquiries into specific police actions need to happen if democracy still exists in Canada. Overall, I think the various police agencies did a fine job. The front line men and women didn’t have it easy. But those with decision making power made bad choices in many instances, and have quite possibly created a large group of activists who were innocently caught up in the arrests and beatings. And yes, you can be a protester and still innocent. Simply being involved in a protest or march or sit-in, shouldn’t give the police the ability to detain, search, beat and humiliate you. Protesting isn’t illegal. The detention Center attacks on peaceful protestors where undercover officers jumped out of vans and started grabbing people and hitting them with their batons, even those who lied down and put their hands up needs to be investigated. The handling of people within the detention centre needs to be investigated (very little food, water, and toilet paper, no tampons for the women, and no privacy for those who put up any amount of a fight when they were arrested when they had to use the toilet with zip-ties around their wrists – in some cases very young girls), needs to be investigated. And those working at the detention centre who released innocent people by telling them not to protest ever again, need to be reprimanded. Did they think treating people horribly would make them fear protesting and possible arrest? Because they got it wrong – the people who have been mistreated (those previously uninterested in politics or human rights or police misconduct) are suddenly very angry and very interested. I’m curious to see how this backlash unfolds.

- We need to have more large scale, peaceful protests and marches in Toronto and Canada. It seems far too many Canadians view protests and marches as bad and disruptive and in my view that means the education system and our culture together have failed to raise a society of active citizens who understand the value of how democracy is achieved.

The G20 ended as it began. With protesters voices unheard by the politicians, media or public; with the media covering only the most sensationalistic stories and then repeating those while ignoring other coverage (like why people were protesting); and with the political leaders far removed from the reality of ordinary citizens.

Whose Canada? It seems the police state created in downtown Toronto is Harper’s Canada. But this certainly wasn’t my Canada.