It’s been three months since the Toronto G20 upended this city’s downtown core, and October has produced a promising crop of critical and artistic reactions to the summit. Local documentarian Adam Letalik released his new film Toronto G20 Exposed to a packed room at Ryerson University October 6th. The Hindsight’s G20/20 multimedia art retrospective of the summit was exhibited this past weekend at Studio 561. And on October the 20th, Steve Paikin is scheduled to interview TPS Chief Bill Blair on TVO’s The Agenda.
Yet while memories of June’s G20 summit may still be fresh to political pros, activists, and residents of Toronto’s metro core, for many Canadians this memory is already fading, becoming history. The leader’s big top is dismantled, the circus long since latched on to its next international host. And why not? For those that caught the weekend’s news at home, the coverage in the aggregate presented a simple morality play of clashes between black-garbed ‘anarchists’ and police, leading inevitably to the rain-drenched roundup of hundreds of protesters, passerby and media on Sunday evening. And maybe this is explanation enough. Maybe the largest mass arrest in Canadian history was a regrettable yet unavoidable business in a nation that prides itself on Peace, Order, and Good Government.
The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves
The only problem with this mythology is that it has little to do with the experience of the people who were on the ground that weekend – their accounts paint a strikingly different picture. One visual symbol of this disconnect is suggested by the handbill for the Hindsight G20/20 show, on which a young man poses for the lens in (ironic?) jacket and tie, rumpled and smudged from the weekend’s encounters, holding a sign that reads: “Everything is O.K.”
Everything is not O.K. In one striking interview in Toronto G20 Exposed, a young man describes how, leaving a Jays game a few days before the summit, he’d unwittingly wished RCMP officers at a traffic checkpoint “good luck with Saturday” only to find his cab surrounded and his ass dragged off to a jail-cell strip search, beating, and interrogation. TTC worker Elroy Yau was in full uniform when he was jumped on his way to work along College St, accused of resisting arrest and being in possession of a weapon (his tiny transfer punch) before being held for 30 hours. He’s been on disability since. Then there’s the guy protesting in his wheelchair that had his artificial leg physically removed as being a ‘potential weapon’, was kicked and accused of resisting arrest before being sent to detention. Others, searched arbitrarily or violently taken down for such major transgressions as being in a park or wearing something black describe a frigid Eastern Avenue gulag with inmates penned 40 to a cell and forced to rattle the cage for a glass of water twice daily. Take a tour here.
These stories are legion, and they illustrate a disturbing corrosion of civil rights. In response to the epidemic of arbitrary and preemptive searches and arrests that occurred throughout the city, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association released a report entitled “Breach of the Peace” on June 29th. Based on the evidence returned by over fifty observers they’d deployed to the field, the report described police conduct as being “at times disproportionate, arbitrary, and excessive.”
Why did it have to be like this? Clearly, this is not the impression the vast majority of Toronto’s residents have of their peace officers at any level of government. Both before and after the summit, we expect the OPP, RCMP, and municipal forces province-wide to help us when we wreck on the roads, to protect us from predators, to investigate fraud and corruption. We expect them to respect and uphold our Charter rights and Canadian common law in the performance of their duties. And for the most part, they deliver. All organizations might be expected to have some number of bad apples. But these stories from the summit are jarring, they seem surreal precisely because they flout our expectations so thoroughly. Do our political rights now not apply everywhere and at all times? Can they now be arbitrarily suspended? If so, can it really be said that they exist in any substantive, real way? And what was Officer Bubble’s problem, anyways?
One of the most iconic pieces of video from the G20 shows a small band of protesters sitting down near Queen and Spadina, singing Oh Canada, and rewarded for the gesture with an aggressive charge from Toronto’s (or Barrie’s, or Durham’s) finest. This plows through the small demonstration like a knife through butter. In the end, one must ask: what was the point? For over a week, Toronto had a Wall of its own in the full Roger Waters sense of psychological and physical isolation, the ring of expanded steel slicing through the city a potent symbol of social division and hierarchy. Was anything accomplished on either side of this fence? Was the breezy expenditure of 1.2 billion dollars on security by a government that cries poor on services really good value for taxpayers? In the end, why do people from all walks of life protest the G20? What was this meeting of world leaders, international banks and finance ministers really all about?