2 Jul 2010

My View From The Fence

It's my most ginormous post ever!

Yesterday (Canada Day) I took a little walk in my neighbourhood. The park next to our home was cordoned off with police tape as, sadly, the body of a man was found there earlier that morning.

There's a police officer near the park's entrance who has attracted the attention of a group of people in their late twenties.

Uh oh, I think, and strain to hear the conversation as I get closer. The events of the past weekend have created a bit of tension, to say the least, between the people and the police.

"... well, I was on Queen Street," says one of the guys, "and I definitely wasn't there to cause any trouble. It still got all hairy for me."

The police officer says, "Yeah, well, you and me both."

The guy then stretches his hand out. The police officer hesitates for a second and then shakes it.

"Keep your head up," says the man. "The G20 sucked, but we're still ultimately on the same side. Remember that, eh?"

"Thank you," said the officer. "Same to you."

They smile at each other and the guy and his friends walk off.

It's a start to this city repairing itself.

If we could, I think everyone would like to hit a big rewind button and go back to when the good guys were clearly the good guys and the lines between right and wrong didn't seem so muddied. And I think if all of us had the choice, we'd opt to do things differently.

As I've told friends who have very firm opinions on certain topics, I'm really not a black-and-white person. I see things in all sorts of grey shades. I easily feel empathy toward others. When things like the G20 come to town and there's such a mix of experiences, points of view and facts - it gets hard to choose a side, or in the very least, not feel bad for everyone involved. And that's why, as my blog post title suggests - I'm on the fence about a lot of what happened.

Within this post, I won't be debating whether the G20 is a good thing or a bad thing in itself. Nor will I bother to explain what I saw on TV, as you all saw the same thing. I'm just going to lay out a few things as I see them while also sharing my own personal experiences from the weekend. I'm someone who didn't go into the security zone or attend the main protests - and yet I still experienced several sides of this story.

...

So, some genius decided to hold the G20 in downtown Toronto - an area that is both well populated and the financial centre of the country. This decision was dumped onto our mayor, our police chief, our business owners and our residents.

Historically, the G20 attracts a lot of attention and creates a totally different dynamic for the host city (and I'm not just referring to the huge fence that got erected). Protesters (with a great variety of causes and relevancy to the G20), wannabe protesters (people who join in but don't really have a cause or great idea about what the G20 is), G20 delegates and their entourage, gawkers and photographers, media (both mainstream and alternative), international groups and a huge multi-city police force all converge on the city, each with their own agenda and job to do. And let's not forget all the other people here with nothing to do with the G20 (store owners, people working in the core, residents and tourists).

On Saturday, all was seemingly peaceful until some cowards decided to make trouble. We all saw that on TV. I had decided to stay home and watch CP24 coverage rather than going in person. I live downtown, just outside of the security zone and genuinely felt I would be unaffected by everything. Well, I am an idiot.

As I'm watching a police car in flames on TV, I realize it's less than two blocks away. A number of police cars tear down my empty (but normally busy) main street. I look outside and see that some people have come out of their homes and stores and everyone is looking down the street in the direction of the burning cop car. I can't help myself. I grab my camera and mini video camera and decide to become a gawker.

Here's some video I took (it's crap, I know) of what I saw when I walked outside my condo's door. Some people are heading from the protest area (although none have signs), some are people in the neighbourhood. One guy has no idea what's going on and asks me what happened:



As you can see, the police cleared our area. The officer who spoke to me directly (at about 1:35 in the video) was exceptionally polite and professional. He stressed that it was for my own safety that I leave - this - despite the fact that I was dressed in head-to-toe black (hey, it's slimming! Plus, I had no idea anyone was going to be using black garb to hide in that day).

We go inside and head for our rooftop patio to get a safer view. I am convinced that the hooligans are heading our way and I'm freaking somewhat. I am all kinds of grateful to the police for their presence and I'm hoping they're going to be OK. A bunch of fellow condo dwellers also have the same idea and are lined up along the rooftop's wall, taking pictures and trying to get a better look. Here's a picture from our rooftop of a few police lines formed at Victoria and Yonge Streets:
Suddenly, before you know it, the police are moving elsewhere and our street is weirdly quiet again. I feel like a dork for being so freaked over it all.

Throughout the day, we watch TV and keep seeing the replays of the vandalism. People on Twitter are furious that this has happened. Protesters are angry that these idiots have taken away from their messages. The media is delightfully screeching the day's events.

Later in the afternoon, a set of police paddy wagons sit outside our home, waiting to be called into action:
Patrick and I eventually decide we want to go outside. We've been cooped in all day, are disinterested with what's in the fridge and decide to take a stroll and find out if anything is open. We walk past the police in front of our place and decide to take a look closer at the area where the cop car was burned to see if there's any evidence of the melee left.

We can't get all the way to Bay Street as there is a line of police officers in helmets blocking the way. A small crowd of gawkers (us included) are standing about in the middle of the road, taking pictures of them. Every so often, the line of police walk forward, yelling "MOVE!" The crowd backs up, but no one is particularly intimidated. In fact, as the police yell "MOVE!" and "KEEP THE LINE!" the crowd gently mocks them, imitating the order.



People stand a short distance away from the police, taking pictures of themselves in front of the line-up. I get one of Patrick. The crowd is in a rather jovial mood. Some of the officers are amused by this and try not to crack too much of a smile, others are irritated by the fact they've become a tourist attraction.

The line eventually stands its ground at Yonge Street and Patrick and I decide we've seen enough, so we head south and then east to see what restaurants are open. It turns out most things are open east of Yonge, and we decided on the Hot House Cafe on Front Street. We get a seat on the patio. It's busy, but not super busy. I'd say the patio is about 75% full. The crowd is a bit older, but still a good mix of people. There's a security guard on his break (he tells a nearby table he got to meet President Obama earlier in the day), tourists, locals, a group celebrating a birthday, everybody.

While we're eating, a TTC bus marked "special" rolls up to the stop light. It is filled with police officers. From my seat, I take a picture of it, much to amusement of some of the officers on the bus. I wave and they wave back. The table next to us laughs and strikes up a conversation about the police presence in the city. We all agree that it's "crazy" and we're eager for the city to get back to normal.

More police-filled buses roll by. It becomes a game for the people on the patio to wave at the officers and see if or how many of them wave back. Eight police buses eventually drive through. Every bus has officers who wave back - some of whom are more smiley and enthusiastic than others. One officer pretends he is trying to claw his way out of the bus - and that gets a huge laugh from the patio. Another officer indicates he wants a drink. When we raised our glasses to him, a bunch of the officers on that bus cheer and mime that we should bring the drinks to them, all with goofy grins on their faces. On another bus, one of the policemen responds to our waves by dramatically blowing kisses to the patio and doing the "Queen wave", as if he were a homecoming princess in a parade. It is hilarious and unexpected and has the whole patio laughing and smiling and waving at the officers.

Part way through dinner, sirens draw close and a motorcade led by police motorcycles makes its way through the intersection. Someone at another table excitedly asks out loud, "Is it Obama?!"

As it turns out, the motorcade is for a paddy wagon going to the detention centre. The entire patio erupts in applause. Table to table, people talk about how "horrible" those vandals were and how they hope the police were coming down on them hard.

Meal complete, we decide to walk home, but in true gawker fashion, decide to go up Yonge instead (a slight, minor detour) to see if the police lineup is still there. As we walk up Yonge toward King, it starts raining and it instantly becomes dark. Out of nowhere, police vehicles are racing around, minivans filled with cops in riot gear unload all around us.

Some young guys walk by and suggest that we should to turn back. I say, "but I live up there!" and he says, "so do I, but no one's allowed to get north of King." Since we didn't technically have to get north of King - just to King - we keep walking. As we get to the intersection, we see a massive crowd of protesters on Adelaide, heading west. It was a giant mob of fast-moving, chanting, drumming people. Their chants are loud, even angry. I can't tell if they were 'good' or 'bad' protesters - but the sight of them all (which I later found out to be about 2,000 people) and their chorus of yells startles me.

The riot police are spilling out of moving vans everywhere and they're putting gas masks on. It's a flurry of helmets and shields and rain. Everywhere officers are yelling and checking their equipment. I try to take some pictures while I'm walking (idiot, I know), but they're all super blurry as I'm more interested in getting out of there than capturing a Kodak moment. Patrick is tugging at my arm to hurry up.

I wonder if the people we're passing are the same officers we were smiling and waving at earlier. I feel like saying something to them - like "thank you" or "keep up the good work" - but even with two tasty pints of Grasshopper in me, I can't find the courage. The police are all in the 'zone', suiting up for what feels like a battle and I feel like the best thing I can do is just get out of their way.

As we get to our condo, another van of officers piles out in front of us. I finally croak out to one of them, "Stay safe."

He glances up at me for a second and says with a tired voice, "We'll try to do that. Thank you, ma'am."

We get home and watch from our window as the mounted unit rides by and more police head west. A small police blockade is set up at Church Street, cutting off everything in front of our place. The streets are wet and the police lights are reflecting off them into every direction.

Only a few minutes pass and our street returns to quiet again, the biggest sound coming from the pounding rain. There is no sight of the officers who had just taken over the street.

For the second time that day, I feel stupid for feeling so panicky.

Late that night, we hear loud cursing. Like drama vultures, we swoop to the window and press our faces toward the noise. Down the street at King and Church, a man is screaming at the top of his lungs. He is so filled with rage that his body contorts with nearly every syllable. The best way I can describe it is to imagine Elaine from Seinfeld dancing - but to a rant. The angry man stands next to two police officers who are in normal police uniform.

"HOW FUCKING DARE YOU?! I'M A FUCKING PEACEFUL PROTESTER! I HAVEN'T DONE ANYTHING, I SHOULD BE ABLE TO GO WHERE I WANT, YOU FUCKING SACK OF SHIT!!!! EVER HEAR OF RIGHTS? I'M FUCKING PEACEFUL!!!"

To which we hear, "SIR! MOVE! THIS IS YOUR WARNING. YOU NEED TO GO - BUT GO NOW."

We watch the man turn off around the corner, heading north away from the police at the intersection. I think I can hear the sound of a newspaper box getting kicked.

Patrick and I stare at each other for a second, each making a 'WTF face'.

"That didn't sound super peaceful to me," I said.

"No shit," said Patrick, "that was a major exercise in police restraint if I ever saw one."

Our opinion of the police, at that point, is sky high. They saved our little stretch of the road from the crazies. They were courteous and friendly with us. They waved at us. They had a sense of humour. They didn't take Angry McGee down Rodney King-style, and in fact, let him go "in peace."

We are, however, completely ignorant to the arrests and protester break-up that occurred in the Free Speech Zone at Queen's Park earlier that day and the mass arrest of those sitting-in on the Esplanade (around the corner from us) at that moment.

We wake up the next morning, take care of a few things and then turn on the TV and my Twitter feed. It's like the city has been flipped on its head. Hundreds of arrests, a raid at U of T, and what looks to be a peaceful protest at the detention centre gets aggressively broken up. Reports and rumours are coming in of journalists getting hit and arrested by police, a friend on Facebook talks about getting a gun pointed at her face in Queen's Park, another talks about being detained in Union Station by police and not being able to join the protest. Many of these stories are coming from people I know, people who are not liars. More are coming in from those I don't know - from people making allegations of police brutality and rampant, unwarranted arrests and searches.

A friend sends me a message on Twitter saying that another protest is being organized across the street from me. I think "Oh, crap." It turns out to be a "nonviolent prayer vigil" organized by the Student Christian Movement. I figure that's safe enough to go outside and check out.

There's maybe 50 people standing on the lawn of the St. James Church. The signs are of poverty issues and some about freedom in the city (people upset about the fence and how the G20 has taken over everything). Someone is dressed up as a cob of corn - why, I have no idea. A young couple have brought their baby, but everyone else appears to be an adult of all ages. There are two police officers on the lawn as well, standing next to the organizer. She gets on a megaphone and explains to the protesters that they are there peacefully, that they will march to the fence (or as close as they can get) and will follow police instruction. She tells people not to wear any masks or bandanas. She stresses to keep things peaceful and to follow police instruction. By the time they're ready to get going, the crowd has grown to about 75 people. A minivan of police lead the group down King with a line of officers walking along side the marchers. They head west. It is very calm. Patrick and I don't bother to follow them. We are gawk'd out.

At home, we learn that their march has stopped at King and Bay and officers aren't letting them go any further. They've sat down and are mainly singing songs, clapping and chanting. More people have joined them.

We later find out that after a sit-in, police have directed them north. Some people involved in an earlier bicycle protest have joined them (the rest are at the detention centre, participating in a sit-in that is again growing tense). The group eventually ends up on Queen and heads west. Some people from the original prayer vigil have left, but more people have joined in.

This area eventually becomes the site for the now infamous Queen-Spadina "show down" where the police use the kettling technique for all the city to see. It seems bizarre and insane that so many people are being treated like criminals and forced to stand out in the pouring rain as they're being arrested one by one, for what charge, we can't understand. I wonder how it seemed to be more of a matter of luck that Patrick and I hadn't been caught up in a scene like that. After all, we were no better and no worse than the people trapped at Queen and Spadina and had been out and about - even at times looking to see what was going on - just the night before.

People are crapping themselves on Twitter (myself included), our parents call us to make sure we're alright, people are phoning in to CP24 to give a range of opinions. My feelings on the police are radically different than how I felt about them the day before and I have trouble matching my own experiences with what others have expressed and with what I'm seeing on TV.

Later we learn that over 900 people have been arrested and that most are claiming to be peaceful protesters and bystanders. People are talking about the conditions in the detention centres and how unlawful and unfair it all seems.

....

For the last few days, I've been seeing and hearing a lot of opinions, some I agree with, some I understand but see a different side to, and some I disagree with entirely. Here are some popular ones, and how I feel about them:

"The city was out of control!"
It certainly appeared that way on TV, but many of my friends who were actually there insist the mayhem was overplayed. They, themselves, barely saw any of it. There were 25,000 protesters on the big day and roughly 100 - 200 people using Black Bloc techniques (and among them, according to some people in the crowd, only about 20 were "super aggressive").

"We were a peaceful crowd."
I believe this, for the most part, but I also think some people have a weird idea of what 'peace' is. I've seen a lot of videos of people taunting the police (even before the Black Bloc crap), saying things to them like:

"Are you normally an asshole, or are you just paid to be one?"
"Did you know that you're a banker's dog?"
"Go fuck yourself, pig!"
"Oh, sure, you're so tough with all your riot gear on, but I don't think you'd be so tough if I met you in an alley!"
"Can't you think for yourself, you fucking robot? You're a fucking paid goon!"
"I'm paying your salary, so how about you get out of my way?"

If we ever talked to someone like that in a bar, we could probably expect to be punched in the face.

I later saw someone being interviewed by the media after he was let out of the detention centre. While rolling his eyes he explained that he was being charged with carrying concealed weapons. Dripping with sarcasm, he says (and I'm paraphrasing) "Yeah, these are the weapons I had on me. They're baggies with flour and paint. I figured that if the police used teargas on me, I could throw these at them to retaliate. A little paint on their uniforms! So what? It'll wash off in the rain."

I watch that and I think this guy should thank his lucky stars to be arrested. Imagine his plan had actually come to fruition: Do you think the police are going to stand there as some strange objects are being hurled at them? You think they're going to - in the midst of a screaming crowd and teargas - stop, investigate what's on them, maybe go to the lab to see what it is - and then decide how to respond? For all they know, you've just tossed chemicals at them. Their response would be to take you down - HARD. And I wouldn't blame them. You might as well be pointing a toy gun at them while you're at it, moron.

"You should have all stayed home. You were asking for trouble by being there."
Sorry, but I think this is bull. I do think people shouldn't act dumb about why they're out (if they're not true protesters) and should acknowledge that if they're walking into an area that's filled with cops that you have to take certain responsibilities for your actions, but it's a living-breathing city. As I illustrated from an account of my days, protesters and police seemed to come out of nowhere in areas outside the security zone. No one should have to act like the city is being held hostage just because some idiots broke some windows. Some of the people who got tackled and hauled off to the detention centre included TTC employees with full uniform (who were on the job), waiters getting off work, restaurant patrons, journalists doing their job, shop owners looking to protect their stores from vandals ... and so on. Their arrests seem like total, crazy overkill and an overreaction to the previous day's craziness.

Additionally, I think protesters had every right to protest. No one won the right to vote, the right to choose, the right for equality, etc. by staying home and shutting up. The majority of people cooperated with the set protest "rules" with police and yet were still stripped of their rights to protest and assemble, seemingly without warning. Utter and total crap.

"If you don't listen to the police to leave, you deserve what you get."
I'm all for complying with the police - but according to many people in the locations, they were never given the warning to leave. I've watched many G20 protest videos, and I haven't heard ones were the police were on their big megaphones giving clear instruction. They need to do this in order to get people to comply. They need to explain in a clear and consistent way why a legal protest is getting disrupted by the police.

Furthermore, in the videos where you do hear individual officers telling people to leave or go home, there's no way for people to do that. They're being boxed in at every direction with no way out. People who are politely (at first, more angrily later) asking for a way out aren't given that option or information. You can see some of that (and get a sense of a) some shit talk police have to listen to and b) how scary it must have been to be boxed in like that) in this video.

"This is all a set-up by the police."
When I was watching TV and the image of the little snot punks breaking windows and burning cop cars filled my screen, I was just waiting - with a touch of blood lust, I'll admit - to see an image of the cops swooping in on them, batons swinging. And then it didn't happen. With all that I saw (hundreds, thousands of officers) and all the spending and planning that I knew went into the weekend, it was confusing to see a lack of police action and presence when things were running amok.

People then started to theorize that police "allowed" the thuggery to occur and / or that the police in fact helped to instigate these crimes via "agents provocateur"so that they'd be given a carte blanche to crack down on the city and hippie citizens hard later and / or so that people would stop bitching about the $1.3 Billion event price tag.

Unless someone has information otherwise, I'm not under the impression that the police officers are getting paid based on who or how many people they detain and arrest. I don't think there's any "bonus pay" out there for the police force on this. I have a certain amount of faith (maybe ill-placed, but I guess that's my own failings, in that case), that the police chief and command officers don't have secret deals with the Prime Minister to make him look good. From some of the reporting done, there was confusion on the ground, everyone was speaking over each other on the radio and these criminals took advantage of that.

If facts arise that say otherwise, I'll be the first person to change her opinion. And the only silver lining if that IS the case? It tells these little Black Bloc "anarchists" that they're just predictable pawns used by the authorities they claim to be against. Chumps!

"I was tortured by the police." / "The cops are neo-Nazi fascists."
I don't doubt that some people were treated poorly, even possibly illegally, by certain officers - and that needs to be dealt with in the firmest manner possible. That said, I don't deal well with people who swing around heavy, heavy words and apply them willy-nilly. Tortured? We live in a world where people are trying to deny that water-boarding is torture. I don't think sitting in a cold, cramped cell (while totally shitty) quite compares. And Nazis? I hate that one. Nazis murdered millions of people. You reduce the severity and the horror and atrocities that were actually committed by Nazis by thinking every person who offends should also be labeled as such.

"The place was a war zone." / "The city was infiltrated by terrorists."
The same goes for above. Let's not get all dramatic with our language. It wasn't a war zone. It was downtown Toronto and it featured a small riot. And last I checked, terrorists murder as many people as possible in the name of a cause or a group. People who stand for nothing and break windows are just little pathetic pukejobs. Big difference.

"The people complaining are just pussies. We're pampered here. In other countries, they'd be murdered for their protest actions."
Personally, while I feel lucky to live in this country, I don't think we have "pampered" rights. I think our rights set the bar for others. Our rights are BASIC. Rather than view ourselves as privileged, we should view those who don't have similar rights as exceptionally unfortunate - not as more "hardy" than us when it comes to civil liberties. I think we should never be complacent about what we have, and that these rights (to assemble, to free speech, to a free media, to only be arrested with charge, to an attorney, to have our laws spelled out for us, etc.) should be protected and fought for.

I also think that the experience many people had in the detention centres were far from pleasant and something most people would complain about if it happened to them. I found this person's account of his evening and arrest to be quite enlightening (although, to be clear, I don't know him. Take it with a grain of salt if you must. It's really just his word at this point.).

"Let these people go!"
All of them? Because, quite frankly, I don't think the criminals should be let out - and let's make no mistake - the police caught people who were seriously breaking the law and / or had intent to.

"The police were within the law to do what they did."
I think this is up to lawyers to decide - and only once they have all the information (which they don't) - can they do that. However, our confusion as to what is legal illustrates how blurry the difference is between our laws and rights (the Charter of Rights and the Criminal Code have a few things that seem to disagree with each other) and how uninformed we are about the law in general. It sounds as though, in general, much of the police action was performed legally (even if it was a bit of a stretch of the code) but that there likely were instances where peoples' rights were not adhered to. Regardless of what us armchair lawyers say, it's absolutely necessary that complaints are dealt with seriously ... and perhaps another look at the law is needed to spell things out more clearly and firmly.

"There should be a public inquiry."
Let's do it. And not simply so that we can hang the police out to dry, but also so that they can finally release information on the other side of the story - the legitimate threats, their own videos of what happened on the line, and footage from within the detention centre. Everyone has been free to upload their videos, tell their stories, forward articles around - the police have not. They have one spokesperson who is standing by the decisions but has committed to look into any allegations. Like anyone else, I want bad cops exposed. But I also want good cops and police work applauded. If an inquiry can do both, I'm all for it.

"Police Chief Bill Blair needs to resign."
I'd rather get a full picture of the facts before demanding his head. While I know he's ultimately accountable for his police force, I must admit that I feel sort of bad for the guy. He didn't ask for the G20 to land on his front step. He had to deal with a huge job, using police officers he didn't know, and a situation that was changing every minute. The people booing at him outside The 519 sort of broke my heart, as I also remember all the strides he's made between the police and the gay community over the years (that, and I just hate when people boo each other. It's just a thing for me).

"This is all Harper's fault."
Yes, it is. Remember that when it's election time.

2 comments:

Karen,  10:01 pm, July 02, 2010  

Well said. I agree with every ramble :)

McD,  12:56 pm, July 03, 2010  

Thanks for sharing your own experiences. I think this is a very fair assessment of the issues the city is grappling with now.

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