On the Ground in Toronto

Posted July 7, 2010

The Group of 20 Nations Summit in Toronto was marked by incredible divisions within the summit and outside, amongst the demonstrators. Since there is ample analysis of what went on within the summit available to us all, I will try and briefly report back on my experience in the lead up to the large Saturday march, the march itself and immediately afterwards. I attended the march, which was also the largest of the week’s actions, with two comrades from the Middle Tennessee branch of Solidarity and another comrade from Ohio who served as a street medic during the mobilization.

When we arrived in Toronto on Friday it was just in time for a poorly attended spokescouncil meeting at a community center near the downtown area. Instead of a spokescouncil the meeting turned more or less into a briefing session for the 8-10 of us who had just arrived in town. There was discussion of varying degrees of police harassment of small groups of young people throughout the city over the past few weeks. Apparently youth who “fit the profile” of radicals had been harassed, detained, and in some cases even arrested for minor violations like jaywalking and absurd accusations (in one circumstance a young Canadian man was given a traffic ticket even though he was not in a car). We were told that there would be an attempt to lead a break-off from the march in order to reach the security perimeter the next day, and there were instructions on how to find this contingent.

The next day we walked to the march from the collective house we were staying in through some pretty nasty weather. In spite of the downpour, there seemed to be tens thousands gathered at the convergence point, Queen’s Park. Upon arriving we met up with one of the organizers who facilitated the spokescouncil meeting the night before, and she informed us that the break off march was cancelled. We later discovered this was because a large contingent that was supposed to provide the backbone of that march (including some from the black bloc) had been preemptively trapped on Spadina Street, a good distance from the convergence space.

After much confusion the march began; from my vantage point I had no way of knowing where the march began and ended, furthermore I had been told there were smaller feeder marches planning to join the larger action later on the route. I could tell from my previous experience at large immigrant rights and antiwar rallies -and the G20 in Pittsburgh- there were well over 10,000 present, however, beyond that I had no clue. There were many contingents from organizations I was unfamiliar with—as they were of course Canadian—but I was excited to see a variety of Marxist groups with extensive contingents of youth, including one group which apparently had some kind of relationship to the black bloc as they served as a rallying point for the bloc to march alongside- in addition to speaking out in defense of the bloc’s actions. They were also the group that lit a flare which most believe was a signal for the black bloc to break off from the main march.

Everyone knows the course of events that took place once the main march got close to the security fence: a group of 100 or so black bloc protestors moved rapidly down Queen and Bay streets, down 20 or more blocks, with no police harassment; contrary to attempts by riot police during the main march to trap the bloc on side streets. Once they had gained momentum away from the rest of the march the break-off protesters began smashing windows of multinational corporations (they did mindfully skip local businesses, something I had not seen in Pittsburgh) as well as smashing police cars. Only two of the four or so actually had police inside them, but the bloc let the police leave before dismantling and burning the vehicles, while some police cars were left unattended- to block off streets. As we marched there were sparse lines of riot cops blocking a few side streets; both perceived pre-emptive strikes to keep the unpermitted march somewhat contained.

After the fires were lit, several thousand more demonstrators broke off from the main march to approach two of the burning cars—presumably out of curiosity. Meanwhile, hundreds of riot police began pouring onto the side streets to push the people out of the area away from the security fence, and effectively trapping several hundred protestors in the intersection where two cop cars continued to burn. This time had been enough for thousands more to gather, chanting “Let Us Through!” as they surrounded the small number of riot police. I climbed on street lights and other objects to get a better vantage point, and so roughly I would say there were at least three or four thousand present. At one point, the riot police were even surrounded, they backed up, and there was a feeling among many of us that there might be some mass action to push to the fence. The crowd however seemed opposed in principle to any active confrontation with the noticeably restrained and nervous looking riot police. After several hours, our group of four retreated from the area to begin the long trek home, to find out the city had almost entirely been shut down- metro lines were stopped, buses weren’t running and many streets remained blocked off. We heard that the remnants of that area were swept by the riot police shortly thereafter.

What happened immediately after was what we had been expecting all day: the crackdown. Once a significant number of demonstrators were off the streets, the riot police began sweeping people in the dozens. In Queens Park, the designated assembly zone for a legal rally, the riot police assaulted people with batons, gas, and even rubber bullets. Several collective houses were raided across the city and a heavy police presence appeared outside the Toronto Community Mobilization Network Convergence Center. We got word that the evening’s events were cancelled and that all of the Mobilizaiton Network organizers had been arrested (the Toronto Star the next day would relay a message from the police force that they had in fact infiltrated the group). We stayed in our collective house that night, fearing to go outside as people would come in and out of the house with terrifying stories of events that had transpired in the darkness. There was extensive harassment of young people in general and supposedly there were areas of the city where searches were conducted at every block. During these searches (and later we found out in the detention center as well) there were numerous accounts of sexual harassment and assault by the police forces. I myself heard several stories, including one from an apolitical young lady who was searched near the downtown area and touched inappropriately by a police officer.

There were also reports that the police officers appeared to be on amphetamines by quite a few people over the course of the night. We stayed in touch with a large group from the Anticapitalist Convergence which was conducting some kind of sit-in at a hotel in the city: we stayed on the phone to an international student who feared deportation upon arrest for the better part of an hour as he described how the police negotiated the arrest of the group, but later stormed in with gas and batons to brutalize the group which had understood prior that it was going to jail and offered no resistance.

The next morning we had planned on going to the jail solidarity resistance but had to leave town for financial reasons. Upon leaving town we were told that the jail solidarity group had been infiltrated and brutalized by the police: 150 people sustained injuries from police brutality. By the end of the weekend nearly 900 had been arrested, many more detained, and quite a few innocent bystanders had been harassed in the streets.

Whatever the level of police infiltration of the black bloc, one cannot doubt that the police forces had not been beefed up with over a billion dollars just to stand around and provide traffic control. All in all, we felt like the experience had been good for us personally, but the demonstration had failed on many fronts. The black bloc is, in my view, a symptom of the impasse of liberal street protests policed and organized by NGOs and bureaucratized unions. Legal protest with no confrontation whatsoever accomplishes very little in today’s political environment, and while the black bloc produces terrible press, one cannot deny that it did at least draw attention to the event and provide the image that this was a serious event rather than a normal protest. However, the bloc’s tactics, without a mass base behind them, amounted to little more than adventurist and moralistic property destruction. A more valuable strategy of confrontation would have included leading large numbers of non-violent protestors to the security fence, utilizing the powerful image of mass civil disobedience to catapult the G20 into world headlines. Instead we had a tame legal protest savaged by riot police who used the adventurist tactics of 100 or so black bloc protestors, with very little media coverage other than endless replays of the same police cruiser exploding with the excessive use of words like “thugs.”

To paraphrase Brecht for a contemporary audience, what is the crime shattering of a few banks’ windows compared to the crime of opening the bank up for business on Monday morning? In the last estimate however this is not a question of right but a question of strategy. Without better mobilization and mass organization, these demonstrations will continue to be dominated by the false binary of black bloc v. riot police, just as international politics has been dominated by the false binary of Islamic Terrorism v. Liberal Imperialism. Let us hope that the upcoming demonstration in Seoul, South Korea can breathe new life into the global justice mass demonstrations.


One response to “On the Ground in Toronto”

  1. Nick Avatar

    I think the most important point of this post is the discussion of the wisdom of black bloc-type tactics in the last two paragraphs. I think most people on the far left would agree that property destruction against banks, etc. is in principle justified, and in some conceivable circumstances the appropriate thing to do. The problem comes when a tactic, applicable in some circumstances, is made into a principle which is applied in all circumstances. It’s important not to confuse tactics with principles—an error that’s often made in all sections of the left, including, sometimes, our own.