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The gift and curse of the G20 in my city

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"Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy to gain economic democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and special privilege." - Tommy Douglas, 1942

Lack of corporate accountability is a bedrock issue for the anti-globalization movement, as I am beginning to understand in a whole new way.

There is nothing new about political and business elites making (or not making) deals behind fortified doors. It is the old way, and it has got to go.

I had the gift and the curse of the G20 Summit in my city. The gift, personally, is a charged sense of purpose, solidarity, motivation and connection. I also found myself in the unplanned role of citizen journalist, witnessing, processing and sharing information in the immediate medium of twitter, which became an invaluable navigation tool for a rapidly changing, chaotic and violent weekend.

I am not a journalist, and I am not particularly radical. I am deeply aware of ambiguity and complexity. I am a student of human behaviour by nature and by training (anthropology, psychology, astrology, yoga, art). I loathe politics in its abused institutional form, but I am very interested in the body politic.

The G20 brought foreign leaders to my city, along with a the curse of a $1-billion+ price tag for "security," a barricade around the city core, a 10K-strong phalanx of uniformed thugs, also for "security," and an afternoon of "riot" followed by a day of unprecedented harassment and arrest of innocent Canadians. Uncountable dollars were lost in missed opportunities for businesses that were shut down, tourists driven away, lives disrupted. But the serious story, the frightening story, is the sharp erosion of hard-won civil rights, overnight, with political, media and civil complicity.

Because the buildup in security before the G20 was "newsworthy" for weeks beforehand, I had quite a good chance to chew over how to respond to the invasion. I opened up a space for some vision of creative, loving and peaceful protest to emerge. An image from a friend's writing about the astrology of the moment, the symbol of "a woman, risen from the sea" (Jupiter/Uranus conjunct in the first degree of Aries) slinked in: I would become a woman risen from the sea...

Friday, June 25, I attended a sold-out, ticketed "rally" at Massey Hall, a storied theatre best known these days as a great music venue. Many powerful voices were raised on so many of the critical issues facing this world's people.

Talk of the the proposed UN Declaration of access to water as a human right reinforced my vision for creative protest, this woman risen from the sea. Canada's prime minister has unabashedly opposed this proposed declaration. His home province, rich in both oil and water sources, can make a killing from commodification of water. Making access a human right might negatively impact his cronies' profit margin. This is consistent with his hard-on for the crime scene that is the Alberta Tar Sands.

I can't even get to the point of my loving protest image without my blood boiling with outrage.

After the rally, the theatre emptied onto the street, and we marched in solidarity to a tent city of people protesting poverty and the treatment of the homeless (forced off the streets for the G20). This group had earlier been harshly curtailed and harassed by the police, who had, we believed, been granted extraordinary powers of arrest throughout the city. (We learned today that the Police Chief lied about aspects of this law, muddying the already filthy waters.) [Globe & Mail]

Our experience of this walk was exuberant. Normal city police corralled us, no riot dudes with truncheons and bad attitudes. But we knew they were nearby, thousands of them. Then we rode home through an eerily empty city (Friday night!). Noone on the streets. Feeling very unsafe.

On Saturday, June 26, 2010, being fully conscious of the astrology of the moment, I honoured my son's sudden anxiety about going to the Civil Society March. I had no anxiety, but he had an intuition it would be bad for him to be there, and I think he was right. So in flowing layers of blue, seashells, ocean-faced, I went to the protest alone.

There were thousands upon thousands of beautiful people there. It was pouring with rain but no one seemed to care. I was blessed with good wishes and curiosity and openness all around. I walked in my big boots for three hours at the front of the march, in the middle of the march, hanging out with anyone whose message and presence resonated with mine. It is an amazing thing to walk with so many in solidarity.

There was tension throughout. At every single intersection, police made a show of slowing us down. We were walking south, toward the fortified barricade, and they were not going to let us pass unobstructed. They did keep letting us pass, but each encounter raised blood pressure on both sides. As Canadians, it is our right to assemble and to protest, and it is our right as protestors to be visible to the elite targets of our demonstration.

When we got to Queen St., the riot police had formed an impenetrable line, three deep, behind another line of police on bikes, so the march veered west. At one point, I saw a group of excited kids dressed in black t-shirts layered over colorful clothes, wearing black bandanas. Their energy was giddy and postured, like high-school kids considering trouble. I asked someone if they knew who they were, and heard "anarchists." Similarly dressed individuals were later filmed and photographed vandalizing corporate property, using notorious Black Bloc tactics. I gave them a wide berth and carried on.

My march concluded peacefully at the Provincial Legislature, or Queen's Park. This was the designated "safe zone" promised by security, and is a frequent location for protest. I stood around for a bit, talked to a few people, and decided to head home, elated that there had been no bad behaviour despite the tensions and hype.

It was only then that I realized that in addition to the corridor that had been cordoned off for our march, the police had shut down all traffic, streetcars, and subway for at least six blocks in all directions. I stopped someone to ask why the police were clearing the streets, and she told me that there had been violence, and probably the police were afraid.

A photojournalist has posted this footage which beautifully lays out what happened behind me, at the other end of the march. Vandals ran wild for hours and through miles of the city, without police intervention.

This version of the information as it unfolds in that video took days to surface beyond social media, because, I believe, the police and media conspired to use the spectacle of vandalism, particularly burning police cars, to justify the ridiculous security spend, and worse, to justify the brutal, violent arrest and illegal detainment of hundreds of innocent people, preemptively before the protest and in the following days. Toronto takes the cake for both most money spent and most arrests, somewhere in the area of 900. Detainees were housed in appalling conditions: overcrowded, denied adequate food, water and legal counsel. (I do not believe the 900 count includes the many more hundreds of "catch and release" arrests throughout the day on Sunday.)

The contrast between what I and thousands of others experienced and what was shown for the next 24 hours on television was astounding. I spent hours trying to understand what was really happening. Mainstream media ignored the 10 to 25K-strong march. All protesters were conflated immediately with the anarchist vandals. No-one was covering any of the issues brought up by the protests or those being addressed at the Summit. Media showed the same loop, over and over, of police cars on fire, vandals breaking windows, while twitter screamed and flashed images of peaceful protesters being charged by riot police on horseback, beaten bloody, tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets. My friend who works at CBC assured me the only thugs were the Black Bloc Anarchists, and the police were doing a great job, no unnecessary violence. The tear gas and rubber bullets weren't being picked up by mainstream media, and the Police Chief denied it, so it simply wasn't so.

Ah, to have such confidence in the powers that be.

Later, the truth. The turning point, in my observation, was when Steve Paikin, a well-established Toronto journalist tweeted that he was being manhandled and threatened with arrest if he did not vacate an area where a group of 200 mostly middle-class protestors were being squeezed in upon on all sides. There was no violence, and police gave no reason nor explanation for their actions. Paiken opted not to go to jail and was escorted away, while a journalist who writes for The Guardian was beaten in front of him and incarcerated. His tweets about this fact turned the discourse in the mainstream media. Recognizing the abuse of their own, and a fundamental democratic right denied, they began to squeak.

This tactic played out through two full days: journalists, camera people, all legitimate accredited press were expelled from areas where citizens were trapped, kettled for hours, tear gassed, beaten and arrested.

I cannot stress enough how utterly appalling and uncharacteristic these policing tactics are, here. This is not how protest is dealt with in my city. Who trained the riot police? Who came up with the money for all this "security" yet protected no property? Who was calling the shots while the good ol' boys in black beat the snot out of unarmed civilians? And ordered our police force to let the vandals run wild, and refuse aid to the injured? Who manufactured all this HATE?

Gentle friends came to the aid of a man who had suffered a blow to the head and were directly told that the police were "not allowed" to help them get an ambulance or take him to hospital. The OPP's motto is "To serve and protect."

Conspiracy theories abound. The police have been caught before, instigating violence in protests by "infiltrating" or just plain impersonating the Black Bloc. There is evidence to indicate that undercover police were infiltrating for certain. Did they instigate and act as agent provocateurs? Did they let the vandals run unchecked for the brilliant PR? Was it part of a long-term plan, to justify the security spend and deepen the steady vilification of dissent, making conscious, critical citizenship criminal?

I feel, in a perverse way, both the police and the anarchists were mutually successful.

The police set the stage for violence with an empty city, dehumanized riot police, profoundly inconvenienced public, visibly eroded civil rights. This is provocation on the one hand, and invitation on the other. Violence as PR to justify violence and, in this case, an obscene gorging on new weapons and surveillance technology.

The most articulate justification for the anarchist violence I have read is that by selectively vandalizing corporate property, they reveal the extreme militarist architecture of the society, and hope to radicalize the population.

Two sides of one violent coin. We can do better than this.

We've been watching these trends of surveillance, extraordinary police powers, and making dissent illegitimate since at least 9/11, most visibly since then. Perhaps the extremes of this event -- the number of bullshit arrests, the steadily emerging tales of verbal, physical and sexual assaults from police, the grossly incompetent police communications and outright lying of the Police Chief -- and the fact that so many of the harassed and arrested are white, middle class, and in many cases not even participants in protest will bring about a tidal shift, an epic shift, an epochal shift. Perhaps this will be the wake-up call, as some are writing now, to stop wasting time and money on exclusive, old-boys-club meetings where everyone politely agrees to disagree while carving the feet out from under the rest of us. No more police-states for capitalism and whatever para-political machine is driving this agenda. Take matters that matter to the people, take it to the UN, take it to the world. We, engaged and creative people, will find the new answers our world so powerfully demands. In this time, NOW.

This post first appeared on Planet Waves.

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