Public Values

People First and the G20 summit

There are those who believe that all forms of public protest are illegitimate but they are wrong.

People First and the G20 summitby Dennis Gruending

I spent two days in Toronto on June 26-27 during the G20 summit of world political leaders. I was doing communications-related work for a peaceful rally and march organized by labour and citizens' groups (including some churches) on Saturday, June 26. It was a day that was to turn nasty late in the afternoon a small group of people began to commit acts of vandalism. I took the photo shown here on Queen Street while upwards of 30 thousand people were marching peacefully in the rain. In the left corner of the frame, a young girl walks carrying an umbrella and behind her a man holds the hand of his female companion. In the centre is a banner that says people should come before profits and that public services essential to citizens must be protected. There are also people carrying flags identifying their unions – the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Service Employees International Union and others.

The People First rally began in the pouring rain at Queen's Park, Ontario's parliament building. A group of dark-clad police officers were ranged in front of the entrance. They treated any demonstrators who came near to them in a friendly but non-committal manner. The event's sponsoring organizations included the Canadian Labour Congress, the Ontario Federation of Labour, the Council of Canadians, Greenpeace and the Canadian Federation of Students. The march began after about 30 minutes of introductions and speeches. The route was to take about 90 minutes, although it was awhile before the crowd of thousands could file its way into the street.

The economic crisis

The G20 leaders were in Toronto to discuss how the world's countries can emerge from the global economic crisis. The message, at least from labour groups, is that the crisis was triggered by the reckless behaviour and in some cases the corrupt practices of some of the world's largest private financial institutions. The fallout from bank failures and corporate bankruptcies has created widespread unemployment, and the crisis will not end until the unemployed can find good jobs once again. If that is to happen, governments must continue to provide economic stimulus in the short and medium term. They should not plan, as Canada's Conservative government wants, to chop public services and safety nets that citizens need now more than ever. So there was a lot to discuss and debate.

As I flew into Toronto late at night on June 25, I saw the huge jet planes of each of the leaders parked on a floodlit airport runway in Toronto. The summit occurred in a densely populated area of downtown Toronto, its perimeter heavily fortified by a high fence. The corporate sector and its lobbyists have good access to politicians and bureaucrats but most other organizations, including unions, often have to make their case through popular actions including public events. In Canada, those demonstrations have a long history of being peaceful.

People First rally and march

I remained near the back end of the People First march as it left Queen's Park and headed south toward Queen Street - a number of blocks to the north of the security perimeter established by police to protect the location of the summit. In fact, organizers of the march had worked out their route in cooperation with the police. At Queen Street, one of Toronto's busiest, lined with shops and restaurants, the march turned to the west toward west to Spadina Avenue, where it turned north again and began to make its way back toward its Queen's Park origin. The atmosphere along the route was relaxed and almost festive, although the rain made it soggy. Some shops and restaurants had closed for the day but many remained open. I stopped in briefly at a Tim Horton's to use the washroom and buy a cup of coffee. The manager told me they had been having a busy day.

Police had blocked off the streets to all vehicles and were present on every street corner to enforce that prohibition. They were also out in numbers at the intersection of any street running south of Queen toward the area where the G20 summit was occurring. At some intersections the first line of defence was a phalanx of officers on bicycles and wearing yellow rain slickers. Others backed them up, dark-suited, wearing helmets with face guards and carrying shields and truncheons. And behind them, in some cases, were other police on horseback.

I saw no incidents as I walked the entire route and took photos. Back at Queen's Park, there was some music after the march and a few speeches, but it was raining and most of the people who had returned soon dispersed. Those from unions who had arrived on buses got back onto them and headed home. I felt that my working day was done so I walked out of the area to look for an Italian restaurant and later took a cab back to my hotel in north Toronto. Once in my room, I turned on the television, expecting to see news of what the G20 leaders were discussing. Instead, I saw images of an overturned police car in flames, of black-clad vandals breaking shop windows with hammers and lines of riot police beating batons against their plastic shields and shouting "back up."

Street vandalism

Apparently, a small band of perhaps 60 to 100 self-styled Black Bloc anarchists appear top have used the large peaceful demonstration for cover. At some point well along the route of the march, they left it and retraced their steps along Queen Street. They began to commit acts of vandalism and attempted to probe the lines of police protecting the perimeter of the G20 summit area. This confrontation was – much like tropical storms and other natural disasters - an event made for television. The images, often repeated, of black-clad individuals, almost exclusively males, confronting police and smashing windows dominated local television news on Saturday night. There were more skirmishes on Sunday and by the time I left the city in mid-afternoon more than 600 people had been arrested. That number has now risen to an estimated 900 people, almost double the number arrested during the October Crisis in 1970, and it represents a blatant overreaction by police.

I have no respect for the small groups of provocateurs who appear on cue wherever summits are held and use the cover provided by peaceful protest groups until they unleash their mindless vandalism. I have yet to hear any one of them offer an articulate and justified defence of their actions. It is also possible, however, that police themselves might have deliberately instigated some of the mayhem. During a protest at a North American leaders summit in Montebello, Quebec in 2007, union leaders exposed three Quebec provincial police officers who had disguised themselves as demonstrators and were attempting to provoke the crowd and instigate violence. Any investigation into events on Toronto streets must examine that possibility.

Naked display for force

I had felt a growing sense of unease, even revulsion, in the weeks leading up to the summit, fed by the incessant talk of security precautions, police presence, and the fencing off and closing down of the heart of central Toronto. The military style preparations and the mounting police presence was a prescient reminder that Canada, too, has its own security apparatus that could be deployed in a manner reminiscent of China, Russia, the United States or dictatorships too numerous to mention. I feel even more uncomfortable following the naked display of police force in the streets of Toronto.

There are those who believe that all forms of public protest are illegitimate but they are wrong. Giving public voice to important concerns is a precious right and we would be serfs without that freedom. India would not have achieved independence or American blacks their civil rights without Martin Luther King and without Gandhi. Workers would not won have pensions, paid vacation and a regulated workweek without strikes and public engagement. There was legitimate and peaceful protest in Toronto around the G20 summit. There was also mindless vandalism. The two are not the same.

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa writer and former Member of Parliament. This article originally appeared in the author's blog, Pulpit and Politics.

Posted: June 29, 2010

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