As I walked home alone in the dark after an event last night, I came to an odd realization. I felt completely safe on empty streets or where there were other people. The only time I felt in any danger was in the presence of police. Given the events of the G20 weekend, I was justifiably worried that I might be beaten or arrested, simply for being out in public. The horror stories of police brutality continue to spread by the hour - on Twitter, Facebook, blogs - and even in the mass media. (Lesson to Toronto police: if you want the public onside, best not to assault and arrest journalists.)
There is so much to write about the abuses of power and violations of civil liberties over the past few days, but the most important issue has to do with the black bloc protests, and how they were allowed to happen. It is becoming very clear that police had infiltrated the ultra-left and knew what was going to happen. More than a billion dollars was spent on security - much of it for a 19,000-strong security force. No doubt you've seen photos which clearly reveal the scale of this show of force; early in the week, police looked as though they outnumbered demonstrators at the smaller rallies. Police had a newly purchased water cannon at their disposal. On Saturday, hundreds of police in full riot gear (helmets and shields) were backing up masses of officers in regular uniform. So how is it that a couple of hundred vandals were able to burn a cop car and break windows all the way up Yonge Street?
The answer can only be that the police wanted it to happen. Even if you reject the mounting evidence that agents provocateurs were part of the black bloc and were active in starting the violence, there is no argument which can satisfactorily explain how such a relatively small number of people could roam so freely and visibly, doing their damage. But why would the police allow it? Obviously, the mass media visuals - the same shot of the burning police car played over and over as nauseum - were needed to convince a gullible public that the obscene overspending was necessary. But there is a much more important reason: the police and government needed justification to attack the legitimate, peaceful protests.
Let's face it: a young man wearing black and smashing a store window is an anomaly, and insignificant in the long term. In my six years of participation in major rallies, demonstrations, and marches in this city, I have never before witnessed this - or any other - kind of violence. The store window will be replaced, and the act has no impact on any government or politican, local or national.
But the 25-40,000 peaceful demonstrators are another story. The young man employing black bloc tactics is nowhere near as threatening to our authorities as the mother who is calling for Harper's government to change its policy on maternal health, or the young student who is decrying Canada's local and global inaction on environmental issues, or the First Nations elder who is calling for justice for continuing atrocities against the First Nations, or the labour unionist who is demanding protection for pensions and working conditions. Even more frightening is the addition of mainstream, middle-class folk who have never taken part in a protest, but who have been so incensed by the government spending of our tax dollars on this summit that they made a point of coming out - despite the rain and especially despite the fearmongering all week long about sound cannons, water cannons, tear gas, and other police toys at the ready.
Black bloc tactics are employed only at large scale G20-type events where the whole world will be watching. But the black bloc protesters don't even have demands or a message. It is the peaceful protesters who will be back with the same messages, growing in numbers, getting more of the public onside as Harper's assault on our social services, rights, and freedoms continues. And while the black bloc protesters retreat into their isolated world, the protesters with real messages continue to talk every day, to raise consciousness, and build support.
So the vandals were allowed to do their thing, and then the police swooped in and began attacking legitimate protesters (and even passersby). People were threatened, beaten, arrested, and traumatized. Reports from those who were taken into the makeshift detention facility are appalling. Human rights violations were rampant. Those who have been released tell of younger, less experienced protesters (who may be less aware of their rights) being clearly targeted for intimidation. This is how the authorities will attempt to shut down dissent: by traumatizing people so badly that they will never take part in a protest again. And indeed, judging from some of the first-hand reports, they have probably succeeded in scaring a few of these protesters away permanently.
But these tactics have strengthened the resolve of many to keep fighting - and likely awakened many more to the issues that were being protested, as well as spawning new discussions and protests over police brutality and violations of civil liberties. While no protests had been planned after the G20 ended on Sunday, more than 4,000 people showed up on Monday evening in front of Toronto Police headquarters for a rally decrying the police actions - an event called on less than 24 hour's notice. Another gathering is planned for tonight to bring together the victims of police violence, to share stories and show solidarity.
Harper, McGuinty, and police chief Bill Blair are likely congratulating themselves on a mission accomplished. But for all their collective cunning, they have not been very smart. There are already calls for a public inquiry into the debacle of Toronto's G20. Even if there is no public inquiry, social networking and YouTube are publicizing the issue, spreading images and video and starting discussions about agents provocateurs, hired troublemakers, and ulterior motives on the part of both police and government. The movement of average citizens demanding change is now poised to grow, despite - or perhaps because of - police brutality and repression.
2 weeks ago