In true Orwellian fashion, masked rioters were allowed free reign to go on a destructive rampage while peaceful protesters were beaten, rounded up and denied any semblance of their civil rights.
The scene was Toronto, Canada’s largest city, and the event was the G20 Summit held June 26-27, 2010. The event – for which security cost in the vicinity of $1 billion – led to the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. It was an exercise in crushing dissent, and it left the impression that those in power are only willing to support free speech until people most need to exercise it.
While police were allowing the masked Black Bloc rioters to destroy anything they wanted, they weren’t shy about beating and arresting peaceful protestors. In fact, they arrested many who weren’t even protesting, but who were just trying to walk down the street. One journalist, despite identifying himself, was punched several times in the face by a riot officer. A reporter for The Guardian was held by two officers while a third punched him in the stomach and when he was on the ground, elbowed him in the back of the head.
Even protesters who remained in the designated “free speech zone” in Queen’s Park (the location of the Ontario provincial legislature) were not off limits. Peaceful protesters were pepper sprayed, tear gassed, hit with batons, and shot with rubber bullets. They were swarmed by riot police and attacked when they were standing still or sitting down. Many were accused of resisting arrest when it was clearly untrue. Journalists with identification were attacked, beaten and arrested for no reason.
Protesters and bystanders were held for nearly 24 hours in cold, overcrowded conditions with very little water or food, and without access to a lawyer or even a phone call. Through all this, the detainees remained handcuffed.
Amputee John Pruyn, who was sitting on the ground with his daughter in Queen’s Park, claims he had his prosthetic leg yanked off by an officer because the man wasn’t getting up quickly enough. Despite his pleas for them to give him time to stand, the man was handcuffed, arrested, and literally dragged off to a temporary mass detention centre.
Hours later he was released without charge but not before being told to get home on his own despite the fact that his money, glasses, and walking sticks had not been returned. The man finally succeeded in getting the police to take him home.
Dorion Barton, who is among those suing the police, had his shoulder dislocated and his arm broken when a riot cop smashed him with his riot shield. He was photographing police when he was assaulted. Const. Glen Weddell was charged by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit with assault causing bodily harm. Sadly, this was the exception, not the rule.
Toronto police chief William Blair, who incredibly still has his job, has been unapologetic, releasing numerous statements in the months after the summit about the heroic efforts of the police to follow the law in dealing with protesters. Most of what he told the public (that rubber bullets were never used and that police were never ordered to let rioters continue) has later proven to be false.
Another thing that came out of this disgraceful episode was that the Ontario cabinet – in secret and with no debate in the legislature – invoked a law 70-year-old law called the Public Works Security Act. This gave police the right to demand identification of anyone, search them and their belongings, and arrest them if they didn’t comply.
Over the two days, more than 1,000 people were arrested and held in inhuman conditions, but only 317 were charged. This makes it that much clearer how arbitrary the arrests were and how they were only intended to intimidate and punish people for using their right to free speech.
The events of the G20 also left some wondering whether the Black Bloc group was causing mayhem with the permission of the police to make all protestors look like lawless thugs. Or can we go further? Can we suggest that the rioters were agents of the police, there to keep the anti-globalization message of the majority of protesters from being heard? It wouldn’t be the first time; in fact the Quebec government infiltrated a protest with masked provocateurs in attempt to initiate violence and make the protesters look bad.
It’s unfortunate, but the images that many Canadians will take away from the G20, particularly those who aren’t particularly sympathetic to public protest to begin with, are ones of these masked rioters, dressed in black, setting police cars on fire and smashing windows of stores, banks, and even police stations.
As the Black Bloc walked on their route of destruction, more than 19,000 heavily armed riot police stood by and did nothing. Toronto Sun journalist Joe Warmington reported that he’d been told by some officers that they were ordered not to engage the rioters.
Watch the very disturbing documentary Toronto G20 Exposed or the episode of The Fifth Estate called You Should Have Stayed At Home (you’ll understand the context of the title when you see the film. Both can be seen at http://www.torontog20exposed.ca/
If this terrible event is an indication then the rights we often take for granted can be gone in a flash. In fact, we might legitimately wonder whether those rights were really there to start with.