Mayhem at Canada’s G20

A shit-show at clash with police and protesters

“Somebody throw that poo!”

It is impossible to pinpoint with any precision the moment when the “legitimate” democratically respectable protest ended and the aimless rabble-rousing began at the G20 protests in Toronto last Saturday. But wherever that line was drawn I was reasonably confident that we had crossed it when the calls for poo-throwing began.

In the few hours since the G20 protests had commenced I had heard a seemingly infinite number of chants and rants against the Harper government against capitalism against the G20 and increasingly about the police. (Not that the word “police” was much in use among the marching comrades: “corporate cops” was the most polite epithet followed by “pigs” “filth” and other all-purpose pejoratives centred on the male and female sex organs.) But now as I found myself in the midst of a crush of protestors in Toronto’s financial district where a trashed and smouldering police cruiser was visible behind a line of riot police a new chorus had arisen.

“Throw the poo!” admonished a young female protester. “Yeah” another screeched “let’s give those pigs some poo!”

To be fair the tone of the proceedings hadn’t always been this crass. Many of the protesters I spoke with had firm and informed opinions on a multiplicity of topics — from the virtues of bank taxes and continued stimulus spending over deficit reduction and austerity measures to the complicity of G20 countries in supporting policies of environmental despoliation corporate wantonness and neo-imperialism. But by 4 p.m. the issue of safe abortions in Africa would have to wait. These folks were ready to throw some shit.

Perhaps eager to distinguish himself in the theatre of combat one bearded protestor was now huddled over the crap in question — a souvenir courtesy of one of the many horse-mounted units patrolling the streets — using his bare hands to load his grainy payload into a white plastic bucket. Having fashioned his biological weapon this literal shit-disturber momentarily melted back into the throng of metaphorical ones.

The riot cops meanwhile seemed to be gearing up for something. Gas masks were applied. Tear gas launchers were suddenly trained on the crowd. A mounted unit was coming up from behind the line; several minivans and Escalades worth of riot cops suddenly appeared from the rear disgorging their armoured contents onto the streets behind us. At least one of the reinforcements was equipped with a military-style assault rifle. The police were boxing us in.

It was at this point that your humble servant decided to abandon his watchful post.

As I beat my retreat I saw that a good many of the windows lining Bay Street had been smashed in and various Marxist and nihilist slogans had been scrawled across walls and windows in red and black spray paint: “people over profits” “fuck corporate rule” “kill cops.” Canada Post mailboxes had been hurled into the streets. Perhaps a kilometre down the road another police cruiser had been set ablaze. Someone yelled that full-scale rioting had broken out on Yonge Street.

In the weeks leading up to the G20 Bill Blair Toronto’s police chief had said that his most pressing fear was the indiscriminate carnage of radicals bent on “breaking windows burning cars overturning street furniture.” Despite the months of preparation the hulking security price tag and the thousands of officers at his disposal it had taken the so-called “Black Bloc” less than three hours to make a reality of Blair’s fears.


Protesters had begun congregating under a light drizzle at 11 a.m. on Saturday morning. Smaller protests had taken place throughout the week each mobilizing on behalf of a different cause: anti-war demonstrations took place on Monday “gender justice” on Tuesday; environmental issues on Wednesday; and indigenous rights on Thursday. All of this was leading up to Saturday’s massive “People’s First Rally and March” where this incredible diversity of voices would merge and coalesce into a single blast of protest. The “People’s March” would be colourful noisy perhaps a bit raucous. But it would be peaceful. At least that was the plan.

From its genesis the inescapable fact of this gathering was the fantastic diversity of its constitutive groups. At any given moment you might see a guy dressed up as a freakishly overgrown banana (his cause: vegetarianism) standing next to a fully veiled flag-waving African woman (her cause: Ogaden sovereignty) next to a grey-haired superannuated hipster (his principle cause: sparking up a fat one).

Queen’s Park named for Queen Victoria in 1859 is bisected into north and south lawns at the Ontario legislature. On Saturday morning the north lawn by accident or design was the base of operations for groups who were protesting a certain leader’s presence in the city. So a sizable group of Ethiopian Canadians protested against the arrival of Meles Zenawi the Ethiopian prime minister who they call the “black Hitler.” A few dozen Falun Gong whose members are subjected to horrendous persecution including forced labour and organ harvesting in China protested against Hu Jintao China’s president. And dozens of Vietnamese Canadians were railing against the inclusion of Nguyan Tan Dung the Vietnamese prime minister accused of various human-rights violations.

If the mood on the north lawn was one dominated by political urgency — the collective alarm and horror of people protesting against vile and in many cases ongoing human-rights abuses in their home countries — the mood on the south lawn was something much closer to nostalgia. Here you found a huddle of middle-aged union-types trying to keep dry under a tree. Aging hippies mingled with undergraduate radicals passing joints and bitching about “the man.” The dress code was protest chic: boots bandanas and cammo. “Less G20 more 420” read one popular T-shirt. Another was simpler: “Fuck the G20.”

The slow drizzle of rain had turned into something closer to a torrent as had the influx of protesters themselves who now numbered in the thousands. The soundtrack — when it wasn’t overpowered by drumming and chanting — consisted mainly of Billy Bragg’s recorded renditions of Pete Seeger songs: songs about emancipatory equality songs lionizing the innate power and dignity of collective struggle.

Pete Seeger liked to think that his guitar could kill fascists but none of the highly nostalgic highly reified tropes and rituals of contemporary “protest” could snuff or even contain the violent element in their midst the so-called “Black Bloc” or anarchist radicals who would very soon highjack the message if not the protest itself. If you looked closely enough in between the abortion activists and vegetarians and those calling for an end to the “occupation” of Gaza members of the Black Bloc were already there — some of them anyway hiding in plain sight.


I spoke with a score of protesters at every phase of the chaos that ensued although only one identified himself as an “anarchist.”

At the “tent city” where some 30 tents were pitched and where Naomi Klein had rallied the troops the night before Sean Hodgson may have been an anarchist but the very fact that he revealed his name (and spoke to a reporter) is a fairly solid indication that he’s not of the rock-throwing fire-starting persuasion. Rather he said he was concerned with “tangible goals”: creating jobs increasing social programs and welfare.

I asked him why he wasn’t a Marxist since Marxists believe in those things too. “Marxism has a hierarchical structure” he replied “in which a few elite members direct the cause. Anarchists believe in the power of populism in the ability of people to make their own choices. We’re not as Stalinistic as Marxists or the unions.” He said he wasn’t interested in making a fuss at the security fence as other militants had vowed to do. A confrontation with the police he pointed out would only justify their presence. Even the anarchists it seemed were opposed to anarchy.

Anarchy however would not be denied.

After a few quasi-official speeches on the lawn of the Ontario legislature — in which the “Alberta tarsands” were repudiated as “the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the planet” — the People’s March was underway. Here finally was the protest of protests an amalgamation of every conceivable group and cause.

Protesters nearly 10000 of them now proceeded south on University Avenue shouting “The people united will never be defeated.” During a scheduled stop at the U.S. Consulate protesters were encouraged to hurl some cathartic invective at the American guards.

The Marxists Maoists socialists anarchists journalists performance artists and hundreds of curious onlookers turned south and suddenly were greeted by several hundred riot police.

It was at this point that a pattern began to unfold one that would last well into the night. A huge crowd of protesters and onlookers would find themselves in a standoff with dozens or hundreds of riot cops. An exchange of views would take place. Protesters would inform the cops that they were doing the bidding of filthy capitalists. They would chant: “Whose streets? Our streets!” or “No justice no peace — fuck the police!”

The riot cops for their part were essentially impervious to a seemingly boundless display of impertinence. One girl dropped to her knees and simulated fellatio on one of these armoured statues. Other protesters sparked up joints and offered the cops a toke. “Protesting the G20” at this point had become synonymous with the idiotic harassment of police officers.

But the admirable discipline displayed by the riot cops came at a price. For while they were engaged in these futile standoffs smaller groups of black-clad radicals would race off and go about their business completely unopposed. What the authorities evidently failed to anticipate was that the riot cops themselves were a primary attraction for protesters. These cops had become the most accessible face and symbol of everything the protesters loathed; they played a crucial role in creating the protests that they were then forced to disperse. And so they were complicit in providing what was essentially a photo opportunity for peaceful protesters while the violent Black Bloc had the run of the city.

The police response was indeed fearsome but it was also lugubrious. It seemed irrationally obsessed with hemming in large groups of benign spectators while the Black Bloc raced around vandalizing streetcars torching abandoned police cruisers and ransacking much of Yonge Street. One protester I spoke with was convinced that that was the point. “They’re not interested in stopping anything” he said. “We [the protesters] are putting on a show for them but they’re also putting on a show for us.”

“All of this” he continued gesturing to the lines upon lines of riot cops mounted units and bicycle divisions before us “is Stephen Harper’s way of showing us what underlies his vision of democracy.”

We were standing outside the “Free Speech Zone” which had just ceased to exist. Moments earlier hundreds of riot cops had plowed through Queen’s Park arresting anyone who showed signs of resistance. One girl sat down and refused to budge; she was summarily handcuffed and hauled off to the makeshift detention centre. A riot cop gave me a solid shove with his shield. “Move” he said. “What happened to the ‘Free Speech Zone?’” I asked incredulously. By way of response he raised his baton and uttered a single word: “Comply.”


In the end everyone declared victory. In a press conference later that night police chief Blair commended his officers for having “never lost control” of the streets. Meanwhile the Black Bloc (who are from what I could tell uniformly white and mostly on the small and nerdy side of the social equation) had successfully defaced much of downtown wreaked millions of dollars worth of property damage and had completely dominated the summit itself in terms of media attention.

Of course the only real winner in all of this is Prime Minister Stephen Harper who scored victories both in front of and behind the fence. We’re told that Harper engineered what is by all accounts an unprecedented level of consensus among the G20 nations who agreed to slash their deficits in half by 2013. At the same time by holding the summit in a virtually uncontrollable urban centre — one in which authorities admitted for weeks in advance violence would be impossible to stop — the prime minister has managed to further alienate and marginalize left-wing dissent in this country by associating it with pictures of burning police cars and broken windows. The violence which was all but certain to unfold justified the gargantuan security spending and in the minds of many Canadians further discredited the protest movement. The PMO issued a statement repudiating the violent “thugs” and waited for approval ratings to soar.

By Monday morning a semblance of normalcy had returned to downtown Toronto. Clean-up crews were going about their business. The controversial security fence was being disassembled. The storm of democracy or whatever it was had passed us by.

Some things however will not be soon forgotten such as the Ontario government’s shameful passage of the “Public Works Protection Act” a secret bill designed to curb constitutional freedoms. Nearly 1000 people were arrested over the course of the protests and Toronto police used tear gas against the city’s population for the first time ever. The promised “Free Speech Zone” was forcibly shut down. Canadians have a new and disturbing set of images burned into our political consciousness — weird incongruous scenes pictures of riot cops and protesters squaring off outside a Tim Horton’s. The windows will be repaired and the slogans erased. But the psychological landscape has been permanently altered.

There were no end of surreal moments during the protest but one sticks out in particular. The People’s March was headed south when the crowd was forced to part around a young woman who was eating dessert in the middle of the protest route. She was seated alone at a nicely set table of white linens politely consuming what appeared to be an entire chocolate fudge cake.

“Are you with a cause?” somebody asked the teen. She ignored the question every ounce of attention focused on her delicious dessert. Some observers were nonplussed. “What the hell does that have to do with the G20?” I heard somebody grumble. As though by way of an answer the young woman licked her lips and went in for one more delectable bite.