G20: Protesters, police, and civil rights

Riot police surround G20 protesters in Toronto. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Submitted by Paul Manly

Bio: Paul Manly is a filmmaker and community organizer based in Nanaimo, B.C.

My story: I started my trip to Toronto at the Peoples Summit, which brought together people from around the world to discuss their opposition to the G20 and their vision for a more just, sustainable and fair world. I attended as a representative of a new organization called Smart Change and was hosting a documentary film series I had programmed for the week between the Peoples Summit and the G20 Summit. I was also working as a freelance journalist, filing stories to a number of news outlets and packaging video programming from the Peoples Summit and the Shout Out for Global Justice to send to community organizations across Canada as part of a community cable initiative.

The key arguments against the G8 and G20 put forward at these events was that these summits are illegitimate and undemocratic, the $1.2-billion budget for a three-day summit could have been used to bolster the $1.9-billion annual budget of the United Nations, or pay for housing, transit, clean drinking water for First Nations communities, food for hungry people etc. The austerity summit was anything but austere, the budget was outrageous. People wanted the leaders to know that citizens shouldn't have to pay for the economic crisis that the bankers and the elite created first with a taxpayer-funded bailout and then through cuts to government services. They also thought a more legitimate forum to discuss world economics would be the G192 or the G6.7 billion so that all nations and people have input into world economic decision making, not just an elite few. 

All weekend the police presence in Toronto was very noticeable, with officers on foot and riding bikes throughout the downtown core. There were groups of police on almost every corner.

On Monday June 21 I was on my way to videotape and report on a protest at Allen Gardens. On my way through the park I came upon a large group of police who were arresting a young woman. She told me in the presence of police that she was arrested for possession of "break-and-enter tools" and that the "break-and-enter tools" were in fact the key to her workplace. She was taken into custody and held for several hours before the police finally contacted her employer and confirmed that she did indeed work at this facility, had a key and had every right to be there. Upon release she discovered that photos of the protest on her cellphone had been erased.

This was just the first in a long list of civil-rights abuses I witnessed in Toronto. During the week between the Peoples Summit and the G20 Summit there was a series of protests, educational forums and the film series all based on themed days. At every protest I attended I saw police searching people, asking for ID and pushing people with their bicycles. It was a week of provocations that escalated tension in the city.

No stone was left unturned, five police officers even visited the cinema when I wasn't there and questioned the manager about the Reel Solutions film series I had programmed. 

I followed the Council of Canadians on a canoe trip near Huntsville that was accompanied by five police boats and two helicopters. That symbolic protest ended very cordially with a police escort back to Huntsville to make sure we arrived safely. The next day I followed council members to the security fence in Toronto to document them measuring the five-metre distance from the fence for a new law that turned out to be nothing more than lies and misinformation on the part of police.

Friday night, Massey Hall was packed for the Shout Out for Global Justice featuring Maude Barlow, Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva and a number of other inspiring speakers. I videotaped the whole event as part of a larger team.

Saturday June 26 was the day of the big rally. The crowd was massive and estimated at 25,000 people. There were signs and banners representing a broad range of issues that people want to have addressed by governments.

The march was peaceful. All of the intersecting streets along the route that led toward the fence and the convention centre were blocked by police and or the riot squad. At Spadina and Queen streets most of the protesters turned back toward the officially designated protest zone at Queen's Park, another group split off and tried to walk toward the convention centre but were blocked by the riot squad, and a third group - mainly members of the Black Bloc - turned around and walked back toward Bay Street and the financial district. I stayed with the group of mostly young people at Spadina and Richmond where the protest remained peaceful and people entertained themselves.

Other journalists I know followed the Black Bloc for 90 minutes and 24 blocks as they smashed windows along Queen Street, then turned down Bay Street to the financial district where they trashed and burned three police vehicles that had been abandoned there.

Eyewitnesses say the police left the vehicles behind intentionally - there was lots of time to move them. All along this route the police and riot squad were watching from a short distance but only moved in after the Black Bloc moved on. The black block moved on to Yonge Street and broke windows all the way to College Street, where they broke windows on the corner while the riot squad watched a block away.

The Black Bloc walked down College Street to Queen's Park, breaking windows at a police station along the way. They entered the official protest zone, took off their black clothes and dispersed through the crowd of peaceful protesters; some then left the site. 

I met up with the journalists who had followed the Black Bloc at Queen's Park shortly after its members had melted into the crowd. The police quickly escalated their presence and after a short period of time and without any warning or announcement to the peaceful protesters, another riot squad contingent moved in from behind the legislature building at Queen's Park and trapped the crowd from behind.


At the same time the front line of the riot squad charged forward, pushing the crowd through a narrow passage between the two riot squads. People were surprised and confused. As people tried to escape the advancing police in front of them, they were attacked by more police behind them. They had police squeezing them from both sides who pepper-sprayed them and beat them with batons if they didn't move fast enough. Many of the people who were beaten and pepper-sprayed had been merely hanging around, sitting on the grass and relaxing after the march in what they understood to be an officially sanctioned protest zone.

I managed to exit the designated protest site before the police attacked again and watched from a distance on the other side of the police line as the police worked to further encircle the protesters and ran forays into the crowd to arrest people.

For a week I watched the police search, push, provoke and arrest people, the majority of whom only wanted to express their opposition to what they view as a corrupt and illegitimate organization. 

How is it possible, with a $1-billion security budget and a 20,000 strong security force, that 75 to 100 Black Bloc anarchists can rampage 24 blocks through the city for 90 minutes without being stopped? What is going on here? Are the police completely incompetent or were the so called 'Black Bloc' led or infiltrated by police provocateurs or government agents?  Why were police cars abandoned on the street when they could have been moved? Was there a covert operation in play to help justify a massive security bill when it has been made clear by CSIS that there were no credible terrorist threats to the summit? If the Black Bloc were the only credible threat, why were they allowed to run amok?

While this may sound conspiratorial it is not without precedent. In 2007, I videotaped three police officers with masks and rocks in hand attack their own riot squad in Montebello, Que. The video shows one masked officer hit a member of the riot squad in the face-mask and bang his rock into a shield, a clear incitement of violence and a provocation against the riot squad. These masked thugs (as Stephen Harper likes to refer to them) were unmasked and exposed and after four days Quebec provincial police had to admit they were indeed police officers "performing their duty."

Was Toronto a larger replay of Montebello? Only a full inquiry with unimpeded access to information regarding police tactics will reveal the truth.