Speaking of the media (G20 meditations continue)

I found it interesting how the media suddenly had a new and scary name to call the violent protestors. No longer  the ‘anti-globalization’ protesters of the Battle for Seattle or other WTO/G8/G20 protests, this time they were labelled ‘anarchists.’ And it was taken for granted that we knew what anarchism is, and that the images we saw — fire, smashed glass, violence — were what anarchists did.

Sigh. One more word that means a lot to me ruined in the popular mind.


More meditations from a sheep

Of course, being a sheep is exactly what Jesus asked the people of first-century Palestine to be. “Turn the other cheek, do not resist an evildoer, do good to those who mistreat you.” Etc.

But those were not moral platitudes delivered into a political void. Palestine (or Judea, as it was then known) was an occupied territory, brutally conquered and kept subject by an oppressive, violently exploitative, and very effective empire. The more you learn about Roman rule at the time, the harder it becomes to resist the idea that violent rebellion might just have been justified. 

But Jesus asked them to do the opposite, to refuse to answer violence and injustice with more of the same. (In fact, more than that, he asked them to respond with love).

Why did he do this?

I think that, first of all (and for brevity’s sake it will be the only point for today), he knew that violence was an ineffective form of resistance.

History proves this pretty definitively. Jewish zealots in Palestine did rebel violently and in large numbers on three separate occasions (4 BCE at the death of Herod the Great, 66-73 CE resulting in the destruction of the Temple, 132-135 CE leading to the expulsion of the surviving Jews from Jerusalem and Judea).

So they were slaughtered every time. With the weight of the state and a huge empire on their side, the Romans had all the power, resources, people, and weapons.

(Incidentally, John Dominic Crossan points out — in God and Empire, a book I highly recommend — that the centre of the Judean rebellions in 4 BCE was the city of Sepphoris, which is only 4 miles from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. With Jesus’ birth  also generally dated around 4 BCE, he probably would have grown up hearing about the rebellion and resulting massacres.)

*          *          *

And of course, though the situation was much less dramatic and life-or-death, the same proved to be true of the Toronto G8/G20 protests.

Being violent played perfectly into the hands of the authorities. For many mesmerized by media images of shops smashed and cars burned, the violence of a few black bloc protesters justified the billion-dollar security operation that militarized Toronto’s downtown — not to mention the brutalization of thousands of peaceful protesters.

Without the violence, there might have been a serious public discussion about why the government and its security forces felt a need to go so overboard. Instead, every broken window pane and every shot of masked protesters justified the expense, the paranoia, and the overbearing response of the security forces.

Or at least it did so in the minds of many — and far beyond those who you’d expect (e.g. conservative hawks). I’ve talked to a relative that marched in peace and anti-government demonstrations in the ’60s who was mesmerized by television coverage of the protests, and subsequently felt the expense and actions of the security forces were entirely justified given ‘what they were up against.’

(Nevermind that the security forces response was entirely disproportionate. Nevermind that the hooligans did relatively little damage — compared with, say, the costs businesses bore as a result of having the downtown militarized and effectively shut down. Nevermind that the media, through its fascination with the sensational and visually dramatic, magnified what were basically small and incidental moments.)

Meditations of a Sheep (G20 continued, still)

It was a visceral and still-disturbing experience being kettled by riot police at a G20 protest last month (scroll down a few entries for that story).

(This video dos a good job of capturing the intensity, though I’m glad to say our experience wasn’t as long-term, and that eventually most of us were allowed to leave.)

It’s taken me a long time to be put a name to this feeling… but it felt, I imagine, a lot like being part of a flock of sheep, as it is hunted by a pack of wolves.

We were unarmed and nonviolent (and intimidated, perhaps?), and they could pick us off at will. All that we could do is crowd closer to one another, and as far as we could from them. (Not that that would do much good – they could have had any of us anytime they wanted).

* * *

And so, what about being violent in self-defence? In a lot of ways, especially in retrospect, it felt wrong that when they violently attacked some of us, we did nothing.

We were sheep.

And the girl who stood beside me, who was violently arrested for peacfully protesting? Why should she be non-violent next time? She refused to be violent, in fact was a vocal part of a protest denouncing earlier violence, and she got beaten and arrested by the police. Next time why not throw rocks at windows, or even at the police?

What are they going to do, arrest her? Beat her up?

* * *

This is why the G20 “security” forces inability to discriminate is so stupid, purely from a tactical perspective. They treated nonviolent protestors, passerbys, reporters, etc. like criminals – even denying them many of the rights criminals get. That’s a sure-fire way to radicalize thousands of people, and destroy their trust in police and the system of governance.

You set such a great example. You don’t discriminate when fighting for your cause, so why should we?

A monopoly on violence (G20 continued)

One of the defining characteristics of the state is that it has a monopoly on violence, or at least legal violence. But in a democracy, that power is supposed to be subject to all sorts of legal limitations, (and ultimately, the will of the people). But in this case, police officers and decision-makers that are supposed to uphold, enact, and enforce the law used that power, that monopoly on violence, quite ruthlessly, with little regard for the law (see below).

How are we supposed to trust them, those of who were on the streets of Toronto for that week?

Saying that it was an exceptional situation doesn’t cut it. The whole point of ‘the law’ is that it is impartial and always applies. Rights aren’t something you can just take away when they’re inconvenient or even when you feel threatened.

In theory, the law gives police adequate powers to defend the public, public officials, and public property – while balancing these powers with rights like freedom of speech, freedom from arbitary police power, the rights of suspects and the accused, etc. The whole point of common law is that that balance has emerged over time – it is the product of hundreds of years of legislation and court rulings. That means that if it needs changing or tweaking, you get a democratic mandate from the people and modify it!

You don’t draft new provisions onto antiquated legislation, plan to publish it after it will be used, then claim that it was never passed. You don’t use this new law on the ground as an excuse to arrest and search people miles away, rather than 5 metres, from the fence. You don’t disapear the charges of the only person formally charged under the act because he’s going to (understandably) challenge its very constitutionality!

For a few days the people with power, the people with guns and armour got to change the rules.

In Canada, we think we’re better than everyone else. Better than the States, that’s for sure, to say nothing of all those people overseas. We’re nice. We like to think we’re nice. We like to pretend everyone’s middle-class. We have the rule of law, human rights; we’re progressive and liberal, and our military is just for peacekeeping. (The latter is a totally out-of-date perception but we’re still coasting on it). Our government might be a little incompetent and all politicians are blowhards at best and crooks at worst, but it basically means well. Most of all, it is legitimate – that’s why we have such a free, comfortable society.

But for a few days in Toronto the threat of violence that underlies our government and society was exposed because a few hoodlums wanted to smash some windows so that they could feel like revolutionaries.

That threat is always there, we just don’t see it most of the time.

(Click on the image for a larger version. The original is from Chris Harding’s “We The Robots“, a beautiful, and sadly defunct comic whose archives is well worth your time.)

Police state (G20 continued)

Nearly a month has passed since the G20, and I’m still slowly processing it in blog form.

Of course I got off easy (see the two entries below for my relatively unremarkable G20 stories). But many weren’t so lucky. People were arrested – sometimes violently – for having a screwdriver in their pocket, for walking home from work, for wearing a black t-shirt. A couple of 17-year old girls were arrested for blowing bubbles. (Can you imagine being their parents during the 12 hours that they were not allowed to phone?)

I don’t use the term ‘police state’ lightly, but that was exactly what they turned downtown Toronto into for almost a week. It was an armed camp with fortifications. I can’t explain how creepy it was to move through those normally bustling streets, near deserted, except for heavily armed, black-clad cops everywhere, far outnumbering the civilians.

And anyone within miles of the dowtown area could be subject to arbitrary arrests and searches without a warrant.

The right to be free from arbitrary policy power, arrests, and searches; the right to be presumed innocent; hell, the right to freedom of speech – those are rights that our ancestors fought revolutions and wars for. Good people died for them. They underly our claim to be a free society, to not be an evil totalitarian regime.

This isn’t Iran or North Korea. The people who were arrested weren’t killed or tortured. They didn’t simply disapear for disagreeing with the government. And life in Canada is not normally like it was during the G20.

But what is so scary is how easily so many of the rights disappeared at the slightest stress, at the slightest threat. There were, at most, a few hundred ‘Black Bloque’ protestors. On their account, the police and the powers that be criminalized tens of thousands of peaceful protestors – not to mention ordinary Torontonians try to go about their business.

For what? For what did they revoke rights, arrest and brutalize peaceful protestors and ordinary people going about their ordinary lives?

Well, the ‘Black Bloque’ caused some property damage. As far as I can tell they never hurt anyone – never targetted or attacked a person. I am not condoning them or their tactics, but the same can’t be said for the security forces, who terrorized and hurt, I think I can say without exagerration, thousands. (Almost a thousand people were arrested, and judging by my experience you didn’t have to get arrested to feel intimidated and scared).

The ironic thing is that they did terrorized so many, they spent so many hundreds of millions of dollars on security, they carted in over 10 000 cops from across the country… and from all appearances and first-hand accounts I have had shared with me, they did basically nothing to stop the Black Bloque rampage.

I’m not one for conspirary theories (and I don’t really believe the one I’m about to propose) but it almost makes you wonder if the police let the Black Bloque run rampant so that they could justify clamping down. So that they could justify the exorbitant security measures and obscene expense that came with it.

Another story about the G20

So after almost getting forcefully arrested at the ‘bike bloc’ protest (see the post below), I had about an hour to kill on my way back through downtown to my workplace.

As I biked, I started thinking about how I had been to two protests and still hadn’t even seen the infamous G20 fence. There had been a lot of coverage in the media about this fence (or more properly, fences) which, from the sounds of it, could survive a full military assault involving tanks and bombs. And imagine – a billion dollar security operation employing 14,000 cops so that the leaders are not only ‘safe,’ but guaranteed to not even see those trying to send them a message. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, not to see any of these decision-makers, not to see the place where they were meeting, but to at least see the fence they erected to separate themselves from everyone else?

So naturally I got stopped by a group of policeman heading down Yonge Street (one of the main drags in Toronto). Pretty soon they were going through my bag. They claimed they could search me without a warrant because I was on ‘highway’ (for those of you unfamiliar with the city, Yonge Street is no ‘highway’ under any normal usage of the term). The way they explained it, anyone on a road or sidewalk – or near one – could be subject to search without warrant – which contradicts just about every representation I’ve ever heard of civil liberties. When I brought up the now infamous ‘five metres from the fence’ Public Works bill amendment secretly passed by the Ontario cabinet (or maybe ‘not passed,’ depending on who you ask, now that they’re backpeddling), they asked suspiciously why I knew so much about it. (I read about it on the front page of the Toronto Star).

Now, I had two empty dishsoap bottles in my backpack so that I could stop off at an environmental shop on the way home and refill them with detergent. Apparently, such things are suspicious and dangerous weapons! They had a really hard time understand the concept of refilling bottles so as not to waste plastic. One officer came over, swore at me and called me a liar while I was trying to explain it to two others. They confiscated them and a glass iced tea bottle I was using as a water bottle. (They said protesters had been filling bottles with urine and throwing them at police).

I offered to bike away from the fence, if they left me the bottles. They said no, but that they could write me a receipt for my bottles, and I could come collect them at the police station after the G20. (Ah, bureaucracy). They obviously didn’t want to, but I said they were inconveniencing me, so I felt like I might as well return the favour.

Of course, then they got to the bike tools in the bottom of my bike bag. (After suffering a lot of break-downs in the space of a year, I started carrying them with me everywhere). I admit my heart sank a little – of course, soon they were speculating about whether I was planning to use them to cut my way through the fence. (How I would do this with a screwdriver, a few wrenches and a patch kit, I don’t know).

At this point, one of the officers took pity on me (or got lazy?) and offered to let me keep the tools if I biked away in the opposite direction and didn’t come back. And they would keep my bottles, and not give me a receipt.

So I did.

A story about the G20

So… I went to the Toronto G20 protests a couple of weeks ago. I’ve never been a protest/activist kid, but I figured I am against pretty much everything the G20 stands for (i.e. unbridled capitalistic and technological development at the expense of humans and the environment). Most of all, I wanted to stand – albeit in a tiny and probably inconsequential way – against what “security” forces were doing to my adopted city. I wanted to say to say I was not afraid, despite the forces of paranoid violence being marshaled in the name of said “security.”

(I probably should have been more afraid).

So I went to a march on Friday, and then a Critical Mass-inspired bike protest on Sunday, after the shit had gone down Saturday.

I liked the bike protest. Biking is fun, it was explicitly non-violent, and the participants seemed to be mostly locals. (I admit to having a hard time respecting protest tourists, and when travelling to other cities, people rarely bring along bikes along – they don’t fit in duffel bags very well). The police had a much harder time blocking and boxing off a flexible, mobile group of cyclists than they did marchers.

(And they did that quite a bit. It is quasi-understandable that the police would block off streets leading down to the infamous fence, but they also seemed to delight in randomly blocking off legitimate peaceful protesters whenever possible, whichever direction they might be headed.)

Right as we were about to start, some guy got up and said ‘there are no leaders of this protest, but if you want to do something violent, please go somewhere else.’ Then we tried to get on the road, but the police blocked us off. There was a small gap at the back – not enough police to completely pin us in that far from the fence apparently – and we slowly trickled out, even as police continue to block, harass, and sometimes grab people trying to get onto the road with the rest of the group.

After a few hours, the ride ended at the temporary detention centre. (Strangely, a line of police had channeled us right toward it – though several people within the group had been advocating that as a final destination for some time). We dismounted and chanted various things in support of those inside. Conditions inside were pretty terrible from what I’ve heard, and people were routinely denied a phone call for over 12 hours – it was again, a tiny thing, but we hoped they might hear us and know that people in the outside world cared.

I ended up on the left edge of the crowd (picture a T intersection with the protesters at the centre, facing the detention centre and its fence). Suddenly a bus pulled up and a bunch of riot cops started getting out on the road to the left of me. They quickly formed up into a line about 15 feet away.

We formed our own line, holding our bikes in front of us. Because I was on the edge of the crowd, to my chagrin, I found myself one of those on the front line. We were chanting ‘peaceful protest, peaceful protest’ (probably the most common chant the whole ride long).

I couldn’t really believe it, but after a couple of minutes of standing there, the riot police started advancing on us shouting ‘move.’ Those of us right up front nervously edged back a bit, but there really wasn’t anywhere to go. (I later learned that lines of riot cops had descended from the two other directions of the intersection – they had us surrounded, with nowhere to go).

As they got close, one riot cop lunged and grabbed the girl beside me, immediately assisted by those beside him. They threw the girl behind the line, separated her from her bike, pinned her to the ground, tied her up with their plastic cuffs, and dragged her away.

That description doesn’t really do justice to how brutal and violent they were to her. It seemed like they were hitting her, but I admit to being fairly distracted by the cops that were right there in front of me – about, I thought, to do the same to me.

They grabbed a couple of other people at the same time, and a couple of other people’s bikes – I just saw what happened to this girl up close and personal, which is why I’m telling you about it. The line of cops actually stopped advancing as we began yelling ‘shame, shame,’ but I don’t know if those two facts are causally connected.

We sat down. After a while, a cop with some sort of authority came and tried talking to us. He told us it was illegal to sit and stay in one place. Apparently, as long as we kept moving that was ok, but it was ‘illegal’ to protest by sitting in place. Now remember that they had us surrounded and blocked off – there was no place to go. Some people pointed this out, but nothing seemed to come of it. At one point a couple of ‘protesters’ walked out of the crowd and got a big handshake and friendly greeting from this head cop; they didn’t rejoin those of us sitting down.

More time passed, and more riot cops with huge guns (for tear gas pellets, presumably) started climbing out of armoured vehicles. A lot of us started feeling like it might just be time to move on, and apparently they were now letting people out at the back of the T intersection. I actually had to go back to work in an hour or so – there was a person in wheelchair relying on me to help him eat and go to bed, which had made me a lot less ok with the idea of getting arrested all along.

So I biked away. That wasn’t the end of my adventures that day, but that’s enough for today’s storytime.