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College Quarterly
Spring 2012 - Volume 15 Number 2
Whose Streets? The G20 and the Challenges of Summit Protest
Tom Malleson and David Wachsmuth, eds.
Toronto: Between the Lines, 2011
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Two years after the event, the blame is still being apportioned. There is plenty to be shared. It starts (or should start) at the top. Prime Minister Stephen Harper imposed the G-20 gabfest in 2010 upon the City of Toronto which was, to be kind, a reluctant host. At about the same time, the G-8 met for an event north of the city that received extensive criticism and about $50 million in largely implausible federal government spending to spruce up a vacation spot. The beneficiaries of the Mr. Harper’s largesse included the many friends of Tony Clement, the sitting Member of Parliament and a minister in Harper’s government. That disgrace, however, was just an ordinary scandal involving the casual expenditure of public funds. No one in the resort community of Muskoka was beaten, falsely imprisoned or otherwise deprived of fundamental civil rights. The G20 in Toronto was different.

No one in authority at any level of government has seen fit to authorize a public inquiry with subpoena power. Instead, a half-dozen targeted reviews of parts of the problem have been completed and made public. The whole story of how the police, in local journalist Ellie Kirzner’s apt phrase, “went feral” will probably never be fully known except to those in power, and they will certainly not willingly reveal what they know.

The names of the principal culprits are familiar. A step down from the Prime Minister is Ontario’s Premier, Dalton McGuinty, who was culpable for allowing an antique law concerning the protection of public buildings to be inappropriately resurrected as a cover for police wrong-doing. The Chief of Police, Bill Blair, and his senior officers have received well-deserved disapproval for the debacle, but Blair remains unapologetic and firmly entrenched in his position. The timid civilian police oversight board has belatedly been told that it was at fault for not exercising due diligence, but although its Chair has apologized after a fashion, he has refused to consider resignation—despite an open call by former Toronto Mayor John Sewell to do precisely that. And, of course, there are the officers at the scene and in the squalid detention facility who have been shown to have, again to be kind, behaved in an unprofessional manner. Even the Toronto City Council cannot escape notice since, in the wake of the fiasco, it unanimously voted to “commend the outstanding work of Chief Bill Blair, the Toronto Police Service and the Police Officers working during the G-20 summit in Toronto.” The cost to taxpayers, apart from embarrassment and notoriety, was well over one billion dollars.

Canadians have been discredited to undue deference to authority before. For example, people of a certain age vividly recall the “October Crisis” of 1970 when, chiefly for theatrical reasons, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act. It was the low point in his deeply personal obsession with Quebec separatism.

As well, in 1998, peaceful demonstrators were filmed during a pepper spray attack by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police near a meeting of Pacific Rim officials including Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, President Bill Clinton and the genocidal President of Indonesia. In June, 2010, however, a further and much greater blow to the country’s reputation was inflicted. As Naomi Klein says in her “Foreword” to Whose Streets? “the use of pepper spray on peaceful protesters outside [the] APEC summit … [was} quaint by G20 standards.” Still, both occurrences provoked outrage. It is not yet possible, she adds, to be “blasé about state violence,” or so she hopes. What happened during what Kirzner recently called “William Blair’s lost weekend” was shockingly summed up by a police officer in the midst of the conflict. He shouted at a citizen who had the temerity to complain about civil rights violations: “This isn’t Canada anymore!”

College teachers in Ontario and elsewhere are commonly been given the task of teaching students about involvement in civic life and the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship. This is particularly pertinent though by no means restricted to the curriculum of programs in law enforcement, police foundations, public safety or whatever phrase is used to “brand” the training needed to serve and protect the public. In doing so, we are regularly cautioned to keep personal political opinions out of the classroom. Even in courses with inherently controversial subject matter such as can be found in several of the social sciences and humanities, something approaching “objective” knowledge is deemed fitting for dissemination; in the alternative, systemic critical interpretations are spurned. Apart from the mixed messages they may send to aspirant enthusiasts to “law and order” who may elsewhere be encouraged to be “tough on crime,” they involve matters that are difficult to squeeze into lists of measurable “learning objectives” and to assess as “vocational competencies.” Still, they remain at or near the top of an inventory of valuable college experiences that are difficult to replicate in everyday life, never mind on multiple choice exam questions. Not everyone is inclined to think seriously about the larger implications of what they do.

Whose Streets? is a controversial book. It should be, because it deals with almost every violation of policy and procedure imaginable in “crowd control” short of the use of lethal force. It also examines the absence of accountability among political and administrative officials whose duty is both to maintain order, and to uphold basic rights and freedoms. It is a disturbing case study in conceptual and operational failure. Whether it will become “required reading” in programs dedicated to the graduation of potential police officers with a solid understanding and appreciation of their proper role in a democratic society is uncertain.

The book takes its name from an inflammatory phrase used by a senior police official to describe their mission: “Take back the streets!” Together with other shady tactics such as “pre-emptive arrests,” “kettling,” beating and arresting demonstrators in officially sanctioned “free speech” zones, infiltrating law-abiding environmental and peace groups, abandoning stripped down police cars where the dreaded “black bloc” (and certain agents provocateurs?) would be sure to find them, damage them and thereby generate dramatic film that would be endlessly recycled in the media, and generating fear in the larger population by constantly warning the public of impending violence both directly and through the corporate media, the stage was set for the desired conflict—a self-justifying action to excuse swelling the police presence to between fifteen and twenty thousand officers on the street and the expenditure of almost as much money as has been needed to fund the dubious Canadian military adventure in Afghanistan.

Begun as a pamphlet to be sold in the effort to shave a little off the mounting legal expenses of some of the more than one thousand people who were arrested, Whose Streets? grew in size and scope. Its final form is a 230-page document that is designed to achieve three purposes: organization, testament and political action.

The first section is something of a backgrounder to the protests. It is a handbook that will surely be useful in the coming years if opposition to current political and economic trends appears more often in the streets. In eight tightly argued articles, the methods of community organizing for protest are explained and assessed. Of special interest are the contributions concerning various communities and organizations including activists in support of Indigenous peoples, trade unions, etc. Picking up from the anti-globalization demonstrations of the late 1990s and early 2000s that temporarily faded during the hysteria following the events of September 11, 2001, a common theme is articulated despite the apparent diversity of interests. Participants in the G20 demonstrations included feminists, environmentalists, anti-poverty groups and others with specific complaints, all of which were tied—to update President Eisenhower’s most famous phrase—to the global corporate-government-military-ideological complex. The critique of neoliberalism as theory and practice was pervasive.

One of the incessant arguments made especially in the media about protests of the sort discussed in Whose Streets? is an alleged lack of focus. Apparently stymied by the absence of a clear agenda or prioritized set of demands, and frustrated by the absence of a single person or small group that could be made the “face” of the movement and readied for ten-second sound-bites on the evening news, it is almost amusing to hear television anchors, newspaper reporters and sundry pundits interpret what, to them, is a mass of confusion and not an expression of democracy and solidarity. A well-publicized placard saying “This Is What Democracy Looks Like!” won no wise nods of approval from the media—just bewilderment.

Of course, as co-editor Tom Malleson, an anti-poverty and migrant justice activist as well as a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Toronto, ably demonstrates in the opening chapter, the lack of organization is more apparent than real. As his helpful organization chart of the structure and process of the Toronto Community Mobilization Network shows, the people who were responsible for planning events and motivating participants were skilled communicators and organizers, but were plainly uninterested in their own Warholian fifteen minutes of fame. The lessons they learned and have shared should be of assistance to anyone engaged in grassroots work from the students in Quebec to anti-austerity activists in Europe. The fact that they have also hereby shared them with the authorities may be taken as a sign of good faith in the democratic values they espouse. In fact, they might even assist anyone engaged in, for example, educational innovation, though the assertion that “organizers should assume that the police are everywhere” might not stringently apply.

The second expressed purpose is to provide a forum where people who were the victims of the law enforcement agencies could describe their experiences as a brief but enduring record of the hurt and humiliation they endured. Not all of those who were incarcerated were protesters. Some, like Elroy Lau were just ordinary citizens on their way to work. Lau, an employee of the Toronto Transit Commission was dressed in his TTC uniform and walking along a street far from the G20 site. For no apparent reason, he was tackled by police and forced to the sidewalk. He has been under medical care ever since. Another woman was arrested for “breaking and entering” as she opened the door to her workplace near the summit headquarters using her own key. The poignant account of being shot by police using rubber bullets is almost as distressing as the constant but finally abandoned police denial that they were ever used. There is also the story of John Pruyn, an above-the-knee amputee whose prosthetic limb was torn off by the authorities, who was told to “hop” to a police van, and who was taken to the detention centre where he was locked, still handcuffed, in a cage for twenty-six hours. Originally accused of “resisting arrest,” he was eventually released after the authorities claimed to have misplaced his paperwork. They “misplaced” his money, glasses and walking sticks as well. Although he was not picked up on the streets and may therefore fall technically outside the span of the book, another individual merits mention. Byron Sonne, a self-admitted computer geek, was later arrested, held in jail for eleven months, put through the anguish of a two-year legal process and only released when cleared of all charges by the courts. In the process, he lost his job, his home and his marriage. Not all the injuries inflicted on the streets, in the holding facility, in university buildings or on the grassy lawns of the provincial parliament where some officers ran more than a little amok.

Finally, the editors explain that they want “this book to be a political act in itself—to stimulate lively discussion about left politics in Canada, and further the debate about how the global justice movement can move forward in the years ahead—so that progressives can learn from each other, deepen our understanding, and strengthen our analysis.” By linking the G20 protest to earlier anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle, Québec City Genoa and other displays of resistance in the among the 1994 Zapatistas in Mexico, the volatile forces of the “Arab Spring,”  and current actions of the indignatos in Spain that the G20 protests are contextualized. More recently, the “Occupy” movement that was dreamt up in Vancouver and set in motion on Wall Street also a part of the G20 legacy. In their expression of hopes and plans for the future, the eight contributors to the last section of the book give us much to consider.

There is an enlightening interior debate about the relationship between protest and violence wherein, I am pleased to say, the name of Slavoj Žižek does not seem to hold sway. There is a sensible analysis of the cooptation of labour unions and the decline of social activism in working class organizations, though it should also be recalled that public sector unions are resuscitating their commitment to larger causes than the “bread-and-butter” issues around contract negotiation and being alert to management violations of contractual obligations and consequent grievances. My own union, for instance, was one of several providing material assistance to the “Occupy Toronto,” sent organizers to help the public sector unions in their struggle against draconian legislation in Wisconsin and keeps open contact with student protesters in Québec. There are also encouraging arguments in support both of “convergences” when special events focus national and international attention, and when efforts by a wide array of community-based groups to build upon local needs and grow into important participants in local political life.

The editors of Whose Streets? and their contributors have done commendable work. All three of their main goals have been achieved, though using the past tense implies that this is a completed act, when it is actually a work in process. Even now, two years later, thanks not only to activists, but also partly to the continuing interest of the Toronto Star newspaper, the G20 has not vanished from the collective memory of people in Toronto.

One modest result is that Police Chief Blair has acknowledged that some errors may have been made, but he has put the blame on the alleged lack of time to do proper planning and to train officers for their jobs in managing social protest. In fact, there was plenty of time to purchase an ear-splitting “sound cannon,” to infiltrate local organizations, to bring in thousands of officers from across Canada and the United States, to set up systems to allocate overtime pay to both local and external police officers, and to militarize the centre of Canada’s largest city.

The criminalization of dissent was not a tactic developed spontaneously. By continuing to poke, to probe, and occasionally to expose ongoing malfeasance, the images of that weekend in June, 2010 have not disappeared down our collective memory hole. The fact that discussion and demands for accountability persist may be even more heartening than the fact that no one knew or cared what the G20 finance ministers and central bankers were telling themselves at the time or since. Those who were ultimately responsible for precipitating the most recent crisis in casino capitalism remain isolated. The fence that was erected to keep dissenters out, ultimately imprisoned them.

It is, perhaps, worth noting that initial Canadian public reaction to authoritarian state measures intended to stifle opposition and, if possible, to destroy social justice organizations has been generally positive. Canadians, it seems, have an almost innate respect for authority and confidence in their defining political tenet—the genuinely conservative preference for “peace, order and good government” over the seemingly reckless liberal call for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” After time has cooled outrage at apparent breaches of etiquette, and after at least there has been at least partial disclosure of the actual facts of a situation have allowed sober reflection on the root causes of threats to tranquility, Canadians have also shown perceptible modification of opinion.

Sometimes reconsideration is assisted by images of police officers in “Darth Vader” costumes stomping unresisting citizens for exercising their clear rights of free speech and assembly. Such photos are regularly displayed today. They will not go away soon. The publication of Whose Streets? will also encourage a better appreciation of events among thoughtful readers, although those most likely to purchase it probably need little convincing, and least likely to change their minds will probably not choose to read it—or much of anything else.

Still, scepticism regarding state violence is growing. Some years after the imposition of the War Measures Act, the majority support for Trudeau’s decision had largely evaporated. Today, the ease with which citizens automatically endorse the rough treatment of protesters has diminished as well. Whereas fear-mongering about terrorists works for a while, and while Police Chief Blair’s heated warnings about a “criminal conspiracy” temporarily shaped some of the public reaction, Prime Minister Harper’s tirades against environmentalists concerned with the ecological implications of the Tar Sands are not as easily accepted. The demonizing of people who, for example, resist such measures as the partisan slashing of funds to NGOs in the foreign aid sector and which have made the federal government look meaner than even a neoliberal agenda requires is no longer easy. The so-called “hidden agenda” of the federal government and the collusion of provincial and municipal governments is increasingly visible.

So, knowledge that the G20 protesters were denied food, water and access to attorneys, and instead were subjected to beatings and sexual abuse has resulted in sober second thought, not by the Senate which is constitutionally mandated to provide that cautious review of legislation, but by the people who are assuming the mantle of sobriety in an increasingly uncivil public discourse. People have been tricked a few times too often. At the same time, the optimism of the G20 protesters needs to be tempered with the experience of Naomi Klein. She says at the beginning of Whose Streets? that “because much of [the] money went to arming the police with a new arsenal of weaponry … I fear, that we G20 protesters were just the guinea pigs. That those are the weapons of the future, designed to be turned on anyone else in the country who dares to resist the G20’s policies.”

Teachers and students, nurses and patients, young and old, workers, consumers and environmentalists be cautioned: as American civil rights activists and feminists reminded us a scant fifty years ago: we have some a long way, but we still have so terribly far to go.

Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at