One Year Later

Posted on June 28, 2011

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I tried to write a post on the G20 anniversary yesterday, where I made a carefully constructed argument about the necessity to remember what happened a year ago in downtown Toronto or some other thing. It didn’t work. I found myself somewhat paralyzed as I tried to type it. For the first time in several months, I watched videos of snatch squad arrests of, of the cop who physically intimidated an unarmed man while insisting that “there are no civil rights right now“, and the heartbreaking personal testimonies of people who suffered through the night in the makeshift detention center and were courageous enough to tell the story. This was complemented by recent media attention paid to the stories of Sean Salvati who was arrested and humiliated three days before the summit even began, and Leah Henderson, who is still prevented by draconian bail conditions from properly living her life. I also read Bill Blair’s infuriating and ethically bankrupt insistence that mass arrests were necessary to avert hypothetical anarchist violence, and the seemingly infinite number of news site comments from random citizens who insist that all the people I mentioned above deserved what they got. I had to stop writing. As much as the philosopher in me wants to be cold and rational, the human being in me just cannot remain objective in the face of this imagery. So there will be no argument in this post. Instead, I’m going to indulge in that favourite bleeding-heart Liberal pastime and talk about my feelings.

In some ways, I have no right to be so distraught by the recollection of that weekend. I was, after all, lucky enough to have a family commitment that kept me in Windsor during the mass arrests. We can debate whether the Easter Avenue Detention Centre was really any worse than Windsor, Ontario, but the end result was that my worst experience of the whole thing was an illegal search on my way down to the anti-police brutality rally.* I was not detained, charged, pepper-sprayed, teargassed, horse-trampled, kettled, shield-bashed, punched, or struck with a baton. The cops conducting the illegal search were even fairly polite to me. So what reason do I have to be so upset, when I was spared the treatment that so many were forced to suffer through?

I think what concerns me the most is the apathy. When I talk to non-activist friends I still inevitably hear that the protesters should have simply stayed away, and that storefront windows are more valuable than civil liberties. Were it not for my scheduling conflict, I would have been there bearing the brunt of the arrests, so whenever I hear this in a conversation I cannot help but interpret it as the speaker suggesting that I personally deserve to be assaulted. That kind of sentiment does not normally come up in polite conversation, and so I think it’s understandable that it unnerves me a little bit. I simply cannot fathom how disturbing it is for actual victims of Blair’s rampage to hear these things.

That’s the pessimistic side of things, and as pessimistic sides of things go it’s pretty damned pessimistic. It was literally enough to keep me up at night yesterday. But I don’t want to subject any of you to the same unease, so I’m going to try and salvage some hope from this story. The hope comes from two tales, of two rallies.

Yours truly, keeping his distance. Those cops were scary.

The first was on the Monday directly after the mass arrests. The aforementioned illegal search had shaken myself and my friend. We were unarmed, and taken together, we made up the weight of the smallest of the half-dozen cops who had accosted us. After the videos we had seen, the officers’ politeness was far from adequate assurance of our safety. Arriving in front of the police station, we encountered the even more intimidating presence of hundreds of police officers lined up to form about 95 percent of a kettle. They were blocking the front of the police station, had closed off College Street on either side of the block save for a five-foot opening, and were standing in the doors of the office building behind us to cut off that route of escape. They could have kettled us for hours, or arrested every single one of us with no difficulty whatsoever. Clearly my friend and I were not the only ones who were intimidated. The crowd in front of the station slowly grew, but it remained a crowd. Nobody was talking to any strangers; there was no sense of purpose. People simply milled about aimlessly and silently, not sure what to do. Nobody wanted to be the first person to start shouting, lest they be dragged from the crowd to the same fate that had befallen 1105 people over the previous days. There even seemed to be a resistance to acknowledging that anybody else was there for the same reason we were, as though even the thought of solidarity would be punished with batons and zip-ties.

Then, one brave voice was heard over the crowd’s uncharacteristic silence:

shame. shame. shame.

It only took a few repetitions for the one lone individual to grow to a small group, and it was less than a minute before the previously frightened, unconnected crowd was calling out with one powerful voice, accompanied by hundreds of defiant fists shaking in unison at the cops in front of the police headquarters.

SHAME! SHAME! SHAME! SHAME! SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!

It was a moving experience, and in remembering it I feel exactly the opposite of how I felt last night watching the footage of police violence. Where moments before I had felt terrified of the police, at that point I felt far more powerful than they were. The people, united, had made clear their intention to not be defeated. I know this sounds cliched, but there’s no other way to put it. Perhaps there are only a limited number of ways one can describe such an experience in writing, and they’ve all long since been used. In any case, the pure, concentrated, amplified rage of that rally gave all of us strength and confidence. I can trace much of my current activism to that very moment. The tactics which were supposed to scare activists away wound up simply drawing more from the woodwork. In stirring up that rage, the Toronto Police created a powerful and dedicated enemy, which continues to dog them a year after the events and is slowly but surely putting them on the political defensive. A year ago they could have accused us of being whiners, but today it is they who are whining at us. Thanks to the energy created in moments like that first rally, we no longer whining. We are winning.

A year later and the police are far less frightening, but this person is still way braver than I am.

The second rally happened this past Saturday, nearly a year to the day after the first one. It was also held in front of the police headquarters, and it also involved a lot of very empowering chanting and shouting. It was a much needed refresher of the inspirational afternoon of a year before, but there was more to it than that. The same group of cops was lining the steps of the building, and somebody with a megaphone took full advantage of this. An open-mic of sorts was held, in which those who had fallen victim to the police a year ago were invited to share their stories. As people told their tales of assault, deprivation, humiliation and ongoing harassment, the cries of “shame” were no less powerful than they had been a year ago, despite coming from a somewhat smaller (though by no means tiny) crowd. One man in particular caught my attention when it was his turn on the megaphone. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it sounded something like this:

“I was arrested and detained for twenty-four hours on the charge of possessing a weapon. I had been pulled off the streets where I was serving as a volunteer street medic. Do you know what my weapon was? Gauze! I was carrying gauze so that I could help injured protesters, just as I would have helped any of you (gesturing at the police officers) if you needed it!”

It occurred to me that it’s actually pretty amazing that somebody who had suffered so much at the hands of the police could reaffirm his commitment to help them if they needed it, even as he expressed his anger at what they had done with him. This sense of amazement grew when, later in the rally, I overheard some protesters having what was a fairly polite chat with two cops on the line. It resonated with me. In that moment, I saw the cops as human beings for the first time in a year.

I suppose my personal conclusion from this long and convoluted account of my emotions is that rage is useful and empowering, but it must be channeled. Every single police officer is to some extent responsible for what happened in Toronto last summer. Some went so far as to remove their name-tags and assault handcuffed detainees with batons, while others are guilty of the lesser charge of having failed to voice their objection to what they were being ordered to do. We need to act on our collective rage and fight for accountability, for the restoration of civil rights, and for a formal apology if not the unconditional resignation of Bill Blair and his top commanders who were serving that weekend. But while some consequences are necessary to send a clear message to all Canadian police officers that this conduct is unacceptable, we must remember that the officers are still people, and it would be an ugly world indeed if everybody was defined solely by the worst thing they had ever done. We have to be willing to act in solidarity not only with the oppressed, but also with the oppressors. Our goal is not to simply turn the tables of oppression, but to eliminate it. As constructive and empowering as our collective rage may be, it must always be tempered by the realization that even the worst villains are still human beings.

*Despite filing a formal complaint about this illegal search and giving an interview, I have received no formal recognition of any wrongdoing.