Life in the Militarized zone, How Toronto has failed to negotiate the line between civil liberty and safety:

‘Revolution is mankind’s way of life today. This is the age of revolution; the “age of indifference” is gone forever. But the latter age paved way for today; for the great masses of mankind, while still suffering the greatest oppression and the greatest affronts to their dignity as human beings, never ceased to resist, to fight as well as they could, to live in combat”

–       Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, uttering a sentiment that now seems woefully inaccurate. Perhaps today is the second coming of the “age of indifference”.

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces

After the frosty silence in the gardens

After the agony in stony places

The shouting and the crying

Prison and palace and reverberation

Of thunder of spring over distant mountains

He who was living is now dead

We who were living are now dying

With a little patience

–       T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland

… Thunder rolls in from the west… suddenly a steady downpour obscures our Beautiful city by the lake; the ominous nature of this pathetic fallacy does not go unnoticed… Protesters, voyeurs and exhibitionists, spectators, provocateurs and passers-by; they’re all wet, rattled and stranded in the empty, decontaminated streets… The Police Presence, an uncountable force, starts to act and react like a confused and angry drunk… the curiously Orwellian-named ‘Free-Speech-Zone’ was tear gassed and cleared out, while, at another junction entirely, the goon-squad of dumb beasts who call themselves the Black Bloc proliferated their platform of destruction for destruction’s sake. Questions about the sheer possibility of democratic organization in our time, and our seemingly involuntary desire to surrender our own liberty in the face of sudden militarization, have become inexplicably unanswerable. Where are we? Surely these are no longer “our streets”.

Allow me to come clean. In attempting to name the nature of these recent events in Toronto I will invariably inject bits of bias here and there. After all, this is an emotional time and many of our reactions are more visceral than rational. I am disheartened, frustrated, annoyed, angered, and saddened by what has been presented by the TV news media as the ‘two sides’ of these confrontations.

On one side there are the protesters.  Some of which are of the Black Bloc persuasion, a group united more by its tactics than any one ideal. They snake their way through marches until, suddenly, they unleash havoc on their surroundings, apparently to demonstrate their opposition to our political structure as a whole. This is not exactly an anarchist group; they are, unbelievably, even more reactionary.

There are what some media outlets have called the “legitimate protesters”, who are the ones, for the most part, who leave me disheartened. If anything these marches and half-hearted sit-ins have proved, to me at least, that the great protests of the civil rights movement era are perhaps now impossible. Their marches seem to be equal parts protester and voyeur; chock full of random spectators attracted more to the allure of possible ‘action’ than by any intellectual qualm.

On the other side there is the establishment, represented physically by the police. In a strangely ironic fashion, Harper’s one billion dollar security force was inexplicably absent Saturday night when the city was in chaos, and if anything, it was overwhelming the following day in response to protests that were essentially peaceful. I watched with grim fascination while, at the Pape and Eastern sit-in at the foot of temporary detention centre, a young woman was thrashed around by police and then thrown into the black depths of an unmarked van by men in plain clothes. She was driven off wildly into the distance, and after that, who knows?

The police maintain she was wanted, but I have to ask where in our constitution or criminal code is this kind of due process described? Is being in the g20 not some  (regardless of its validity) ostensible declaration of a nation’s democratic progressiveness? How do we reconcile the disparity between the civilized, if not stuffy character of the Summit with the dour implications of the Oceanic madness barking at its front door?

While many Torontonians and residents of neighboring communities have tried to conceptualize this event in a purely one-sided, black and white sense, I think it is important we pay tribute to the obvious poly-sidedness of this weekend. We have to remember that in addition to each march involving different movements of people, there are significant ideological and methodological differences between individual protesters. By calling them wholly disruptive or destructive, or to say, as one City24 caller did, that they are merely unkempt and unemployed youngsters, one misses out on a truly rich intellectual experience, one whose confrontational nature is rarely experienced in this, I daresay, often unnecessarily polite country.

Between the Black Bloc’s parade of destruction Saturday night and the police’s use of undue force on Sunday, in addition to the obvious restrictions on freedom of speech, the right to assemble, and the liberties of a free press (see: 5 CTV employees unlawfully detained on Sunday) Toronto now feels foreign to me. Protesters today chanted “whose streets? Our streets!” which feel less true now more than ever.

Torontonians did not want this summit, nor did we want to be temporarily transported to a militarized wasteland, divided against each other, and forced to listen about the destruction caused by ‘protesters’ and the heroism of our one billion dollar police force. The Black Bloc are not protesters, they possess an over abundance of the necessary passion and conviction of a good activist without any of the intelligence or moral scruples. And our police force, in my eyes, has shown no heroism. In a more cerebral, roundabout way, the federal government is above all else to blame for this g20 catastrophe. And that, at this time, appears to be the only applicable moniker; catastrophe. The cost of non-binding political posturing has been the sacrifice of personal liberty, a startling assault on the very conceptual foundation of our rule of law, and a disgusting display of wanton criminality committed by lost souls dressed in black.

May I add that their use of masks is unfortunately cowardly? If memory serves me correct, I don’t recall ever hearing that the Kent State students, who were shot in Ohio while protesting the Viet Nam War, were wearing masks, nor did the Black Panthers, suffragettes or Malcolm X ever don black bandannas.

Even the so-called legitimate protesters are mostly members of the generation of identity-politics (my generation I suppose). You know, the arguments that invariably begin with “speaking as a […]”, and then continue on with a sentiment utterly devoid of any substantive, progressive thinking. Even our activism has become vain and self-obsessed. Case in point; the protest marches compiled mostly of docile onlookers, snapping camera phone pictures, taking only keepsakes from these actions of political and moral autonomy.

9:14 p.m. Queen St. W. and Spadina Ave.

A young man in his early 20s said he was merely crossing the intersection and watching the commotion, when he was scooped up by riot police.

The man, who wore only a T-shirt, jogging shorts and runners, said he’s on vacation in Canada from Ireland. He shivered in the rain, with his hands handcuffed behind him as an officer told him he had a right to call a lawyer. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled faintly. “Some vacation,” he said in a broad Irish accent.

Police are doing their paperwork in the shelter of store doorways. They ask the detainees if they have any medical conditions they should know about. One young woman shivering was wrapped in a silver Mylar blanket.  (thestar.com)

This is not the Toronto I know and Love. I can barely remember her face.

“It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing.”

– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four

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2 thoughts on “Life in the Militarized zone, How Toronto has failed to negotiate the line between civil liberty and safety:

  1. In my eyes the G20 reaction was not a protest but an incoherent outpouring of repressed energy. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves but they lack cohesive initiation. So they look back. At this point protest culture in North America is futile because it is inseparable from the historical media archive. Everyone feels as though they are existing in a movie, whether by performing their protestations or capturing the moment as camera phone Scorseses.

    Saturday afternoon I walked out of work on Richmond street after observing the riots from our fifth floor restaurant patio. A slew of bike cops cycled past me, seemingly unaware that anyone would be in that part of the secure zone. One officer yelled to the rest of the group “I’m going to fucking kick their asses! I am going to kick all of their faces in!” before he caught me staring at him, awkwardly snapped to attention and continued on his way. I turned the corner on to Queen street, watched the smoke rise from a police car while seven riot cops flanked a young man and pulled him down Queen. I turned around and walked East, where I ran into several U of T classmates. They invited me, with wild-eyed excitement to “come check it out with us! Come protest! We want to see some flaming cars!” I didn’t see a single person calling out for a decisive, passionate or clear political issue.

    After a long winter of huddling inside over computers the city is bursting with energy. There is some craving to exist in a tangible, physical way in this historical moment. But there is also a huge amount of fear. People want to provoke and they want to watch the aftermath but they don’t want to commit to something that could imply lasting social change. They are too afraid and, realistically, far too secure to confront the challenges of a true movement.

    Has anyone else noticed that in the chatter about Toronto’s streets everyone has conveniently forgotten to discuss what’s actually happening at the Summit meeting downtown? The most powerful financial leaders in the world are gathering to discuss their plans for international economic policy. With the current financial crisis, glaring global social inequality and perpetual unsustainable use of valuable resources the specific decisions made by these powers will have enormous consequences.

    Clearly people aren’t completely satisfied with their reality but they’re not ready or willing to channel that energy into something new. The risk is too high. We still value capitalism too much to lose it.

    Everyone involved wanted the reaction to the G20 to be something it wasn’t. But isn’t it telling that they wanted something?

  2. I think it’s pretty simplistic to say that people were protesting for the sake of protesting, solely to be part of some larger social movement ‘after a long winter of huddling inside over computers’. I saw multiple instances of media coverage of peaceful protesters in which the leaders of these groups were eager to espouse their message of anti-globalization and reorganization of the economic system, and I’m sure this idea shocked the paradigm of many average citizens. This is what protests are all about, presenting an alternative position to the mainstream and using collective action to gather support.

    It is of course a shame that the efforts of these peaceful groups were overshadowed by the destructive actions of the Black Bloc, but I think it does them a disservice to say that their efforts are pointless and only serve to reinforce some Hollywood notion of how change takes place. If people can’t get angry, speak up, and attract media attention through peaceful protest, how do you suggest people change the reality with which they are dissatisfied? Obviously protests are not the only answer, but it sounds to me like you’re discounting them completely as a romantic option without offering any clear alternatives.

    I think those people protesting peacefully this weekend were brave and admirable, especially those who came back on Sunday despite everything that took place the day before, and I hope people continue to have that bravery as we enter a future of increased government control and decreased democratic processes.

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