The fallout from Toronto's G20 protests

Cops and protesters clashed, but agreed on one thing: the other side was to blame

Reuters/ Nic Thorne/ Getty Images

As the crowd in Toronto’s Allan Gardens spilled onto Carlton Street, many looked around, as if searching for directions. It was the first official day of G20 protesting, and while the mob eventually headed west, at no point did it feel like any one person or group was at the helm.

Young men at the front chanted, “Free, free Palestine.” Pro-choicers carried empty coffins with coat hangers attached. Others clung to banners. One read, “Animal rights are human rights.” On another: “Defend Iran against imperialist attack.” Tuition and poverty were hot topics. So were maternal health and gay rights. Some were there to denounce Israel. Others, the U.S. When asked what he was protesting, a native man with a long golden ponytail said, simply, “everything.”

Single-issue movements, complete with a cohesive agenda and top-down leadership, are a thing of the past. These days, international summits like the G20, during which leaders propose to tackle many issues, attract a variety of groups, often with totally different missions and motives. “The downside,” says Adam Harmes, a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario who specializes in international summits and protests, is that it “dilutes the messages.”

The only message heard round the world last weekend came courtesy of a band of balaclava-clad anarchists. On Saturday afternoon, the small group, adhering to “black bloc” tactics, broke away from the rest of the pack during a peaceful march, torching several police cars and smashing store windows in the name of anti-globalization. But even here, there wasn’t a clear consensus. For instance, one group of anarchists was berating another group over the smashing of windows in a mom-and-pop leather-goods shop, instead of the likes of a Starbucks. Early the next morning, police arrested about 70 people at a University of Toronto student residence where they were being housed; black clothing and potential weapons, including bricks, were seized. (According to police, about 100 suspected troublemakers were arrested in the months leading up to the G20 summit. “The key was to take these people out of play,” says Jeff McGuire, a staff superintendent with the Toronto Police.)

Still, the damage was done. For many, the lasting images of the summit will be the burning cruisers in the heart of Toronto’s financial and entertainment districts. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who called the perpetrators “thugs,” suggested their behaviour justified the hefty security budget. That, of course, is the often-cited $900 million—enough for 19,000 police officers and a three-metre tall security fence. While an estimate on the damage has yet to be released, more than 900 people by the end of the weekend were rounded up and sent to the makeshift detention centre, dubbed “Torontonamo Bay,” in the city’s east end. It was the largest mass arrest in the nation’s history. The Clayoquot Sound protests in 1993, by comparison, resulted in 856 arrests.

By Tuesday, the police were under fire by civil-rights activists who considered their actions heavy-handed. But the police effort was a success on other counts. “If you go through the timeline of 1999 to today, this is one of the more minor [summits] in terms of the total volume of violence and number of injuries,” says Michael Kempa, a University of Ottawa criminology professor. “You shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which [the police] have refined the science of crowd control.” In 1999, for instance, about 50,000 anti-globalization protesters descended on Seattle. There, the chaos included rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray, as well as US$3 million in property damage. As recently as last April, a British man died on his way home from work after being confronted by riot police during protests at the G20 summit in London.

This year, nobody was seriously injured. And, say the police, the protesters—numbering 10,000 strong on Saturday by some estimates—didn’t get anywhere near the security fence. Those using “black bloc” tactics were thought to number in the hundreds. “[Police officers] were expected to continue to stand on the line as they had criminals throw bags of urine, feces, firebombs, rocks, golf balls, two-by-fours, everything you could think of, at them,” says McGuire, one of the lead senior officers on the G20 security operation. “Weapons designed for no other reason but to injure.”

Toronto Mayor David Miller praised the efforts of police, but there’s been no shortage of criticism. Some accused them of not stepping in enough on Saturday, and then for cracking down too hard on Sunday. Many are asking why the police let the protesters destroy their cruisers. Some have even suggested that the cars were used as decoys to keep the protesters distracted from taking aim at the fence. “Those cars were abandoned because officers’ lives were in danger,” says McGuire. “We didn’t leave those there intentionally.” Police also deny reports that there was a shift in strategy on the final day.

But many say the authorities were too quick to strap on the bracelets, especially when about 200 people were contained for a few hours in an intersection during a downpour. Brendan Brady, a 21-year-old Humber College student, was singing the national anthem in a group at Queen Street West and Spadina Avenue when a line of police charged at him. Brady, who wasn’t arrested, doesn’t identify as a protester: “I’ve never had a criminal charge in my life,” he says. “I haven’t even gotten a speeding ticket.” And he says, many of the others in the group, “looked like a bunch of people that were shopping on Queen West.” The next day, police Chief Bill Blair defended the manoeuvre, saying that just prior to clamping down on that intersection, his men had arrested dozens of alleged anarchists, some  armed with Molotov cocktails, and there was concern that more may be hiding in the crowd.

The search for more of those responsible for the major damage continues. The police have an investigative team on the case, and have launched a website for citizens to submit protest photos. “We will analyze every digital image we have,” says McGuire. “Our team will continue to work for the next two years, five years, if necessary to bring every one of these people to justice . . . Nobody is getting away with this.”

By Tuesday, the detention centre was empty and, according to police, less than half of those arrested will be charged. That fact is sure to fuel the debate, likely to rage all summer in the city, over whether rights were violated. So while the placards may have been put away, the battles will no doubt continue.