What happened at the G20 last summer was summed up for me in one moment: the moment it hit me that I was afraid to participate in a legal protest.
Ontario Premier Daltan McGuinty’s admission today that arbitrarily and secretly passing the 1939 Public Works Protection Act into law was “a mistake” follows this week’s release of Ontario Ombudsman André Marin’s scathing report on its illegality. Once again we are forced to examine how our basic rights to move freely, assemble peacefully, and associate with whoever we like were so easily and quickly swept away in the name of security.
I was on my way to the jail solidarity rally on June 28th and, after hearing reports of random bag checks on streetcar routes leading to the protest, I wrote the free legal aid number on my hand. Okay, my hand wasn’t the best place. The ink would have faded away by the time I needed it. I don’t think I really expected the number to be of any practical use – I did it to make myself feel better about potentially putting myself in physical risk. Realizing how scared I really was to practice a basic right I had always taken for granted was in itself horrifying.
How had it come to this?
In the weeks before the summit, concerns about terrorist attacks and violent protesters were hot topics, and mixed up together with the most emphasized and discussed issue of all – the terrible hindrances that citizens would suffer as they tried to navigate the security perimeters. Traffic jams, transit delays, closed businesses and canceled entertainment, not to mention pesky and unpredictable protesters – yes, the G20 summit was going to be so damned inconvenient. This was the speakable issue that furrowed our brows, and was the one we could channel all of our unease into.
Of course there were other things we were told to panic about – terrorist threats, the implication that G-summit protests inevitably become violent riots, and all of the heavy-handed security measures that those threats supposedly justified. The resulting mishmash of anxiety was called “the G20” in our conversations and ultimately expressed as “inconvenience.”
This misplaced anxiety translated into a belief among many citizens that if you ventured downtown during the summit, whatever the reason, you were not only crazy but must be looking for trouble. Police authorities and the media spectacle constantly but subtly endorsed the implication that any person who ventured downtown was inviting any punishment they received. And really, who needs that kind of awful inconvenience? Better just stay home.
Of course the fear went both ways. The brute military force and violation of rights we’ve witnessed against innocent people was engineered; each one of those officers in uniform underwent intense training to be aggressively afraid. Neither side saw the other as people, only as threats. Of course it was ugly, and shocking. Our city became the stage of a world war that is already raging.
On Monday June 28th, I emerged from the subway at College station. I saw police in riot gear stationed prominently, with zip-tie handcuffs on display, at the one exit leading to the jail solidarity rally.
Outside, a row of officers in full riot gear blocked College Street at Yonge. These were not the police with bicycles that had been used to block traffic throughout the weekend; these were the riot-gear clad officers that had been employed to block and bully protesters. It’s telling that the police would orchestrate such a blatant act of intimidation to protect their own interests. I heard someone say that they had paid the $3 fare to enter the subway system thinking it was the only way to bypass the police line and get to the protest.
Despite the police’s attempts to chill dissent, the rally that day was a great success. Thousands of people came out to cheer, shout, march and share their outrage over what was happening to Toronto and to the remaining detainees. It was healing for me, and reassured me that our city had not been won.
I left the march with a familiar feeling that I’ve had when leaving countless protests throughout my life: slight boredom. I figured that was a good sign. But I will never take my right to protest for granted again. Sorry for the inconvenience.