I can still remember, as an undergrad, the debate at York University about the War Measures Act in 1970. That will give you some idea of my age and that I am not a black-shirted anarchist. Unlike York University, the University of Toronto (where I am now a student) shut itself down in the face of the G20, thereby helping to shut down rational and intelligent debate. That left the only one venue where both sides would come together – the streets in front of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. So, in the spirit of bearing witness (which has a long and honourable tradition in western culture), my wife and I took our cameras and joined the big demonstration march down University Avenue on Saturday afternoon, June 26.
All along the way, the police did a good job of keeping order and allowing people to express their concerns – although at the US consulate they brought out the riot police after most of the parade had passed. Toronto police, with nothing between us and them but their bikes, were doing a fine job of steering the parade around the consulate, so I’m not sure what the point of the riot squad was. We knew that there were 20,000 police troops in Toronto and only 10,000 demonstrators on the streets, so maybe they were just practicing their maneuvers. We marched on down University and west along Queen.
Most of the parade turned north again on Spadina at Queen. Some, still hoping for a debate, I guess, turned south on Spadina and were stopped by a three rows of riot police officers and a mounted patrol, still three city blocks from the security fence. We were between the lines of police and a growing crowd (not ‘mob’ as we were described later by Toronto police chief Bill Blair). Everyone was singing and chanting. We didn’t push at the police and they didn’t push at us. They simply stood and waited us out.
Nevertheless, it was at Queen Street and Spadina that Saturday afternoon that everything changed and from what I witnessed, it was the police who changed it.
After the parade had more or less left the area of Queen St, we saw the police block off a section of Queen Street around Peter St. They drove two police cars into the area and then left them in the road, next to people on the street with their windows open and gear on the front seat. The police left the area, but they left both cars behind, windows open and unattended. We thought this was very strange, given their public statements of concern about vandalism.
Eventually we drifted away too, first to another confrontation on Bay and Richmond and then to a peaceful walk along the entire Wellington Street perimeter of the fence, joking sometimes with the police inside it. It wasn’t the debate I was looking for, but at least it was a conversation.
Coming back up Spadina, about 6:25 pm we saw smoke coming up from Queen Street just east of Spadina. We went, along with a number of others, to see what the smoke was all about. Again we saw no, or very few black-clothed demonstrators, in fact most of the demonstrators had dispersed and, from the film we took, most of the people seemed to be ordinary citizens, many residents in the area, taking pictures with their cell phones.
When we got there couple of minutes later, we saw that it was one of the squad cars the police had abandoned earlier that was on fire. The fire department had the situation well in hand and was putting out the fire. Again, Toronto police had formed a perimeter with their bikes and no one was getting in the way of officers or firemen doing their duty.
At about 6:35, a phalanx of riot squad officers marched up Queen from Spadina, which everyone thought was rather silly, given there was no trouble. About 6:45 the riot police (mostly OPP officers) backed us all to the east side of the intersection of Queen and Spadina. No one resisted or even objected, until they began to push us into the intersection and into northbound traffic.
Once they had done that, they began to threatened citizens with arrest if we didn’t get off the road they had pushed us into. They pushed the crowd (which was not large compared to earlier in the day) right through the intersection and then blocked the intersection. I thought they might be clearing it for emergency vehicles, but none came out of Queen that way.
Finally, after making everyone, including residents of the Queen West neighbourhood angry, the police left the intersection and Queen Street. They again left the second police car behind. Shortly after that, just after 7:50 pm, we saw smoke billowing up from the second police car. Small explosions erupted from the car and the flames were very high, threatening nearby property. Again, we wondered why the police had abandoned their squad cars in an area where they must have known some people would be tempted to destroy them.
This time, no fire trucks came. The mood of the crowd was not one that would lead me to believe that anyone would have interfered if fire trucks arrived. However, the riot squad came back up Spadina Ave from south of Queen Street. They cleared the intersection again and made several bluff runs at people there. However, we saw no fire trucks come and it appeared as though the police were letting their car burn out of control.
We left the area not long after being cleared north of the intersection of Spadina Queen along with some other folk who told us they too were very puzzled by the actions of police. I heard more than one person comment that the police seemed to be more interested in pushing people around than in dealing with either the burning car or the vandalism.
Indeed the whole Queen St operation had the air of something planned, and we could not escape the feeing that the police wanted the cars to burn so they could justify further action. I didn’t want even think about the implications of that, but I couldn’t help remembering the August 2007 news reports in which Québec Provincial Police admitted they put masked police officers among demonstrators during the Security and Prosperity Partnership meeting at Montebellowith instructions to provoke the crowd to acts of violence.
There was certainly vandalism by black sweat-shirted teenagers (the so-called Black Bloc) elsewhere in the City, but on Queen Street, on the evening of June 26 the greatest threat to public safety came from riot-suited police men and women. And it wasn’t necessary.