5 min

First-person account of the Toronto G20 protests

Matt Thomas shares his Saturday G20 experience

Matt Thomas

While monitoring Twitter accounts, streaming the live video feeds from Global News and refreshing local photo blogs, it dawned on me that I was watching a riot and massive civil liberty violations unfold in real-time from my computer. How bourgeois of me. I’d planned on being a part of the peaceful protests on Saturday, June 26, but I stayed away to avoid making my cold worse than it already was by going out in a rainstorm. But then the clouds cleared and all hell broke loose. Frustrated by conflicting news reports and overloaded web content, some pals and I decided to head over to the “Free Speech Zone” in Queen’s Park, which was designated as a sanctioned protest area. We wanted to congratulate the peaceful protest groups that included fellow queers, grandmothers and children, while having a laugh thanks to some witty protest signs.

By the time we got there the place was surrounded by hundreds of stoic riot cops. They were saying nothing to the crowd and were barely communicating with one another. At random intervals and without warning they charged the crowd of peaceful protestors on horseback causing people to scatter and trample one another. I couldn’t see any shady figures in the crowd. No one was covering their faces or holding any weapons. I could only see confused peaceful citizens shouting in chorus “Peaceful protest, peaceful protest!” while other curious onlookers were snapping photos and acting like they were getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the set of Flashpoint.

Walking away feeling a mix of confusion and disgust, I headed to survey the damage allegedly done by Black Bloc members and anarchists. Walking from College and Yonge down to Queen and over to City Hall, I could see that banks, shops, fast-food chains, clothing stores and almost every Starbucks in the area had been smashed to pieces. I marvelled at the technical skills it must have taken for someone to shit in a bottle and spray it on the mannequins in the window display at American Apparel. My tour of the destruction was a few hours after the property damage took place, and the streets were relatively full of riot tourists eagerly snapping shots. Oddly, at any point I could have walked into some of the damaged stores and taken goods because I never saw one cop while I surveyed the damage. I didn’t even see one speeding past on a bike or pouring out the open door of one of those not-so-scary soccer mom SUVs. I guess they were busy up at Queen’s Park intimidating someone’s grandma.

Staying up-to-date via Twitter, I read an official police statement that said their priorities were to protect the G20 fence and not the city. Eager to see how threatened the fence was, my friends and I bought ice cream cones and wandered around the financial district to see if we could spot the surging masses. We found about 30 activists peacefully pleading with a massive line of riot cops to be let through to the wall. The cops responded with their trademark silence. Posing for pictures with my tasty treat in hand, I took a second to appreciate the safest sweet tooth indulgence a billion dollars can buy. These 30 peaceniks were clearly worth sacrificing the rest of the city for. The nearby grass sculpture on the road that spelt out “NO G20” accented by flowers and a fern from a nearby corporate garden was clearly a sign that this group was full of violent killers. Walking towards Queen and John I noticed how every other intersection leading to the hallowed fence was bizarrely left unguarded. I guess nobody told the activists they just needed to walk a block over for a better route.

As I approached Queen and John I could see smoke. Popping into a local convenience store, I saw a TV playing CP24 and I learned the smoke was coming from what was the second police car that had been set on fire. Eager to see how close we could get to the mayhem we walked over, expecting to be stopped by a police line far from the flaming squad car. Instead we walked by countless pockets of police leaning against walls watching as onlookers — not scary looking protestors — walked within feet of the flaming car to take pictures. The thought crossed my mind that most of the onlookers were excited by this and not participating. It felt like Riot World, a Disneyland for Gen-X. Take your picture with a flaming car, experience life-like police brutality, now with real pepper spray. It was clear to me that idolizing the ’60s has left a whole generation starved for something to happen.

Last week I watched eight police officers subdue a disoriented naked woman at Yonge and Bloor like she was Osama Bin Laden. Now I could see close to 100 riot cops standing idly by while civilians and members of the press, not Black Bloc villains, got dangerously close to a car on fire. Public safety be damned, this was a great photo op and one that would allow riot squads to justify whatever force they used over the next 48 hours. I couldn’t even see a fire engine waiting safely behind the massive police lines. Clearly they wanted the car to burn, a car that was oddly stripped of a radio, computer or anything of great value you’d expect to see in a cop car abandoned in the frenzied heat of civil unrest. One protester turned and asked me, “Has the gas tanks exploded yet?” When I realized I didn’t know the answer to that surreal question, I slow began to retreat, hiding cautiously behind the CBC News van. After about 40 minutes the cops started to box the crowd in, eventually charging forward creating a mad panic while the car popped and whizzed like firecracker. Escaping through back alleys, my friends and I had finally gotten our fill of police state theatrics. We needed a gay bar and decided on Zelda’s. Drag queens were the only bossy bitches with elaborate props and a superior attitude that we had an interest in arguing with.

Taking a long detour around Queen’s Park we could see it was completely encircled on all sides by riot cops who were now proudly protecting a large empty space. After some drinks at Zelda’s, we went to check out the Saturday Night Fever roaming street party that was set to start in the Village, but it was cancelled last-minute by organizers who feared they couldn’t keep the event safe. There was rioting playing out as Saturday became Sunday, the anniversary of Stonewall, but it seemed without purpose.

Plenty of queers would be arrested over the weekend and held without charges. They were segregated into queers-only holding cells, and they were told it was for their own protection from their allegedly homophobic fellow human rights protestors. Community activists like Justin Stayshyn and filmmaker Malcolm Ingram spent five hours in the rain at the intersection of Spadina and Queen without reason by cops who eventually let them go without charges. Something went terribly wrong in our city and I hope the fallout sees those responsible for wrongdoings on both sides held accountable. Hopefully these events won’t be seen as just an opportunity to take snapshots for Facebook but as the catalyst that made Canadians start talking about social justice and police accountability at the water coolers and not just inside the confines of activist gatherings.

Ingram sent me an email to me this morning and his final words speak volumes, “I’d like some answers. I am not going away.”

Matt Thomas is an associate editor of Xtra’s sister publication, fab magazine.