Last week busloads of revved up protesters left Ottawa to protest at the G20 meeting in Toronto. Two days later they started returning home in dribs and drabs — demoralized, shocked and dismayed as to how a political protest could rapidly dissolve into a brutal display of police power.
The weekend of the G20 meeting was supposed to be a politically exhilarating experience with marches, protests and rallies coming together in solidarity on diverse issues from immigration to basic human rights.
Leslie Robertson, a resident of Ottawa and a G20 activist, was waiting in a Toronto bar at 11pm on Monday, June 28, for a ride back to Ottawa. Robertson described herself as being a little angry, tired and on a rant about the events over the weekend.
Robertson, who was not affiliated with any group, went to Toronto on Friday to show her solidarity with the G20 protesters and on her first day participated in the No-one is Illegal and the Coalition Against Poverty — a march that was tightly controlled by police and an example of the what was to come.
“I think, what was striking about this weekend was the massive police presence — there were so many police. They were able to limit people’s movements,” says Robertson. “At the beginning of the weekend they were talking about not being able to get within five meters of the fence but no-one got within blocks of the fence — I didn’t even see the fence.”
Robertson commented that there had been several different demos and marches with thousands of people, but that the political motivation soon deteriorated as people were randomly and indiscriminately thrown into jail.
“People have been coming out tonight [Monday] and yesterday to demonstrate and the focus has become less G20, less government policies and more police brutality,” says Robertson.
Robertson commented on the intimidation by riot police and their actions that affected even people who were not necessarily involved in a march but happened to be on the same street.
“There was always this choice of, are you going to stay in the streets, in public, not actually doing anything and get arrested or leave,” says Robertson.
For Robertson the police arrests were random and that anyone could be arrested at any time. In the end she felt that the police deemed even the action of gathering as threatening.
“For protests it’s kind of the normal to realize that your freedom of movement and your rights are restricted,” says Robertson. “But for people who are walking down the streets, they could not fathom that they weren’t allowed to walk down the streets they wanted to walk down.”
Robertson also witnessed the transformation of the simple bandana into a lethal weapon considered dangerous by the police.
“I saw police gang up on somebody and rip someone off a bicycle because they had a bandana around their neck,” says Robertson. “People getting bandanas removed from their backpacks, people getting searched, people getting bottles of water removed from their backpacks — things like that that under normal circumstances would not be acceptable.”
But it was not a normal weekend and the affects of it will remain around for some time. As Robertson left for Ottawa, organizers of the marches were still clearing up the mess left by the police — hundreds of protesters remain in jail who are in need of food and transport when they are released, court appearances are piling up as protesters are charged and families who were separated need to be reconnected. All this while the G20 leaders leave the meeting with a handful of communiqués that speak of intentions rather than actions.