By 5:30 p.m., on Saturday, June 26, Toronto’s Yonge St. looked like a scene from the London Blitz. Dozens of protestors had used “black bloc” tactics to smash their way through the commercial heart of Toronto, shattering windows, trashing stores and terrifying shoppers and business owners. The rampage went unchecked for 45 minutes by the 20,000 police and security forces in the city that day.
Bill Blair, the city’s Chief of Police, would later suggest that the rioters had shed their black clothes and slipped, incognito, into the docile crowd gathered at Queen’s Park in front of the provincial legislature. “There is no refuge for criminality,” he told The Globe and Mail the next Tuesday.
The crowd of several hundred that coalesced at Queen’s Park between five and six o’clock was not a protest in the traditional sense. Not like the protest that gathered in the same spot earlier in the day, where Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan, had spoken to the thousands of people present. “Let’s unite the labor movement, the environmental movement,” he said. “Let’s speak with a united voice!”
Now, as six o’clock approached, there was no unity in the crowd. A high proportion of protestors carried cameras. There were hardly any placards or banners; no one was espousing a cause, it seemed. The few vocal members of the crowd united, then, around antagonism towards the police. “This is what democracy looks like! That is what a police state looks like!” they shouted sporadically, while a few dozen passersby looked on.
The chant was inspired by, and addressed to, a massive barricade of riot police strung from the provincial government’s Frost Complex in the east to the U of T neuroscience building in the west. Perhaps a hundred more police were gathered behind the front line. Carrying guns for rubber bullets, tear gas launchers, or shields and batons, the police appeared twice their natural size. Their bodies were completely covered in black, except for their Plexiglas visors, which were sometimes fogged up with breathing.
Some of the protesters eventually took to hectoring the cops. The situation had every appearance of moving inexorably to some kind of clash. There were too many police, and they were too well organized, not to do something.
At 5:50, the tension snapped. The first sounds were the cracking of paintball guns. Police were shooting pellets filled with pepper spray at the ground. The crowd panicked. Several people stumbled, falling as they ran. Many covered their mouths with bandanas or their shirts as pepper spray floated through the air. It stung the nostrils and caused the eyes of many to tear up.
Next came the booming rap-rap-rap of nightsticks on Plexiglas shields; the police line was moving forward, following the fleeing protestors. When the advance stopped the crowd, with renewed composure and now indignant, began yelling, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” About five minutes later a tall blonde cop without his riot helmet peeked his head through the line. “Please leave the area, or you’ll be subject to arrest,” he said quietly, using what his Grade 3 teacher might have called an “inside voice.” Though it had been designated a “free-speech zone”, it was now illegal to be in Queen’s Park and most people did not realize it.
The police did not take long to act: at 6:00 they mounted another, more violent charge. One officer knocked a man walking his bike to the pavement with a blow of his shield. There was a palpable terror in the crowd as they saw for the first time that they were in real danger. It was a feeling of being hunted. Fear in the crowd turned to anger, with more and more cries of “Shame!” In a glimmer of violence, a few people threw objects – water bottles, rocks, bits of wood – that bounced hamrlessly off the clear riot shields. Many in the crowd turned on them with shouts of, “Peaceful protest!” A couple minutes later the police advanced again. After the same sound of popping paintball guns and police rapping on their shields, a girl staggered back through the retreating crowd. She was holding her arm and weeping, looking anguished. On her right arm was a black and red welt – deep bruising and popped blood vessels. She had been hit by an exploding pepper-spray pellet from about 20 feet away. Two self-proclaimed medics with bandages led her to a bench away from the action. An hour after being hit, the girl – a recent high school graduate named Robyn – said the welt hurt more than it did at first.
After another charge, Queen’s Park quieted down. About a half hour later, the calm was broken when an old woman in a sleeveless red t-shirt, who seemed drunk and might well have been homeless, walked up to the police line. She muttered that she wanted to be let through. The police didn’t respond and she started bumping into the shields. The crowd behind her started chanting, “Let her through! Let her through!” In an instant, without warning, the line opened up where the old woman stood, and seven or eight mounted police poured through. People panicked, running with abandon, away from the horses’ hooves. A man next to me stumbled and fell. He was wearing a green t-shirt and had thick, tanned arms. I grabbed one of them to help him to his feet. I didn’t realize how close the horses were. He did not immediately get to his feet when I pulled his arm. An instant later, a towering brown horse was stepping on his mid-section. I let go of the man; four or five horses were still facing me. I dodged to the left and two horses passed me, one on each side. The horse to my left brushed just under my chest with its powerful flank, leaving a red friction mark.
For the next hour or so, the police’s advances became routine. Fear of the police dissipated to an extent. For a time, a South Asian man with a yellow daisy in his hands stood at the police line and murmured questions to a short, earnest cop who seemed to answer politely. Their dialogue was in whispers, and it felt safe. Around seven o’clock a rumour passed through the crowd that 300 more police were on their way to Queen’s Park. It was all over CP24, the all-hours Toronto news network. They may not have amounted to 300, but there was a new assuredness of movement behind the police line.
Twenty minutes after the arrival of reinforcements, the police confirmed the impression with a seamlessly orchestrated strike. Rather than moving together, as a line, pockets of police charged forward with frightening speed, while small units were marshalled quickly to fill the gaps in their line. The advance was faster and deeper than any before. Out of range of the advance, I turned to watch. A young woman, wearing khakis and a tight-fitting t-shirt, was running from the police charge. A tall police officer turned from making an arrest as she passed. With the woman’s back to him, he swung his nightstick at her with all his weight behind it, striking her right hip and leaving a vivid red welt the shape of his nightstick. He did not pursue her after he hit her. Hitting her appeared to be his objective.
With tears in her eyes, gasping, the woman spoke to me almost immediately after being struck. Her name is Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy. She is a staff writer at The Torontoist, a popular local blog, and a former writer and copy editor for The Varsity, the principal student newspaper at the University of Toronto. She was at Queen’s Park to cover the protest as a journalist. She spoke rapidly, with a trembling voice, clearly in shock.
After the charge, the crowd thinned. Two smaller groups were chased around either side of the legislature by columns of mounted police. An aimless group was driven from Queen’s Park North, the park behind the legislature and the officially designated “protest zone.” There couldn’t have been more than 100 people in the park when the police line began marching forward. I recognized many as journalists
It was a rout. Not much violence, just a consistent retreat on the part of the protestors. Beyond the park, the separated Queen’s Park groups reunited and were driven through the U of T campus. A CTV journalist was shot in the leg with a mystery projectile – probably either a pepper-spray pellet or a rubber-coated bullet. One group, again no more than 100, were chased north on Devonshire Place. Three men tried to make a human chain to block the advance of the riot police – despite their invocations, no one joined them, and they split up. A row of five or six mounted police pressed the ever-smaller group until they reached Bloor Street, one of the city’s main arteries. The leader of the mounted unit, a towering figure with the look of a Prussian cavalry officer, yelled to his troops, “Get ‘em outta here!”. But his command was not needed. Bloor was full of traffic; there was no where left for the protestors to go. The group dispersed and the cavalry turned back and trotted south through the campus.