The black bloc and the billy club

Eric Andrew-Gee on vandalism and state violence at the G20

The theory behind confrontational protests, the theory that set four police cruisers on fire and left several of Toronto’s main shopping streets covered in shards of glass on the weekend of June 27, is simple and persuasive. By damaging private property, protesters provoke the police to overreact.

Property is, after all, one of the things police “serve and protect,” and when the cops clamp down, arresting people and drawing blood, the masses will see the violence it takes to preserve capitalism and see the state’s role in the whole venture. Then, the theory goes, the masses will turn against the state and capitalism: the revolution will come to pass – or at least its seeds.

All of these things did happen in Toronto that weekend – except, of course, for the revolution. Instead, there was a backlash, a reaction, an anti-revolution. Following the G20, the police were praised exorbitantly by public figures and quietly applauded by private citizens. While hundreds remained detained in a makeshift jail on Eastern Ave., Torontonians went back to their lives. The moment was lost. It was an odd turn for a city once bound together in revulsion at the cost and unsightliness of the summit’s security operation.

“Let’s unite the labour movement, the environmental movement – let’s speak with a united voice!”

Sid Ryan, the famous Canadian union organizer, issued this cris-de-cœur on the front lawn of the Ontario legislature, in the rain, on the morning that G20 delegates arrived in Toronto.

The crowd Ryan addressed was already strangely splintered; it covered the spectrum of the world’s political grievances. The leader of a small group of Vietnamese immigrants bellowed into a bullhorn, “Say no to Communists!” Elsewhere, women in disposable rain slicks carried signs protesting the stoning of Iranian women. One person wore a full-body seal costume in protest of the seal hunt.

The labour movement and the environmental movement were represented, like a tree in a jungle can be said to be represented: present, but really just part of the scenery.

There was, however, a cloud of people, wearing all black, dispersed through the law-abiding, disorganized crowd, who were intent on breaking laws and were fiercely well-organized. They were known as the black bloc. In fact, “black bloc” is a protest tactic that involves vandalizing private property in a tightly-packed group, dressed in black and with covered faces.

The intention of some protesters to break away from the mass of marchers and charge the security fence enclosing the summit area was known long in advance. The website advertised a protest called Get Off the Fence, which was slated to meet at 1 p.m. at the provincial legislature, Queen’s Park, and then move toward the security fence. It was meant to go beyond “the tired symbolism of parades.” The website continued: “this is a militant resistance, where many forms of resistance and tactics are welcomed and respected.”

When the wider march turned west on Toronto’s Queen Street, militant protesters changed course, heading south and east, towards the heart of Toronto’s financial district, quieted to an eerie stillness that day by security. On TV, the progress of the militants, smashing windows with planks of wood and hammers, looked chaotic and meaningless. In fact, the meaning of those broken windows animated everything else that took place that weekend.

There are many among leftist activists who find the logic of black bloc tactics cynical. One step in the sequence requires innocent people to be smashed by overreacting police, after all. Black bloc tactics use protesters as pawns, whose well-being must be sacrificed to reveal the greater truth that governments are neither able nor willing to take care of their own people. Many earnest protesters felt they had been turned into collateral damage in an ideological war over which they had no control.

The police response began at Queen’s Park, about four hours after protesters had set out from the same place. Toronto’s Chief of Police, Bill Blair later said that anarchists had changed out of their black clothes and were hiding in the peaceful crowd in front of the legislature when the police began arresting people.

At the time the crowd’s presence seemed accidental, the dregs of the day’s action. There was little collective action being taken; people were mingling. One overweight man in shorts and a tight red plaid shirt walked up and down the police line that had formed to block people off from College Street, to the immediate south. The man shoved a cheap digital camera near the plexiglass visors of the riot police, and yelled in a high, nasal voice: “You’re murderers, every single one of you.”

When the police line began stomping forward, people were knocked over with riot shields and dragged behind the police line. The response from the crowd verged on panic, as people stampeded back at every police advance. When the crowd-control horses, also wearing plexiglass visors, were let through the line, the retreat was so chaotic that several people fell and were caught under the horses’ hooves. One man, in a polo t-shirt, shorts and plastic sandals, fell at my feet. I took his arm to pull him up, but before I could get him to his feet he was trampled; he must have ended up somewhere behind the police line.

A tiny number of people stood their ground against the police advances. Dana Holtby was one of them. A McGill student, she was at the G20 working for an aboriginal-themed CKUT program, and as an environmental activist. She and a small group, she later told me, were “sitting on the ground, singing songs, saying things like ‘people protest’ and ‘the whole world is watching.’ … It was just a matter of maintaining the space as a free-speech zone and to keep the police line from advancing.”

But just before six o’clock at Queen’s Park that day, a police officer stuck his head out from behind the police line and said, in a voice so low that only a few could have heard him, “Please leave the area, or you’ll be subject to arrest.”

Dana and her group moved backward the first time the police line advanced. The second time the charge came more swiftly. “There was a group of cops that rushed to the right of us,” she said. “They advanced and enveloped us and we were dragged behind the police line.”

Dana said she was dragged for about a hundred meters before the police stood her up to arrest her. A friend of hers who was arrested at the same time, an intern at The Dominion magazine, had his press pass ripped off his neck as soon as he was taken behind the line. Journalists from CTV, the National Post, and the Globe and Mail were also arrested at various times during the G20.

By the end of the weekend, police scarcely offered any pretext whatsoever for their arrests. Large-scale arrests happened at the Novotel hotel on Saturday night and at Queen and Spadina on Sunday evening, when hundreds of bystanders were boxed in by police, or – in the now notorious phrase – “kettled.”

Possession of black clothing, like that worn by some of the militant protesters on Saturday, became a widely accepted reason for the police to round people up. Around 70 out-of-town students, many from Quebec, were arrested at U of T, partly because of black clothes strewn in the bushes near the gymnasium where they were staying.

While some were detained, others were simply beaten. Wyndam Bettencourt-McCarthy, a former editor for the U of T paper The Varsity and a writer for the popular Torontoist blog, was at Queen’s Park on Saturday evening when the riot police began advancing. Just after seven o’clock a large police charge was mounted. Wyndham, like every one else, ran. As she fled, a police officer busy arresting someone else turned from what he was doing and raised his nightstick. Putting his full weight behind the blow, he struck Wyndham on the hip, then turned away, no longer interested. She spoke to me pantingly, in shock, seconds after being hit. Her hip already had a red, oval welt on it.

Dana had a similarly brutal experience in the detention center on Eastern Ave., which came to be known as Torontonamo Bay. “I was in the first holding cell for something like eight hours,” she said. It was 12 hours before she was given food; she was given water and a processed cheese sandwich.

“The cell was freezing,” said Dana. “It couldn’t have been above ten degrees Celsius. People were requesting clothes and blankets and [the police] wouldn’t give us anything.”

My roommate Sam Slotnick, a Toronto native and Concordia student, was arrested on the Sunday of the summit while trying to take pictures of a small protest near Dundas and Broadview. He was held for thirteen hours without the chance to see a legal counsel, though his father, a lawyer, tried to contact him. He said he was dressed warmly enough to be comfortable but that many weren’t.

One young man, a francophone from Quebec, told Sam he had been arrested while sleeping in the U of T gym. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and was soaking wet. “He was freezing, ‘cause he was wet,” Sam said. “He was complaining the entire time; he was obviously completely miserable from being cold.” The police said they were out of extra clothes, but one of the man’s cellmates helped him out. Sam said, “One guy in my cell managed to pull a hand of out his cuffs and gave his sweater to the guy.”

Vanja Krajina, a student at George Brown College in Toronto who volunteered as a legal observer with the Movement Defense Committee on the Saturday of the G20, was on her way to meet her boyfriend on Sunday morning when several police officers approached her. They began searching her bag, and while they searched her, a group of men walked past. “One of the police officers said ‘how ‘bout we let these guys take her around back and have a go at her,’” Ronja said. When she responded angrily, the police arrested her.

Ronja spent 30 hours in custody, and was charged with conspiracy to commit an indictable offense and conspiracy to use explosives. The explosives charge stemmed from a saline solution Ronja had in her knapsack to clean her contact lenses with, and a vinegar-soaked bandanna to neutralize tear gas. The charges were dropped before she was released.

Ronja was interrogated by officers for about an hour, but not asked anything relating to her charges. “They said that they were gathering intelligence,” she said. “They asked me if I knew who the leader of the black bloc was.”

During their internment, Ronja and her cellmates kept each other’s spirits up. “There was actually a lot of support and solidarity within the group of girls I was with,” she said. “We did yoga with our handcuffs on to pass the time.”

It probably isn’t surprising that people who were not detained viewed their experience at the G20 radically differently than those who spent time at Eastern Ave. over the weekend. A little over a week after the summit, I had seven or eight people over to my house for drinks; none of them had been arrested or held in the detention center, but they had all been somewhere downtown during the pandemonium of Saturday and Sunday. As the talk moved to the G20, a consensus quickly emerged about the over-arching political and moral meaning of the event: it was fucked up.

No one was really interested in talking about meaning, though; we were all buzzing with raw experience, personal experience. We went around in a circle on my back porch, each taking their turn telling their G20 story, as if every one of us had the quintessential G20 story. One friend talked about meeting Middle Eastern heads of state inside the Metro Convention Center; another talked about the anti-police brutality march that happened the day after the summit ended; a couple talked about taunting police outside the detention center and being shooed away.

It was a narcissistic way to come to terms with the G20, all of us reaffirming the rarity and value of our own experience. And as divided as the G20 protest movement was on Saturday morning, it was more so now – once a splintered group of causes, now an atomized collection of experiences. In our self-involved story-telling on my back-porch, my friends and I had eschewed solidarity.

We had also done our part to thwart black bloc tacticians, by failing to come together with our comrades in the wake of a state-violence spree. It isn’t that we armchair G20 theorists weren’t sympathetic to the victims of the police, we were just more sympathetic to ourselves. But in the world beyond the detention center, even beyond my back porch, in Canada at large, people saw the G20 even more differently.

According to a poll by Agnus Reid, for example, two thirds of Canadians thought the police did a good job. Even more starkly, 73 per cent of Torontonians supported the actions of the police that weekend.On July 7, Toronto City Council passed a motion to commend the Toronto force’s police work during the summit. The vote was 36-0 in favor.

Maclean’s magazine titled their editorial about the G20 “Lock them up: why the G20 thugs don’t deserve any leniency.” They splashed the headline on the front cover, along with an image of a burning car and a masked protester.

After 1,100 people had been detained in one weekend – the largest mass arrest in Canadian history – the images that people seemed to retain were the flaming police cruisers, the broken windows, the masked anarchists wielding baseball bats.

The militant protesters overestimated the strength of one part of their equation: that people would be repulsed by state violence against innocent people in the aim of preserving order and property. The reality turned out to be just the opposite – people were heartened by the sanctioned violence, even saw heroism in it. black bloc practitioners misread their audience. They were right that vandalism would provoke police violence. They were wrong to think people would mind.