Whose Streets? Our Streets?

I sat glued to the TV for the past two days, watching the mess otherwise know as the G20 play out on the streets of my city. Stories of inhumane treatment of protesters are the most distressing, and the violence from all sides is chilling. And I’m trying to make sense of it all, not laying blame, but figuring out, as much as I can, why it all played out the way it did.

The first thing to note, and something which the majority of protesters did not seem to understand, is that the right to peaceful protest and the right to public assembly does not come with the right to break other laws. The original protest march on Saturday was legal because organizers got the appropriate permits to take over the streets. The prayer vigil and march on Sunday morning was legal because organizers got a permit to march from Church and Wellesley to King and Bay. Once the police cleared the crowd at King & Bay mid-afternoon (at which point the crowd had shifted from the original prayer march protesters to a mixed crowd), taking over the streets was no longer legal. The decision to head west, instead of dispersing northward interrupted the flow of traffic – thus causing all of the protesters marching to be in breach of the law, as they were impeding traffic flow. Just because you were legally allowed to walk down the middle of Queen Street on Saturday, doesn’t mean it’s legal for you to do it on Sunday, “peaceful protest” or not.

I have a concern with people claiming their human rights to free speech were violated with regards to this issue.

CP24 followed this crowd for the whole afternoon, and at one point asked people at the front where they were headed. One person replied that he didn’t know, he was just following the crowd. The second indicated that they would be proceeding along Queen West to Dufferin to join in a hot spot situation where Black Bloc anarchists had been arrested at a place where they were staying.

Police formed a line kitty-corner across the Queen and Spadina intersection, and the protesters chose to remain in this intersection instead of disperse.

When does an innocent bystander become a gawker and when does a gawker become part of the protest?

The stand-off at Queen and Spadina lasted for at least half an hour, maybe 45 minutes, during which any protester, innocent passerby, or gawker (“just taking photos”) could have proceeded northward, out of the protest zone. After a certain point the police closed ranks to the north (a procedure called kettling) and anyone who had remained in the area was trapped. Police claim they gave three warnings to protesters and anyone else to disperse, people who were corralled said they never heard those warnings.

And while I’m sure there were a good many innocent bystanders or people just watching the action, I have a problem with the common sense aspect of things. Knowing how these events have played out in other cities in the past, why would you even go downtown, knowing you could get caught in the mess? Especially after what had happened the previous day? Secondly, knowing what happened the previous day, seeing a protest coming your way, or finding yourself caught up in it, why on earth would you not get the hell out if you really didn’t want to be there? One of the people interviewed after the corralled group was released at about 9:45pm, insisted that she had been doing nothing more than waiting for a streetcar. Fair enough. But the intersection had been occupied for about 45 minutes, during which time no streetcars passed through it. So why not get the hell out? Was she unable to look at the mess and figure out that no streetcars would be coming for a very long time?

Despite public opinion, anyone standing in the street at Queen and Spadina was, technically, breaking the law. The treatment of those people and how that law was enforced is a completely different story, and the things that are coming out in the news today are quite terrifying. but as much as it sucks, and as many times as people yelled “peaceful protest” or sang “O, Canada” the police did legally have a right to detain them.

There are other things, however that I just don’t get…

  • why did the police allow the destruction of businesses to occur when there was obviously enough force to prevent it?
  • the search and seizure actions which were done without warrants – I’m unsure of the laws regarding search and seizure with just cause – maybe these were technically legal after all.
  • why police pushed protesters north on Saturday night to Bloor Street and then, after the biggest show of force on Saturday, basically just waved toodle-loo and let them loop around and come back down Yonge Street.
  • why business owners on Queen West, knowing that the protest march was coming right past their stores, didn’t take better precautions. Sure it’s horrendous that storefronts were destroyed, but again, based on the precedent set by other summits, everyone knew stores (especially corporate chains) would be targeted. That just seemed really naive to me – especially because the federal government made it clear beforehand that they would not compensate business owners for destruction.

Like many others, I have the very bad feeling that this is the first step in the erosion of our civil liberties. But I also can’t help feeling that most citizens didn’t arm themselves with enough knowledge ahead of time. I particularly have great sympathy for the innocent bystanders who got caught up in the mess, but I also feel that they should have known to get out of the way when they had the chance – and on Queen Street last night – before the police blocked the street to the north, people DID have the chance. Many people seemed much more concerned with rubbernecking and taking photos than they did for their own safety and that’s where it ended up.

Yes, these are “our streets” – but protesters don’t have the exclusive right to them just because they say so. While the protests were legal, police appeared to be extremely accommodating. Once protesters forced their hand is when things went awry.

Note that I’m not sympathizing with or making excuses for the police. I firmly believe there should be an inquiry, because it appears that many police officers went beyond what was necessary to enforce the peace. And I think that comes equally from the top as well as the bad behaviour of a few individuals. Again, I’m only basing this argument on what I personally witnessed, combined with logic and common sense. But this didn’t need to happen this way, and everyone involved needs to look at their role in how things went down, and why.