Two years after his acquittal on G20 charges and a divorce, activist finds love
“What do you call an anarchist in a suit?”
Byron Sonne sets up the joke as he approaches our table, but the answer is drowned out by the jazz-funk quartet playing at his wedding reception.
Only a week later, when we meet at a coffee shop near the software company at which he now works, do I get to hear the punchline: “The defendent.”
Arguably the most famous single target of the security theatre surrounding Toronto’s G20 summit, Sonne maintained a dark sense of humour before, during and after his years-long ordeal. But recently, a lightness and even joy have begun to creep in to his demeanour.
The first time I encountered Sonne was at a meeting of the Surveillance Club in early May 2010.
A group of activists and academics had gathered in the basement workshop of the InterAccess gallery at Queen and Ossington to discuss surveillance technologies in general and their implications for the upcoming G20 summit in particular. I had been doing advocacy work around the CCTV cameras being installed by the Toronto police, as a campaigner with the Toronto Public Space Committee.
Sonne and then wife Kristen Peterson sat at the far end of a long table, and when it was his turn to speak, he described an ongoing project: to test the limits of freedom in our society by finding out what it takes for a white Canadian male to arouse government suspicion without actually doing anything wrong.
He had been ordering chemicals that were legal but which could potentially serve as ingredients in dangerous concoctions, sharing various controversial and banned texts on the Internet and pushing myriad other buttons by engaging in activities that were in themselves permitted but that could raise red flags. He was also documenting the erection of the G20 fence, sharing photos on Flickr and Twitter with his snarky comments.
“So is your ultimate goal,” I asked him at the time, “to get arrested or to not get arrested?”
“Well, to not get arrested,” he said.
He got arrested.
Three days before the G20 summit, on June 22, 2010, Sonne was pulled off a southbound Bathurst bus by police, just south of St. Clair.
A week earlier, police had seen him taking pictures of the G20 fence and threatened to ticket him for jaywalking if he didn’t offer up his ID. He did, and when police got around to googling him, they discovered the trail of flags he’d spent years planting in the digital soil. Police searched his house and his parents’ cottage, turning up chemicals and a couple potato cannons.
He was charged with a variety of counts: possessing explosives and dangerous weapons (the latter the potato cannons), intimidating justice officials and mischief. By the time the case got to trial, all were dropped except four counts of explosives possession and one of “counselling mischief not committed,” which is pretty much what it sounds like.
He remained behind bars for 11 months before finally being granted bail.
His wife, Peterson, was arrested two days after him and charged with weapons and explosives offenses she was let out on bail very quickly, and her charges dropped seven months later.
They had been married for eight years, and had lived together in their Forest Hill house paid for with her family’s wealth for seven. She filed for divorce via a lawyer’s letter while he was still in jail.
Shortly after being arrested, they found themselves together in a police wagon. Four years later, he can’t recall whether they were officially prohibited from communicating with each other but says that, through sobs, he asked if she still loved him.
“I don’t know if I got much of a response,” he recalls.
That was the last time they talked.
Like most people, he had a vague idea of what being processed through the justice system might entail. (He hadn’t expected to stay in prison for so long or for the Crown to vigorously pursue serious charges against him, but those outcomes were within the broad realms of possibility.) What caught him off guard, however, was that his wife effectively erased him from her life.
“The whole thing was really stunning, how complete and final the silence was,” he says.
The way he describes it evokes Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.
But the memory of their marriage would be preserved forever on the cover of the May 2011 issue of Toronto Life, featuring a wedding photo with the words “Did this man plan to bomb the G20?”
Corinne Alstrom first encountered Sonne in 2009 at Hacklab, a communal venue for tinkering with technology in Kensington Market. She was involved in various social justice causes, including the Public Space Committee where I knew her, but her affiliation with hackers simply emerged from a desire to replace her laptop’s operating system with something better than Windows Vista. (She chose Ubuntu.)
Alstrom and Sonne had frequently chatted online but didn’t meet in real life until a night when the lab held a tasting of miracle fruit, a West African berry that “hacks” your tongue by changing and enhancing the flavours of food consumed afterward.
“I was on the Hacklab computer and he was on his laptop, and we had never seen each other. So we were talking online, and I mentioned that I was in the lab on the computer, and then I just heard from behind me, ‘Mophead?'” she says, referring to her online nickname. “And I turned around and was like, ‘Hi!'”
Alstrom knew Sonne had been arrested before the G20 but wasn’t aware that he was still in jail nearly a year later until she read Denise Balkissoon’s Toronto Life cover story. She soon immersed herself in the “Free Byron” movement and brought vegan cupcakes to the hearing at which he finally received bail, having heard that he’d gone vegan in prison. (He had, but only because he felt that the jail’s vegan menu was of a somewhat higher quality than their standard offerings.)
She posted on OpenFile, a now defunct local news website that encouraged readers to suggest stories about things they’d like to see covered. “Byron Sonne’s trial begins November 7,” she wrote. “Is someone reporting on it? What comes out might be very important vis-a-vis security, privacy and civil rights.”
OpenFile subsequently assigned Balkissoon to cover it, and she produced some of the most detailed and widely read coverage of the trial.
Alstrom, then a social work student, happened to be going through a difficult time in her life.
“I was living at my parents’ and didn’t really have much to do anyway,” she says. “So I thought I might as well go into court for when he needs some support, right?”
She went down to 361 University every day, and because he wasn’t allowed to leave the building while on bail, she and other friends organized potlucks in the cafeteria. He was also restricted from leaving his parents’ Brampton house without their accompaniment, and so “a bunch of us would come over and bring movies and just hang out with him,” she says.
“And I guess that was when we really kind of started to become close.”
But Sonne didn’t want to take it any further until he knew the outcome of the trial. “What’s the point in starting a relationship if I’m gonna be up in Kingston for, I don’t know, however many years?” he remembers thinking.
On May 15, 2012, Superior Court Justice Nancy Spies delivered her verdict, acquitting Sonne of all charges.
Alstrom was in the courtroom “just sitting there shell-shocked, the same way I felt when, in 2008, Obama won the presidency.”
Outside, Sonne told reporters that “it would be nice to walk out of court and into [Kristen’s] arms, but that’s just not going to happen.”
The Crown declined to appeal. Sonne considered suing the police but opted to instead spend his money getting his life back in order.
He and Alstrom properly got together not long after that.
On July 13, Sonne and Alstrom are married at the St. Nedela Macedonian Orthodox Church in Ajax.
Laced through the crowd of extended families are activist friends they’ve known from their gradually combining social justice circles. Balkissoon is a guest. So am I.
There’s no mention of the G20, or of Sonne’s experience, in the ceremony itself or the speeches that follow. But the knowledge of it hangs there, as a past to both cast off and learn from.
How do you move on from trauma without dismissing it? It’s a question for both Sonne and a city whose memories of its darkest weekend flicker in and out.
To Sonne, it means “forging new relationships and networks and connections to make sure there’s some kind of structure and camaraderie that’s in place if something like [the G20] happens next time.”
It’s about building trust and care.
At the wedding, the Rev. Harry Nigh relates a story from the book Mortal Lessons: Notes On The Art Of Surgery by Dr. Richard Selzer. In it, Selzer describes a young woman whose facial nerve he had to cut in order to remove a tumour, leaving a side of her mouth permanently palsied.
She sees herself for the first time, as Selzer and her husband stand on opposite sides of the bed.
Nigh, a prison chaplain, paraphrases: “She asks the doctor, ‘Will it always look like this?’ The doctor says, ‘Yes. I’m afraid we had no choice.’ And then the young husband says, ‘I think it’s kind of cute.’
“And then he bends over and twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show that their kiss could still work.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony plays a saxophone cover of At Last.
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Timeline compiled by Kate Robertson.