Reliving the G20 riot five years later

Was the G20 a complete failure of democracy or about the limits of democracy and the fragility of our democratic institutions?


At the south end of Queen’s Park stands a statue of John A. Macdonald, a Father of Confederation. Late on the afternoon of Saturday, June 26, 2010, before the police decided to push protesters out of the so-called “designated protest area” during the G20 Summit, his finger pointed right to the epicentre of the crowd. It seemed less an accusation than an open question to all parties: the police assembled from all over Canada, the summit leaders, the Canadian government, the city of Toronto, protesters, media – even casual bystanders. It asked, “What now?”

FRIDAY, June 25, 2010

I accompanied some photographers around the summit area, eyeing the giant perimeter fence, which was still open. That morning, reports surfaced that a York University student had been arrested based on a temporary law passed in secret that allowed police to detain anyone who refused to present identification or submit to a search within 5 metres of the fence. It would later be revealed that no such law existed and that people could only be searched if they came inside the security area. Not that any of that mattered. By the end of the summit weekend, police were searching and arresting people anywhere even remotely close to a site of protest activity.

But for now the area was eerily quiet. Police were bored, and most seemed un-threatened by photographers without press passes. 

There was tension, however, when it came to the private security guards standing outside the high-rises near the Metro Convention Centre, site of the summit, who told us not to take pictures even when we were just walking by. These guards seemed understandably nervous about having to do their own policing.

Emomotimi Azorbo appeared to have been trying to get past this arbitrary barricade when he was arrested. He was initially charged with “failing to obey police orders.” Later, the police would insist they had no way of knowing he was deaf and unable to speak, yet they refused to allow Azorbo’s companion to translate. He was held overnight in the detention centre on Eastern.


That afternoon, I was drawn to a group of protesters dressed in black. In what was at the time still something of a celebratory gathering – stereos were playing M.I.A. and mid-90s R&B while protesters, everyone from Iranian socialists to PETA, danced down University – they looked ominous and out of place.

By Sunday, the Toronto Sun had published a front-page article with an image of these so-called black bloc members and an inflammatory headline: “THUGS.” It was reminiscent of another Sun headline after 9/11: “BASTARDS.” 

The bloc didn’t deserve the term. They were remarkably disciplined – anyone who could a wear ski mask and goggles in 30°C weather had to be – but they were not an organization or a movement. They were a tactic. When they judged the time was ripe, individual members broke away to destroy targets, then blended back into the crowd. They were a blob more than a bloc, an indiscriminate, anonymous mass of aggression.

During the destruction of London’s financial district in 1999, a statement was printed inside thousands of bloc members’ masks: “Our masks are not to conceal our identity but to reveal it…. Today we shall give this resistance a face for by putting on our masks we reveal our unity and by raising our voices in the street together, we speak our anger at the facelessness of power.”

Inspiring. But rather than distinguishing themselves from the peaceful protesters, in Toronto they shed their black clothes between bursts of storefront-smashing and melted into the crowd at will. They seemed to foster paranoia among the police, who continually justified their wholesale crackdown by insisting that groups contained bloc members.

I came across four burly men being taunted by protesters. One wore a Che Guevara patch on his backpack and a marijuana-leaf bandana around his neck. He smacked of a hasty Google search on “how to look like an anarchist.” It was the shiny leather boots that gave them away – that and the fact that when asked about Che, they looked straight ahead and refused to respond. 

Police were unmasked in a similar way at the Montebello Summit in Quebec in 2007 when they were literally caught with rocks in their hands. While there’s been no confirmation that undercover police provoked violence in Toronto, it’s worth wondering what they were doing there.

SATURDAY, June 26

Friday came and went with only a handful of arrests, and it almost seemed the summit might conclude with little fanfare when crowds began forming in Queen’s Park for the People First March, a labour rally intended to be “family-friendly.”

It was raining, but thousands of demonstrators had assembled by 1:30 pm. Organizers struggled to get everyone into a coherent line to set out. I’d come to film some friends doing street theatre (a little Christian anarchist group called the Beansprout Collective, run by Jared Both), but the march started before they were ready and they were forced to put on an impromptu performance further down University.

Armed with cardboard boats painted with G20 countries’ flags, they enacted a drama wherein world leaders remain in their own private boats on the rising tide of the economy (this was based on an actual analogy made by Stephen Harper), while ordinary people living on the coasts pay for their recklessness. There was a theological and political richness to this performance, a making visible of the global destruction that otherwise remains hidden in countries like Canada.

In the end the boats find Mount Ararat, but rather than coming to rest peacefully like Noah’s Ark, they capsize. As G20 leaders were flown by helicopter to the Convention Centre, people’s most pressing concerns received barely a word in the mainstream press.


At around 3:30 pm, halfway between Spadina and John, no more than 100 yards from riot police positioned on both sides of Queen, I watched two abandoned squad cars get trashed, their windows smashed by metal sewer grates and other hard objects. Maybe a dozen people out of a crowd of hundreds were responsible. The rest were onlookers, independent media like myself and other protesters, including many who bravely stood up to the attackers.

When one of the vandals defended his actions by saying “This is our day,” one woman pleaded with them to recognize that the protests were about global justice and not sticking it to the police. “This isn’t about us,” she cried passionately.

Given the slew of police horses and fully equipped riot cops, the cars made little sense as a means of confronting or dispersing crowds. Were these intentionally placed magnets, a form of provocation?

Photographs of the police vehicles, which were later torched, became a mutually beneficial symbol of the summit – for police looking to justify a billion-dollar security budget for photojournalists and editors who might never go to Beirut or Palestine to see true chaos for summit leaders aiming to deflect the concerns of demonstrators and for anarchists who believed their only remaining option was direct action and staging a media circus. 

I thought of the Tibetan demonstrators and a Buddhist monk standing alone at the south end of the security fence beating a drum for world peace.


On Dundas near Bay, a massive formation of riot police marched toward me, performing a ridiculous military about-face when they hit Bay. They were executing a drill in a peaceful, somewhat empty part of town while a couple of blocks over, storefronts were being destroyed. It began to feel like everything was being orchestrated from afar, that the whole event was as spurious as this procession. I finally reached Queen’s Park again around 5 pm, in time to see all four corners blocked by riot police in the Designated Protest Zone where, more than any other part of Toronto, protesters should have felt safe.

The police had already begun to charge north and west in short bursts as collective cries of “shame” erupted from protesters. Those in the crowd who chose to sit down were met by blows and arrest. I was hit twice by projectiles from paintball guns, once from behind when I was just trying to get out of the way. One man with several police on him appeared to have suffered a broken or sprained leg. Those closest to the police line were pepper-sprayed. Only after this police attack was well under way did protesters throw a few useless water bottles, the most visible show of “violence” against the police I witnessed all weekend.

By 6 pm, the confrontation had petered out. Then the oddest thing happened: in the midst of this non-protest that would inevitably have dispersed within a few hours, the police ran through the crowd on galloping horses. 

Small groups of police on foot could be seen pointing at random individuals, then tackling them to the ground and hauling them behind police lines to be taken to the Eastern detention centre. I saw a young girl on a bike being knocked down, and a man trampled by a horse.

While Toronto police later claimed they acted according to procedure, several times I saw police brutally attacking protesters only to be restrained by other officers. Given the sheer numbers of police present from out of town, it is highly unlikely that most of them had experience with crowd control. 

SUNDAY, June 27

Organizers of the protests and many visitors from outside Toronto, including a large number of Quebec activists, were arrested overnight. One young couple with a six-month-old son had their house raided at 4 am by police who refused to show a warrant and only later realized they had the wrong apartment. An afternoon rally at the corner of Eastern and Pape, where the temporary detention centre had been set up in an old film studio (as if the whole weekend hadn’t been staged enough), was broken up after an hour. Mainstream media reported no “visible provocation.”

That evening, at Queen and Spadina, a spontaneous rendition of O Canada by protesters was met by a sudden police charge. 

While I managed to avoid getting arrested, ample testimony from the “prison” has established that it was nightmarish: shared, cramped cells with cold concrete floors, hours without water, harassment, zero access to medical treatment, reports of women being sexually harassed. Some of those arrested were bystanders who wanted nothing to do with the protests, detained when the police “kettled” the intersection of Queen and Spadina Sunday night, apprehending everyone trapped inside. Many were accredited journalists.


And then the official lies began. Ex-PC leader John Tory told CBC Radio that “thousands of peaceful protesters didn’t give the police any problems and weren’t given any problems.” For Chief Bill Blair, protester violence wasn’t limited to a few dozen people but to “hundreds” who came to Toronto with the “intent to commit criminal acts.”

Given the force’s inability to discern between vandals and members of the media, let alone between peaceful and violent protesters, this number seems arbitrary, to say the least.

Blair called organizers “complicit,” and since the police had been facing “organized criminals,” Blair rolled out a vast “weapons cache” at a press conference on Tuesday, June 29. A menacing collection, it seemed, until the arrows covered in sports socks (which Blair insisted were there to be immersed in flammable liquid and set ablaze) and chain mail were revealed to belong to a Tolkien fanatic who’d been innocently trying to cross town to take part in a role-playing game. When pressed, Blair also admitted the chainsaw and crossbow were confiscated in an incident completely unrelated to the summit. Also included were bandanas and gas masks, as if protection against tear gas counted as weapons. 

Then, in a complete collapse of accountability and proportionality, Blair called the bloc “terrorists.”


Was Canada really becoming, in the words of so many protesters, a “police state?” It was, after all, only the extraordinary circumstances – the shutting down of ordinary life in the downtown core for an entire weekend – that allowed this breach of basic civil rights. 

The G20 wasn’t about a complete failure of democracy, but about the limits of democracy and recognizing the fragility of our democratic institutions.

And yet, despite what appeared to me and many other witnesses to be a clear breach of our rights, a poll conducted after the weekend found that 73 per cent of Torontonians thought police actions had been “justified.”

Was this because the media coverage was biased, or were most Torontonians just not paying attention? Did they think all 900 arrests involved violent anarchists? Or that catching a few anarchists justified the wrongful arrest of many hundreds?

It’s interesting that the same percentage of people polled thought that holding the summit in Toronto was a “mistake,” suggesting that most just wanted the whole thing – leaders and protesters – to go away.

It would be easy to let it all disappear from memory, to conclude that what happened was a problem of local security, not of global democracy.

But everything about that weekend could have been predicted. When you suspend everyday life, you can’t expect normal behaviour. When you suspend people’s legal rights, you can’t expect lawful responses.

This is an edited and condensed version of an essay that forms part of Riot Act: Looking back At The G20 In Toronto, an exhibition by documentary filmmaker Joel Elliott and photographer Christopher Manson, on at Ryerson Artspace at the Gladstone (1214 Queen West) until July 26.

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