G20’s radical legacy

"What a lot of us have come to discover since then is that for some communities in this city, it's G20 rules every day."

“Every, single, day, black bodies in this city face violence,” Rodney Diverlus declared, pausing between the first words for emphasis, as he and others from Toronto’s Black Lives Matter coalition brought the Police Services Board meeting to a halt.

They’d marched into the July 16 session to demand accountability for the death of Andrew Loku, the 45-year-old father of five shot by police on July 5, after officers arriving at his west-end apartment complex found the reportedly distressed man holding a hammer. 

“Black lives matter!” the activists chanted, before soon filing out.

It happened to be the final meeting for Dr. Alok Mukherjee, who stepped down from the civilian board after a decade as chair. Buried among other items on the agenda was a pair of new policies on which, he told NOW, they’d “worked long and hard.” One concerned “Designated Special Events,” the other “Mass Detention Centres.” Arising from retired justice John Morden’s 2012 review of police oversight surrounding 2010’s G20 summit, the measures require the chief to keep the board in the loop when planning for extraordinary situations.

Asked in a subsequent scrum what he would’ve done differently had he been in charge in 2010, new police chief Mark Saunders agreed with the need to keep the board “aware and accountable” but brushed off the thrust of the query.

“Well,” he said, mildly annoyed, “I’m not gonna answer questions of what I would have done back in the day.”

By the late afternoon of Saturday, June 26, 2010, the security theatre of Toronto’s G20 summit was still kind of morbidly fun. 

There was tension – as rows of riot cops stationed along College will necessarily bring – but not so much that I couldn’t tweet from the south lawn of Queen’s Park a little after 5 that “It’s the End of the World As We Know It, and I feel lightly rained on.”

The surrounding roads were closed to cars and the designated “free speech” zone still a chilled-out street festival, as if P.S. Kensington had shown up one day early and five blocks east. Live-tweeting onlookers like myself were in the majority, and though police beat their shields in synchronized rhythm, closing in a few steps at a time, there was an inferred safety from being on the sidelines.

I left around 6, cracking on Twitter that the experience had been “WAY cheaper than seeing Evita at Stratford.” 1

Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy, then a writer for Torontoist, was also at Queen’s Park, dispatching updates for the site’s live blog. Shortly after 7 and without any warning, “it went from zero to 100 in a matter of seconds,” she recalled when sharing her story with a crowd of 40 at a fifth-anniversary event at Steelworkers Hall this past June 25.

Torontoist posted at 7:24: “Police have started charging the crowd, and are dragging some protesters off the scene.”

Fifteen minutes later: “Some police officers have their batons out now at Queen’s Park… At least a few protesters have been hit.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Bettencourt-McCarthy saw an officer approach with his baton out and shield up. He hit her just above the right hip, which she says hurts even more than you’d think.

Something briefly distracted him, and she ran, escaping northward around the east side of the legislative building.

“And the minute I got out of the park, I just broke down,” she says. “It was complete shock. I’m a very fortunate person – I’ve never been assaulted in my life, so to have the first beating come from a police officer is a very weird thing to sort of try to comprehend.”

On the surface it’s the wildest contradiction imaginable: the police, sworn to serve and protect, acting not as disruptors of violence but as a fearsomely arbitrary source of it. 

But as Bettencourt-McCarthy and others assaulted by police at the G20 would gradually come to understand, the capacity to be surprised by such a thing is a privilege.

She walked to her editor’s apartment on Bay, where a photographer got a picture of the bruise, which by that time was a horizontal red stripe on the skin above her belt.

At 3:15 the following afternoon – as photos, videos and written accounts of the police riot at Queen’s Park and the kettling at the Novotel hotel on the Esplanade continued to spill online – Bettencourt-McCarthy’s mark had become a swollen splotch of red, pink and purple, like a lipstick kiss from an unnaturally large mouth. The site published an updated shot.

Of all the G20 things I’d seen and read by then (the Queen/Spadina kettling was still hours away), that was what finally pushed me to tears. The general crushing awfulness and arbitrary cruelty sprinkled throughout the weekend got to me at last.

At the time, I didn’t know why that photo broke me, but in retrospect the reasons were obvious and selfish: I sort of knew Wyndham as an acquaintance I’d previously written for Torontoist myself the veneer of bystander safety had been shattered and what happened had happened to someone like me. 

I no longer had to empathize with an abstraction. 

“That was one weekend in 2010,” Tommy Taylor reflected at the G20 storytelling event, of which he was the organizer. “What a lot of us have come to discover since then is that for some communities, particularly in this city and even across Canada, it’s G20 rules every day.”

Taylor’s monologue play You Should Have Stayed Home ran at SummerWorks in 2011 and toured across Canada in 2013 it remains one of the few long-form works about Toronto’s G20 grief. In it he recounts in overwhelming, heartbreaking and darkly humorous detail his experience of being kettled outside the Novotel hotel and then taken to the Eastern Avenue detention centre, where he was kept in a series of cages for 23 hours. The show largely concerns the horrors of that weekend, and how the experience turned the theatre artist into a political activist. (He’s currently seeking the Green Party nomination in Scarborough Southwest, for the opportunity to go up against the Liberals’ big-name candidate, former police chief Bill Blair.)

But it’s also about how Taylor, “a straight white guy from Mississauga,” was shocked into a consciousness of his own bubble, and how even more frightening than the atrocities of that weekend was the realization that for many racialized and marginalized communities, what happened at the G20 may have been exceptional in scale but was hardly otherwise an aberration.

He remembers being confused that a group of older aboriginal women who were boxed in with him on the Esplanade failed to share his anxiety. Instead, they sat down and passed around cigarettes. “Welcome to our club, everybody!” they joked with weary familiarity.

Later, his wrists bound by zip ties and stuffed with 39 others into a cage built to hold fewer than half that number, his outrage swelled alongside that of his fellow prisoners. But “sitting quietly in the corner of our cage is an older aboriginal guy. Quiet as a mouse, not freakin’ out. As we get angrier, he blows up a condom into a balloon and gives it to us to play with so we calm down a little bit.”

A dozen or so hours after that, Taylor was transferred to yet another cage, where he met “three young black guys” and asked them how long they’d been there.

“And they’re like, ‘What is here?'” he recalls.

“They begin to tell me that they were picked up near Jane and Finch [and] not told why, but they said the cops told them they had a treat for ’em.”

A panel on “civil liberties in post-G20 Toronto” made up the second half of Taylor’s event, and included the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Sukanya Pillay, connecting the G20 abuses to the Harper government’s Bill C-51, and Neil Price, author of the Community Assessment Of Police Practices (CAPP), on carding.

CAPP was a research project commissioned by the Police Services Board in the summer of 2014 to survey residents of the Jane and Finch area on their satisfaction with police and evaluate the impact, if any, of the board’s effort to rein in carding. It determined that people’s on-the-ground experience strongly suggested that police were ignoring the more restrictive carding procedures that required, among other things, that police hand out receipts for every interaction. Just as he’d waved off accounts of abuses at the G20, then-chief Blair angrily rejected CAPP’s conclusions.

Expressing his appreciation of the story-sharing event, Price affirmed that “we have to continue to document and present a very, very strong case in terms of people’s experiences, and not listen to people like Bill Blair who may very callously dismiss people’s views and their lived experience.”

He was struck by other parallels between the G20 and CAPP’s findings, including “the feeling of being intimidated, the feeling of being surrounded by police” and the lasting trauma that can lead to apprehension and fear of police in general.

Jay Wall required counselling to process the trauma of being snatched up and assaulted by police on his way to a church picnic on the Sunday morning of the G20. It was a revelatory experience for Wall, then 23, exploding open “this perfectly constructed box where my religion and my politics and my world view all fit together.”

Once he realized that he couldn’t trust the police, as he’d been taught to growing up, the rest of his beliefs unravelled. As with Taylor, the ordeal – including his subsequent drawn-out quest for official accountability – politicized him, and he later established a design company focused on social justice work.

“You know, you always hear about things happening to other people, and it’s kind of easy to dismiss them when it’s just, like, a name or a number somewhere,” Wall says. “But when you personally experience it, it helps you empathize with them.”

Though profoundly distressed by what happened to him, he soon realized that “some people don’t even have the luxury of being upset, because they make it to age 23 and it’s the hundredth time they’ve been arrested or they’ve been assaulted by the cops.”

Following her assault at the G20, Bettencourt-McCarthy started down the police accountability rabbit hole.

The Toronto Star, working from a photo posted to the now-defunct website G20Justice.com that depicted the moment before Bettencourt-McCarthy was struck, identified the officer as Constable Babak Andalib-Goortani. 

That kicked off a four-year legal case that concluded with the officer being acquitted of assault with a weapon in September 2014, after his lawyer convinced the judge that the photo should be excluded from evidence. The reasoning was that the person who uploaded it couldn’t be tracked down, so there was a theoretical chance that it might have been doctored. 

(In a separate case, Andalib-Goortani was convicted in September 2013 of assaulting protester Adam Nobody the same day. He remains on the force, and internal discipline proceedings against him are ongoing.)

In some ways, the legal process re-victimized Bettencourt-McCarthy.

“It meant being repeatedly interviewed by the OIPRD (Office of the Independent Police Review Director), questioned by Toronto police detectives over and over again, cross-examined by Toronto police lawyers on the stand for hours, asked about everything from my personal life to my professional life to my political beliefs, and just an incredibly long system of having to constantly try to stand up against something that felt very powerful and very resistant,” she says. She regrets not retaining her own lawyer.

During that time, she went back to U of T for a master’s in public policy (her major in undergrad had been English), and turned much of her focus to policing.

“I kind of got to the point where I was like ‘I want to use what happened to me in the G20 somehow, in a way that feels useful. I want to do something with that experience,'” she tells me.

Her major research project concerned alternative models of policing, with an emphasis on “focused deterrence” – the antithesis of carding in that it zeroes in on specific repeat offenders rather than casting a suffocating blanket of intervention over a whole community. In the fall of 2013, she presented her report to the police board, her first of several deputations on community policing and racial profiling. She also became a researcher for the Policing Literacy Initiative.

For community advocate, Spacing columnist and former council candidate Idil Burale, the G20 has become a handy metaphor. “If I speak about carding and then I compare it to the kettling experience at the G20, I think that it’s easier for people to understand than [if I were] just explaining the arbitrariness of carding,” she says. “Without that visual cue some people wouldn’t understand why carding would be a problem.”

But she observes that the G20’s usefulness for this purpose also points to more troubling questions about how we process compassion, societally and psychologically: why do we need such a frame of reference at all? Why is our reaction to violence so dependent on context or proximity, such that a shooting at the Eaton Centre or downtown Yonge provokes a different collective and institutional response than similar incidents in farther-flung, poorer or racialized areas?

“Until people get a taste of the trauma that other communities deal with more often than they should, we seem to be [moved] by them when it happens closer to home than when it’s far off somewhere else,” she says. “Then we think it’s that corner’s problem.”

How much was Sammy Yatim’s death outrageous because it was caught on video and how much because it took place on a Dundas streetcar outside the Black Hoof?

Although Bettencourt-McCarthy is heartened that the public discourse around policing has recently grown – due to carding, high-profile police killings in the U.S. and movements like Black Lives Matter – she remains frustrated. Compared to the fundamental, far-reaching role that policing plays in society at large, the discussion of the subject is still startlingly limited. 

And yet, if the G20 didn’t lead to the grand cultural epiphany that it should have, for those caught up in the worst of it, it did build new bridges of empathy.

“Once you see people in power like police officers doing that to people who don’t have power, you just….” Bettencourt-McCarthy pauses. 

“I’ll never forget that.”

jonathang@nowtoronto.com | @goldsbie

1 For the Stratford Festival’s 2010 production of Evita, director Gary Griffin refocused the musical about the sociopathic first lady of Argentina to put the emphasis on Che, the show’s narrator, who is often but not always portrayed as Che Guevara. In Griffin’s version, Evita is about the gradual radicalization of the Argentine-born Guevara, whose fresh-faced idealism is figuratively and literally beaten out of him as he incredulously snarks his way through the rise of Juan and Eva Perón. By the end of the show, having witnessed fellow Argentines happily cede their country to a pair of faux-populist dictators who promise democracy but bring only violence, Che finally resembles the grizzled icon from the t-shirts.

I finally saw the show that October.

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