Sunday, June 27, 2010

Toronto G20 Conference: A View From The Wreckage

Here are my observations from this year's G20 conference in Toronto. I have inserted as little political commentary as possible, opting instead to share my personal experience.



June 25th, 2010



10:51 PM

I arrive in Toronto to a surprisingly vacant parking lot on the Esplanade, in the heart of Toronto's bustling financial district.










10:56 PM

Quietest Friday night I've ever seen in Toronto. Barely a soul out in the usually packed financial district.










2:12 AM

On the way back to my lodgings, I pass by the French delegation's bus. The hotel workers had been on strike for the previous few days. The hotel company is owned by a French company, so they decided to go on strike while the French delegation was there as a bargaining tactic. The picketers left hours before my arrival.






2:14 AM

The Esplanade is conspicuously devoid of returning bar goers.












June 26th, 2010



10:39 AM

I arrived a few minutes after a scheduled keynote speaker at Allen Gardens that I heard about on Twitter. The tent town built by protesters has already been broken up, and its occupants dispersed.








10:40 AM

The speaker went on anyways, with a small crowd. I was told there would be a 1:00 PM rally at the Provincial Legislature, Queen's Park.










10:56 AM

In the meantime, I headed to Bay Street, the heart of Canada's financial district. I figured if there were pre-rally disruptions, they would be here.









11:04 AM

All's quiet at Queen's Park. I decided to walk down to the security barrier surrounding the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where the summit was being held.









11:11 AM

The Art Gallery of Ontario was one of the many high profile venues that closed for the conference. Mirvish cancelled all of their shows, including the high profile Rock of Ages musical. The Blue Jays were also forced to move 3 home games to Philadelphia.







11:18 AM

University Avenue. One of Toronto's busiest streets. Empty.











11:29 AM

Arrival at the Security barrier. A few officers hanging around, but surprisingly quiet.











11:30 AM

The police decided to use tightly meshed chain link fences to make climbing the barriers extremely difficult. I used a Canadian bill for scale, which may be slightly deceptive to Americans (since our bills are slightly shorter, and wider). It still appeared to be somewhat climbable, but I didn't dare test my theory.






11:36 AM

I caught the subway at Osgoode station to head back to Queen's Park. It was quieter than it usually is at 1 AM on a Sunday.










11:55 AM

A scene from the University of Toronto, which was also closed for the conference.











12:06 PM

The people in orange hats are the legal representation for the protesters. They're prepping for a long day.










12:10 PM

Queen's Park begins to fill up with all of the usual suspects. Union activists, environmentalists, and anti-war protesters seemed to be the bulk of the crowd.









12:30 PM

Things seemed quiet, so we decided to go for lunch. When I saw Greepeace approaching, I knew it wouldn't be quiet much longer...










12:34 PM

...and then I saw people in their midst who appeared to be Black Bloc anarchists. They are notorious for their role in the Seattle WTO protests of 1999, where they caused major property destruction. Given that they show up to protests specifically to attack corporate buildings, I had to stay close by.






12:43 PM

Things got pretty busy at Queen's Park. Despite the rain, an estimate put the crowd at 5000.











12:48 PM

A crowd protesting the Ethiopian genocide filled the streets of Queen's Park. I told my photographer not to worry about them. They had nothing to gain from being violent. Spoiler: I was right.








1:00 PM

The Queen's Park subway station. Moments after this photo, I was told that this stop, among others was closed. First sign that the police were prepared to funnel the crowd down University Avenue, to avoid anyone getting to Bay Street. Given the number of anti-bank banners, this was probably wise.






1:14 AM

A frustrated streetcar driver looks on as protesters and police shut down University Avenue. Combined with the subway closure, passengers has little option but to wait for the march to end. I have no idea when this streetcar was actually up and running again.







1:41 PM

The demonstrators have now officially shut down University Avenue. Frustrated motorists driving south on University are stuck for minutes on end, trying to plow through the crowd.









1:56 PM

The crowd continues south on University. They are flanked on either side by police. I instructed my photographer to stay as far north as the police. The last thing I wanted was to get caught with police and protesters on either side. I wanted to maintain an exit strategy.







2:26 PM

After a long march south, the protesters are all funnelled to the east side of the street. This bolstered my theory that the police were trying to contain the protests between Queen's Park and the barrier. A classic pincer formation.








2:37 PM

My first sighting of riot police.












2:45 PM

I was proven wrong. Rather than contain the crowds (which would lead to immediate confrontation), the police formed a human funnel to shunt the protesters west on Queen Street. They were betting that dispersing protesters towards bohemian West Queen West would give them fewer targets. Given that they decided to use dispersment, rather than containment as their strategy, this was not unreasonable.




2:47 PM

The view from Queen West. Seems remarkably quiet. Few protesters left in sight.











2:55 PM

A little bit of hipster irony. This was going to be my caption photo had there been no destruction. Clever stunt, I must say.

I chatted with some riot police to see if anything had happened. No reports of violence. I decided that nothing was going to happen just yet. I began heading east to meet a friend at a pub. As I reached University, I noticed the police were once again blockading. I was talking to bicycle police, and pointed out that that the riot police one street south were putting on gas masks. They looked back, looked west down Queen, and noticed that the protesters were marching back East. There appeared to be police officers fighting with protesters, so the police told us to head north immediately, or we would be collateral damage. He wasn't being threatening; just acknowledging a reality.

At this point, we left. As we walked north, we bumped into someone who had come from further west on Queen West. He informed us that rioters were breaking every window in sight. We then turned east to try to get far enough away from the protests to head back south to where we were staying. The protests seemed to follow us in lockstep each time we went South. It turns out that many of the protesters who were funelled west simply headed south, and turned back east to avoid the police. Hence the riot police with gas masks a block south.


3:48 PM

We eventually ended up walking south on Church. As we crossed King Street, we saw a cloud of smoke. It appeared too dark to be tear gas.









3:48 PM

It turns out the smoke was coming from a burning car in the middle of the road. We later found out it was a police car set on fire by protesters with Molotov cocktails (one of at least 3). We decided it was time to get out of downtown.

I met my friend at the pub (C'est What?), and told him there was a car on fire down the street, and protesters were rapidly moving our way, leaving behind a swath of destruction. We headed a block north of Yonge and College to another bar.

After ordering a drink at Bar Volo, the owner walked up to our table, and told us to move away from the window. There were people breaking windows of shops just south on Yonge, and he didn't want his customers to get hurt. We hopped in a cab, and fled to north.

We spent the next few hours at Rebel House. Ironically, this was the launching point for one of Canada's biggest political clashes, the Upper Canada Rebellion. The irony was unintentional.


11:46 PM

We returned downtown around 11pm to have a quick drink at Duggan's, a local microbrewery. Upon leaving, downtown was once again eerily quiet. Some business owners had the foresight to board up in anticipation of the riots.








11:52 PM

We were greated by hundreds of riot police outside of our lodgings. We litterally had to be escorted accross the street. There didn't appear to be anything amiss.









12:42 AM

From the roof, we were able to discover what the police were up to: resting.















12:45 AM

More riot police arrived. They appeared to be regrouping in prepartion for more protests. The next day, we found out that hundreds of people were arrested just outside. There also appears to have been a journalist abused and detained in this flurry of arrests. I suspect we'll hear much more about this.







June 27th, 2010



1:56 PM

I decided to drive around the Queen West/Bay Street areas to survey the damage. This Bank of Montreal was one of many banks that was attacked.









2:09 PM

After being questioned by police, we resumed photographing. Given that I was driving around taking photos, this was unsurprising.

The CIBC accross the street from Bank of Montreal was another of the Banks smashed in. It surprised me how quick the vandalized establishments were boarded up. No remaining shattered glass visible from the road.




2:11 PM

The Gap was one of the predictable targets for protesters. There were dozens of less prominent shops that were also vandalized.










2:12 PM

Starbucks. The absolute favorite target of anti-corporate vandals.











2:13 PM

The vandals also targetted the CTV news building, as well as several media vehicles. Their commitment to free speech seemed questionable by this point.









2:13 PM

A window at police headquarters broken during the riots.











2:14 PM

Yet another CIBC location with broken windows.












2:15 PM

I continued along Queen Street, passing by the Four Seasons Centre, home of the Canadian Opera Company. My favorite building in the city. As I crossed the intersection, I heard a loud rumble. Yet another protest march coming down Queen Street, following a police car. I quickly pulled a U-turn, and headed north on University. I kept going, and exited the city.






There are plenty of lessons that one might learn from this experience. This was my second G20, after last year's meeting in Pittsburgh. This was far more chaotic, possibly even worse than the Seattle riots in '99. The lesson that I want to impart is simple: major political meetings should never be held in large cities. They are a magnet for violent protesters, and endanger local residents. The destruction, and the billion dollar security tab will hopefully make politicians think twice about foisting these events upon major cities. Like I said before the meeting, it should have stayed in Huntsville, a small tourist town outside of the city where it was initially supposed to take place. This is my personal opinion. You decide.

5 comments:

  1. nice job (with just the quibble that it should be "disperse" not "disburse"). You are right that these events should not be held it large cities as they are too disruptive and expensive.

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  2. Nice coverage. It should be said that large political meetings actually disrupt cities very little. It is the protesters that disrupt. Isn't that the point? Well, its the protesters and the measures police take to keep them from damaging property, blocking roads, and otherwise upsetting the citizenry.

    Moving these events to smaller cities raises big concerns. What if you have the same or roughly the same number of protesters? They could overwhelm a smaller city. Further, big cities's police forces are not only large, but also well-trained and experienced with this stuff. I don't know the first thing about Huntsville's PD, but do you think they would have done as good a job as Toronto's in handling the stress of a large protest? And it would be hard to import another cities' police - they wouldn't know the geography as well and there could chain of command issues.

    I'd like to see protesters take more responsibility for weeding out the criminal elements in their midst. In the end, its their message that gets discredited when a protest ends in another (yawn) Starbucks vandalization.

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  3. The ideal situation is to have them in remote locations, like the G8 in Kananaskis, Alberta a few years ago. Not only do less demonstrators show up, but there are less innocent bystanders.

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  4. The ideal situation would be not to hold them at all -- leaving aside questions of honesty and lack thereof, their purpose is purely political -- designed to let "leaders" perform for their audiences back home, and lets them leverage the G20 collective as an excuse for whatever it is they want to do ('see -- we had no choice...everybody is doing this')instead of assuming the responsibility of leadership.

    In this age of state-of-the-art web video and telecommunications, there is NO reason these things, if they must be done at all, can't be done remotely.

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  5. True. Let me rephrase that. If they are going to have these major conferences at all, they should have them in remote locations. I have no problem with them doing it virtually. Alternatively, they could just do it Camp David style. They don't exactly need these massive entourages.

    ReplyDelete