Sunday, May 1, 2011
Queen and Spadina. June 27th, 2010. The G20 Summit Toronto.
*All photos by Robert Mitchell taken on an iPhone 3G. Except for picture of the writer with Megan Liley taken by Matthew Hendrickson.
How fitting that as I begin to articulate a day emblazoned into my memory that it begins to rain. I will never forget the rain that Sunday night in June but that is the end not the beginning of this remembrance.
Perhaps I should start with the day prior Saturday, June 26. It was the first day of the G20 summit in my city of Toronto. A billion dollar conclave that our current Prime-Minister Stephen Harper choose to set in a Canada's largest city and was the reason for such an excessive price tag. Or so we are told even though the previous G20 in Pittsburgh cost 18 million.
Police from all over the country were flown in to bolster our police force the final number was said to be ten thousand police. As I recall the weeks leading up to the G20 summit it quite well amazes me how fast this major city was transformed into a police state. I will always remember the culture of fear that sprang up overnight. Everyone was afraid. No one quite knew what the actual threat was but you better stay away from downtown. Fences were erected everywhere. CCTV cameras were installed everywhere. Police stood around everywhere. They were on bikes, horses, motorcycles, in cars. As I walked past hundreds of police I'll always recall the boredom and the numerous stares of "cop eye" the look that I know your guilty and up to something.
I came up with the idea that my Federal government had provided me with something I could never afford. Huge production values. I then got the idea to make a short film using the G20 as a backdrop. I met many actors and am still amused by the looks on their faces when I told them of my intentions to film at the summit, suffice to say not many were up to the task. However my friend Megan Liley who I have since learned is one of the most fearless women I know said she wanted to accompany me. We set off with backpacks loaded with water, still cameras, my video camera and our smart phones. We wore bandanas around our necks in the fruitless gesture of staving off the possible impending tear gas.
We figured we would capture as much as we could and then shape a story around the footage. That was the plan anyways.... I have been to numerous protests and taken video/photos but nothing would prepare me for this Saturday afternoon.
Megan and I went to Queen's Park and met up with the rest of the people who planned to march down University - the official sanctioned march. The march started. There were many signs for many different issues, no war, the environment, workers rights, reproductive rights, you get the idea. The mood was fun and festive even with the persistent rain. However once we arrived at the U.S. consulate we had out first glimpse of the police force that would await us. A steady stream of R.C.M.P. riot police flooded out in front of the consulate to a huge round of boos.
Once we got to the corner of Queen and Spadina the march split into two fractions, many continued to march up Spadina and many chose to stay on the front lines with the riot police, with the impossible goal of getting to the convention centre to where the G20 leaders were meeting. We stayed.
Shortly there after a flare was set off and then all hell broke loose.
At the corner of Queen and Spadina there were two police cars that were sitting in the middle of the street. These were protected by a small contingent of riot police and then they gave them up and fell back behind police lines, to a large cheer. The cop cars began to get destroyed and became a photo op for any fool who chose to stand on the cars.
A large group of people began running East on Queen St. and we began to follow after them but were quite far behind. As we made our way along Queen we began to see the aftermath of what was happening ahead of us: smashed windows, graffiti such as "burn prisons, fuck the banks" Streetcars were left deserted. These were vandalized also. The street was pretty much empty. There were news vans with smashed windows.
I will always remember the extreme quiet broken by helicopters flying overhead. People who were talking did so in whispers. It was at this time that my friend Sheleigh sent me a text telling me to get to Bay and King for the footage of a lifetime. I had no idea what was happening there but knew if Sheleigh told me to get there it was big. I began to hustle through the alleyways and side streets. This is where I encountered an insane amount of riot police assembled. Waiting. There were numerous coach buses filled with riot police. I have never felt anything like walking down a street by yourself with hundreds of riot police checking you out.
Once I arrived at Bay and King I begin to see the smoke above the riot police assembled. It was then that I saw the two cop cars on fire. We had arrived before the protesters. It was shortly after that I saw something I will never forget. We were standing in the middle of the street as the the riot cops and the protesters marched on either side of the street and met where we were standing. It was incredible.
Megan and I continued to capture content for a couple of more hours and then went our separate ways with the goal of meeting up Sunday morning to go back out in the fray once again.
The next day Sunday, June 27th I met Megan at her place and we sat around and discussed what the plan was going to be for the day. We had none. I figured after the mass demonstrations and anarchy the day prior there was nothing officially organized. A search through social media confirmed this. We also discussed what the atmosphere would be like and agreed we would be much more likely to be searched and or arrested just for being out in the streets. Added to that we would be two individuals and not in the midst of a much larger group and thereby easier to be targeted by law enforcement. We made sure to have our photo I.D. on our person. I could tell Megan was hesitant prior to leaving and yet she was full of aplomb and ready to face the day. We left and headed to the nearest subway station. We got off the train at Queen and University. We exited onto the North side of the street. The streets were utterly deserted. However on the south side were fourteen police officers sitting on bicycles. I turned to Megan and told her I was going to walk down University to see what would happen. She followed. After stepping five feet onto the south side of the street we were stopped and surrounded. We were then immediately asked for I.D. which we supplied and were forced to submit to a search of our backpacks and person - failure to do so would result in us being arrested. After seeing all our camera gear I was then told that today was different then yesterday and if I got in the way of police actions I would be taken out. We were then told we could not proceed down the street so we gathered our packs and began to wander. Over the course of the morning we saw at least twenty people stopped in the same way as us. Those with out I.D. were hassled and some arrested. (In accordance to a law which was secretly brushed off and passed by the McGunity provincial government)
That day civil liberties went out the window. If you were out in the street you were suspect. You would be stopped, searched and possibly arrested. We then walked up Yonge street and only then realized the full extent of the vandalism of the day prior. It seemed every other business from Queen to College street was smashed. Many windows were boarded up with wood. Even the strip club.
Searching twitter we saw that the temporary detention centre out on Eastern avenue was blowing up with protests and that tear gas had been fired. I turned to Megan and she said "let's go!" Once we arrived we immediately began to roll video and take stills.
The energy here was electric. The small group of protestors were chanting and clapping. As soon as we arrived the head police officer running the show walked out flanked by other senior officers and was then surrounded by media. We could not hear what was being said at first but then we heard him say that we - as a crowd - had been warned and that we have five minutes to vacate the area.
The crowd began chanting, "Billion dollars! Where's your megaphone?!" I had to laugh. Five minutes came and went. The head officer came out and was once again immediately flanked. He then reiterated the warning. The crowd remained steadfast. No one was moving. Megan and I exchanged looks. We were not moving either. I thought to myself that we were going to get tear gassed. Several tense moments passed.
Impasse. The police then began releasing detainees once again in five to ten minute intervals to large cheers and clapping. Most emerged disheveled, and dazed, some wore orange jumpsuits, all held a super large clear ziploc bag with their belongings. Some emerged defiant, flashing peace signs. Others were broken and defeated. One teenager left the detention centre crying and once he reached the crowd he was met by his father. They embraced and left. I will not forget the look of shame that young man carried with him. I approached a couple of the people released and was given a first-person accounts of life inside the make-shift prison. The conditions were beyond horrible and reprehensible. No water for twelve hours. No phone calls. People withheld medication. Upwards of twenty people to a cell. No privacy to use the washroom. Some threatened by police. It was deplorable and beyond disturbing. I thought to myself, "What has happened to this country?" The detention centre would be dubbed Torontonamo Bay after Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where 9/11 suspects are held in very horrible conditions.
Megan and I decided to leave the detention centre after a search of social media and found a protest gathering was forming at Queen and Spadina. We began the trek back downtown. Our unspoken code was we would walk as much as possible to see this weekend unfold from being on the ground. We walked for several kms. We barely spoke to each other as we walked overwhelmed by what we had been seeing and witnessing. As we walked it began to softly rain. As we got closer to Queen and Spadina twitter informed me that the sound canon was being deployed (one of four sound canons specifically purchased for the security of this summit) and police had informed protesters that it would be used (despite the full legalities of using such equipment not really settled by law) The closer we got to Queen and Spadina the more officers we encountered. Many said hi to us and were very friendly. One said, "How are you folks doing?" I turned to Megan and said, "You know we are walking ourselves to the slaughter. Do you want to continue?" She said yes, so we kept walking.
The rain really started coming down. I ducked into an alcove and wrapped my video camera up and put it in my backpack. We passed the ominous all black draconian sound canon. I knew this was not going to end well. Once at the corner there were no media to be found. One guy was taking pictures with a high-end professional camera. Megan went up to the riot police and began to snap photos. I hung back amongst the first rank of people milling about to access the situation. At this point it was hard to tell who was actually protesting and who was a curious by-stander. There were many rowdy teenagers. I remember one girl running around yelling, "fuck the police' and giving the finger to the large group of riot police ahead of us. The police began beating on their shields. The rain began to pour. I mean really pour. The only proper way to describe it was biblical.
It was almost simultaneous that as the rain became more intense the police charged us. Everyone in front of me turned and ran towards the crowd behind them. It was either turn and run or get trampled. My vision was beyond poor with the amount of water flowing into my eyes. It was at this time that I had lost Megan. People around me were being taken down hard. I turned my head to the right and saw the guy beside me take a baton to the back. He stumbled and fell to the ground. The police fell atop of him. I reached the back of the alleyway. Thirty odd riot cops were filtering into the open area. I starting walking through the narrow alleyway against them like a fish swimming up river. One riot cop asked me where I was going? "I'm trying to leave." I said. He informed me, "You made the choice to be here" and pushed me back into the frenzy. I turned and saw Megan. I ran to her, grabbed her hand and with several others pushed our way to the last way out before the police had closed the kettle. We were probably the some of the last people to escape. The fate of others were not so lucky. They were detained in the pouring cold rain for four hours. Then like nothing happened released. Those that ran went free. Those that ran unto the waiting buses were taken into custody and detained at Eastern ave. detention centre.
After the smoked cleared over a billion dollars had been spent and to this day no official documentation has ever been released stating where exactly this tax payer money has been spent. Civil liberties were all but obliterated. Over 900 people were arrested with a very small portion ever charged with any sort of criminal act. Most of my footage still sits on a hard drive unused much like the many questions that still remain unanswered by Stephen Harper in regards to the G20 summit.