Good riddance to Toronto’s zone of conflict

  • July 14, 2010
For many citizens of Toronto, this writer included, the time that has passed since the G20 summit of world leaders in the city has been a season of grief. For the Christians among us, it has also been a time of prayer for the city — that the bitterness will not linger, that the healing of the few physical and many more moral injuries will be swift.

We have been outraged by the damage wreaked on shops and banks by a small band of hooligans, whom the police did nothing to stop. The reputation of our city as a place of calm and justice has been damaged by police strong-arm tactics against peaceful demonstrators and bystanders. And we were offended by the stripping of Torontonians of their rights to freely walk streets distant from the justifiably sequestered G20 site.

Some leaders may have heard from aides that their host city was under attack by the police and a few self-proclaimed anarchists, though I doubt if the news was communicated to them in so many words. Rather, they probably got the official narrative that quickly emerged in the media during the Saturday and Sunday of the meeting. The demonstrations in streets across downtown, so the story went, were a cover for violent miscreants disguised as ordinary citizens. To quell this threat of mayhem, the police arrested, beat and manhandled many apparently “peaceful” demonstrators. The threat they posed to civic peace thus justified the $1.1 billion spent on the leaders’ security. It was merely the price of doing business in a civilization menaced by anarchists and terrorists.

Sober distinctions — the difference between vandalism and the personal violence that deserves the name, for example — escaped the police spokesmen and television commentators in their rush to sensationalize the events of the weekend. Also interesting, in a bad way, was the sweeping description of everyone out on the streets as demonstrators. There was indeed a large traditional demonstration and march by organized labour and other groups, which began at Queen’s Park early Saturday afternoon. By evening, however, the crowds marauded on by phalanxes of riot police on Queen Street, College Street, Queen’s Park and elsewhere were obviously ordinary citizens trying to walk the avenues that, until that day, they had believed were theirs. 
       They were finding out otherwise — that, in fact, we are allowed to use the streets just so long and to the exact extent that our doing so does not interfere with the desires of our leaders and their employees, including the police. The citizens’ long-abiding custom, which we took to be a right, was everywhere violated by the police, who blocked streets and arrested people far from the fenced-off security area; and the walkers were understandably angry. The government leaders, not the citizens at large, chose to turn the streets of Toronto into a zone of contest that weekend. Their militarization of the city was a provocation that showed many, in brutally frank ways, how baseless and how easily ignored is the conviction of many Torontonians that we own our streets.

As for the notion that a small group of foreign infiltrators was causing all the trouble — an idea put about by the mayor, the police chief and the media: Do the spokesmen of state power really believe the citizens can be fooled into agreeing with this proposition? I think they do, and their campaign to win minds to this viewpoint has been under way since the G20 weekend.

But if the rhetoric is familiar to anyone who lived through the Red-baiting of the Cold War era, the content of the message — the preferred label for the besetting evil — has undergone a significant shift in recent years away from communism to anarchism. It is now anarchism that is the rot at the heart of our culture, a dangerous, conspiratorial force that is out to subvert the “Canadian way of life,” as a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office put it during the weekend protests.

I have no way of knowing how many real anarchists were newly minted in Toronto during the G20 conference. But I am sure that the streets became a school of anarchism, whose lessons about power will be pondered for a long time in this city.

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