It was the day we had been waiting for all week – the day the people came together to make some noise (and to break some glass, incidentally). It was the day the massive G20 security detail had planned for, the day they dreaded would come to fruition – some reports indicate officers worked more than 17 hours on Saturday – and the day that, for some Torontonians, would justify a monstrous price tag of one billion dollars to host the G20 summit.
People assembled en masse June 26 at Queen’s Park, Ontario’s provincial legislature, for a day of demonstrations. There were an estimated 10,000 people on the legislature lawn and the march, which was deemed family-friendly by organizers, started out peacefully.
I walked with about 200 United Steelworkers from all over the world, who stood in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Sudbury, Ontario (my home town) who are nearly one year into an acrimonious strike with Vale, the Brazilian mining giant. We arrived at Queen’s Park, from where the big march was set to begin, to an atmosphere that was quite friendly and hopeful. We were a community of communities. Women led the march, standing in solidarity with their global sisters, to campaign for universal access to abortion. There were representatives from national and international labour movements; groups calling for an end to the occupations of Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet; an Ethiopian group calling for an end to Meles Zenawi’s rule; and dozens of civil society organizations.
At about 3 p.m. – two hours into the march – things started to get tense. I noticed black-clad individuals, their faces obscured by bandanas and balaclavas, assembling into increasingly large groups. I knew who they were and what they intended to do. The black block, which is really a tactical ideology rather than an organized group, is known to be destructive, militant, confrontational and fearless in the face of riot police.
But why do they do it?
“I’m participating in the anti-G20 protests because I think they're important historical events in which large masses of people mobilize to confront those in power – the ruling class – and out of which arises greater social consciousness,” explains a protester named John (not his real name), from western Canada. “This is especially important now as we enter a period of even greater socio-economic and ecological crises.”
But what about the issues of social justice? In speaking with several people this week while marching, I have become skeptical that they all understand why they are demonstrating – besides making some noise, disrupting traffic and telling off the security detail.
“I’m not really protesting any primary issue,” John says. “The fundamental problems of this system are capitalism and colonialism. I would like to have seen a greater anti-capitalist and anti-colonial analysis and practice in this mobilization, but as it seems largely dominated by NGOs, it is instead focused on single-issue campaigns.”
Ok, so it is not really about one specific issue or cause, but the systemic way in which socio-economic disparity is created and perpetuated, and the way it permeates societies in subtle and overt ways.
But why get destructive to convey the message?
“Black block tactics are useful in countering the state’s promotion of itself as all-powerful and omnipotent, and in salvaging large protests from purely empty rituals and rhetoric,” John says. “Militant resistance, which has been a part of every successful radical movement, does not magically appear but must be itself promoted, organized and carried out, in order for greater resistance to emerge.”
Not all anarchists engage in Black Block tactics. On Saturday, before heading to Queen’s Park with the steelworkers, I spoke with Alex, a spokesperson for Common Cause, an Ontario-wide anarchist organization.
“We’re here to demonstrate our opposition to the G20 policies,” he told me. “We think these policies are destructive to the environment and to workers’ rights. They’ve engineered a global financial crisis. They got us to bail them out and by doing so, they bankrupted us. And now they’re coming back for more through austerity programs.
“At Common Cause, we decided only to march in the two major marches. We decided against splitting off and joining the more confrontational march. We’re here to get our ideas out and to demonstrate our opposition.”
For Common Cause, raising awareness of urgent issues is more important than raising fists, fighting riot police (who seemed hyper-vigilant and increasingly tense as the week wore on) or shattering glass. Alex told me his group is invested in doing front-line, grassroots activities in their own communities, but that it respects the diversity of tactics others may employ.
I think John makes a good point and his statements are thought-provoking. I appreciate the anti-capitalist and anti-colonial sentiment he expresses, but I remain ambivalent to the Black Block hijacking what was a peaceful and festive demonstration. They were all over local and national media last night, which portrayed Toronto as a ‘city under siege’ (according to the Canadian Press) and overrun by ‘thugs’ (said the Prime Minister’s Office). In fact, it was only a very small area in downtown Toronto that was shut down and by 6 p.m., people were jogging and walking their dogs along the march route. I also saw many folks strolling along Yonge Street, curious to know what had happened earlier in the afternoon.
The images – of windows shattered by projectile and police cars engulfed in flames – are certainly striking, but they do not tell the real story – of injustice, disparity, inter-generational poverty and dependence, disenfranchisement and, perhaps worst, hopelessness.
I enjoy many civil liberties. I live in a place where I can speak up, question and dissent. Clean water and food are plentiful. These struggles did not come freely or without sacrifice. Despite the shock value of Black Block tactics, there are underlying causes and circumstances that lead activists to believe they have no other recourse.
“There has never been a radical movement that has achieved any substantial social change without using a diversity of tactics, including militant, violent resistance,” John points out. “The pacifist myths about Gandhi and (Martin Luther) King are just that – myths. Both the Indian independence struggle and the Black civil rights movement in the USA had militant resistance and used a diversity of tactics, including armed struggle, rioting, arson, etc. It is only the pacifists and the state who promote these struggles as purely non-violent.”
Photos and story by Mary Katherine Keown
June 27, 2010