New Internationalist

The G20 fiasco

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The G8/G20 meetings were held this year in Toronto (26-27 June), hosted by Canada’s neo-conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper and his police regime set all kinds of summit records – most money spent on security (over a billion dollars – more than five times any other summit), most arrests of protesters (over 1,000 – mostly for just daring to show up.) Ironically, Harper’s great ‘achievement’ at the summit was a scarcely credible agreement to get other governments to cut spending. Maybe next time skyping would be a more cost effective way to meet. Below are the experiences of Jeff Carolin, a legal aid worker caught in the Harper dragnet.

Photo by: Salty Soul under a CC Licence
Photo by: Salty Soul under a CC Licence

Hi Everybody,

Thanks to everyone who’s been sending moral support. I still feel totally fucked up. I write this with the fear of co-opting the voice of the hundreds of other people who have been arrested but I just think right now that we need stories getting out there and this is my three hour attempt to share my own. I won’t pretend that my writing is at peak form or that I have the patience to give this a proper edit. Nor do I have the energy right now to describe my whole account, but I just read through the info at the following link and it captures my personal experience. It has also made me believe (unsurprisingly) that people who are more vulnerable in these situations – like folks who don’t identify as male or heterosexual, folks with disabilities, and people of colour – had it worse than me. So please read through this first: www.thelinknewspaper.ca/articles/2698.

We were all, in fact, effectively ‘disappeared’ for the entirety of our detention as we were allowed no calls, and the cops weren’t giving any information about anyone to the outside world

Before continuing on, I just want to clarify that this is not a message about the Saturday black bloc action that took place for about 1.5 hours without a single one of the 10,000 cops anywhere near it. Something that I personally think was a deliberate police gambit to justify the crackdown that followed, which seemed to have been working out in the media in their favour until some time on Sunday when the wild police repression and brutality that took place at Queens Park late Saturday afternoon and later that day in front of the Novotel (a Toronto chain hotel that housed delegates) started coming out. Rather it’s about something that’s completely not debatable: the crime of the prisoner processing centre at Eastern and Pape, nicknamed ‘Torontonamo’.

Of the 25 other people I shared my overcrowded cage with, not a single one was in there for something legitimate. A lot had been at Queens Park or the Novotel. Two were punk kids who were beat up and arrested for wearing black and knew nothing about the G20. I was also with a fully uniformed Toronto Transit Commission attendant who was jumped by riot cops leaving work at the Queens Park subway station. He was kept in for 30 hours. We were also with a 17-year-old kid (who had been at the Novotel),who was only wearing a t-shirt and was shivering from the cold the whole time and who, of course, had not been allowed to call his parents. We were all, in fact, effectively ‘disappeared’ for the entirety of our detention as we were allowed no calls, and the cops weren’t giving any information about anyone to the outside world. Then there was the self-proclaimed apolitical freelance photographer who had been tackled by a plainclothes officer while running away from riot cops. This same plainclothes officer had, just moments earlier, been inciting the crowd to get closer and to throw stuff at the cops. He was passed to riot cops who then stepped on his head and kicked him in the face. He was covered in blood in our cell and was passing in and out of consciousness. Obviously there was no medical attention. I asked him, as we left together 20+ hours later, if he felt less apolitical now, at least with respect to the police as an institution and the state that is supposed to oversee it. You can imagine his response.

Photo by: Sam Slotnick
Which way now? Photo by: Sam Slotnick

All that to say, when you hear ‘Torontonamo’ horror stories, as I’m sure they’ll keep emerging, keep this collective punishment in mind. And maybe also keep in mind how this compares to other parts of the world where, albeit much further along the fascistic spectrum, occupying armies and repressive regimes carry out mass, indiscriminate arrests and sweeps, and keep people in conditions based on the same CIA low intensity psychological torture techniques for breaking people down (as described below and in the link above). Everyone emerged from our cell – the political and the previously apolitical – completely enraged at the abuses of authority that we had been subject to. And about how much we wanted to strike back. It only took 20 hours of collective punishment and psychological torture – and the imposition of complete powerlessness – to plant within us the desire to take part in militant resistance towards the state that allowed this to happen.

Now to give you a sense of my personal experiences.

First, the circumstances of my arrest to provide some context. I wrote this bit when I got home, after having slept for about 30 minutes in the previous 43 hours:

Everyone emerged from our cell – the political and the previously apolitical – completely enraged at the abuses of authority that we had been subject to

It was on Saturday when I returned to the southern lawn of Queens Park just under the legislature around 5.30 in the afternoon. A motley crew of random unaffiliated activist-type folks, passersby and labour people were having a standoff with the riot cops. The riot cops had begun darting out in groups of four or five, grabbing someone doing something completely benign and then dragging them back behind their lines, where they usually would beat them for awhile with their batons. Although a part of me wanted to take off my ‘legal’ hat and join the locked arms at the front, it became clear that few people there knew of our group.

So I went back and forth just behind the front line passing out ‘know your Rights’ literature, and shouting out the legal number that people could call if arrested, etc. At some point I took off my hat and was helping keep people calm just behind the front line, as each time the police rushed there was a chance of a stampede. Eventually we got pushed back and back until we were divided into two marches – on Harbord and Devonshire Streets. Cops kept charging at us beating their shields trying to force us backwards. Sometimes they used their horses to push ahead.

Eventually things dissipated and I returned home, only to leave again with some other people to head to the Jail Solidarity action at midnight outside the specially-constructed jail on Eastern Avenue. I felt obligated to go, having just witnessed so many illegal arrests and beatings. Arrived at an action already in progress. Peaceful. Demonstrators were following police orders that the protest stay on the sidewalk on the north side of the street. Pretty soon after we arrived, the riot cops showed up and completely surrounded us. There was some negotiation and the ultimate decision was that we would be given a way out to the west along Eastern Avenue. The people I was with had decided that we were going to leave, but that we would try to carry out our legal observing from outside the riot cop ring as the people who decided to stay back were arrested.

It seemed that too few were willing to stay, so after a brief delay (1-2 minutes) the core organizers followed everyone out to the west and we ended up joining up with them as they passed through the ring of riot cops. We were now perhaps half a block behind the main group that had left right away and something like a block or a block and a half west of the original encirclement. All of a sudden a second line of riot police appeared in front of us and blocked our way, fully surrounding a group of about 20 of us. We were then arrested for breaching the peace. We were told that we had ‘taken too long’.

Second, the overall architecture of this ‘temporary prisoner processing Centre’ was the most Orwellian, fascistic, brutalizing, fucked up thing that I have ever seen. Again, probably designed according to CiA sensory deprivation, psychological torture specs. (Who allowed this to happen? This was supposedly the same place that the police said they were building in order to be able to process prisoners quickly and efficiently.) In any particular cage you rarely had a view of any other of the grey metal cages. Just the spotlights and surveillance cameras and dark ceiling above, and the white or grey concrete floors. No clocks anywhere. Nor were there any cameras on the hallways or places where the cops convened and brought prisoners through. There were the cops, guards and officers of all types walking by us. Usually ignoring us, sometimes antagonizing us, and often just telling us total bullshit as I describe in two points below. When I close my eyes right now, I have an image of cold harsh lighting, stark white walls and floors, and streams of guards passing back and forth through the squares of the cage. Closing my eyes still makes me feel nauseous.

The overall architecture of this ‘temporary prisoner processing Centre’ was the most Orwellian, fascistic, brutalizing, fucked up thing that I have ever seen

Third, something that doesn’t really come across through the list of things described in the link above was the group psychology in the cages and how we actually spent the time (at least in my cage). We spent the first few hours indignantly demanding our civil liberties (calls to counsel especially) and insulting the guards, calling them pigs, etc, when they refused. By the end I was grovelling and pleading on my knees with my bound hands in a supplicating position, begging for water, food, blankets and medical attention for those who needed it.

There was much in between these two extremes as well. The moment of collective laughter when we decided to conquer the toilet-paperless, doorless port-a-potty that faced the guards. After a few hours of ignoring the unappealling toilet, I stood up and announced (as loudly as I possibly could) to the guards that I was going to take a shit, and I invited them to watch. It broke the proverbial seal and became a source of collective strength as others began to use it. We transformed what had been designed to humiliate us (though I know that as a ‘man’ cage we had an ability to do this that wasn’t the same for any of the ‘woman’ cages). Then there was the stand-up routine that one guy did, ripping into all the guards that walked by that had us all cracking up. There were moments when we tried to appeal to the humanity of the guards. I’ve never called anyone a Nazi in my life, but there I was telling them that they had been assigned to work in a concentration camp and that when this all came to light the excuse that they were ‘just following orders’ wouldn’t cut it. We asked them if they had children and what they would think if their children were in it. No one would engage with us on any of these points. At certain times, we were screaming any possible insult we could think of. There was also a rousing rendition of ‘If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands’ that immediately followed an incredibly intense expression of rage of the four cages in our room. Almost everyone was kicking and rattling and screaming in our cages for at least 10 minutes. It was the loudest and most intense creation of sound that I have ever been a part of.

Photo by Sam Slotnick
Demonstrator at the G20 protests in Toronto. Photo by Sam Slotnick

Then there was a moment when it looked like our cage was going to slip into total chaos. I became aware of it at the point when I myself hit my own low. I had been watching a guard eat his vast lunch five feet away from me. Bite by bite. I kept up a constant stream of insults and commentary, telling him how hungry I was and if he enjoyed watching me suffer as he ate, telling him how looking at him was making me more physically ill than I had even felt up to that point. That I was going to puke and try to get as much as I could in his direction. Pretty soon after this, I was standing up, gripping the cage and screaming as loud as I could, ‘we need food!’ I slumped back down and a really strong soul, one of the older ones amongst us, came up to me slumped in the corner and told me that he needed me to be strong. He got through to me. I looked up and I became aware that we had one guy, lips turning purple, who was going into shock both due to cold, exposure and exhaustion, and also because we had a guy with a blood condition who was semi-conscious and who was oozing blood out of his finger tips. Our requests for medical attention were ignored and this one guy was getting so worked up that he was trying to convince all of us that we just had to bust through the door the next time the guards came. I got him to sit down and breathe with me and I turned to my buddy who was in there with me and said that we were collectively losing it. Just then, the guy who earlier had been regaling us with his stand-up routine stood up and screamed at the top of his lungs for about 10 seconds. I grabbed another guy who was in there to help get everyone quiet and I led us in a deep-breathing exercise and with the help of others got us to start reflecting on this experience. The only thing we could control was the space within our cage. That was the only power that remained to us. This after just 15 hours of arbitrary detention and deprivation.

Fourth, I want to add another thing to the link above didn’t really cover. It’s that I believe that 100 per cent of the apparent administrative incompetence was one more subtle but ultimate really powerful tool to screw with our heads. It was both their excuse for why we weren’t getting food, water, phone calls to lawyers and medical attention for those who needed it and it also toyed with our minds, emotions and spirits. This part was totally sadistic. Basically it seems consistent that in all ‘breach of the peace’ cages they would make it seem that the delays were all due to processing slowdowns. ‘Were really trying here, but it just takes time. You’ll get to make your phone calls soon. Why don’t you just calm down.’ etc etc. That was when they bothered to talk to us. Most of the time they just ignored all of our requests or were verbally hostile to us.

By the end I was grovelling and pleading on my knees with my bound hands in a supplicating position, begging for water, food, blankets and medical attention for those who needed it

They would keep our hope alive that things actually were being processed by taking someone out every few hours. For example, two guys were taken out from my cage after two hours, and we thought, ‘yes, we’re going to get out soon’. This was by implication of what the guard told us. We saw these guys 15 hours later in different cages. They did this periodically throughout the day. Also, almost every half hour a guard would come by looking for people who were almost never in our cage. It made it seem that they had no idea where anyone was. New people would keep coming on shifts and say that everything was a mess, and then they’d make us line up in our cage and give our last names and prison IDs. In our cage we did this three times. They also took people out of our cage, implied they were getting out and then would only take their pictures (one guy was photographed three times) and then they were put back in. Around hour 16 they came to our cage and told us that our group had gotten lost in the system and that they had been looking for this one guy in every cell. The implication was now that they had finally found him we’d all finally be processed. We didn’t have any more releases for three hours.

They also kept coming around, pausing in front of us, getting us to be quiet and then would read out two or three names and prison IDs that 95 per cent of the time were not in there with us. This both got our hopes up and then would totally dash them when none of the people were us. It also kept up the justification for why none of our rights and needs were being satisfied.

As it approached 24 hours, a lot of us finally did get released. We basically walked around the corner from our cage, got handed our property bags and the forms filled out by the original arresting officer (no other paper work or processing to be done!) and were told to leave (into the pouring rain).

The only thing we could control was the space within our cage. That was the only power that remained to us. This after just 15 hours of arbitrary detention and deprivation

It’s hard to describe the significance of this final point. They told us that there had been an admin fuck up and that’s why our group was held so long. A bit earlier, I asked one of the guards, ‘Does anyone know what’s going on? Is it just that there’s no one in charge who knows what’s happening? He replied, ‘Yeah this guy’s finally figured it out. This is a smart guy’. It didn’t sound sarcastic at all. But as I sat down to write this last night, I pictured this final scene again. The outdoors were just around the corner. There was just a folding table with a commanding officer and all he had to do was hand us our belongings and tell us to leave.

Basically it took two minutes to process us. But they had led us through this puppy mill of caged people to make it seem that we were in the middle of this huge complex full of overcrowded cages that we couldn’t see, under spotlights and surveillance cameras, cops and guards rushing by, hunger and dehydration, people going into shock from the cold and exposure. Barely sufficient medical attention (and only after hours of chanting and screaming) and this underlying admin incompetence that was used as the excuse for it all.

It hit me like a 1,000 tons that the entire display of admin incompetence was an act. They wanted us off the streets until the G20 was over and they succeeded

As I started writing it down last night I went through the final moments again and suddenly felt a tightness in my neck. I realized that we were basically 35 feet and two minutes away from being released the entire time. I couldn’t breathe and felt like I was going to puke all at once. I had to get Leah to calm me down and help me breathe again. It hit me like a 1,000 tons that the entire display of admin incompetence was an act. They wanted us off the streets until the G20 was over and they succeeded. They wanted to criminalize dissent and prevent anyone empowered by G20 demos to remain politically active. They wanted to gather intelligence. They mollified us with the admin bullshit and strung us along and toyed with us all at once. Sick and debased but consistent from what I’ve been hearing from other people who were released with no charges.

Fifth, I was in plastic wrist restraints the whole time.

Sixth, I recognize that none of this was about the issues around social and environmental justice that protesters have been trying to bring attention to all week. But I think that this does address a core underlying issue of a hierarchical state that is not accountable nor democratic to those who do not fit into the mainstream.

Seventh, for the legally inclined, they read us a breach of the peace statement that said something like if we were found at another G20 demo we would be given a real criminal charge. I tried to argue with the guard that he couldn’t impose conditions (something I don’t know but assumed) but my fellow arrestees told me they just wanted to leave. So I acceded and we left.

Eighth, today I turn 28.

In peace, solidarity, and rage,

Jeff

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