Toxic tour hits Toronto

An amateur video surfaced recently on The Huffington Post, showing what appears to be oily rain running into street sewers in Louisiana. The video is shocking and, if it really is an oily downpour, it will, for many people, give new meaning to the term climate crisis.

With this spirit of urgency in mind, protesters gathered at Alexandra Park on June 23 to take a winding, three-hour Toxic Tour through downtown Toronto.

Activists have mobilized heartily for a week of anti-G20 action, and at Wednesday’s rally, scores of protesters showed up to lend their voice to the fight for environmental justice, and to stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples in North America and those living in the majority world. 

“I’m hoping to raise awareness (about fossil fuels, the tar sands and the current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico),” Mike Muscat, a Toronto musician and bitumen folk, told me. “I think the general public tends to have a negative view on protesters – people voicing their strong opinions on strong matters. People are dying in Alberta and in the communities surrounding the tar sands, from cancer and toxic water and things like that. ... People that are really affected have no voice. It’s all about money. If you have money, you can lobby the government. It doesn’t seem like the term indigenous land means anything to (the G20 leaders).”

The rally was a festive gathering, replete with several bitumen folk – bodies covered in an eco-friendly mixture resembling oil droplets (actually an edible, though unpalatable, mixture of cocoa, vegetable oil and corn starch); a human-powered dump truck; floats (all made from recycled materials) depicting the effects of oil spills on water-reliant animals and the Alberta tar sands gigaproject; an imposing economic dragon, reminiscent of a blackened, oil-soaked river; and, of course, a band to keep marchers motivated in the sweltering noon-hour heat. The Raging Grannies, a quartet of silver-haired dames, also enchanted the crowd with a collection of witty protest songs. 

“With these mobilizations, we’re hoping to bring people together to show leaders that ‘we are many, you are few’ (a chant heard often this week),” explained Maryam Adrangi, a representative of the G20 Toronto Community Mobilization Network and one of the event’s organizers. “They’re not people who are connected to their communities; they’re quite separate. They’re sitting on big piles of money and not using it to benefit the countries they ‘represent.’ I think that’s the issue. The issues that are being brought up during the G8 and G20 aren’t new. They’re struggles people live through every single day. The leaders don’t live through that every day and they’re not getting together to talk about that. They’re not talking about the struggles. I don’t think the summits are legitimate forums to be discussing global issues. The G8 and G20 have made many promises in the past, but they haven’t kept those promises. They really can’t be trusted.”

During Wednesday’s Toxic Tour, which all but halted traffic along the University of Toronto and University Avenue corridors, marchers visited three hot spots – where members of the crowd shared their stories and experiences, and made vocal declarations of disapproval of some of the nefarious deals taking place behind closed doors. First stop was the Royal Bank – targeted for financing the Alberta tar sands project. Next up was the University of Toronto, which in April 2010 accepted a 35 million USD donation from Barrick mining company. Lastly, we ended the afternoon at the Toronto Superior Court House, just across University Avenue from the American consulate, where inside officials were debating whether or not to allow the use of the LRAD (long-range acoustic device) sound cannon.

Strong police presence

I’ve attended three protests so far. Each has been bigger than the last, and the police presence (and hostility) at each has grown – exponentially, it seems.

At an afternoon demonstration on June 21, anti-poverty activists gathered to decry the money spent on the G20 summit – in the absence of adequate social housing and economic policies that create ever-growing disparities between the rich and the poor. The crowd that gathered at Allan Gardens was surprisingly small and it seemed the police far outnumbered protesters.  

Testament, a hip hop artist based in southern Ontario, told media on Monday he believes police have been using intimidation techniques to keep protesters away.

“They’ve been announcing all these new weapons they have,” he told reporters. “They make it seem like there’s going to be a war and they’re preparing the public for a war. It doesn’t have to be that way. They’re doing that to justify the billion dollars they’re spending – a billion dollars worth of repression and violence against Torontonians who may want to stand up and say, ‘hey, I don’t like this meeting taking place in my city.’”

He may be onto something. One woman who hurried by the Toxic Tour on Wednesday referred to the increased police presence as a cancer on the city. In March 2008, Michelle Couture, who lives in North York, attended a rally in Montreal to protest against police brutality. Ironically, things did not end well for her that day.

“Things started out peaceful at first,” she recalls. “I remember we were walking and people were chanting. My friend and I were walking on the sidewalk and an officer in riot gear walked right into me and pushed me to the ground – that was my first time ever experiencing something like that. We eventually reached an intersection and we were standing on the corner for awhile, with the cops on the other side of the street all lined up in a row. Finally, my friend said to me ‘get ready to run’ and next thing I know, the cops were counting to three and they started running after us. I ran as fast as I could, but they caught up with me. I remember seeing the sidewalk curb as I was falling and thinking that I would hit my face right on it, but I fell to my side instead. Next thing, three cops in riot gear with steel-toed boots were kicking at me and yelling at me. I was freaking out and crying and yelling at them that I couldn't move because they were kicking me. I think my friend or someone else picked me up from the ground. I blacked out for about three seconds.”

It was the first – and last – time Couture participated in direct action. Although she would like to lend her voice to the democratizing platform demonstrations provide, she is afraid something similar may happen in the lead-up to the summit.

“If only there wasn't this fear of getting shot at with rubber bullets, hit by security, having your ear drums shatter because of the sound cannon or having tear gas in your face, more people would probably go,” Couture says.

Kind humanity inside the perimeter

Despite the stern police presence, and the tension around the perimeter areas, there has been an abundance of humanity on the frontlines of the protests so far. On June 21, a group showed up with platters of food for participants – crispy greens, freshly-cut ripe tomatoes and decadent homemade sandwiches. Bottled water was distributed to those who waited out the nearly three-hour affair.

On Wednesday, I ran into a member of a group providing support services for activists.

“We are providing peer support – with general counselors and psychologists – to individuals who experience sexual assault or other forms of trauma during the G20 summit,” the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, explained. “Men can get counseling for sexual assault or trauma, as well. All are welcome (the centre is queer-friendly) and we work from an anti-oppressive framework.” 

To reach counselors, individuals can call 1-416-556-6256. Callers will be directed to the centre, or counselors will meet with them at an off-site location. Individuals who have been assaulted may also contact the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre at 1-416-597-8808.

Onward we marched on Wednesday, with the climate cliff growing ever-closer, in an era of negotiations gone into ‘overdrive’ (according to the Pembina Institute), inside an impenetrable security perimeter police had created with their bodies and bicycles. As we moved south on University Avenue, organizers sang out, “Whose side are you on, people?” to bystanders and passers-by. It must be a rhetorical question, right? I mean, what’s the alternative?

Read more: day 2.

Photos and story by Mary Katherine Keown
June 24, 2010

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