It was an eerie experience traversing Toronto’s should-be-bustling downtown streets in the days leading up to the G20. But it wasn’t freedom I enjoyed, cycling the city’s main throughfares free of traffic — it was the apprehension and uneasiness that accompany urban desolation. As an abundance of city planners since Jane Jacobs have asserted (and as The Star pointed out in post-G20 editorial), people keep a city safe. So when Toronto residents and business owners retreated, imbued with the message that their streets were about to turn ugly, that’s exactly what we left them vulnerable to do.
The tactics of looters and vandals have been discussed elsewhere, but, as I witnessed throughout the weekend, it was the police who best utilized our city’s infrastructure for the purposes of intimidation and violence. As a participant in Friday’s and Saturday’s demonstrations, I was shocked to see the police appropriating those things we rely on and enjoy about life in this city, turning them into tools used against us.
Bicycles: While Sunday’s “bike block” demonstration remained peaceful, bicycles have had contentious presence throughout the weekend’s events. The double function of bicycles as transportation and crowd control has been utilized to the fullest by police, who corralled crowds at Friday’s demonstration using a make-shift fence of bikes, pushed groups of participants back using bikes as shields, and piled bikes in front of groups as barriers on Saturday.
The TTC: After spending hours outside in the rain, dozens of detainees were transported via chartered TTC buses from Spadina and Queen to the detention centre at Eastern Avenue on Sunday night. On both Friday and Saturday, participants in the rallies reported seeing police pile out of buses. And streetcars — the gentle giant of TTC vehicles — have been stationed at crucial junctures throughout the downtown.
While it may be that these stationary vehicles were the result of route interruptions, police haven’t hesitated to make use of such convenient obstacles. As Saturday’s march moved west on Queen, approaching Spadina, a cluster of streetcars signaled to the group that continuing would mean splitting to navigate such bulky barriers. Riot police emerged from behind and congregated in front of these Toronto transit icons, where they stayed in formation for the duration of the march. As protesters turned to move east and north, police here dispersed, while the streetcars remained.
Alley-ways: The first clash between participants and police that I witnessed (resulting in a small number of arrests) happened at Friday’s march, on College just past Yonge, on the sidewalk front of the entranceway to College Park. As a pool of rally participants gathered around the skirmish, chanting “let him go,” after first of the protesters was pinned and arrested, a swath of police officers appeared suddenly up the alley directly across from where the action was taking place. With a group of marchers caught between the alley and the action on the opposite sidewalk, fear mounted as the group of approximately 50 police approached. The march scurried by and pending conflict seemed to subside.
This particular alley’s proximity to Toronto Police Headquarters prompted many of us to look out for the use of other less obvious routes by police, taking note of the extensive traversal and occupation of alley-ways, side-streets, and smaller pathways in the downtown over the coming days.
Trash bins and street furniture: Okay, so Toronto’s new(ish) trash bins wouldn’t normally grace a list of things I love and enjoy about this city, but their pure necessity is obvious to any city dweller. In a preemptive (and, dare I say, provocative) move that only increased the spooky bareness of our streets, street furniture of all shapes and heft-able sizes — including trash bins, benches, bus shelters, and newspaper boxes — was removed within the security perimeter. Did this deter certain groups and individuals from inflicting vandalism on the downtown? Did it, on the other hand, deter residents and business owners from going out and making use of the empty streetscapes?
With Toronto’s spaces and streets doctored in this way, it’s no surprise to me that alongside the criticism directed towards the Feds, Mayor Miller and Police Chief Bill Blair are facing comparable flak. As Monday’s rally in solidarity with those who had been detained gathered outside of Toronto Police Headquarters and looped down to City Hall, a pertinent modification of an age-old protest chant rang through the crowd: “Whose city?”