Diary Of A G20 Detention
I scarcely registered how the cement sidewalk felt against my cheek. I was preoccupied by the police officers I could feel, but mostly not see, as they kneeled on my back and squeezed the metal cuffs around my wrists tight, and then tighter. I was looking anxiously at my glasses, which had fallen when I was thrown down, and had landed a few inches from my face.
There was a black-clad leg kneeling nearby. The police officer attached to it stood up, spotted my glasses, and moved carefully to squash them under his boot.
"My glasses," I stammered. The officer bent down and, grasping my glasses by an arm, pulled them out from beneath his boot without lifting his foot. My glasses were crushed: he had half-blinded me. Since I was arrested while trying to report on what was happening during the G20, it seemed like a pretty apt metaphor.
Let me go back.
Prior to the G20 Summit on June 26 and 27 in Toronto, I had agreed to take photographs for Our Times and to write an article reflecting workers' perspectives of the summit. With my letter of assignment from Our Times, I arranged for media accreditation with the G8/G20 organizers. I concede I wanted to report from the thick of things. I did not, however, anticipate exactly where that would take me.
Even before the Huntsville, Ontario, G8 Summit had begun, the Conservative government was trying to contain a ballooning controversy of its own making.
Harper had announced that the summit would see the creation of an international child and maternal health initiative. In the same breath, the government defunded 11 non-governmental women's health organizations that support funding safe, legal abortions. Harper's crowd dealt with the ensuing outcry from women's groups and health organizations by refusing to talk about it.
Despite this and other heated debates, it was the exorbitant cost of security for the two summits that grabbed headlines: at $1.3 billion, it was to be Canada's largest and most expensive domestic security operation ever. It actually surpassed the amount the government had pledged toward its own maternal health initiative ($1 billion). Many people, myself included, suspected the massive investment in policing could only be a grim harbinger of the security crackdown to come.
Rather arrogantly, I believed that my experience at other international summits had prepared me for what I thought would be typical police tactics during the Toronto summit. After all, there was the usual huge fence slicing off swaths of the city's downtown. As at the other summits, there was the ever more intrusive state security apparatus, and growing reports of harassment, arrests, arbitrary searches and detentions, and "visits" to organizers, and activist convergence spaces.
The part that puzzled me was the well-advertised security perimeter beyond the boundaries of the fence itself, which, it appeared, would be aggressively enforced. I knew activists would be drawn to the fence. At past summits, the security fence had been the key place for protesters to rally. Many standoffs took place there, police on one side, protesters on the other. In Toronto, it seemed, the police would not be just behind the fence. Where would they be? Everywhere, it turned out. Wherever people wanted to march, that's where they were. The bodies of the police officers became a mobile fence armed to the teeth with batons, chemical weapons, rubber bullets, new "sound cannons," water cannons, and more. Despite police omnipresence and growing aggression, the wholesale roundups that started on Saturday, June 26, caught me by surprise. I had anticipated large-scale arrests, but was in no way prepared for the sheer scope of the police operations, nor the brutal and indiscriminate way in which people were corralled and then snatched, like calf-roping at a rodeo.
In addition to my assignment for Our Times, I happily entangled myself with the Alternative Media Centre in order to report on the summits from a non-corporate, social justice perspective. It was established by the Toronto Media Co-op and funded, in part, by a number of unions, including Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3907; the Ontario Public Service Employees Union; the Canadian Media Guild; the Continuing Education Students Association of Ryerson; U of T's Graduate Students Union, and others. The centre was staffed by a dynamic group of journalists from across Canada and around the globe, working collectively to report on events quickly, accurately, and with critical analysis.
At nightly story meetings we conspired about how to get the news that would otherwise have been overlooked: the impact of the G20-related shutdowns of businesses on vulnerable workers; the harassment and relocation of homeless people leading up to the summit; and the People's Summit, which presented over 100 workshops over two and a half days (the funding of which was equivalent to about six seconds of the G8/G20 summits).
On Sunday, June 27, around noon, I arrived at a downtown intersection near Bay and Bloor. I'd learned from Alternative Media Centre staff that we'd lost communication with two of our journalists there. They had reported stopping at the scene of a number of arrests, then their phone call had ended abruptly. When I got there, police had blocked a side street. There were some cruisers, and a number of people, including one of the journalists, Amy, were sitting on the sidewalk with their hands cuffed behind their backs. I readied my video camera and started recording.
I spotted our other colleague, Adam, sitting in the back of a cruiser. I started recording through the open window and tried to ask him what had happened.
He seemed to be in shock. A moment later, a police officer stepped in to prevent me from speaking to him.
Amy saw me, and, though I was not allowed to approach her, she called out to try to tell me what had happened: a group of youths had been on their way to catch a bus back to Quebec when they'd been surrounded and arrested. She and Adam had happenEd on the scene and were videotaping when police became annoyed and arrested them also.
Later I learned that, upon her arrest, Amy had been told: "You're going to be raped. . . . We're going to wipe the grin off your face when we gang-bang you."
Adam had been tackled and beaten. As he cried out that he had a pacemaker, officers declared he was lying and shot him with a conducted-energy weapon. Police performed an ECG on him while he sat in the cruiser with his hands cuffed behind his back, and found his heart was racing dangerously.
Then the muscles throughout his body went into spasm. They called an ambulance.
I presented my press credentials to a policeman who declared they were "fake." Nonetheless, I tried to get a statement from the officers on the scene, and then with the Integrated Security Unit's media centre. No one was willing to give me any information about what had happened that had led to the arrests. I was joined by other colleagues, Eli and Ryan, but we were hustled by the police to the opposite corner and told to keep back.
Eli had to leave a few minutes later to cover another event. Ryan and I stayed on, but now police told us we had to leave the south side of Bloor Street entirely. We tried to argue our right to stay but it was clear we weren't being given a choice. We turned and started to walk around some construction barriers, away from the scene, when police officers threw a taunt at Ryan. Ryan muttered something (later, I learned he'd said: "Oh, get off it") and a police officer yelled for him to be arrested.
I was videotaping as four officers tackled Ryan from behind, dragged him into a doorway and jumped on his back. He was screaming in pain. I yelled at them to stop hurting him and a police sergeant ordered me to leave, saying I was obstructing them. I exclaimed that I was at least 10 feet away from them, and demanded they stop hurting Ryan. Then it was my turn to be arrested. I was tackled by a gang of cops, kneed in the back, screamed at, and handcuffed.
It's hard to summarize the rest of my experience in just a few paragraphs. Should I start with the sexist and homophobic slurs the police threw at me steadily? Or with my arrival at the Eastern Avenue film studio-turned-detention centre? I feel I should have some tidy way of wrapping this experience up, but it wasn't tidy. It was degrading and frightening. It was 13 hours of my hands cuffed tightly together, even when I needed to use the toilet. It was being crammed with 24 women into a cell built for 15. Water was given out in tiny quantities, and only twice, maybe three times, a day.
I will never forget the experience of being locked in one wire cage among dozens, and hearing hundreds of other prisoners calling out, chanting, swearing, crying, demanding food and water, sanitary pads, medication. Many of the women I was caged with were from out of town, especially Montreal, and even though few of us were proficient in both English and French, we got on like a house on fire. We even taught each other games, and our laughter was the best display of defiance I could imagine.
Two experiences during my detention stood out for me.
One was when a young woman was brought into our area (we were close to the entrance and watched as new people arrived). She was tall and had strong shoulders, but she was hunched, her face looked crumpled, and tears were streaming down. We learned she had been strip-searched. We tried to reach her with words of support and encouragement, but I think she had retreated into herself to a place where she couldn't hear us. Instead, her grief poured into our cell. We watched helplessly as she was marched away to be locked in a cage.
The other experience that stands out to me was when I was moved from my cage into segregation; the reason being, I was told, that I took prescription medication. Later, I was told I did not need to be in segregation to get my medication. I did discover, though, that I was one of a bunch of gay and lesbian prisoners who were in isolation. One young man had been directly told he was being segregated because he was gay. It seemed hard to believe, but the idea that it was just a coincidence seemed even more far-fetched.
In segregation, I felt much more vulnerable than when I'd been slumming with the others. Now, if something happened to me, who would know? I hadn't been told why I was arrested, informed of my rights, given access to a lawyer or to a telephone, or had my handcuffs removed. I couldn't say I felt very confident about when I'd be released or whether I'd have the benefit of due process.
However, at around 1:30 in the morning, I was released and spat out into an empty industrial part of town. I was incredibly relieved when a small crowd across the street burst into cheers. These dedicated people fed me, watered me, and even organized a ride home for me. They made an immense difference, for which I am still very grateful.
Every time I've spoken at a post-G20 rally (and there have been a few), people -- mostly young men and women -- come to me afterwards and tell me their stories. They are still shaken. Several young men have disclosed that they too were threatened with rape. They are too frightened to come forward publicly. One time, a journalist told me how his cameraman had been hauled away by police. Tears traced his cheeks as he waved his G20 press credentials, which still hung around his neck a week later, and asked: "What was it for?"
Just as the line between citizens and reporters has shifted in recent years, the ground that used to separate "journalists" from "protesters" has also shifted.
This is a de facto change created not by technology but by the police themselves. Included among the more than 1,000 people arrested during the G20 were quite a number of journalists, from large, corporate outlets as well as small and independent ones. The tool journalists traditionally use to ward off arrest -- press credentials -- suddenly seemed as likely as not to make you a target. While a press pass has never guaranteed a journalist's safety and security, it certainly made a lot of places and people more accessible than they would have been otherwise. Your credentials were supposed to make it obvious to police that you weren't participating in the story, you were reporting on it.
Now, along with the continuing effort to criminalize dissent in Canada, we have the restriction and criminalization of free expression. Someone in power has
discovered that news reports of mass arrests and gross violations of human rights at the hands of police aren't good optics. And if you want to report this,
your motives must be suspect.
Lisa Walter is an artist, journalist and educator working in Toronto. She is a member of the Free Press Coalition seeking policy accountability through the complaints process of the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.