I've been working for CityNews for the past 9 years. I have no criminal record, have never been charged with a crime and have no affiliations to any group of protesters, or activists.
I spent a considerable amount of time on Saturday breathlessly running alongside black bloc anarchists, documenting an unprecedented reign of destruction on the streets of Toronto. I saw them congregate and collaborate in the early afternoon hours, hatching a heinous plan that would leave indelible scars on our city, both financial and psychological. I saw them lob rocks at retreating police, smash and burn cruisers, spray-paint numerous structures with revolutionary slogans, and shatter windows with a seemingly insatiable appetite. I saw them target members of the media, myself included, with taunts, sticks and rocks.
What I didn’t see Saturday were any arrests taking place while this violence was occurring. If the security agenda on Saturday was to prevent the black bloc from reaching the G20 security fence, it was a success. But throughout a large portion of the downtown core a frightening ‘anything goes’ aura had spread.
On Sunday, I followed and took pictures of a peaceful march down King Street and up Bay towards Queen, to its final ill-fated destination at the intersection of Queen and Spadina. I saw no one in disguise. I saw no violence, vandalism, or hostility. Smiling demonstrators chanted, danced, and walked together.
The crowd was comprised of the young and elderly, men and women, and families with young children. It was what any sensible law-abiding citizen likely imagined a G20 march was supposed to be --- an expression of solidarity and hope for a better world.
Despite this obvious contradiction, I soon saw riot police closing in. I saw their jet black batons, their massive shields and tear gas guns. I saw numerous arrests being made, and in the end I saw first hand the inner workings of the makeshift G20 prison on Eastern Avenue.
This is how I became a G20 jailbird.
After the surge of adrenaline subsided and the strange awe and disgust I felt towards Saturday’s violence began to dissipate, I wasn’t quite sure what Sunday would hold. For much of the day I walked around the downtown core, snapping photos of cleanup efforts and boarded-up stores. Despite an early scuffle outside the makeshift jail on Eastern Avenue, it was turning out to be a fairly quiet day. There were, however, reports that police were randomly searching backpacks and rounding up numerous people deemed ‘suspicious’. While walking along Wellesley towards Queen’s Park a black van rolled up beside me. I was questioned by police, forced to show identification and my backpack was searched before I was allowed to proceed.
Queen’s Park was quiet, with no more than a dozen or so scattered protesters, so I headed back to the newsroom, thinking the action for the most part was over.
After briefly cooling down at CityNews, I headed off to what appeared to be a non-confrontational gathering at King and Bay. Before leaving I told our web producer that I would check out this event, which I didn’t think would amount to much, and then likely head home, happy to put a close to a tumultuous, exhausting weekend. By the time I arrived the crowd was walking up Bay towards Queen. Once on Queen, the march was halted by a group of bicycle police blocking the street in front of City Hall. After a brief standoff, during which the crowd chanted, ‘Let Us Through’, police conceded, letting the group continue.
This was marked by a brief celebration, with the protesters cheering on a perceived symbol of victory. The celebration would prove to be premature.
Police reassembled at Queen and Spadina, where the group once again came to a standstill. The protesters were in no way prepared for what would eventually unfold, as most were smiling, posing for photos, flashing peace signs, dancing, doing somersaults and sitting in a group chanting. From the south of Spadina more officers soon arrived.
Just as it dawned on me that the mood and atmosphere was rapidly changing, ominous storm clouds began to roll in. As it got darker, more officers flooded out of buses in full riot gear.
Around this time I ran into rattled CityNews reporter Francis D’Souza, who seemed to sense that the peaceful vibe was about to be obliterated. He pleaded with me to ‘put my earplugs in’, fearing the dreaded sound cannon was about to be deployed. I followed his advice, and for that reason I can’t be certain if police, as Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair suggested, verbally offered the crowd at least three opportunities to disperse, but I personally did not hear them, and several people I would ultimately be detained with also claimed they were not given the opportunity to flee once police had us closed in.
With each second the noose was tightening and it wasn't long before we were trapped. It was a classic Catch 22. Officers seemed to be directing us to disperse, but there was no path to do so, and they wouldn't budge. From all four directions, the menacing walls were closing in.
A strange sense of resignation overcame me when I realized I couldn’t get out and the riot troops were edging closer and closer to us from all angles.
As the gravity of the situation sunk in and the sniff of impending violence began to permeate the air, I approached the line of police and tried to explain that I was a member of the media. Due to a death in my family I was off work when the official accreditation process went through, so I had no official G20 pass, but I offered a business card noting my role as a reporter/photographer for CityNews.ca. At the same time, one wouldn’t think they would need a press pass to walk down a city street in a peaceful manner, whether they are taking photos for a website or protesting. Unimpressed with my plea, the officer clutched me by the arm and pulled me behind the line, pushing me down. He informed me that I was being arrested for conspiracy to commit mischief and proceeded to zip tie my arms tightly behind my back.
I was ushered away from the crowd and seated on the curb with dozens of other detainees while a second officer searched me extensively. My wallet, camera and assorted belongings were bagged up and tagged. As a precautionary measure I had a set of swimming goggles and a bandanna in my jacket pocket, my only defence against the tear gas which Toronto police had previously deployed. The officer informed me that if I was wearing the bandanna during the protest I would have been charged with Wearing A Disguise.
As I sat pondering my situation I watched an officer slam another individual down to the cement. I was brought to my feet and led to a painfully slow moving line where suspects were photographed and processed one at a time. Then it started fiercely pouring. I stood in the rain for at least 40 minutes, although I’ve heard some endured the record-setting torrential downpour for several hours before being carted away via bus, police vehicle, or paddy wagon, shivering in soaked clothing.
The officer assigned to me was quite cordial and friendly, and admitted that if it were up to him I would not have been arrested. This offered little comfort when my pic was snapped at the side of the road and I was led into the claustrophobic confines of the paddy wagon, equipped with several two-person compartments.
As I stepped into the wagon I could hear an officer mocking the sopping wet detainees, chanting, ‘Whose streets? Our streets!”, mimicking a chant that the G20 protesters shouted throughout the weekend. I took a mental note when I heard another brag that the more arrests they make, the more funding they will receive.
Once inside the wagon, the doors were slammed shut and I sat in the dark, my glasses soaked and streaked and made small talk with the person beside me. His name was Ryan. He informed me that he was 20-years-old, from Mississauga, and attended the protest with his girlfriend, who was also arrested. He was confused about what he was being charged with. “Breach of something,” he mumbled. “I gotta work at 8am tomorrow, you think I’ll be out by then?”
At this point my shoulders began to cramp and my hand was becoming numb from the plastic cuffs cutting off my circulation. After what seemed like an eternity the vehicle began to move. We were tossed about with every turn. The position of my arms behind my back made it difficult to breathe and the close quarters of the wagon exacerbated the problem. To take my mind off my physical discomfort and mounting anxiety I began to imagine that I was a high profile mafia member finally corralled after years on the lam, or maybe Christopher "Dudus" Coke or Pablo Escobar. I chuckled to myself when I realized that with my foggy specs and propensity to hyperventilate, I'm probably closer to Piggy from Lord of the Flies, than an international gangster.
Welcome To The Eastern Avenue Prison
The first thing you notice when you arrive at the Eastern Avenue makeshift jail is the raucous cheering of other prisoners. Whenever a new set of prisoners arrive, or one is released, this eruption takes place. I can also hear random shouts, "Where is my phone call!", or "I need water!"
At this point my mind is trying to paint a picture of what awaits me, but from inside the dark damp wagon it sounds frightening and wild.
The wagons have two sets of doors. When the first door is opened I’m offered not only a refreshing hint of fresh air, but my first peek at the warehouse detention centre through the tiny metal holes on the second door. I peer out into the prison, but can’t see much aside from three orange porta-potties with no doors on them. Occasionally I see a young girl sheepishly enter and struggle with her zipper while cuffed. Officers are milling about, and dozens of plastic bags containing our property are sprawled out on the floor. I wonder if my camera is damaged, or if my photos of the protest have been deleted.
I can faintly hear the officers discussing their plan to separate the ‘criminals’ from the ‘breaches’. I assume this means those who are being charged with a criminal offense as opposed to those who are facing a less serious charge of breach of peace, but I'm not certain. I'm also not certain where I stand legally, and I begin to wonder if I'll have a criminal record and when I'll get out. For at least 45 minutes we remain parked and seated in the wagon, during which time I develop a nervous case of psychosomatic stomach cramps. I wonder what will happen if I have to relieve my bowels.
At this point Ryan and I begin to question the two people in the adjacent wagon compartment. We can't see them, but we can hear their muffled voices through a partition.
"What do you see?"
The answer is grim.
"What kind of cages? How many people are in them?" we probe.
"They are like..like, dog cages. There's about 20 or 30 people in them."
Time ticks slowly as I summon the bulk of my emotional strength, struggling to not lose it after being confined in such a small place for so long. I feel close to screaming, 'Let me the **** out!', but realize that any signs of distress or aggression will only make my situation worse.
Suddenly a chant breaks out.
"The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated!"
"The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated!"
It's the prisoners again, and I can't help but wonder if they are comprised mainly of peaceful protesters caught up in questionable arrests, or Saturday's militant anarchists who detest mainstream media and could potentially turn on me if my affiliation is revealed. I put on my best tough guy imitation when the door to the wagon is mercifully opened, but I soon realize it won't be necessary to puff my chest out too far. Scanning the room I see numerous cages filled with mostly young, scared, shivering kids. Not many look older than 25. A few look slightly menacing, but most appear to be victims of Sunday's largely indiscriminate mass arrests. There's an entire cage filled with young girls who would look far more appropriate at a Justin Bieber concert than in a cage which should be reserved for hardcore rioters.
With great relief my zip cuffs are removed and I'm placed in regulation steel handcuffs which are put in front of my body. The relief on my aching shoulders is immediate. An officer leads me towards my cell, and as I'm led out in front of the other prisoners they begin to cheer. I don't know how to respond to this, and simply nod before joining the fray inside my assigned cage. The cheers seem to offer the detainees some sort of psychological comfort, as though we are all in this together, and I suppose we are.
I immediately recognize a bartender from a downtown Toronto pub that I used to frequent and we exchange stories. He was at the rally with his girlfriend and is equally shocked that he's been arrested and detained. The cage has one porta-pottie with no door. People are sprawled about all over, laying on the filthy floor. Many are shivering uncontrollably after being stuck in the rain for so long.
Each prisoner is given a number which is sported on a bracelet and occasionally an officer walks along and calls out your number, which usually indicates an impending release. It's akin to a lottery for your freedom. The first to be released from our cage is a young guy with short cropped hair, about 20. He smiles widely when he's walked out and the requisite cheers erupt from the rest of the cages. A few short minutes later, however, he's back, telling us that he's been charged with a criminal offence for having brass knuckles. He also tells us that we are in one of the 'criminal cages', insinuating that we are facing charges and will be in custody for hours. The few who may actually deserve such a fate sit silently on the floor while the rest of us wonder aloud what we could possibly be charged with. My bartender friend begins to ponder if the corkscrew that was in his bag is being considered a 'weapon', and I remind him that there's nothing illegal about sipping a bit of vino. My attempt at levity doesn't erase the look of concern on his face, neither do revelations that some prisoners have been detained for up to 20 hours. Food and water are scarce and rarely offered I'm told. No one that I spoke to has been able to make a phone call, and many wonder if they'll be at work in the morning.
I believe I was arrested around 6:30pm on Sunday. I was released unconditionally around 11:30pm. I was just starting to resign myself to the fact that I could spend the night when my number was called. I jumped up and said a few brief goodbyes to the rest of prisoners, some of whom I now shared a strange bond with. As I was led away the room erupted as usual and this time I raised my cuffed hands. It was my way of saying goodbye, and good luck to those who don't belong there. For those who destroyed property and took part in the violence that disgraced our city, I felt no sympathy or allegiance.
When I first entered the warehouse, I thought the one room I was contained in represented the entire population, but as a female officer roughly led me towards the final check out area I was astonished at how many different holding rooms there were. It was like a labyrinth, with numerous rooms filled with cages of different sizes. I assume more violent, possibly inebriated prisoners were kept in solo cells. As I walked out I saw a cage with two young guys in it, one was violently crying with his head buried in his arms while his cellmate stared blankly. A dazed girl looked up at me and flashed me a peace sign. The last person I saw was a sinewy shirtless man with caked blood on his head doing Tai Chi alone in his cage.
Before I'm led out I'm asked a few questions to confirm my identity and I'm finally un-cuffed. Before being released my photo is taken again and an officer warns me not to visit any more G20-related rallies or protests, and stresses that if I'm seen at any I will be brought back for a more extended stay.
The doors are finally opened. It's still raining. I can see all the live eye trucks from various news stations. I toss my bag of belongings over my shoulder and start heading back out into the night, reliving my last few surreal hours. A group of supporters camped outside the prison offer me a round of applause that I sheepishly acknowledge. Someone hands me a drinking box. I start walking, soaking in the sounds of the night --- distant sirens and the faint echo of prisoners cheering as another wagon rolls in.
Like many, I've heard numerous theories concerning G20 security. Some believe that police 'allowed' much of Saturday's destruction to justify the billion dollar price tag, and that police vehicles that were torched were planted and abandoned by the authorities for that very purpose. There are also theories circulating that police 'agent provocateurs' were running among the black bloc. There doesn't appear to be any solid evidence proving either theory.
As far as my own experience, I may not have the sophistication, access to information, or wisdom to answer most of my own questions, but after spending a weekend on the streets in the midst of the mayhem and after being arrested and detained for several hours without being charged with a crime, I believe I have the right to pose a few questions.
Wow, thanx, Tara, that was pretty informative.
I hope your safe back home now.