I observed a confrontation between police and protesters last Saturday evening from both sides of the police line.
The protesters (vastly outnumbered by the riot police, a frequent sight that weekend) were on Queen Street West in Toronto, chanting, “Peaceful protest!” Many people were merely observing or passing by.
I didn't see any sign that property was being destroyed. And if anything, there was less black being worn on Queen than usual. Hipster cottage weekend or something, I guess.
I was scared. I didn't get the badge number.
People seemed mostly to want the right to be on the street and while I haven't particularly wanted to hang out on Queen Street West since 1992, as soon as a police officer told me that I couldn't, I wanted to do just that.
An officer threatened to arrest me for standing on the street (I was with a journalist and a photographer who lives in the building that we were in front of), but after two days of the G20 in Toronto, I was almost as inured to that threat as I was to the random searches I saw going on, everywhere, blocks away from the designated high-security zone.
Earlier that day, well before the much-publicized destruction on Yonge Street, I'd been threatened with arrest for “obstructing” a search by trying to take a picture (at a respectful distance) of two young men being searched.
An officer there had tried to grab my cellphone. Other officers had crowded around. They boisterously mocked the psychiatric patients coming out of the mental-health hospital behind me.
When I eventually, after a heated exchange, asked the officer for a badge number, he walked toward me repeatedly, sticking his chest out so that, if I didn't step back quickly, I'd be hit. As he did this, he yelled, “You want my badge number? You want my badge number? You want my badge number?”
I was scared. I didn't get the badge number. It's a tiny story beside many much more alarming ones, but these stories have filled this town up.
I spoke to the two shaken men afterward. They said they had been randomly searched. The police had confiscated from their backpacks a black T-shirt (which genuinely seemed to confuse them, apparently unaware of the Black Bloc clique of rioters), their tent poles and a package of tea, while repeatedly threatening to arrest them and accusing them of being members of groups the names of which they couldn't remember.
They had been struck by the fact that the officers were gratuitously rude to passersby, noting the mocking of the psychiatric patients as well. “It's like they really wanted a fight,” one said.
That had been my sense. I'll admit that my well-developed civic pride and years of watching Toronto police frequently show not merely restraint but compassion, with some truly patience-testing people, made me reflexively, if unfairly, wonder whether these officers were from out of town.
Later, at the checkout of a Mexican grocery store in the Kensington Market area, I heard the woman at the counter say that several days before, she had been stopped, asked for ID and searched.
None of this seemed helpful to me. Unless its purpose was to set a tone. Like the hundreds of riot police I saw charging toward a mostly peaceful protest at Queen's Park later that day, banging their shields, it escalated the tension – as did, I believe, those riot police, many mounted, I saw Saturday night on Queen Street, retreating from unarmed protesters with their weapons drawn.
Toward the end of that standoff, word went through the crowd that the “sound cannon” was being brought in, but instead the police simply left, to cheers, for no apparent reason.
A colourful ending to this story would be that a block of Queen Street then descended into anarchistic rule, from which it may never recover. But that's not what happened.
My friends and I may never forget how terrified we were as we stood there, after the police left, watching that angry mob try to figure out where to jump on the streetcar, maybe grab a cab. We saw first-hand the panic that always sets in when someone in Toronto says, “Yeah, me too. But where should we eat?”
Those kinds of standoffs can last for hours in this town. Usually, only the deployment of the “okay, seriously, the kitchen is closing soon, so we have to make a decision” cannon can resolve them.
I'm certain that we need a public (not police) inquiry to determine why we didn't have more of that kind of standoff last weekend.