G20 protests: What was gained and what was lost
By Art Young and John Riddell. Two months after the protests against the G20 summit in Toronto and the accompanying police rampage, it is time for an initial balance sheet of what was gained and lost.Some on the left view the experience as entirely positive. In particular, the Toronto Community Mobilization Network (TCMN) declares flatly that “the people won,” citing participation by “nearly 40,000 people,” the success of the June 24 march for Indigenous sovereignty, and the involvement of a wide spectrum of social movements and “over 100 grassroots organizations.” The July 26 TCMN statement1 also highlights protesters’ capacity to carry on in the face of arrests and intimidation, including deployment of almost 20,000 cops and a formidable array of weaponry, at a cost of more than $1.2 billion.
These achievements during the week of protests against the G8 and G20 were certainly impressive. They resulted from the work of many forces including the TCMN; anti-poverty and Indigenous rights activists; the Council of Canadians, which organized a vigorous rally of 2,500 on June 25; and the trade unions that spearheaded a march the next day of 20,000, including 800 members of the United Steelworkers.
These successes reflect a broad, growing, vigorous, and innovative movement that is striving to defend working people against mounting attacks.
But that isn’t the whole story.
As TCMN’s statement says, “1,090 people have been arrested, thousands beaten, illegally detained, searched, harassed, and abused.… [O]ver 300 people face criminal prosecutions, [while] politically motivated targeting continues.” Since the TCMN statement, the police have continued their witch-hunt, making further arrests and circulating “most-wanted” lists, complete with photos, of alleged ringleaders and lawbreakers.
The far-reaching repression has been widely condemned by forces including community activist groups, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, a number of trade unions, and progressive individuals. There have been demonstrations, rallies and public statements.
The “Toronto Call2,” issued within days of the mass arrests, demands that all the detainees be released, that their civil rights be protected, and that there be an independent public inquiry into the actions of the police. More than 2,400 people have now endorsed this call. A similar statement3 won wide support in Vancouver.
This vigorous response is encouraging, but it also shows that the popular movement has been put on the defensive and entangled in a complex legal struggle in which the forces of repression so far have the upper hand. Instead of building on the successes of the protests, the left now must divert its limited resources into defending the victims of repression.
An August 30 appeal6 by the TCMN paints a stark picture: at least 110 of those charged face very serious conspiracy and counselling charges; two have been denied bail; 18 granted bail under punitive conditions – under house arrest, unable to use laptops, cellphones, and the Internet, banned from association with loved ones.
We all need to join in building a united and effective defence effort, demanding the dropping of all G20-related charges. There is a pressing need to stand together against the repression, rejecting all attempts to distinguish between “good” and “bad” protesters. We must contribute generously to the fund drive for legal costs, which the TCMN reports has so far “only raised a fraction of the funds required.” (For information on how to contribute, see below.)
Despite the repression, TCMN still says: “We insist … the people won.”
Does reality justify that judgement? We don’t think so.
The rulers and their government and police forces saw the G20 summit as an opportunity to test new repressive techniques in battle. To prepare, they assembled an army of cops from multiple cities, fenced off large sections of Toronto, acquired a wide range of menacing weaponry, and installed spy cameras throughout the downtown area.
The very fact that they could do those things was a victory for the cops. But the absurdly excessive “security” mobilization exposed them and the federal government to widespread ridicule. Many in Canada viewed the preparations as an affront to democratic rights and an example of the Harper government’s widely detested right-wing policies.
As a result, the cops and the government had a strong interest in “proving” the need for restrictions of freedom of speech, assembly, and movement and in justifying the massive spending for tools of repression. They sought to disorganize and weaken social movements by using their new techniques in battle – and to win the contest for public support by representing themselves as defenders of public safety.
The cops were determined to have a fight, regardless. Their army was hyped up to attack at the slightest provocation. Even before the June 26 march, cops were invading homes and carting away activists in handcuffs. Others were arrested in the street “on suspicion” because they spoke French or were wearing dark-coloured T-shirts.
During the march, a line of cops charged marchers who were peacefully singing “O Canada.” In a widely-publicized incident, a cop seized and arrested a young protester for the crime of blowing bubbles. These and many other such incidents revealed the police as brutal violators of democratic rights.
How could such appalling actions be justified? The police needed a pretext – and such a pretext was handed to them.
How this unfolded on June 26 was explained by Montreal-based movement organizers Jaggi Singh and Robyn Maynard:
A “radical contingent … occupied a large bloc within the labour march,” sallying forth in attempts “to break through police lines.” When this was blocked, the contingent separated from the main march, headed into Toronto’s financial core, and then up Yonge Street, with “some engaging in corporate property destruction,” Singh and Maynard report7. “Several police cars were destroyed by protestors as well,” they add. “Most of the targets are symbols” of corporate greed and pillage.
This spectacle served the purposes of the authorities all too well. The 20,000-cop army made no move to halt property damage. Police officers later told the Toronto Sun9 that there was “a clear order from the command centre saying ‘Do not engage.’” No firefighters were dispatched to douse the dangerously flaming police vehicles.
When the cops finally moved into action, they arrested hundreds of peaceful demonstrators who had no connection to the attacks on property. The brutal repression was sold by the cops and their political bosses as prudent and necessary in face of the threat to Toronto residents’ life and property.
The media orgy that followed was hypocritical and manipulative. Video clips of burning patrol cars and individuals breaking windows played again and again. The mass march and the police brutalization of peaceful demonstrators were largely ignored, while the actions of a few black-garbed figures were portrayed as a grave threat to public safety.
Predictably, government leaders rushed to applaud the actions of the police. Many Toronto-area working people, whose support the movement needs to win, accepted the official version of events.
In short, despite the mobilization against the G20 of several tens of thousands of working people – immigrants, trade unionists, Indigenous people, gays, and others – it was a good day for the federal and provincial governments and for the cops. They attained their main goals: justifying the “security” mobilization and expense; inflicting lasting damage on the right of assembly; and disrupting radical movements through a wave of arrests. The next time Toronto faces a repressive mobilization by the authorities, it will be much harder to build a broad, effective, popular protest.
‘Diversity of tactics’
It is understandable that many protesters were dissatisfied with a mass labour-sponsored march that had vague, limited goals and demands. They sought a more effective, more militant form of protest. There are many ways that this could have been done. But the actions taken by the self-appointed “radical contingent,” whatever their motivation, had a perverse result, enabling the police to mobilize broad public support for their brutality and violations of civil liberties.
These issues were foreshadowed in discussions among protest organizers during the preceding months regarding “diversity of tactics.” According to Canadian Dimension10, organizers of the June 26 labour march “weakly acceded to the demands of ‘radicals’ on diversity of tactics.”
Acceptance of a diversity of viewpoints is a firmly held principle on the left. In a broad sense, experimenting with diverse strategies and tactics also makes sense. But in this and many other cases, the term “diversity of tactics” has been used to impose what activist Steve D’Arcy correctly calls11 “a taboo against collective discussion and decision-making” on tactics.
The result: a small group carries out provocative actions that are incompatible with the purpose of a large, peaceful demonstration, actions that tend to frustrate achievement of the demonstration’s goals and greatly increase the vulnerability of all concerned to police repression.
This approach violates elementary principles of movement democracy and solidarity that are well understood by most radical activists and consistently applied in other contexts. Progressive movements decide on policies democratically and then carry them out in a spirit of unity. And when we face police repression, we maintain a united front and act in a spirit of mutual responsibility to minimize dangers and frustrate and discredit attempts by the authorities to violate our rights.
Immigrant rights advocates, in their demonstrations, do not allow participants to undertake provocative actions that could give the cops a pretext to victimise undocumented participants. Demonstrators in solidarity with Palestine do not allow banners that could be used to slander the action as anti-Semitic. Workers in factory occupations do not permit freelance destruction of property.
The same approach is needed at high-profile confrontations with police repression such as the G20 protests.
The G20 protests also raise issues about the role of democratic rights in liberation struggles.
Even under dictatorships, working people and the oppressed strive to carve out areas of relative freedom within which to develop democratic activity. The rights that many people in Canada take for granted – to voice unpopular political views, to form unions, to assemble and engage in street protests – were won in this fashion. These democratic rights are precious acquisitions that we must defend tenaciously. The capitalist rulers claim to uphold them, but in fact they violate them systematically.
Progressive movements win decisive victories when they demonstrate to the public a commitment to broadly shared democratic principles that are under attack by the governments. In this way, movements of an active minority can win the support of an aroused majority – including, ultimately, for ousting the capitalist rulers and embarking on transformative social change.
This sometimes involves audacious defiance of capitalist laws and property rights. The right to abortion was won in Canada through overt and successful defiance of the oppressive anti-abortion law, which was repudiated by every jury asked to convict abortion provider Dr. Henry Morgentaler. Blacks defeated legal segregation in the U.S. South in large measure through mass defiance of segregation laws. Road and rail blockades by Indigenous people in Canada have won important gains.
The key to such victories lies in demonstrating that such actions defend the democratic principles that are cherished by the vast majority, principles incompatible with the rulers’ laws and claims to property.
All social movements seize such opportunities, at least in a small way, as part of their regular activity. But careful consideration must be given to the relationship of forces and state of public awareness. That didn’t happen on June 26.
To be sure, bold gestures can help win public sympathy, but for any movement for radical change the key to victory lies in opening the door for ever larger numbers of the victims of capitalism to act in their own interests. In that sense, the main march on June 26, despite its deficiencies, pointed the way forward. It was broadly sponsored and conceived in a manner that could reach beyond the organized left and link up with a broad range of people who do not normally take part in protest activity. The crowd who marched, estimated at 20,000, was without doubt reduced by police intimidation. Yet its numbers indicated a vast potential.
When opportunities for future marches of this type arise, we must ensure that they are effectively built, raise clear and militant demands, and are carried through in a spirit of unity.
Only in this way can progressive movements grow in influence while effectively resisting the threat of repression.
First published in Socialist Voice, September 2, 2010.
Donate to Legal Defence Fund: We urge readers to donate generously to the G20 Legal Defence Fund. For information on how to do so, see http://movementdefence.org/defencefund/ or http://g20.torontomobilize.org/support.