Reflections on the anti G-20 actions in Toronto

July 7, 2010 at 10:56 pm (Uncategorized)

In the days after the June 26 demonstration against the G-20 in Toronto, many concluded the apocalypse had come:  Rioting in the streets! Police cars burnt. Hundreds of people arrested. Toronto would never be the same again.

It’s been ten days since the G-20 were in Toronto. The diplomats have left. The streets are as clean as they were before the summit. The state of seige feeling, the massive police presence and the fence are all gone. And for the most part, the newspapers are now back to covering the World Cup, the oil leak in the Gulf, and  the current heat wave. The only thing to remind us of the events is that over a dozen of the almost 1,000 people arrested during the protests against the G-20 are still in jail.

In 1988, the G-7 came to Toronto. I had just left Socialist Challenge, a right-wing Trotskyist group, and was about to join the Bolshevik Tendency, a left-wing Trotskyist group. My first public outing with the BT was the G-7 demonstration.

In the organizing committee against the G-7, of which the BT was not a part, there was a split. A rally had been scheduled at Queen’s Park, the seat of the legislature in Ontario. The police had announced that anyone who walked down University Avenue, the road immediately south of the legislature,  would be arrested.  Some members of the committee, including Socialist Challenge, wanted to accept this. Others decided to challenge it. The BT decided they would go which way the wind blew. In the end, three BTers, including myself walked down University Avenue. No one was arrested in our group.

Flash forward 11 years to Seattle and the WTO meeting in December 1999. During the demonstration, a group emerged , which later became known as the Black Bloc, shouting anti-capitalist slogans and smashing windows of downtown stores.  The police were caught off guard, and the Bloc had a real success in getting attention and going beyond what the police could contain, and the liberal protesters had in mind.

The success of the Bloc in Seattle set the pattern elsewhere . Even the chill of September 11 did not diminish the Bloc’s appeal. Yet, two things were apparent in the wake of Seattle. The response of the state was heavier (Carlo Gionni  Giulliani was killed at a G-7 protest in Milan  Genoa in 2001), and the Bloc’s tactics quickly became stale.

And so it was in Toronto. In the months leading up to the summit, a massive police presence imposed itself on the city. Hardly a day went by without some new security regulation or other announced by the police, RCMP, government or all of the above. The official estimate for security were over $1 billion, which didn’t take into account the unofficial costs for local business etc. 

“Why oh why,” many asked, “was this going to be in the heart of  Canada’s largest city?”  To showcase Canada and the city came the reply. Showcase the paranoia, showcase the police presence, showcase the fence. (in a comic aside, it should be mentioned that the Conservative government spent millions of dollars creating a fake lake for delegates to swoon over, even though an actual lake, Lake Ontario, was a few hundred meters from the summit. The lake was dismantled after the summit, even though the Toronto Globe and Mail editorialized it favour of its continued existence) 

Days before the summit, it was revealed that the police had asked for and obtained emergency powers which allowed them to ask for anyone who came within 5 meters of the fence for ID. Those refusing to produce ID were either asked to leave or face arrest. Even right-wing columnists like the Globe’s Marcus Gee found this a little difficult to swallow.

Worse still, at a press conference after the summit, Police Chief Bill Blair admitted that the powers he was given in secret  didn’t grant that power, but that he was quite happy to say it did. Why? To preserve law and order. So did the chief lie?  Well, according to columnist Christie Blatchford, Blair had been told the act did give permission, and he spent half an hour googling it to make sure.

Somebody has to say it:  a billion dollars on security and Google is the source of your information?

The events of the day are well-known.  At about 1:00 a large crowd of perhaps 15,000 gathered at Queen’s park in the pouring rain to hear dreary speeches about the G-20. The crowd was large but soft. In addition to trade unions and leftist organizations, respectable mainstream groups such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International and Oxfam had large contingents.

Later the demonstration moved down the aforementioned University Avenue. When it reached Queen Street, a section of perhaps 150 detached themselves as the Black Bloc. and here’s where things got wild. 

The Black Bloc held court. Windows were smashed, circle a’s and other “anti-capitalist” slogans were spray painted on walls, Tim Hortons, Starbucks, the Bank of Nova Scotia had their windows broken, and in some cases later, looting took place. Five police cars were set on fire. The news coverage on the weekend, focused almost exclusively on the damage to property. Within a few hours, the police, who seemed curiously absent during much of the Black Bloc’s hour, came back in full force, arresting large numbers without much concern as to who they were. Although , if you spoke with a French accent or were from out-of-town, your chances of arrest were increased: several time Mayor David Miller argued people had come to Toronto to do this (i.e., Toronto is good; it’s those others from elsewhere who are bad)

By the end of the weekend, almost 1,000 people had been arrested and held in various detention centres, thus prompting more demonstrations nad more arrests. Most of the people arrested were eventually released without charge, and within a few days, the summit had slipped from public consciousness as Gay Pride and the Queen’s visit came into focus. True enough, the letters page of the newspapers still print the odd letter on the subject, but it quickly receded into yesterday’s news.  So with the benefit of hindsight, let’s look at the G-20 and the Black Bloc, and try to draw some lessons.

The G-20 comprises of some of the biggest economies in the world. Just days before the G-20 summit, the G-8 (the real power) met in Huntsville, a small town a couple of hours north of Toronto. The G-20 nations make major economic decisions that affect millions of lives. Leading nations in the G-20 have and currently wage wars around the planet. Their trade and environmental polices cause untold human suffering. Noam Chomsky once made the observation that every U.S. President in the last century could easily have been tried for war crimes, and the indictment should not just include the U.S. In contrast, the few thousand dollars in the broken glass of the Black Bloc is small potatoes.

 As I  noted above, the Black Bloc made its first appearance at the Seattle demonstrations. (SEE COMMENT SECTION)  Dressed in black and masked to conceal identities, the Bloc seems dynamic compared to the doughy demonstrations it emerges from. Yet is this really revolutionary? It may look ultra- radical, but in fact the Black Bloc’s actions represent a weakness not a strength. The Bloc got nowhere near the fence or the summit, but showed that it could for a very short time frighten middle-class respectable people.  Rather than the G-20 a few banks and corporations bore  the Black  Bloc’s wrath (even family friendly proletarian Tim Horton’s!) The action has been compared to the 19th century anarchist strategy of ‘propaganda by deed, ‘ but not even that was achieved. Apart from breaking those windows (I assume everyone has insurance), and no doubt terrifying the employees inside , very little was accomplished.

No manifestos were issued. No dialogues were held. Instead the media have pinned the label ‘anarchist’ on the Bloc. But are they anarchists? Anarchism is a broad church, and there are many different interpretations. No doubt many of the Black Bloc militants would use that label. Other anarchists, ont a part of the Bloc, also allow them the term, arguing for a diversity in tactics. However, it is the vanguardist nature of the bloc which reveals its bankrupcy. Vanguardism is the substitution of a small r-r-r-r-revolutionary group which sees itself as the true leadership of the masses for the masses. Historically this sort of behaviour was associated with Leninism and its offspring Maoism and Trotskyism. However, the Bloc’s actions, which although more spectacular than the Leninists of late has produced just as little in the way of results, and is every bit as vanguardist.

Some conspiracy theorists have argued that  police allowed the Bloc to rampage in order to justify (more extreme versions allege the bloc were police themselves). Others have argued that the Black Bloc’s actions were unexpected. All of this are ridiculous. Given that the security forces have spent ungodly amounts of money, and spent months visiting and harassing activists, and that several groups announced their intentions in advance, it is impossible that the police did not anticipate these actions. The police hae spent It seems extremely unlikely that they were not aware of the Bloc’s intentions.

Did Toronto become a police state as a result of the summit? No, of course not. The security forces shown on June 26 and beyond pre-dated the summit and will continue beyond it as necessary to maintain capitalist stability. Democracy is the preferred system for capitalist rule, as it has fewer overheads. To change the rule of capital requires a deeper critique. An action which will transform society must involve the mass of the society. And the mass of the society which potentially wields that social power is the working class. An overthrow of  the law of value, uprooting the profit system, will make that change. Nothing less.



  1. Mr. Pedandt said,

    Just a few comments about facts. The Black Bloc did not emerge in Seattle in 1999. It emerged in the 1980s squatter scene in Germany. The tactic was mainly used to defend protesters against police violence, property destruction came later. In North America it might be correct that the BB came on the scene with Seattle.

    The protestor killed in 2001 happened in Genoa, not Milan, and his name was Carlo Guilliani.

    • fischerzed said,

      Thanks for the corrections. The points about the Carlo Guilliani are carelessness on my part.

  2. PD said,

    Yours is best political summary of the weekend that I’ve seen. Just a brief note on what you label as conspiracy theory, a topic that I think others have given too much attention to. But nonetheless, as a participant on the split from the main demo, it is suspicious that police left only one way for the split to go (east) and then had no real police presence heading south on Bay. The nucleus for the split had gathered at Spadina and Queen for half an hour. There were rows of cops on all streets heading south during the main march (and on Friday there was an even heavier police presence). Yet during this much smaller (and hardly unexpected) direct action split, the cops were pretty much MIA. I suppose it could be police incompetence.

    • fischerzed said,

      Re-reading that section, I think the beginnig of the paragraph is weak, and should probably be re-written. Essentially, I think those arguments give the police too much credit and also too little. I don’t think this was an elaborate “sting” operation, but neither does it seem likely that the cops were unaware of what would happen. There’s an interesting piece on police conduct in this week’s Now magazine though.

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