What the G-20?

Filmmakers and journalists got a rough ride during the G-20. Buffin offers a personal account

27 mins read

Filming in the streets of Toronto during the recent G-8/G-20 Summit was a very strange and unsettling experience. On the eve of the three-day event, the media ran a story about a man who had been arrested near the 10km-long security fence—for refusing to provide identification or be searched. This was reportedly the government’s way of introducing a new law, secretly passed earlier in the month, that allowed police to arrest anyone within five metres of the fence who did not comply with their orders. Notable also were: the temporary purpose-built detention centre; the whopping $1 billion security price tag; the 20,000 armed police; the introduction of sound cannons; and the revelation that rubber bullets were now available to police. That the core of this normally bustling city was desolate on the Friday afternoon was no surprise but the silence was eerie. The street-level windows of many tall buildings were shuttered up, complete with plywood and padlocked entrances.

Filmmaker Velcrow Ripper (Scared Sacred, Fierce Light) was there. “I have filmed in places where media activists were being killed. I have confronted a great deal of danger in my life. But there was something that happened in Toronto that I had not experienced in Canada before. It really was that feeling of being in a police state. There was that whole transformation of the core of the city into an Orwellian state with the new cameras appearing everywhere and the 20,000 police.”

Day one: Friday, June 25
The change was obvious to us when we emerged from another part of the city by subway. The second camera operator and I rendezvoused with our director at a coffee shop. While prepping the cameras, several police officers entered. They were milling about, clearly watching us. I decided to break the tense silence. I searched out the highest-ranking officer and struck up a conversation.

My reasoning was that through providing some context, I might help him help us. I explained that we were filming The Litter Guy, directed by Joanne McConnell, that it had been in production for over a year and the G-20 was mostly of peripheral interest. The garbage strike last year had played as one backdrop; the G-20 would be the backdrop for 2010. I asked the officer to please explain the change in the law, which was giving them so much power, and what were smart protocols to observe in the vicinity of the police. He told us in no uncertain terms, “Don’t even go down there” to the vicinity of the fence and to avoid filming the police because “they don’t like that.” What I mostly gleaned from this interaction was that the police were willing to talk to us, which I took as a good sign.

We continued through the yellow security zone filming here and there. Every time we stopped to film, we talked with the police first. They were curious about us and entertained our self-initiated introductions. Things were certainly tense, but overall, everyone remained friendly. But this was only Friday and the big leaders were yet to be airlifted in.

And, even then, others were not so lucky.

Josh Harrower was filming near a hotel where dignitaries were staying, while a situation played out with a disgruntled business owner and a police officer.

“Another officer intervened and asked me to respect their privacy,” reports Harrower. “I didn’t respond. She pushed me three times. I went to swat her hand away from pushing me again. The situation escalated so quickly…I was put under arrest.”

Harrower’s view is that the police officer escalated the situation and therefore arrested him because their purpose was to get him to stop filming.

“It would have been well within her means to convince me otherwise of shooting this situation without resorting to being physical.” An ominous foreshadowing of what was about to play out.

Day two: Saturday, June 26
We started at Queen’s Park, the designated protest zone. Despite the massive crowd, I was still able nudge myself all the way to the podium in time for the initiation of the march protesting the G-20. The impassioned speakers articulated valid points about social equity. Some violent mob that was! A diverse crowd, including families with young children, listened intently. Women led the march south.

By the time we got down to Queen Street, rows of riot cops blocked the southbound route and everyone was forced to turn west. As the police marched behind the protesters, effectively flanking the rear, I was told to keep moving or I would be arrested. I was not impressed because I wanted to film from behind the police as they cleared the street of protesters.

Our crew continued west on Queen, all the while being chaperoned by the police, toward Spadina. That intersection looked like something out of Gandhi’s funeral. Perched on a windowsill, I filmed the entirely peaceful crowd, which reached as far as the eye could see.

In the middle of the road, I found myself amongst a group of people dressed entirely in black, faces covered with bandanas: the Black Bloc. They were silent. All at once, they headed east—backtracking on the march route. Their unified actions were telling. Wanting nothing to do with the troublemakers, I continued west.

A little later we filmed an interview with a homeless person a block west of Queen and Spadina, outside the march and protest area. Suddenly, people stampeded towards us, so we quickly retreated. The crowd regrouped and after a minute or two began to taunt the riot cops who had previously been moving towards them. Some of them threw rocks at the police. Others bragged that they were about to do the same thing. Some bystanders confronted those holding projectiles; others said nothing. Two young men, one with a face covered, climbed a scaffold, apparently in preparation for a police advance.

With all of this in plain sight, I wondered to myself why the police were not arresting the stone throwers or those on the scaffold. It was clear to me that the riot police were acting in unison, as had all other police I had seen that day. It did not appear that they were making their own decisions. I was left with the overwhelming thought that they acted more like the military than the police—responding to a single command.

Concerned that the situation was becoming less stable, I decided I’d had enough. As we headed away from the trouble, a cloud of black smoke rose over the buildings at Queen and Spadina. It turns out that police cars were being trashed.

Ripper: “I was there, around the police cars that were destroyed. I thought that surely the police would jump in and grab them. And that, of course, was the recurrent image” in the news.

Documentary director Paul Manly, whose work helped “out” police provocateurs posing as violent protesters at Montebello in 2007, adds: “A photojournalist told me a story of following the Black Bloc for 90 minutes and 24 blocks. It seems incredible to me that with a billion dollars worth of security, they couldn’t stop a group of provocateurs.”

Afterwards, the police, who didn’t stop the rioters, proceeded to brutalize, intimidate, interfere with and detain members of the media, as well as innocent protesters.

Filmmaker Elaisha Stokes: “The police may have used the Black Bloc destruction as justification” for the clampdown.

Especially concerning was Toronto Police Chief Blair’s unapologetic stance about an apparent change in the traditional distinction between protesters and media. Speaking about one incident where members of the media were detained, it was reported in The Globe and Mail that Blair said, “They were warned that if they remained in the area they would be subject to the breach of the peace. I suppose for some of them their curiosity—or perhaps their profession—compelled them to stay.” Asked to clarify if he meant journalists, Blair responded, “Yes.”

Arnold Amber, president of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, a group that is collecting reports of media abuse by the police, was also there on Saturday. He has a different view of what happened.

“The two police cars weren’t put out there to be burned. I also don’t believe that the police deliberately let people run up and down Yonge Street to verify or [offer] some credence for why they [the Canadian government] spent $1.2 billion. Things got out of hand because they [the police] didn’t have one part of the operation working well.”

Regardless of which interpretation is more accurate, by the time the G-20 was over, many instances of reported media maltreatment by the police surfaced. And even more serious allegations involving sexual bullying have emerged recently.

Day three: Sunday, June 27
By Sunday morning, I was aware of how much trouble others in the media were experiencing but was feeling confident because of the positive interactions I continued to have with police.

My first stop was a chain coffee shop near Yonge and Bloor, many blocks from either the march or riots. It was closed for the day. I filmed some B-roll of a sign in the window indicating that the closure was for customer safety. An overly cautious security guard immediately flagged my presence. Moments later a group of police officers appeared and gravitated toward my director, who was conducting an interview with the other camera. I asked the officers flat out, “Are you here because the security guard called you?” One of them answered in the negative, but acknowledged that security guards were tense “because they can get fired if things go wrong.”

I took the opportunity to express some feedback about the weekend. I told one officer that some people believed the police response to peaceful protesters was heavy-handed. To his credit, the officer heard me out. Then he informed me that his car was just behind the ones that got torched. The experience was clearly still very raw. I got the sense that he had been out of his depth the night before. He told me that the “rules of engagement have changed,” meaning today. Had I been of quicker wit I would have replied that the change had already happened on Friday.

Some members of the media who were affected by the G-20 have serious concerns about the direction that law enforcement is going in Canada.

Lisa Walter was covering the G-20 for Our Times magazine. “Our colleagues were arrested,” she says. “We wanted to report on what was happening. I had no interest in getting arrested. We were leaving. The police didn’t like a comment that my colleague made. We weren’t interfering with their work…[but] my colleague was rushed by police and knocked down to the ground.” Walter points out, “I could see there was a real policy shift playing out in front of my eyes.”

Once in detention, things went off the rails for Walter. “I was never informed of my rights. I never had access to a lawyer. I was never allowed telephone contact. My hands were cuffed the entire 12 or 13 hours [of my incarceration]. The kinds of insults that I was faced with, included ‘fucking dyke’ and ‘douche bag.’ I was repeatedly taunted about questions of my gender. Was I a man or a woman? I just couldn’t imagine this ongoing process of abuse and degradation and humiliation.”

By Sunday evening, the G-20 leaders were gone. Our shooting day was over. As the light dropped, the sky opened up. It was one of those “every few years” kinds of storms. Sensing that the extraordinarily dense rain was only getting heavier, we decided to brave the temporary rivers flowing down the street. By the time we found a source of food, my toes were shrivelled like prunes inside my leather boots. Slowly easing the bulky camera bag onto the pub bench, I noticed on the wall above my seat was a framed copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights.

Within minutes we were watching the TV coverage as Elaisha Stokes and a couple of hundred innocent people were trapped in the controversial police “kettling” (a process of corralling from many directions, simultaneously). By the time we finished our meal they were still there, eventually ensnared in the torrential rain for hours, at Queen and Spadina.

“I have friends who are producers at CBC,” she says to me, weeks later. “They heard that I was photographing for other news agencies and said ‘If you’re in a situation can you please call us?’ I was in the blockade, called the CBC and they said, ‘We’re going to run this!’ [But]…they never called back. The CBC made a conscious choice not to show people what was happening.”

Another difference between alternative/mainstream media is the treatment of the close proximity of police to the rioters. Somehow, the mainstream did not show the busload of riot police within a block of the window smashers in full swing.

Differences extend beyond the coverage. Jesse Freeston of The Real News Network, who was punched and kicked by police, witnessed members of mainstream news outlets being treated similarly. He points out: “From the perspective of a journalist, I’m amazed that there hasn’t been a unity from both mainstream and independent journalists in exerting rights after the G-20.”

And yet, reports and conclusions differ. John Kay of the National Post, as interviewed by Paul Jay on The Real News, reports, “I didn’t see much on the streets that aroused suspicions of police brutality… However there are some credible reports that once in detention, some of the activists were mistreated. To the extent politicians believe an inquiry is needed—to me, that area is the strongest reason for having one, [but] I don’t see great urgency to have one…”

G-20: The Aftermath
A lot of questions are now being raised about police treatment of the media.

Olivia Chow, MP for Trinity Spadina, agitated for the G-20 to be held away from the financial district. “I don’t believe that documentary filmmakers or journalists should fear. It’s important that the truth of what happened be documented. The New Democrats put together a letter formally asking the public safety committee to investigate the situation as to who made which decisions, and what is the role of the integrated security units. Is it the RCMP, the OPP, the Toronto Police? What are the protocols, and who made the decision to arrest? I think we would need to get to the bottom of all of these questions.”

Many documentary filmmakers and journalists were shocked by their treat- ment during the summit. Velcrow Ripper says, “There’s still a sense in war zones, if you’re clearly identified as press, that you’re there for a reason and you’re not a target. In the anti-globalization movement, it’s common for them [the police] to target alternative media cameras, because they realize how threatening that is, but targeting mainstream media is much more rare. It felt to me like the police really had carte blanche, beyond what any just or free society would condone.”

Activist videographer Fernando Garcia agrees. He was arrested during an early-morning raid at the University of Toronto on Sunday and says people have the right, “to gather ourselves and organize ourselves freely. [But] especially with the Conservative party in power in Ottawa, the democratic rights that we had gained are being eroded. Protestors are more and more categorized as being the bad peo- ple. The mainstream media are not talking about repression and brutality and human rights not being applied.”

Many in the alternative media, who were operating on the assumption that it was business as usual, felt sideswiped by the new police tactics.

Docmaker Liz Marshall: “The police demanded to see my footage. That made me very uncomfortable. There was no one else around. I asked them why they wanted to see my footage? I had every right to be documenting what was happening to my city. They became aggressive with me verbally. It seemed like things would deteriorate if I didn’t co-operate.”

Lisa Walter was less fortunate. “All my video footage was deleted by the police,” including shots identifying one of the officers who verbally abused her.

Reported police confiscation, interruption, interference and otherwise control of people in the media and their property occurred throughout the G-20. My second camera operator was surrounded by police, grilled about why he was shooting, insulted about his “lack of proper accreditation,” and only let go once it was determined that he had indeed stopped filming. He was a full city block away from the security fence and wasn’t filming protesters or a confrontation of any kind. Questions linger about why the police believed the use of these tactics was fair game.

Garcia: “They took my camera. I’m accused of conspiracy. Why do they keep my video camera? Especially the cassettes. It’s proof that I wasn’t at the event that they are charging me for. I was filming at the same moment at another place.”

Interview requests from POV with Toronto Police leadership were unanswered. It was hoped that their views, outside of what’s been reported in the news, could be included here.

While the inevitable fallout unfolds in civil and criminal cases, other equally important questions are now in the court of public opinion.

Ripper: “We lost sight of what the messages of the protests were. The struggle becomes between the people vs. the police. And that’s not what it’s about at all. Ultimately that is a diversion.”

Liz Marshall agrees: “I feel like we were all put under this one banner. Protesters are considered as being violent or potentially dangerous or not to have real legitimate concerns. I was upset about it so that’s why I took action.”

The result?

Marshall organized a small handful of people within a week and The Real G8/G20 Civil Society Response website is now live. Self-described as “a group of Canadian cross-media activists concerned about the erosion of democracy in our country,” they volunteered the time to create the site.

Marshall: “We want it to become this bustling hub that continues the conver- sation and presents a diversity of voices. We’re interested in citizen media, in stories that reference the real issues but also artists that want to make a political statement. We’re also interested in people’s first-hand accounts of any arrest that has happened. There’s a section [on our site] called Assault on Democracy.”

The backlash following the G-20 continues. Protesters numbering in the thousands have been showing up at Queen’s Park on the weekends since. Civil lawsuits are coming. That is where true democracy lies: accountability. Social media played an integral part in providing a significantly different point of view to the mainstream media during the G-20. It is likely to continue in the same manner.

Says Liz Marshall, “The worst thing that you can take on or feel or be is complacent. I believe in the power of change. I do believe in the power of filmmaking and media, multi-media, to make a difference. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it.”

The positive experiences I had filming the G-20 leave me feeling lucky. Lucky that I witnessed it up close, and fortunate that I was able to stay safe. I am reminded of what I once read on the CBC blogs: that those in Canada won the lottery when they were born. This was referring to the amount of freedom we have as a society and the relative overall prosperity that exists here. I hope that the other adage about lottery winners—easy come, easy go—proves not to be true.

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