There was a knot in my stomach as I rode the subway to my first anti-G20 protest this week.
All the foreboding emails flooding my inbox had me spooked. Company instructions on gas masks, underwear choice (avoid cotton, it absorbs gas fumes), and making sure to have an escape route. My husband had just forwarded me a missive from his office administrator, suggesting staff go underground to avoid the afternoon’s protest.
I recently returned from Haiti, where one hotel owner told me he wears a bullet-proof vest whenever he drives downtown. He’s afraid of kidnappers. “Who am I afraid of,” I wondered as I climbed the stairs out of Queen station, past a phalanx of uniformed police officers.
Surely not Casey Oraa, a 25-year-old gay activist who wore a hot pink scarf and talked about the federal government’s decision to pull funding from the Gay Pride festival as we strolled side-by-side along Queen West in a sea of protesters.
Or Dagmar Werkmeister, a women’s crisis hotline counsellor who spent the morning hanging signs around the necks of city statues across the city. (My favourite adorned a woman on the Boer War statue on University: “The G-20 hurts hags and their fags.”)
Or Savoy Howe, an actress and boxer, who wielded a loudspeaker, leading the group in a chant: “We’re queer. We’re fabulous. We’re against the G20. We’re straight, we’re fabulous, we’re against the G20. We’re differently abled, we’re fabulous, we’re against the G20.”
No wonder schools are shutting down, businesses are shuttering their windows and banks are instructing their employees to dress down, to avoid attack from riotous anti-capitalists.
No wonder we need more than 5,000 police officers, a $5 million fence, a water cannon, long-range tear gas, rubber bullets and those sound guns that have been so effective in disabling Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
No wonder the U.S. has slapped a travel warning on us, which Stockwell Day blames on “anarchists and the violent groups who have already indicated that they’re going to be there and they’re going to cause trouble.”
Now, a confession: I am a protester. I have marched for women’s safety, Earth Day and against the Iraq War. Nine years ago, I went to Quebec City to protest the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
I wore an “Income GAP” T-shirt I’d made (modelled after the GAP logo).
This time, I think I need one that says “I am not Osama.”
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Sure, male aggression has been on show at these economic summits since the “Battle of Seattle.” The infamous “Black Block” usually arrives and hurls tear gas canisters back over the fence at police officers, along with pucks and rocks. At some point the crowd storms the fence with the intension of “taking back the city.”
But never, to my knowledge, has a so-called anarchist protester attacked a person passing by en route to work or lunch.
Let’s remember: only one person has been killed at a G8 protest, and it was a protester shot in Genoa by a jumpy police officer.
My second protest was against mining and the tar sands. It started yesterday morning in a park on Bathurst, just south of Dundas. Protesters wore hazmat suits and clown noses and carried a giant black oil pipe puppet, with the head of a dragon. Some Concordia students had smothered their bodies with coffee grounds and cocoa, so they looked drenched in oil. They cycled to Toronto for the protest.
The cops were on all sides —on foot, on bikes or motorcycles, in paddy wagons or unmarked minivans.
The protest was boisterous and peaceful. People danced and sang and talked to strangers — which is the greatest thing about protests. Still, it’s hard not to feel anxious when you are surrounded by guns.
Lara Mrosovsky works at a children’s garden. She was arrested on Monday after handing a bamboo flag pole to a protester friend. Mrosovsky was detained for hours, she said. But, police dropped charges of obstructing justice and carrying “burglary tools” when they realized said tools were in fact her work keys.
“These are symptoms of the police overreacting,” said Mrosovsky, 31.
I still haven’t decided if I will carry a home-made gas mask to the protests later this week. I was gassed in Quebec City, and remember how much it stung my eyes and burned my lungs. But the thought of carrying war apparatus to a protest appalls me. It is an acceptance of that post-9/11 corollary that links protests to battle. I am a protester, not a terrorist.
But I do know who frightens me.
On my bike ride to yesterday’s rally, I suddenly found myself behind a pack of cycling officers, each weighed down with a riot mask, plastic handcuffs and a gas mask. One officer kept unclipping his gun at his waist and pulling it from the holster as he pedalled.
Surely they aren’t on such high alert for an environmental march across town, I ventured.
“The natives are coming to town today,” he answered solemnly. “They want to bust things up.”