G20 Trials and the War on Activism

The following speech was made by Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein at the telethon held to raise funds the legal costs of G20 protesters. The telethon took place in Toronto on Nov. 11 and rabble.ca carried it live. It can be viewed here.

So we are here to raise money.

But more fundamentally, we are here because we know what happened in this city during the G20 and the wrong people are on trial for it.

There are police officers that should be facing charges for assault and harassment -- and so should any supervisors who enabled or covered over those abuses.

So far no one in authority has paid any price for what happened.

According to the Parliamentary Committee underway in Ottawa, the worst crime the cops committed was taking off their name tags.

And let's not forget that our outgoing city council -- lest we get too nostalgic given the incoming city council -- unanimously passed a motion to "commend the outstanding work of Chief Bill Blair, the Toronto Police Service and the police officers working during the G20 summit in Toronto."

But this is not just about the cops. There are also high-level politicians who should be under investigation -- for their role in ordering the militarization of our city, for subverting the legislative process to increase police powers, for grossly misappropriating public funds, using them to buy off constituents and grease donors. Tony Clement, we are talking about you.

Not surprisingly, the Federal government has not convened an inquiry. Neither has the RCMP. And the Ontario Legislature just shamefully voted against having a public inquiry.

In 1998 there was an RCMP inquiry called over the use of pepper spray on peaceful protestors outside an APEC summit. It was known as Peppergate. How quaint by G20 standards.

But the truth is we are not so hardened, we are not blase about state violence.

There are hundreds if not thousands of people in this city who are still traumatized by what they suffered and witnessed that weekend at the end of June.

The G20 changed them, changed the way they feel about their country and their city.

So let's refresh our memories about what did happen:

Large parts of Toronto were engulfed in a sprawling security zone as an atmosphere of hysteria gripped our city. Residents were subject to arbitrary searches as they went to and from work, discovering that they were in a bizarre rights-free zone.

Bike racks and bus-shelters disappeared. Trees were uprooted because, apparently, they could be used as projectiles.

In a much needed comedic interlude, a spokesperson for the Council of Canadians was quoted in the National Post observing that the trees could not be pulled up by hand: "You'd need an axe to cut the thing down. And if you've already got an axe, you wouldn't need a tree." Indeed.

All of this caused frustration to boil, as did the fact that when demonstrations did take place they were suffocated by throngs of police in riot gear and in some cases dangerously "kettled."

As we all saw with our own eyes or on video, peaceful protesters were attacked with rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray. At Queen's Park riot police plowed into groups of people sitting on the grass flailing their batons and kicking protesters to the ground.

I could go on listing these abuses but this would turn into a giant therapy session, not a fundraiser, and we don't want that.

In all, over 1,100 people were arrested -- the largest mass arrest in Canadian history.

Roughly 800 of them were jailed.

From them we have heard many reports of beatings (including beatings of people in handcuffs). Of racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs and threats, of people being screamed at for speaking in languages other than English. Of strip searches of women by male officers, of groping by police, sexual solicitation, rape threats.

We also heard about the shocking detention conditions: people crammed into cells, unable to lie down. Medicines were denied, as was the right to counsel.

I heard from women who were not given sanitary napkins, from others who were denied water and food for longer than a day.

We all owe a great debt of thanks to Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Union of Public and General Employees for the hearings they have been holding over the past few days. Providing a space for these stories to be told; doing the job our government won't.

Before I came here I read some of the testimony from today's hearings, and I have to tell you that it is very painful to read, because the memories and the sense of helplessness come back.

Just a few hours ago a man named John Pruyn testified. I want to share with you what he said. He said he was arrested and cuffed and while cuffed police pulled off his artificial leg. Then they ordered him to put it back on, which he obviously could not do with his hands tied. Then they laughed, dragged him off and hit him, telling him he should never have come."

It goes without saying that no one deserves this kind of treatment, no matter what they did.

But the fact is that the vast majority of those arrests were a complete farce. The proof is that almost all the charges were dropped. In other words, arrestees were abused in this manner simply because they went to a protest -- or in some cases because they walked by or near one. Or because they were wearing black. On Queen Street in Toronto. I mean, please.

It was a relief when hundreds were released and charges were dropped.

But the G20 assault on democratic rights did not end there.

The reason we are here -- the reason there is such a pressing need to raise legal defense funds -- is that the abuses are ongoing.

That's because roughly 100 demonstrators are being prosecuted with a sense of vendetta and a spirit of vengefulness that is so intense it verges on the pathological.

Some are facing charges grossly disproportionate to the allegations -- like potential multi-year jail sentences for allegedly breaking a window. No simple vandalism charge will suffice.

This is personal. This is a crusade. We see it most clearly in the treatment of the 19 activists accused of "conspiracy" -- an extremely serious charge, with grave consequences if convicted.

I know most of you know the details but for those who don't, let me recap.

For months leading up to the protests, police in multiple provinces were engaged in an elaborate undercover operation, involving heavy surveillance and many informants in activist groups.

Before the large protests took place during the G20, and well before any glass shattered, conspiracy warrants were issued for this group of people. In some cases, police violently arrested people in their homes preemptively.

The claim, as I understand it, is that these activists were secretly planning the property destruction that took place after they were in jail. The people who did it were apparently helpless puppets.

This narrative of intrigue has been central to Bill Blair's bizarre claim that Toronto was victimized by a "criminal conspiracy" -- as opposed to what actually happened: a big protest attended by lots of people, including quite a few very pissed off people.

As you can well imagine, we would have liked to have had one of these supposed conspirators speak to us here tonight, to share their perspective. I am sure you all would have liked to hear that speech.

Unfortunately we weren't able to. If we did, there is every chance that the cops would storm in here and arrest them for violating their bail conditions. Maybe scooping up some of us wearing black while they were at it.

But let's talk a little about those bail conditions because they are really something. Here is a sampling:

  • not being able to speak to any of the other defendants;
  • not being able to go to protests or engage in political organizing;
  • not being able to talk on a cell phone;
  • essentially being under house arrest;
  • in some cases not being able to post to the internet or speak to the media.

And it must be said that to make these wild allegations and to simultaneously gag the accused is not justice, it's propaganda -- not to mention the height of cowardice.

Alex Hundert, as most of you know, was "preemptively" arrested at gunpoint before the demonstrations took place and he has been re-arrested twice since -- once for speaking at a panel at Ryerson. He remains in jail.

So the question must be asked: why?

Why these draconian lengths to paint community organizers as terrorist masterminds, why this vendetta?

Activists have organized similar protests in dozens of cities at world summits.

Just this week, tens of thousands were out protesting the G20 summit in Seoul. They weren't satisfied marching in approved zones, they tried to get into the restricted city centre, past police. Only seven people have been reported arrested so far and no one is being accused of being a criminal mastermind.

[Wednesday] in London, 50,000 young people protested against education cuts. They crossed police lines and occupied the headquarters of the Tory Party. Some people rioted. There have been 50 arrests.

So once again: why, in Toronto, is calling for civil disobedience suddenly criminal conspiracy, with the power to ruin young lives?

Let's unpack this a little bit, so we are clear.

Part of what is going on is that the police went so over the top that they appear to need these convictions as a form of self-justification.

In other words, spending on summit security was so exorbitant, and the systems of entrapment leading up to these arrests were so elaborate that at the end of the day they need something to show for their billion-dollar budget and their rampant civil liberties violations. A conspiracy -- not a movement.

And our friends are caught in that maze of self-righteousness, that web of self-justification.

And we need to get them out. And that is going to take good lawyers and lots of money.

So just to remind you: that is why we are here tonight. I know you paid a lot to get in, but consider whether you can give more. Especially those of you watching at home.

Because the burden that has been placed on these activists must somehow be shared by the broader community that opposed the G20.

By those of us who went to the protests that the arrestees helped to organize.

Now, there is something else about these cases that needs to be acknowledged. They fit a pattern that we have seen from the Tories again and again.

For years now they have been waging a not so silent war on artists whose political views they don't like. On students organizing Palestinian solidarity events, particularly Israeli Apartheid Week. That's what the conference on the "new anti-Semitism" is all about.

They have also waged war on NGOs that take political positions contrary to the government: The Canadian Arab Federation, Kairos, and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation.

With no sense of shame the Tories have tried to put these troublesome NGOs out of business.

Could it be that this same government seized the opportunity presented by the G20 to try to wipe out or at least weaken some of the country's most effective and militant anti-poverty, Indigenous solidarity and migrant rights groups?

Because if we look at those bail conditions, and the massive legal costs ahead, that is exactly what these charges seem designed to do.

And they have good reason to want to get these groups out of the way, or at least bog them down in legal hassles at this particular point in history.

Because let's always remember that the gravest crimes of that summit were not the fake lake, or the civil liberties violations, or even the security budget.

The real crime was what the leaders decided to do while they were being so enthusiastically protected.

Nicknamed the "Austerity Summit," Toronto was where they decided to stick the public with the bill for an economic crisis that began with wild speculation on Wall Street.

In previous G20 summits these same leaders failed to close corporate tax loop holes, failed to impose coordinated banking regulation, failed to break up the big banks, refused to impose a bank tax, failed to impose even a miniscule financial transaction tax, failed to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, and of course resolved to continue waging wars.

So how would they come up with the revenue to cover their shrinking tax bases thanks to layoffs and foreclosures? They would cut social programs, of course.

The G20's final communique in Toronto instructed governments to slash their deficits in half by 2013.

This is a huge and shocking cut, and we all know who will pay the price:

  • students who are seeing their public educations further deteriorate as their fees go up, which is why they were on the streets of London yesterday, occupying the headquarters of the Tory Party;
  • pensioners who are losing hard-earned benefits, which is why they have been on the streets of France for weeks;
  • public-sector workers whose jobs are being eliminated, which is why we have seen massive strikes in Italy and Spain. And the list goes on.

Here in Ontario, well before the G20, the poor were already paying the cost of the crisis. To cite just one example, this year the Provincial government shamefully abolished the "special diet" allowance -- a program that gave people on social assistance with health conditions just a little bit more every month so that they could afford foods that don't make them sick.

That program cost $200-million a year. As John Clark pointed out during the G20, the cost of security for the summit could have paid for that program for five years.

At the federal level, the Tories are on course to slash stimulus spending that includes a billion dollars a year for the construction and renovation of social housing. Meanwhile they are paying Lockheed Martin $9-billion for new fighter jets, with an anticipated $7-billion more in maintenance costs.

And we all know that under Rob Ford, we are going to have to fight to defend the public transit system and other services on which working people depend.

We gathered on the streets of Toronto during the G20 because we know there are other ways to make up a budget shortfall. Like getting the hell out of Afghanistan and not building new prisons at a time when Canada's crime rate has been down for a decade.

But our politicians have chosen a very different route, and that route necessarily means more social unrest.

And that has everything to do with why the security costs were so high during the G20.

Because much of that money went to arming the police with a new arsenal of weaponry: water cannons, sound cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, surveillance cameras. I fear that we G20 protestors were just the guinea pigs. That those are the weapons of the future, designed to be turned on anyone else in the country who dares to resist the G20's policies.

And let's be clear that the resistance won't only be about cutbacks. Something else that happened at the G20 is that leaders decided not to make serious commitments to cut fossil fuel emissions. This was striking because after the failure of Copenhagen, there was much talk that smaller groupings of powerful nations would step into the vacuum left by the UN on climate policy.

But it didn't happen. Harper shut down all climate discussion because the Canadian government has every intention of massively expanding tar sands production. As we speak, Enbridge is trying to build the Western Gateway pipeline to bring tar sands oil to the West Coast of Canada, and TransCanada is trying to buy off U.S. farmers and threatening them with eminent domain to build the Keystone XL pipeline to bring that oil to refiners in Texas.

Harpers' is a bleak vision of a country. One that claws away at its own skin in search of fossil fuels that are catastrophically warming our planet -- only to send war ships to the Arctic to lay our claim to the oil and gas underneath that melting ice.

A country that then fortifies its borders to keep out refugees who lose their land and their homes in other parts of the world because of droughts and rising sea levels -- caused in part by our emissions.

We see this bleak vision materializing with the proposed Immigration Act, Bill C-49. If passed it would allow the Minister of Public Safety to declare any group of migrants coming in to Canada, a "smuggling incident."

If they are designated in this way, the state would have the power to jail them for a minimum of one year; deny access to health services; deny monthly detention reviews, and so on.

Which certainly puts what happened here during the G20 into some perspective.

But none of this will happen without a fight. No One Is Illegal, despite the legal attacks, is organizing a multi-front campaign to stop Bill C-49.

And the plans to expand the tar sands are hitting snags on multiple fronts. It turns out that after the BP disaster, when an oil company promises you that everything is going to be fine, it's not much of a comfort.

Everywhere the new pipelines are supposed to go into the ground, communities are organizing to keep them out.

In British Columbia, lead by First Nations communities, there is enormous determination to block the Gateway pipeline, just as the so-called Prosperity Mine was just defeated.

My point is simply this: our government knows that there are heavy battles ahead. Battles over what kind of country we want. Battles with tens of billions of dollars on the line.

These are fights we can win if we build coalitions like the ones we saw on the streets of Toronto during the G20: immigrant rights advocates with anti-poverty activists with First Nations defenders of the land with labour leaders and people who were just fed up with having their city taken over.

Our government fears those coalitions, fears the prospect of a truly mass social movement, and we can see that fear in the arrest and prosecution patterns.

It is no coincidence that the people facing the most serious charges with the most restrictive bail conditions are among the most effective organizers in this country. They are precisely the people who build bridges across traditionally separate communities and constituencies, finding common ground where there was often antipathy before.

That's what Alex Hundert does at AW@L and Southern Ontario Anarchist Resistance, with his tireless support for the blockade at Grassy Narrows among other indigenous struggles.

That's what Syed Hussan does as an organizer with No One Is Illegal-Toronto -- he fights for the rights of immigrants and refugees. But now, in part because of his G20 political activities, he has been unable to get his work visa renewed and faces deportation himself.

Some of the most effective organizers in the country are being taken out of the game when they are needed most, precisely when the stakes are highest. But here is what the Tories and the cops can't seem to get: their attacks only make us more determined. Our movements are more resilient than they know.

And when we refuse to forget what happened here during the G20, when we demand accountability for the real criminals and the freedom of our friends, we are fighting not just for the past but for the future.

We are saying -- with clarity and conviction -- that we will not accept this treatment again.

We have the right to defend our hard won social services and meager refugee protections from morally bankrupt politicians.

We have the duty to protect our boreal forests and our pristine waters from dirty oil development.

And as we perform these duties, we know that there will be costs, there always are. But we refuse to be vilified as criminals and we refuse to relinquish our rights as Canadians.

That is what is at stake in the struggle for G20 justice and we cannot afford to lose.

One final thought before we move on to the fun part of the evening: what moved me most during the G20 actions is the way people embodied the kind of world they want in the way they conducted themselves.

When police stormed, demonstrators locked arms and often repelled arrest. When someone was snatched, they often were freed by their friends or passersby.

When people were loaded onto vans and taken to overcrowded jails, strangers looked after each other, advocated for each other.

And outside the jails there were solidarity protests where thousands showed up, despite the fact that some of them had just gotten out of jail themselves and were terrified of being re-arrested. Yet they showed up, brave and loud, week after week.

Tonight is simply a continuation of that spirit.

It is about acknowledging the extraordinarily high stakes of this political moment, and treating every member of our movements as if they are precious. Because they are.

It is about saying that we will not let media generated suspicion make us afraid and disdainful of each other. That even when we disagree, we will do so with respect, and will refuse to be divided into categories of good and bad activists.

Tonight is about saying: we were together on the streets of Toronto during the G20 and four and half months later we are together still.

We have each other's backs. For the battles ahead.

Please give generously.

Thank you.

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