Friday, June 25
Our trolley was stopped at a traffic light on far Queen Street East when a surly bald man on the sidewalk flashed us the rock-and-roll devil horns. Then he held up today’s paper as if to say, “Can you believe this shit?”
“G20,” he told the streetcar, “Queen’s Park. Come and yell at ‘em.” No one paid attention.
Queen’s Park North is supposed to be the “Designated Speech Area” for protesters of the G20 summit tomorrow. It wasn’t that folks on the streetcar actively ignored the guy. It was more that they couldn’t even hear the words G20 anymore. Like any phrase repeated to often, it had just lost its meaning and nobody could find it in themselves to give a crap. I imagine that dude stood sentry there all evening, saying the same small phrases to each passing train – like a hot dog vendor at a ballgame, except he was selling outrage.
I picked quite a moment to move to this city. Between the World Cup and the G20 economic summit, Toronto has gone temporarily insane. They’re kind of akin, these two confluences. Both involve throngs of loud nutsos taking to the streets with bullhorns. Both have stepped up visible police presence here by an order of magnitude. Both bring disparate nations together on the same playing field to kick the ball around, struggling toward some outcome.
A little geography: I live in Corso Italia, fairly far north and west of downtown. It’s the most authentic Little Italy I’ve ever seen (and heard – more Italian is spoken on the street than English). Toronto is diverse like other cities only claim they are. For the most part, everybody seems to blend together in the same cauldron here. But there are certainly enclaves and my new ‘hood is one of them. “Corso,” if I’m not wrong, means “street.” “Course.” More and more, though, the main drag (St. Clair West) has become (unofficially) Rua Portuguese. So when Portugal kicked Korea’s ass 7-0 on Monday, the whole area exploded in a riot of colors, car horns and cheap plastic whistles. We’re talking throngs of Portugal supporters, most of them wearing soccer jerseys and shorts. Some folks draped themselves in the national flag like a war heroes in a rock-and-roll opera about war heroes. One young guy yelled, “I love my country!” in a way, I realized, that I have never yelled. It was a flash carnival. Hot dog and ice cream vendors jumped on the opportunity to make what I’m sure was a lot of very quick money.
The noise, and fierce happiness, was one thing. The stamina was another. At some point the whole party seemed to get much more official, by which I mean that short, steel barricades went up at the end of my street: steel barricades governed by weirdly serene cops. Under their helmets, and mustaches, the police were all smiles. They must have drawn lots back at the station and won the “thrilled to be Portuguese” World Cup beat instead of the “fuck you pig” G20 beat. In any case, the celebration lasted – I’m not exaggerating – about thirteen hours. The game had ended that morning. I intersected with the street mob at about 1:30 PM, as I headed out to record a Marketplace commentator who couldn’t make it into the CBC downtown. When I got back two hours later, nothing had waned. At 8:00 PM I went out and took these pictures. At 11:00 PM when I stepped outside for a cigarette, I could still hear the horns in the distance.
Fast forward to today, Friday. I woke up tense. The local CBC morning show sounded like they were preparing for a hurricane. At first they said that anyone who tries to pass through the perimeter fence surrounding downtown would be stopped, ID’d and questioned. “What is your purpose here?” etc. Anyone who failed this road propriety test could be fined, even jailed. Then the announcers dialed it back and said “We’ve been getting reports from people who passed through the fence without having their IDs checked.” A buddy of mine who works downtown wrote to me from her office, saying she’d sailed through the perimeter without incident. “All of this hype,” she said, “is really just hype.”
Then Portugal tied in another match with Brazil: more throngs and honking on St. Clair West as I walked upstream, hunting for a sandwich.
Then my above-mentioned trip to a coffee shop on Queen Street East, uneventful until I got as far as Queen and University. A bank of motorcycle police sat on their bikes on the northwest side of the intersection, chatting among themselves. Two other cops in bulletproof vests directed traffic, occasionally leaning into this or that car window to answer someone’s question. Still other cops milled around here as though something important was about to happen. Eerily, throngs of civilians clustered on every corner of the intersection, equally expectant. It was like a high-stakes soccer game lasting all day with no score. Or rather, it was like a theatrical performance about a high-stakes soccer game written by Samuel Beckett, starring the entire Toronto police force and an unknown cast of thousands.
Now, I never go to Queen Street East. It’s practically the opposite end of town from my apartment. But I’d read about this café and wanted to try it out. And I wasn’t there more than 20 minutes when my friend Maria called inviting me to a comedy show in the same area, emceed by a couple of her pals. The show was in the back of a head shop called Clandestiny. Fitting name – I must have passed it, back and forth, ten times before finally walking inside.
“Is this the ‘Underground Comedy Club?’” I asked a woman standing behind a glass case filled with pipes and bongs.
“Yes,” she said, “It’s ten dollars for a ticket or five if you have a card.”
“A card?” I said.
“A medical marijuana card,” she said.
“So you sell medical marijuana here?” I said, handing her a ten-dollar bill.
“Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” she said, “But there are mercy clubs. We have information on some of them over there.” I thanked her and waited outside for my friends.
The show lasted about two hours. Most everyone in the small audience, and a few of the performers, toked on joints the entire time. The room was filled with a white, choking haze. I realized, at a certain point, that this was the best possible room for a comedian to play. A middle-aged woman in the corner could not stop cackling whether someone was on stage or not. She was the wicked stoned witch of the north and I wanted to stand on her.
Later, sitting by the window at a local bar, we watched a very moderate crowd file down the sidewalk flanked by bicycle police. At first I thought they’d all just emerged from the theater, or something, and happened to strike up a pleasant chat with a bunch of cops. But then I saw one of them carrying a placard. It was beyond a peaceful protest. It was a sleepy protest. Cops, activists, everyone seemed to be enjoying each other’s company. In fact, I couldn’t tell if the police were there to keep the crowd in check or to protect them. “It’s like the lion lying down with the lamb,” I said.
When I got back to my neighborhood, a huge crowd of soccer fans stood outside the sports bar at the end of my street. This time they were not happy. This time, they were angry. It was clear there’d been a street fight. A few guys were still arguing and scrapping here and there, like the aftershocks of an earthquake. Soon, the police arrived. One of them took a statement from a sweaty, shirtless kid. Every other word of that statement was “fuck.” I wonder how verbatim the cops try to be in cases like that.
Saturday, June 26
For no reason, I stayed up until 4 AM and so didn’t rise until past noon today. I wasn’t partying. In fact I haven’t had a drop to drink this month. More on that later. In any case, I realized that I hadn’t yet seen the perimeter fence surrounding the downtown core where the G20 leaders are meeting. So I thought I’d go on a little jaunt. I didn’t get too far though. Due to a police directive, there was so subway service south of Bloor Street – which is about 20 blocks from downtown. In fact, there was no TTC service downtown at all. No street cars, no buses. I got off the train at Bloor and Bedford and started walking south, figuring I stop when I hit the fence, maybe take a photo or two and then head home.
But when I got to College Street I realized things had gotten ugly. The window of a dental center was smashed in, as was the glass of a bus kiosk. A wall of helmeted police officers with bicycles blocked off College at University Ave. Folks in nearby Queen’s Park were making use of the protest zone. You could hear chanting in the distance. “What do we want?! JUSTICE! When do we want it?” etc. But you couldn’t see anything. Queen’s Park was now blocked off by cops as well.
“Yeah,” the other guy said.
“But we’re not allowed in there,” said the first guy.
“Nope,” said the other.
That said, the police made it clear to me that protesters are allowed to exercise their right of free speech anywhere, outside of the security perimeter, as long as they don’t break any laws. But the latter was a bit of a sticking point today. As I strolled away from Queen’s Park I overheard someone say that storefronts all up and down Yonge Street had been smashed in. Sure enough, when I turned down Yonge from College, the protesters had done a number on the next two or three blocks. Not every shop window was broken but many were, and with a tornado’s sense of randomness. Bell Mobility? Broken. Perfume Boutique? Not broken. Urban Brick? Broken. Alleen’s Window and Wall Boutique? Not broken. (Clearly, anarchists prefer boutiques.) Western Union? Broken. But another check cashing service across the street remained unscathed. Zanzibar strip club was hit. As was a Pizza Pizza. A clueless tourist tugged on the door of the pizza place thinking maybe he could still grab a slice. Someone popped his head through the gaping hole in a Tim Horton’s window and said “Is this drive through?” Everybody’s a comedian after a destructive protest.
American Apparel wasn’t simply vandalized. After breaking the windows, somebody saw it fit to splash human shit all over the mannequins. No justice, no peace, plus poop.
I kept walking south down Yonge and then cut over to Bay Street – Toronto’s version of Wall Street. Soon the crowds on the sidewalk thinned out and the police presence bloomed, especially at the actual perimeter. There were very few places where you could get right up to the fence and Royal Bank Plaza was one of them. Gobs of police surrounded Royal Bank of Canada Headquarters (which happens to be where I opened my account a couple of months ago). A glob of them hung out behind the fence and a helmeted flank stood along the outside. I didn’t know this but apparently the Toronto police have their own snack cart that comes round during massive security events and gives snacks to the cops. It’s basically a golf cart filled with bottled water and some granola bars, rolling along the inside of the fence. The woman driving it wore a helmet as well, and a red t-shirt that said Police Logistics on the back. She’d roll a few feet and then stop, saying “Water? Anyone want water?” When a cop on the outside of the perimeter said “yes,” she’d lob a bottle to him over the top of fence. One cop asked for a granola bar too. She tossed it to him. He didn’t catch it. It nearly landed in a pile of horse dung. (The mounted police had been by earlier.)
It was kind of a sweet little scene, actually, and I followed along on the other side of the street, trying to take a picture every time this lady tossed a bottle over the fence. Finally, a cop on the outside of the fence said “Hey buddy! That’s enough pictures! Move along!” I am not proud to say this but I’m easily cowed by the authorities. I put the camera in my pocket and walked away.
When I got to University from Bay a police officer suddenly stopped letting pedestrians through. “North. Go north. We got trouble down there,” he said. But I turned west again on King and finally happened into a huge crowd at Spadina and Queen Street standing toe to toe with a police line. They weren’t protesting per se. Most of them were taking pictures. One guy started doing a little jig up and down the line of cops. Sulfurous smoke with filled the air. I thought it was the remnants of tear gas but it might have been one of the four police cars that were set on fire during all of this mishigass. I kept looking behind me to make sure I had a clear path in case the cops moved on the crowd. But they never did, at least not while I was there.
A block or two south at Spadina and Richmond, another cluster of police in riot gear milled around. Some lay sprawled out on the ground, resting. Empty plastic water bottles and candy wrappers mingled with the horse dung in the street. And then, like toy soldiers come to life in a kids’ movie, they were activated. I don’t remember who said what but all the sprawled out officers were suddenly on their feet, pulling their helmets on over their ninja cowls. A civilian approached one of them to ask what was going on or something and he said “You should go home. Lives are at stake. People are taking pictures. They should be going home.” The cluster fell into a tight quadrant, issued a quick, militaristic, call-and-response chant and then started marching in time. As they clomped away, a woman on a bike called after them. “Are you going to take your bottles with you?!” she yelled “Who’s going to clean all of this up?! Hellooooo?! I live here! Shame!”
I never witnessed any of the hectic parts in progress: the burning cars, the physical clashes between protesters and cops, the arrests. The latest arrest count as I write this is about 150. Walking north again up Bathurst from Queen, you’d never know anything unusual was happening in the city, except for the occasional police car zooming past blaring its sirens. Also, while I was getting cash at a convenience store ATM, some guy came in bragging that he’d punched a police officer in the mouth. I’m not sure how he avoided spending the rest of the year in jail. Other than that people north of the skirmishes were shopping, nibbling on ice cream cones, having beers with chums. No big whoop. I got home around 11:00 PM. Turned on the TV somewhere around midnight. All of the news stations were covering the World Cup.