Thursday, July 1, 2010

Arrested at the G20: David Wachsmuth

This "Guest Post" is from David Wachsmuth, who was arrested at the G20 event in Toronto. I wanted to share it, and didn't know how else, as it is too long for "Facebook".

Arrested at the G20This weekend I was in Toronto demonstrating against the meeting of the G20 that was taking place there. At 2:45 AM on Saturday night I was arrested for a ‘breach of the peace’. The nineteen hours that followed were probably the most infuriating, frustrating, frightening ones of my life. Unfortunately, from what I now know, my experience was very similar to that of many of the over 1000 people who were arrested over the weekend. So what I'm about to describe, despite being intensely personal, probably speaks for many of us, at least in part.In preparation for the huge number of arrests they presumably planned on carrying out, the police had set up an ad hoc detention centre at an old film studio in the east end of Toronto. On Saturday night, I went with one of my best friends—who was a legal observer at the demonstrations—to the detention centre to join a midnight jail solidarity action in support of those who had been picked up earlier in a violent and arbitrary series of beatings and arrests, including of many people not demonstrating at all but simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. After a few hours of peaceful and spirited demonstration (featuring an excellent marching band), the police ordered us to disperse shortly before 2:00 AM. Like everything else this weekend, that was accomplished by surrounding us on all sides in enormous numbers of cops in full riot gear. (I filmed some video of the demonstration and the arrival of the police, which I have uploaded at The 150 of us were outnumbered at least two to one. There was some discussion of staying despite the order to disperse, but that only lasted a minute or so, and shortly everyone was filing between the ranks of riot police in the direction we had been ordered to go. A few minutes after we started leaving, and with no warning whatsoever, riot cops cut through the column of protesters and sealed off the two dozen of us at the back. We asked to be allowed to leave as they had just told us we were instructed to do, but we were instead told that we had had our chance to leave and had failed to take it (an odd idea, since we were walking away when they sealed us in). We were all arrested.The arrest itself took about 40 minutes and was uneventful. The only notable thing was how uncomfortable and difficult it is to hold your hands on your head for that amount of time. Since I was nearly the last person to get handcuffed, I had a lot of time for this to sink in. It is much more uncomfortable having your hands handcuffed behind your back, which is what happened next, but I expected that. The cop who dealt with me took me to the edge of where all the arrests were being made, asked me various questions, searched me, and so on. After a minute or two, I realized there was quite a lot of light on me, and it turned out that I was being processed right in front of a television camera, with a reporter making a report. So I asked to be moved to somewhere a little less obtrusive, but the reporter apparently got the footage she was looking for, since various people (including my mother) subsequently told me that they saw me on the news. This had at least the positive effect of letting my loved ones know what happened to me, since I was not allowed a phone call in the 19 hours during which I was detained. My arrest papers say I was arrested at 2:49 AM.We were slowly loaded into paddy wagons to be taken to the detention centre. After various delays, we were stuffed into little miniature jails inside the vans (in my van there were four cells, each of which held two of us) and off we went. We spent the next 30 minutes or so sitting in these tiny little van-jails. Sitting, because the drive was only a minute or so to the detention centre (we had been protesting outside of it). The rest of the time we were parked in what sounded (we couldn't see anything out the tiny little grated windows) like a big room with a lot of prisoners in it. The highlight of this time was the spontaneous round of mass meowing that came from the prisoners outside; the cages we were in really did feel like animal pens. The lowlight was my increasingly aching left arm from being held awkwardly behind my back in the handcuffs (the plastic cable-tie kind, incidentally, not the real metal deal).We were unloaded from the paddy wagons into a set of gender-segregated cages. In the end I spent time in three separate ones, although they were all the same. They were twenty feet by ten feet, with a four-by-four-foot washroom inside. The washrooms had no door, and no toilet paper (some previous inhabitant had stashed a little in our first cage, but it was quickly used up). There were generally 25 or 26 people in my cage, which comes out to just over seven square feet of space each. For the entire time we were imprisoned, we had to rotate between standing, sitting and lying down, since there wasn’t nearly enough room for all of us to do either of the latter two at the same time. Lying down wasn’t a means to actually sleep; at least in my case the combination of the cold temperatures and bright lights (plus the steady ruckus) ruled that out.I don’t know how to describe the way we were treated in those cages except as blatant and probably illegal harassment and violation of our basic rights and freedoms. The list is fairly long. None of us was ever given the opportunity to make a phone call or speak with a lawyer, despite having told that we had the right to do so upon being arrested. Some people (not including myself) were never even read their rights in the first place or informed of their charges. We were kept in handcuffs throughout the day. In the entire time I was incarcerated we were given two tiny little ‘sandwiches’—a single slice of soy cheese and a bit of margarine on a dinner roll. I believe we were given four small styrofoam cups of water, although it may have been five. One of us was a minor, who was never allowed to contact his parents. Two people had serious medical problems that received pathetically insufficient attention. It took us something like 40 minutes to get a medic when one of them was bleeding from under his fingernails and on the verge of collapsing. The guards alternatively taunted us, threatened us, lied to us, or ignored us. Once, when we had been calling for food for some time, a guard deliberately sat down in front of our cell and ate his lunch.And it was not as if we were a bunch of hardened criminals. Of course, even if we had been, the guards’ behaviour would have been completely inexcusable, but in fact not a single one of us had been arrested for anything that resembled just cause. A little under half of the people in my cages had been at the same demonstration as me. About the same number had been arrested en masse outside the Novatel hotel; they were surrounded on all sides by police while engaged in a peaceful demonstration, and then beaten and taken into custody. The rest of the people I met were random passersby. The most egregious was a TTC employee in full uniform, who was jumped by riot cops as he was arriving at his shift. I later found out that he spent 36 hours in custody with no phone call, lawyer, or charges, which I understand to be unequivocally illegal ( A few people were arrested for the hitherto unknown crime of dressing in black and going to punk rock shows. One of these was in from out of town, and didn’t even know what the G20 was. Two women we talked to cage-to-cage were trampled by cops on horseback (one, who looked like she was in her 60s, got a broken arm), and were being charged with obstruction of police.It would take far too long to describe all the various forms of harassment we were subjected to, but the major theme was fear and uncertainty. The guards took people from one cage and put them in another, keeping them disoriented and preventing them from getting to know their cage-mates, and keeping the rest of us uncertain about whether they had been released or just shuffled. The police told us on a number of occasions that we were about to be released, only to immediately ignore us for hours and hours. We were repeatedly asked to identify ourselves—twice guards took an inventory of everyone’s name and ID number, and tried to do so a third time—but we were also repeatedly asked if so-and-so was in our cage. He almost never was.While I was in the detention centre, I was inclined to chalk these things up to incompetence and confusion on behalf of the police. Almost 900 people were arrested, and the centre was clearly swamped. But after getting out, talking to others who were imprisoned, and thinking more about it, I now find it hard to escape the conclusion that this confusion and uncertainty was deliberate. We were told too many times to count that the guards were working as fast as they could to process us, but that the paperwork was taking a long time. But when they actually released us, the paperwork they had told us we would need to participate in never happened. They just walked us 50 feet to the exit and handed us our possessions. After talking with a number of people who were arrested, it seems clear that many or most people in my situation were held for 18 to 23 hours—just under the legal maximum—and that therefore the endless promises of impending release were deliberate lies.The result of all this was that we were constantly on edge. We were alternately furious, frightened, depressed, manic, and inert. At some points we were all banging on the cage and screaming at the top of our lungs. At other points we brooded silently. One of us went into shock. By the time we were released, the random passersby were sounding just as radical as the protesters. We had been arrested for different reasons, but the appalling treatment we received was the same, and united us in our outrage.Why did this happen? At the largest scale, it seems clear that the police made extended preparations for mass arrests and an intimidation campaign against people exercising their democratic rights to protest. This is a key component of the ‘Miami Model’ of protest disruption and repression that Toronto police followed so strictly ( Earlier in the day, the police had strategically abandoned the streets to a group of 'black bloc' protesters, and left a few empty police cars in the middle of the road. This point should be emphasized: there were thousands of police on the streets throughout the entire weekend, but, somehow, when a small group of protesters decided to break off from the main rally and ‘go rogue’, the police simply melted away. The Sun has now reported that this was an explicit order from police central command: The resulting hour or two of smashed windows and burned cars happened with more or less no police presence whatsoever, despite the fact that it happened on the busiest streets in the downtown. The cops didn’t lose track of the protesters; police helicopters were filming the black bloc from above (and passing on the footage to the media). It would have been the easiest thing in the world to simply surround the one or two hundred black bloc protesters with five or six hundred cops and arrest them, if that had been what the police had wanted to do. Instead, the cops left them completely undisturbed until they had smashed their way from King and Bay all the way up Yonge St. to College and then back to Queen’s Park (passing by police headquarters, even!), where they changed out of their black clothing.I can’t figure out an explanation for this other than that the police deliberately encouraged property destruction as a pretext for subsequent repression. The black bloc obliged, and after the cruisers were set on fire and a bunch of storefront windows were smashed, the cops announced that their tactics would have to change in response to this property destruction, and began a violent and arbitrary series of beatings and arrests, including of many people not demonstrating at all but simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.This was the context for all the arrests that filled the cages of the detention centre, and the harassment and intimidation that police inflicted inside the cages is an exact counterpart to the violence that they inflicted outside. At a smaller scale, many of the individual guards chose to taunt, harass, and abuse us, when they could have chosen not to. I’m sure many thought that we deserved it, and others who didn’t found it easier to just let it happen. The abuse was worse because it was completely arbitrary. Sometimes if we asked for a medic, guards would show up quickly and our ill cage-mate would be taken to a medic. Sometimes guards would show up quickly but do nothing. Sometimes guards would not show up at all. This is the same arbitrariness that terrorized the peaceful protests at Queens Park and elsewhere, where riot cops made ‘dash and grab’ arrests—rushing quickly at a single protester (or passerby) with no warning, beating her, and taking her into custody. It is one of the most disturbing features of all the police violence that occurred over the weekend, because it defies logic and accountability.I’m acutely aware of how lucky I was relative to so many of the other innocent people who were arrested over the weekend. For one, I wasn’t physically abused prior to being taken into custody. But more than that, I’m an educated, well-off, straight white male. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the person in my cage held the longest was an indigenous man. And we now know that queer people were segregated into separate cages; women were threatened with rape and subjected to invasive strip searches (’m now back in New York City, where I live, so I haven’t been able to participate directly in the growing collective efforts to seek justice for all the injustice that occurred in Toronto over the weekend. I wish I could. Being on the business end of police brutality hasn’t changed my politics at all; it’s confirmed them, and made me angrier. At the same time, while I am optimistic that forthcoming investigations and inquiries will condemn a certain amount of the police tactics, I don’t think that would be a ‘loss’ for the cops. It’s probably best to see their strategy as one of kicking the ball forward as far as they can in terms of the tactics they can get away with. Public outrage and judicial action may subsequently kick the ball back a certain distance, but as long as it ends up further than it was before last weekend, that is a police victory of sorts. So in general I am pessimistic about how much good can come directly out of all this. Indirectly, though, I think there is reason to hope that this outrage is bringing more people together, and building awareness of the fundamental injustice which underpins our society, which cannot be confronted until it is exposed, and which is now harder to ignore when over 1000 peaceful protesters and bystanders have been arbitrarily beaten, jailed, or both.

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