Feature

The Question Remains

Lost amid the violence and sensationalism of this year’s G20 summit in Toronto was an issue few wanted to confront: what if the black bloc protesters had a point?

Illustration by Jennifer Daniel

In December 2009, I moved back to Toronto after two years away. So I was here in June as the security fences went up, the protesters assembled in Allan Gardens, and the caretakers of the planet’s twenty most “systemically important” economies hunkered down in their harbourfront fortress. Though I situate myself ideologically on the socialist left, my relationship with street-level protest is pretty capricious. I’d like to see the G20 reconsider its mandate, or at least be held accountable for its policies, yet I remain dubious that marching down the streets wagging Magic Markered placards is the best way to wield political influence. But with the big show in my backyard, I felt compelled to get involved, if only as a witness.

In the end, I meandered around the fringes of protests, retreating every few hours to bars showing World Cup soccer; at home, I guiltily—and, as things degenerated, obsessively—followed the events through various mainstream and alternative media. While surveillance helicopters made regular, thrumming loops over my house, what was transpiring on the city’s streets (and in its parks and private residences) remained distant. On Saturday evening, as riot police stormed the crowd at Queen’s Park, a friend and I stood by, goggle-eyed and powerless, watching people be tackled and handcuffed and hauled into unmarked minivans.

That dismayed, helpless voyeurism captured how I’ve been feeling lately about the world. As someone who enjoys a life of relative comfort and privilege, I benefit directly from many of the policies endorsed at summits like the G20. This inspires much guilt and a need to act, or at least atone, which in turn results in the sensation that I’m floundering against an immensity of problems, not to mention my own complicity in those problems. I believe in that old axiom “Think globally, act locally,” but my local actions feel limited and often hypocritical: cycling, for example, engenders environmental righteousness, but the mining practices that provide the aluminum for my bike have destroyed entire ecosystems—and human lives—in bauxite-rich places like Orissa, India.

This narrative seems to me inescapably violent, and I feel sickened, as an avowed pacifist, at my helplessness not only to oppose it, but to avoid supporting it. And despite my peacenik leanings, I was a willing member of the huge audience that couldn’t look away from the violence-dominated G20 coverage. That weekend, Toronto’s CP24 news station claimed a record 4.6 million viewers, while CTV.ca increased its readership by 169 percent. Sites like therealG8G20.com quickly popped up as an antidote to the paucity of attention to the “real issues.” But even so, it was the flaming cruiser, not the peaceful rally for indigenous rights, that became emblematic of the weekend’s events.

Months later, Toronto bears no evidence of smashed windows along Queen Street, nor any trace of the rubber bullets fired on protesters outside the makeshift detention centre on Eastern Avenue. Still, although I want, rationally, to focus on the “real issues,” the images of violence are what linger for me. Toronto feels like a house in which someone has died under mysterious circumstances: something sinister happened here, and, despite the veneer of order, it still lurks—creepily, spectrally persistent. And while the powers that be and the people who oppose them seek justice in trials and public inquiries, I’m left feeling confused; all I have are questions.

If you believe the reports on Toronto’s G20 weekend, everything about it was “unprecedented”: the billion-plus dollars spent on security, the number of arrests, the rampaging mobs, the use of tear gas on city streets. But for a contingent among the thousands who converged for this round of G20 mobilizations, those specifics, which shocked the rest of us, weren’t at all anomalous. Direct-action, radical groups like the Convergence des luttes anticapitalistes (CLAC) viewed those flaming cruisers and baton-swinging cops as symptomatic of the chronic aggression, devastation, and injustice perpetrated by the global elite. They readily engage it, often with oppositional force. On June 27, CLAC members Robyn Maynard and Jaggi Singh wrote:

We live in a world which is defined by, and maintained by violence, a violence which self-interested G8/G20 leaders both perpetuate and deny. This violence is lived daily by those in the Global South. It is lived by indigenous people in “Canada” and worldwide, who face continued destruction of their cultures and environments by mining companies, mega-dams, and other forces of on-going colonization… In the face of this extreme social violence that is day-to-day reality, there can be no tears shed for the cars and windows broken by those who have had enough with the forces profiting from their exploitation.

I have always, from afar, admired Singh’s dedication to the anti-globalization movement. To many Canadians, the Montreal community organizer is best known for his run-ins with law enforcement. He was detained at the 1997 APEC summit in Vancouver (an official report on RCMP conduct later described the charges as “spurious” and “inappropriate”), and since then has been deported from Israel for working with Palestinian activists in the West Bank; arrested in 2001 for masterminding a catapult designed to launch teddy bears over the security fence at the Quebec City Summit of the Americas (the charges were later dropped); and jailed numerous times in Montreal after participating in everything from anti-war demonstrations to an International Women’s Day march.

Considering this precedent, it was unsurprising that, only days after joining fellow protesters at the Toronto G20 weekend, Singh once again found himself facing a warrant for his arrest. Charged as one of the alleged ringleaders of the black bloc protest, he turned himself in to Toronto police on July 6. Six days later, he was freed on $10,000 bail, under strict orders “not to organize, participate in or attend Any Public Demonstration.” He’d had similar bail conditions overturned in the past, but a reprieve seemed unlikely this time. After witnessing such a show of legislative and martial force in Toronto, many anti-globalization activists believe their activities are being increasingly criminalized.

Frustrated by the surfeit of public voices condemning the weekend’s violence rather than trying to interpret or understand it, I became interested in speaking with Singh. I was encouraged by his attempts to contextualize the Toronto G20, and I envied how sure of his beliefs he seemed. Here was someone infinitely more aware of and engaged by the same issues as I was, and yet just as compelled to act as I was inclined to wallow.

My sister Anna is a coordinator at the McGill branch of the Quebec Public Interest Research Group; Singh is her Concordia counterpart, and she put us in touch. Even talking to me was risky for him. Fellow accused G20 anarchist Alex Hundert received a warning from the OPP after conducting media interviews, and he was eventually rearrested after a public speaking engagement on September 17. But Singh, who called the possible suppression of his right to talk to journalists “outrageous,” was happy to talk. Since he isn’t allowed to use a cellphone, most of our conversations happened via Gmail’s chat function. (Even in simple communication, it seemed impossible to escape corporate hegemony!)

I asked him first about the burning cop cars and smashed windows. Though he explicitly supports “respect for a diversity of [protest] tactics,” Singh maintained that property destruction is not his “personal tactical choice”; nor is he “a member of, or spokesperson for, the black bloc.” Even so, during the protest he spoke with some bystanders perplexed by the masked mob, explaining to them that people were angry at the corporate symbols of power. “You don’t have to agree with the tactics,” he told them, “but at least have an open mind.”

Visibility, though, is inherent to the spectacle of protest, and Singh didn’t want the tactics deployed on one weekend to obscure his ongoing, less publicly prominent work. “I borrowed this from [Mohawk activist] Shawn Brant: ‘The action is in the organizing.’ It’s not about the two or three days of public protests, but rather the process that gets you there, and also the vision of what you see beyond.” Before being taken into custody, Singh wrote, “We are not just protesters. We are people who are rooted in day-to-day organizing, [and] we have accountability to that day-to-day organizing.” He described his work to me not as activism, but as constantly “engaging a ‘terrain of struggle’: the process of organizing to oppose and confront oppression and exploitation in its varying forms.”

In addition to his day job at QPIRG and his work with CLAC, Singh organizes with the groups No One Is Illegal and Solidarity Across Borders, both of which advocate for migrant rights and against racism. “My broader goals are usually the same: popular education work, raising awareness about basic issues to a broader public, and challenging the comfort zones of people in power and privilege. This means workshops, presentations, and engaging media—both mainstream and independent.” Leading up to the Toronto summit, he organized a workshop with a Montreal housing rights group, in which they detailed the links between the G20, privatization, and cutbacks, and the subsequent lack of affordable housing for the poor. “In the context of the economic crisis,” he explained, “we stressed how the G20 was ‘saving capitalism,’ but undertaking a massive wealth transfer to the very people and organizations responsible for the crisis.”

Singh situates himself at one extreme of four types: opportunists, realists, idealists, and radicals. “Opportunists are ready to make any sort of compromise to increase their personal power and wealth. Realists accept the world as it is, and are willing to accept many of the compromises of opportunists. The default category is idealist—someone who, in simple terms, wants the world to be a better place. Radicals pose the deeper questions and act on making change.” With respect to the G20, he said, “In Toronto, with over 1,000 arrests, mostly arbitrary, many idealists were swept up in the police repression, or observed it close at hand. This was meant to scare those idealists into pulling away from radical politics. Some folks are definitely traumatized and scared. But many, definitely, have become radicalized, too.”

I consider myself an idealist with inclinations, however ineffectual, toward radicalism. (Ideally, I’d fit into some nebulous category between the two; I look lousy in a bandana.) But in Singh’s estimation, I’m part of a majority who remain deluded “that we can use parliamentary democracy to make fundamental change.” He and fellow anarchist radicals dismiss our judicial, electoral, and governmental systems as so inherently flawed, so predicated on maintaining divisions and inequality between people, that, in his words, “the fundamental change for justice and dignity is not possible within the mainstream political apparatus. Engaging that apparatus reinforces it. That apparatus is part of the problem.”

The more non-violent, anti-authoritarian principles of anarchy have always appealed to me; Tolstoy, for one, developed a philosophy of nonresistance that was in profound harmony with the anarchist tradition. And elements of anarchism are making their way into the urban mainstream: the trends toward local, independent farming and neighbourhood gardens suggest that many people would be happy to rely less on corporate and governmental institutions, and more on their immediate communities. (Like my sanctimonious cycling, though, these movements are subject to certain ironies. As Singh points out, “The places responsible for the worst environmental abuses and injustices around the world, the metropolitan West, are also the places where we live the most ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ lifestyles.”)

I suggested to Singh that anarchism might seem, to some, to propose easy answers; taken superficially, without critical thought, it could perpetuate radicalism without idealism. And perhaps, in the case of the black bloc, radicalism might be attractive to people who, for whatever reason, including legitimate personal anger, welcome any excuse to smash stuff.

Singh responded that ideals are absolutely central to his work: “There’s a stereotype of ‘radicals’ as unnuanced, or absolutist. The kind of politics I’m asserting, individually and collectively within the groups I organize with, aren’t absolutist in that sense; they need to be grounded in principles, and it’s a problem if we don’t assert collective principles of what we’re for and against. I’m guided by the Zapatista phrase ‘Caminando, nos preguntamos ’—‘Walking, we ask questions.’ We’re all continually discussing and debating effective struggle, effective ways of making change, and our core principles. We don’t have fixed answers, but in struggle, in walking, we engage in a process to answer them.”

Conceptually, the idea that anarchism, or at least radicalism, requires an evolving, nuanced ideology is encouraging, especially considering the rigidity of most mainstream political parties. Still, little about what happened over the June 26 weekend suggested this to be the case for all radicals, or made radical politics appealing to me. The violence was disorienting, even alienating.

Singh, who also attended peaceful protests over the weekend, doesn’t believe the way things were reported reflects the totality of what happened. But he does believe it has created the potential for dialogue: “At the very least, you might be curious about the rage expressed by so-called angry youth. When you realize that many of those angry youth come from families and backgrounds similar to yours, you might get really, really curious as to why.”

Perhaps the sensational imagery will startle idealists—and even realists—into pursuing answers for themselves. “G20 Toronto was an initial step in breaking down some middle-class myths about what street-level opposition would look like,” Singh told me. As a member of that middle class, I asked him to explain what those myths might be. “I mean the idea that if we ask nicely we’ll have fundamental change. I think the violence in Toronto offended a certain middle-class sensibility.” (In a CBC online poll, 68 percent of readers disagreed with police actions at the protests, which suggests that middle-class sensibilities were offended by violence from both sides of the line.)

But does offending people rally support? I asked Singh if he feels invested in the goal of swaying popular opinion; his unequivocal answer surprised me: “Yes, critical mass! Absolutely.” He hopes we will reach a point at which “the radicalism of the past becomes mainstream in the future,” and cited historical examples of everything from the civil rights movement to child-centred learning, which, prior to popular acceptance, were all considered radical—even anarchic. For the social aims of anti-globalization to achieve critical mass, in my estimation (and, if his popular education initiatives are any indication, I think Singh would agree), there would need to be many more conversations. The media needs to facilitate, rather than obscure, those conversations.

Violence represents the annihilation of language: it occurs when words fail, when people refute dialogue or are themselves silenced. But when violence has taken place, all of us—participants and observers—have the potential to redeem the situation with, by, and through language. Unfortunately, the dominant liberal-conservative discourse around the G20 has largely been one of condemnation, which closes down conversation. This is natural in a society usually sheltered from violence: our reflexive response is that if violent acts occur, they are abnormal and abhorrent, and should be punished. So we seek punitive justice: justice for vandalism in the courts; justice for disproportionate force in public inquiries or parliamentary debate. What this risks suggesting, however, is that once the offenders have been punished our society returns to peaceful normalcy.

Simply to isolate and punish the violence of the G20 protests in this way is to deny the unpunished violence done in our name to the natural environment, to the poor, to people affected by our military and corporate excursions all over the world. This violence is often conducted (or at least assented to) by institutions and systems that we invest with authority out of a democratic ideal, but that too often operate without accountability and respect for us, the citizens who have afforded them power, and whom their actions supposedly represent.

“To remove or distance ourselves from society’s fundamental injustices,” Singh said, “is to be complicit with those injustices.” The idea reminded me of a question I consider often, courtesy of the Israeli writer David Grossman: “Am I myself, consciously or unconsciously, actively or passively, through indifference or with mute acceptance, collaborating at this very moment with some process that is destined to wreak havoc on another human being, or on another group of people? ”

There are myriad ways we can respond if our answer to Grossman’s question is yes. There is the anarchist alternative of extricating ourselves from corporate and state institutions, and pursuing our principles on our own. Conversely, if we haven’t given up hope for true, egalitarian democracy, we can follow more traditional legal and political paths to effecting change. While Jaggi Singh and I disagree on many things, we both want a better world, a world without injustice, a world of self-determination and mutual respect, a world of peace. My pursuit of that world has always been tempered with skepticism; rather than let that paralyze me, though, I like the idea of incorporating doubt and inquiry into my own struggle. I want to embrace the Zapatista spirit: walking, I will ask questions—of myself, of the culture, of everyone around me—and try to maintain the conscientious momentum so crucial, I think, to achieving the better world many of us would like to see.

This appeared in the December 2010 issue.

Pasha Malla compiled the 2015 found-poem collection Erratic Passion with Jeff Parker.