The G20 Protests, Ottawa 16 November 2001
Where to start? A weekend of demonstrations, deep discussions, inspiring presentations, emotional trauma, spirituality and materialism, simplistic jingo and thoughtful complexity - all roll together in a jumble of thoughts.
Ottawa, Friday November 16th, 2001. Watching the snake marchers strategically block traffic downtown. I'm jarred by the sound of breaking glass at McDonald's and the "defacing" of the Bank of Canada with spray paint instead of chalk. The message resonating, but the methodology troubling: "It has to start somewhere. It has to start sometime. What better place than here? What better time than NOW?"
Later, a small group of snake marchers joins the deliberately separate, non-confrontational peace march from the University at the Human Rights Monument. Suddenly the police, in their Darth Vader riot gear, move in to arrest a specific individual and disable him with a concussion grenade on the edge of the rally. Just as the Muslim students are beginning to lead a prayer for peace. Near panic ensues but calm prevails. The police cordon off the rally, allowing only an exit south on Elgin - their choice of freedom for our movement. The peaceful rally for peace ends abruptly, many wondering why the police, knowing who they were after, didn't arrest him quietly up the side street he used to join the rally. Stupidity or deliberate intimidation? Either way, not an example to build trust or confidence in Ottawa's "finest".
Friday night - a teach-in at St. Matthews. Speaker after speaker, from Nicaragua, the Philippines, Nigeria, the USA and Canada, tell us, first, why the IMF and World Bank, holding their meetings at the Conference Centre, have for decades failed, not only the poor of the Two Thirds World in the South, but also the unemployed, homeless and diminishing middle class of the industrialized north.
They go on in a second wave, to inspire us with the alternatives which show that "a better world is possible". Organic agriculture is more efficient than industrial agriculture. Local industry, saves energy on transport and generates more jobs. Local development puts industry, services and government closer to the scrutiny of and responsive to the needs of the whole population and doesn't mean autarchy. It's more democratic than the concentration of power and wealth we experience under the IMF and WTO.
"Naive" shouts a heckler. No, reply the speakers - hopeful and optimistic about the resilience of diverse peoples and cultures, and our ability in our cultures and our economies to mimic the ecological safeguards of biodiversity. There are no simple answers - but there are answers, lots of them.
Saturday: 9am LeBreton Flats.
Inspired by the speakers, I set off with thousands in a small group of friends under the banner of First United Church of Ottawa: "Proclaiming a radical, passionate, living vision of hope".
We're stopped immediately by a phalanx of Darth Vaders, obstructing, but not blocking our path. Their intent, to weed out those wearing black or appearing to carry "weapons". They arrest a young man, and then the master of ceremonies, for obstructing police by hugging him. She's bruised and held for 18 hours before being released without charge on a downtown street at 4am; full of tales of mistreatment and intimidation of fellow detainees - another even more passionate peaceful protester.
Caught by the crowd, I find myself face to face, inches from a police-soldier bristling with weapons and hiding behind a plexiglas mask. I look him (or her?) in the eye and tell him (her?) that I will not be intimidated. I am intimidated, but it's very empowering to stare into those almost invisible eyes and say NO. Later, I wonder if they felt intimidated too. What tales were they told about raving church congregations, wild grannies and angry youth wearing masks? At least one officer couldn't distinguish between peaceful protest and angry lashing out at a cruel system, as he beat a CBC Radio journalist with media credentials, saying "I know who you are!".
We're stopped again by a wall of police blocking Laurier, the route agreed between police and organizers weeks ago. Police squads move in, ready to nab more face-masked youth. Somehow reason prevails, the police encirclement breaks and we continue on to the lawn of the Supreme Court to listen to more speeches of denunciation and exhortations of alternatives.
It's cold and the march is over for many. Later, others march back up Wellington past Parliament Hill and divide into "green/safe" and "red/confrontational" streams at the War Memorial. Hundreds approach police lines in front of the Conference Centre. Hundreds more turn down Elgin in a peaceful march to the Byward Market. Alone now, I find a few friends and stay at the corner - on the dividing line - curious, wanting to "witness" against confrontation, certain in my non-violence against people, less convinced that small symbolic or strategic gestures of defiance aren't necessary.
Dark creeps in and demonstrators disperse. In front of the Arts Centre, a heavily armed tactical squad moves into the street to collect 1 x 1 placard sticks long abandoned by the earlier crowds. They "retreat" to the police line on Queen Street, covering their comrade carrying a bundle of sticks, guns trained on the few remaining protesters in the rapidly thinning crowd. Ten days later, I see these same little placard sticks presented to the Ottawa Police Services Board as "captured weapons".
I remark casually to a well dressed sixtyish woman beside me: "I wonder who they thought was going to defend those sticks?" She's not there to protest, just found herself watching during an afternoon of downtown shopping. She's appalled at the police presence. We chat and watch as a police squad runs out from the court house below us and takes position across Elgin Street. Oh dear she says, I want to go home that way. She's nervous yet angry. I walk her down the hill and through the police line, which seems there only to stop vehicle traffic on Elgin. Will she come out and march for the first time in her life next time, like many of my friends at First United Church? Who knows?
Sunday morning: First United Church.
I volunteer to clean up the Sunday School room at 8am as paramedics billeted over the weekend leave for the day. Their harassment by police-soldiers who are picking up pizza across the street is recounted. The comraderie shared with church volunteers is evident by the hugs as they leave.
Church dorm and soup kitchen cleaned, we go over to the Courthouse on Elgin to support those being arraigned that morning - before attending the church service at 11am. More tales of improper and even illegal detention. What will happen if Bill C-36 is passed unchanged? Will questioning the IMF and WTO become criminal? Young people now carry signs: "Is Wearing Black a Crime?" They think so after this weekend.
I'm interviewed for the third time. I can't pull together a short sound bite out of my ramblings about the complexities and emotions of what I've seen. Or what years of experience in Latin America and the Caribbean tell me will be needed to bring about change. I don't hear myself on the radio on Monday.
I know now however, that I don't need a public voice to feel empowered. The world knows things are wrong. The crowds in the street and the voices of the thoughtful in the backrooms are growing daily. A better world is possible - and someday we will have it. Or at least my grandchildren will!