Still Free, Barely Holding On

Synopsis:  Not all of us who are fighting in the streets here in Toronto are despondent, but a great many of us are.  I am.  We are experiencing in our neighborhoods what brown people have experienced for centuries around the world at our hands.  It has come home to roost.  I woke this morning from a dream of Kanada, and I was weeping uncontrollably.  Our children are attacked by troops openly in the streets, openly in so-called “free speech zones.”  We chant, “the world is watching,” but as we are beaten back from the neighborhoods in which we have lived for two hundred years by troops who may not even be Canadian, we see football on the TV’s.  Is anyone watching us?  My ten-year-old was almost fucking killed when he was attacked by police in a free-speech zone.  My fourteen-year-old and I were chased for two hours.  Does anyone out there care?  My friend in California recommends TOSCA-style action.  Could we have TOCA here—take over Canada?  I feel nothing but despair.  My friends are being dragged off to left and right, and the world watches football.  I began the weekend juggling for the troops, holding out flowers, but I end hunted and in tears, paranoid and sad.  It feels like the end.  We are still free, but barely holding on.  Why do they hate us so much?

I include no paragraph breaks or aids for the reader.  If you can’t be bothered to read this sort of thing because it’s too long, go back to your pictures.  As an English teacher, I hate typos, but I’m too tired to polish this.  All I can say is, we were there, we’ve seen it all.

Toronto, June 26, Saturday:  We’ve done family protests in Washington and London, amongst other places, and even mingled with some serious ruckus in Buenos Aires.  Never have we experienced anything as terrible as in Toronto today, Saturday, a mile from the G20 perimeter walls.  The Canadians—if these police/soldiers are even Canadian—are far and away the most vicious of any military we’ve ever experienced.  My wife had scolded me for the risks I took yesterday (Friday) when I was on my own without the boys (at 6 o’clock today Sebastian typed in a simple google search: “G20 Toronto” and got a picture of me juggling as the number one entry—more on that some other time, together with my “I’m not a brave man but…” speech involving a red flower and me alone against a double-wall of riot police) and it was Eva-Lynn’s idea that we would take the children to the protests to experience the peaceful strong energy we always get at peace rallies.  Though I have been a drifter much of my life, my people have lived in this neighborhood for two hundred years and been protestants the whole time.  This is our home.  By the time we got to Queen’s Park and walked between my wife’s two offices at the university, everything appeared to be over.  People were walking away.  It was very peaceful, with the sun coming out after a day’s rain.  Like so many places downtown, there was a long line of police in riot gear here.  They were stretched across Queen’s Park Crescent so that no one could go south.  Queen’s Park Crescent is the university part of the big thoroughfare that becomes Avenue to the north and University to the south.  It splits around the Ontario Legislative Building.  My mother used to talk about this place since the Lieutenant Governor had a cottage near my grandmother’s in Georgian Bay and we thought it was funny that they rented the building from the university for a dollar a year.  Pictures of my ancestors back in the early 1800’s hang in a wealthy church (the wealth comes from renting land to the Bay company) started by my great great great grandfather Robert Burns just a few hundred meters from here.  “Fort Knox,” Liam says now reading this, meaning Knox Church.  Despite signed protests from the faculty last week, the university was closed at great expense on Wednesday by a president highly sympathetic to the current government (he has responded by attempting to close down all modern language departments at the university—more on that elsewhere).  I saw my cousin Russ as we walked onto the main south lawn at the front of the building.  He was coming out and he said it was boring and that nothing had happened. We didn’t pay the police much heed.  The line of police was several men thick, and many more were in serried ranks behind.  I don’t watch TV, but maybe you’ve seen the new generation of thick, absolutely impenetrable body armour these men wear.  They sweat profusely and have little sucking tubes with liquid, which makes them seem cuddly and vulnerable, like vast suckling babes.  They were eerily quiet always.  For two weeks before this, police had been moving through the city making lots of military noises with voice commands and whistles to intimidate protestants before they even thought of protesting.  But during everything I am about to relate, these police remained absolutely silent.  Very spooky.  There were just a few hundred protesters—far fewer than I’d been with yesterday.  I was holding little Liam’s right hand and Eva-Lynn was holding his left.  He’d been reluctant to come, and we were feeling pleased that he got to see something like this.  People didn’t seem to be paying any particular attention to the police, though at one point there was a short spontaneous round of rhythmic clapping from our side.  Just another good-vibe time on the peace lines like in any of the countries in which we’ve had long-term residence—Argentina, the U.S., England.  Now Canada, we figured.  A skinny little man in front of us had a small sign that said “Free Hugs.”  I asked Eva-Lynn if it would be okay if I went over and gave the man a hug.  What happened in the next three seconds was like something out of a horror movie.  I dropped Liam’s hand and took one step toward the free-hug man.  There was a confused pounding sound like elephants running, and it took me a moment to figure out where it was coming from.  I caught a quick glimpse of the hug man being struck and dragged, then in the next micro-second realized that the police had exploded at us without warning.  Not the whole line, but a stout group of police came at full speed towards us.  My wife thinks fifty or a hundred but I think it was less.  The point is that the posse was several men thick and thus the men behind couldn’t have possibly known there was a small ten-year-old child in front of them, though the police in front certainly did.  Once in motion, the men in back can’t alter direction based on sight lines.  Luckily Liam is fast, and we just made it—I mean, just made it without being run over.  With their huge exoskeletons, the men couldn’t run far.  They paused for a moment, and then came at us again.  But this time a cluster of cavalry broke in from our left.  Have you ever been hunted by horsemen?  Pretty primal, I’ll tell you.  There are women on the beasts, too, like trussed valkyries.  The policemen in the front had clearly seen that they were attacking a small child and they came on at full speed anyway without the slightest warning.  I just couldn’t get this out of my head.  They had looked right at my little boy and attacked him.  Seconds later a man went down under a horse and I thought he was killed but he came up staggering on his feet—I know for sure he will have two paw prints on his back because I saw the horse double-touch him.  I think the horses were not as vicious as their masters and this one was just trying to get off the man while the other riders shoved the poor beast from behind.  The horse probably saved this guy’s life.  Many people went down with injuries, but many of the people who were struck kept running and were not dragged off.  The injuries tended to be blunt compression type from shields and truncheons, not open bloody wounds, which I guess would be bad publicity.  Lots of people were hit.  We got Liam out to safety north through the campus but he is in serious shock.  He was very nearly trampled and possibly killed by the police having lulled us into complacency.  In London or in Washington, the police will form lines to protect certain areas.  You can go up and talk to them.  Some will talk, some will ignore you.  But we’ve never been attacked as a family in any country without warning before.  My wife left to get Liam back to safety, and then—incredibly—agreed to let me stay with Sebastian, our firstborn.  Life had changed in an instant.  New rules, a new era.  Sebastian and I remained absolutely focused from this point on.  Now that we understood the pattern—police attack without warning, we were able to stay and protest for our right to stay peacefully in our neighborhood as our people have for two centuries.  Until July I am still a professor at the university.  This is surely my land, perhaps less surely my campus, but these are my people and this is my family.  Who are these outside agitators coming into our space?  Do we even know if these are Canadian troops?  Are they police or troops?  They might be from any of the G20 countries.  Despite the fact that we were all unarmed and each police officer—if that’s what they are—had thousands of dollars in protective padding presumably paid for by the exceptionally onerous Canadian taxes we are forced to pay, they had trouble getting us because they were afraid to leave their groups.  Even with my bad knee, I could outrun the foot posses, and most of us could dodge the cavalry behind trees and shrubs because the dark riders were afraid to leave their group.  We had medical people with us who were tending the wounded, but no doctors. One of my students, not from the university but from a private high school called The Dragon Academy, came up in a kerchief holding eggs and said hi. I told him to remind me which class I’d taught him at the school.  “Law,” he said.  We both grinned at the irony and bolted for cover.  We fell gradually back past the legislative building.  Sebastian and I penguined to the center of the group while we learned the strategy.  Every three or four minutes a foot posse would attack from the front and the cavalry would flank us.  They got us back past the bridge after an hour.  In the first run I’d bolted with Liam.  But I gradually figured out how dangerous it was to everyone else if you ran, and I was able to help the more experienced people calm and slow the faster runners so we weren’t all killed in a stampede.  I kept calling, “they can’t run as fast as us.  Just fall back at a medium pace.”  But the strategy was complex, because you had to do something different with the dark riders.  I suspect they weren’t using tear gas because of the horses, which were making runs through the middle of our group.  Word came back that they were using some kind of bean bullet, and there were popping noises, but I didn’t see this.   With my fourteen-year-old kid and fifty-year-old right knee, I kept back from the front lines.  Some of our people had worse legs than me, and it was perilous for such folk.  Some people were saying that this was supposed to have been a thing called a “free speech zone,” but we all laughed at that.  In Queen’s Park the police got around and came running at us from the east across the park near the London Plane Tree under which I’ve held many a class to discuss Plato and Socrates.  I think the police hadn’t got their horses around to that side quick enough, or maybe the horses were jittery in amongst the trees, because it was mostly foot soldiers now doing their longest run.  Bet that made them heat up in those suits.  We tried to sprint up to Harbord but saw we weren’t going to make it.  Sebastian and I chickened out to the left down some arches of the university.  At that point, a lot of people were following me.  I felt bad leading so many into retreat, but after we went west through the long tunnel of arches in back campus we turned right, to the north, and came out again on Harbord.  The bravest of us must have held them off at that critical point where Harbord meets the park.  I wonder how many we lost at that pass, which will henceforth be a sacred space for me.  Feeling bad that I’d led a retreat, I helped slow us down and a few of us got the rest who were fleeing toward Robarts Library (not to mention the pictures of my ancestors at Spadina and Harbord!) and we turned back.  This bunched us up protectively on Harbord, then when we were all together we headed north yelling to each other to get to safety on Bloor.  We went up Devonshire near the Munk Centre, past the meteorological building where during the war my mother did work to help England fight the Nazis (Munk people have recently taken it over and this week hastily taken down their signs about “continuing the global conversation”—Munk is a famous polluter and supporter of the university) and we spilled onto Bloor.  Hundreds of police piled up from the south, but once we got to Bloor and the plain light of the setting sun and people could see police attacking unarmed citizens, the police slunk off and hid.  I never saw them again.  They’re all too afraid to show themselves in small groups, and between here and Dundas Square not a single one showed his face, though for a fortnight we’ve seen nothing but them roving the city in gangs.  We were nice to all the individual security guards keeping watch over their little buildings all the way to Yonge.  With just sidearms and sticks, they seemed by this point sort of cute and picturesque.  We bantered with them as we walked (or limped, in my case).  After brief uncertainty about whether we’d take over Yonge and Bloor and make our last stand there, we moved south down Yonge, following a trail of smashed windows from much earlier in the day (not smashed by our group—though I don’t judge the people who did it; there was a method to their madness I’ll comment on elsewhere).  I wanted to hold up at Dundas Square, but the front of the group had moved on.  I could no longer walk, and I had to get my fourteen-year-old home, or maybe he had to get me home.  Believe me, he will never be the same.

Even if you’re a law-and-order person who believes that safety is more important than freedom and that every protestant should be locked up, I want to stress that we were in a place far from where we thought there would be any problems, precisely because my wife wanted to make sure our children were in a safe place.  We had not the slightest warning that a group of armed men would attack our ten-year-old.  How can you continue to believe in the government when this can happen?

David Ker Thomson filed from Toronto.