BLOG: My G20 Saturday – Protests, Violence, and chasing Black Bloc riot protesters. A very surreal day shooting the streets of Toronto
July 2, 2010 by Richard Budman · 1 Comment
I purposely waited a few days before I could share my thoughts on what I saw and experienced on Saturday, June 26, 2010. A day I believe will now live in infamy in the history of Toronto.
Anybody who was in downtown Toronto that day of G20 demonstrations – some which turned violent – has their own stories to tell. With the mass arrests and controversial detention centre, I have read stories, some by friends who were arrested, that have quite frankly horrified me. Stories that will have us rightfully discussing issues of constitutional and police powers in the time to come.
But my story is really not that dramatic or painful. And while I have certain opinions of holding an event like a G20 Summit in a peaceful major metropolitan area like Toronto (the opinion being it’s about the stupidest fucking thing our elected officials could have done.) The only real story I could tell of Saturday – is my own.
So here goes…
In what will forever be a decision that haunts me for some time to come. Due to an unrelated work commitment, I didn’t manage to get onto the downtown streets till just before 3 pm on Saturday – the day widely expected for the largest protester turnout and possible trouble.
Ultimately, in the few hours I roamed downtown Toronto streets I found a wealth of dramatic situations and shots I’m very happy with. But my late start to the day, and my assumption the protest starting that day at Queen’s Park wouldn’t march out into the streets before 3 pm proved my undoing in really capturing what I was after. (The first protesters, including the “Black Bloc” looking ones, marched out of Queen’s Park around 1:45 pm.)
And what I was after was violent protesters smashing and burning stuff.
Why did the late start kill me? Because some of the key photos I hoped to capture was of anarchists employing so-called destructive “black-bloc” techniques on our city streets. (EDITORS NOTE: It’s not like I wanted this to happen. But I’m a photographer, and us such, we look for the most dramatic situations to shoot. And quite frankly, the thought of black-clad individuals smashing store windows and torching cars makes for some pretty dramatic stuff.)
I’d done my research. On Friday, I first spotted the Black Bloc protesters in the march that was to head from Allan Gardens. In the end, the black-clad protesters didn’t commit any violent acts that day – but ominous warning signs of what was to come were clear to me. I am actually convinced now, watching the Black Bloc protesters actions on Friday, including constant text messaging along the protest route – this was their surveillance and planning for what they eventually pulled off on Saturday.
So I discussed some strategy with some photographer friends and we felt if we just kept an eye on the “Black Bloc” looking protesters, and when they made their break from the much larger protester pack – the key would be to follow along on their hell bent path of destruction. Of course, we know today that’s exactly what happened and a core group of media and photographers were mobile enough, UNLIKE police, to follow the violent protesters when they broke away. The Toronto Star team of photographers really excelled here and got some of the best shots of the criminals violent rampage down Yonge St.
For me, being late the party really hurt.
By the time I caught up to the tail end of the protest at Queen & University just before 3 pm, I could quickly see the Black Bloc looking protesters had already broken off the pack and my twitter stream was lighting up with reports of the first early episodes of their destruction.
So I was now playing catch up.
I changed my goal to try and get to the King & Bay st. area. I was hearing reports of anarchists causing havoc in Toronto’s financial district and there was a large contingent of protesters there. So I headed south on Bay. As I approached Queen street, I could quickly see huge amounts of police in tactical gear seemingly poised for a riot were blocking all ways south. I made the decision to head west on Queen hoping soon for a crack in the rigid police lines so I could somehow get south to King street.
It didn’t take long before I realized I was walking along at least one of the anarchists paths of destruction. I could see the TD Bank and Starbucks at Queen & Bay St. had been assaulted with broken windows and the building tagged with slogans as, “Fuck Corporate Rule.”
I continued my journey west along Queen street hoping to find any way south. Police were blocking every intersection, every side street. I was again hearing stories of large groups of protesters trying to make it to the security fence, and now knowing police cars were set on fire at King & Bay streets – I was doing just about anything to penetrate the wall of police preventing anyone of the thousands of people on Queen street from getting south.
So I continued my personal march west.
As I approached Queen & Spadina I could see a large mob of people surrounding two police cars. These police cars had been vandalized – windows smashed and tagged with paint. I hung in the area for a few minutes snapping pictures. But my instincts were still telling me to try and find a way through the Queen street police block and get south. So I continued west along Queen.
About 2-3 blocks west of Spadina I finally spotted a clear route through an alley looking south. I got to Richmond street and started to head back east towards King & Bay where I knew a large group of protesters was still being held up. The first thing that hit me after I managed to get south of the massive police line was how empty the streets were.
Almost deserted. Except for groups of police officers stationed at almost every corner.
It took just a few minutes walking east that I ran into a large group of police that stopped me asking where I was going. I explained that I was “media” and was just photographing the G20 demonstrations. The police asked to search my backpack. While I was surrounded by about 6 police, they were polite and kept explaining their wish to search me was, “for my own protection.”
Inside my backpack, the police quickly stumbled upon my bike helmet, air filter masks, goggles, and rubber gloves (I was carrying items minimally necessary to protect myself in case of tear gas and falling projectiles – the two most common hazards on the front lines of shooting G20 protests.)
The policewoman searching me quickly motioned over for a commanding officer to come over and inspect these items. I explained again I was a news photographer, affiliated with NO protest groups, and was carrying these items for my own safety and protection. Protection I tried to explain from tactical responses the police themselves might deploy on protest crowds.
After showing a number of press credentials (not G20 media credentials – which I was not officially accredited for) but old TIFF, Canadian Music Week, Radio City Music Hall, CTV passes I always carry, I seemed to convince the surrounding police officers I was going to cause no trouble with these items and they told me to be careful and allowed me to continue east.
It wasn’t about a minute later I could see another gaggle of police officers standing further east on Richmond street and feeling I would be going through the whole search and question thing again, I decided to head further south and east through a series of interconnected alleys I knew populated the area.
Once on King street and heading east hoping to get to Bay where the protesters were being held up, I immediately was overtaken again by how deserted the city streets south of Queen were.
I will always come back to one word to describe my jouney east on King street that day – surreal. It really did feel like it was just me walking along and every so often you would run into groups of police (by now, in riot gear) huddled on the corners.
After getting through a few more check-points I finally arrived at what seemed like a thousand or more people held up at King and Bay. Here was some of the first dramatic stand-off shots between protesters and “Darth Vader” clad police I was hoping to shoot, so after a few minutes I worked my way to the front of the blockade.
After capturing some nice stuff being front-of-the-line I realized I was close enough that I was hearing the police radios. When I heard something to the effect of; the police have spotted protesters in the crowd going into their backpacks and possibly arming themselves with some sort of projectiles – and the police were now being advised to ensure they have full tactical gear on, including tear-gas masks, and be on full alert – I have to admit for the first time of being a little nervous. All of sudden, the police were masking up and in-coming were many other officers holding guns from which I could only suspect shot gas or rubber bullets.
And I was directly in front of all of this with easily a hundred deep of protesters squeezed tightly behind me (and I don’t want to forget to add the thought; “Holy fuck, I can’t believe this is Toronto!” also went through my mind a few times that day.)
I remember in my preparation of shooting G20 protests a good piece of advice I was hearing from much more experienced photographers was to “know your exit routes” in case the shit hits the fan. The thing is, unless the police was going to let me through their massive line, I had no escape routes if trouble started. When I heard another call over the radio warning of possible falling projectiles – I put on my helmet and goggles for the first time, took a deep breath and just kept shooting.
Thankfully, nothing violent occurred on the front lines of King & Bay in the time I was there. And a short time later, something did occur that caused the hundreds of us holed up at King street to start running north on Bay to where were met by a wall of riot police at Richmond street. For me, it was here that things got roughest for a few seconds (and it wasn’t that rough compared to what happened elsewhere in the city.) But as I was feeling this sudden movement of the mob was ripe for problems on the front lines – and hence, possibly some very dramatic picture moments, I quickly made my dash to the front, but the police also made a dash forward to ensure the crowd didn’t get through to Queen st. and I ending up bouncing off a policeman’s riot shield (and let’s just say in the battle of this guy vs. The Shield… The Shield clearly won.)
I quickly got up from that minor altercation and seeing a large group of protesters held up in front of me north of Queen St. and looking behind me and seeing a large group of protesters south of King st. and realizing we where held up somewhere in the middle – I could clearly now see it was the police strategy to break up protest groups in smaller, more manageable chunks and box them in between blocks.
Which was all fine and good until I tried to leave my chunk. I couldn’t get out of the blocks I was in. After pestering a police officer to let me know when I could leave the area, they just mentioned, “when things calm down.” So I mulled about and just shot more pictures.
It was then I noticed – in a space between buildings looking west towards Spadina and Queen streets that a large plume of black smoke was rising into the air. I wasn’t sure what it was but is sure looked dramatic and I was convinced it had something to do with more turmoil related to the G20 demonstrations.
So my mission now became getting out of the box I was in and over to the area of the rising smoke. The police seemed to be picking & choosing who they were allowing to leave the area, after I pleaded as being media I was able to slip between a crack in the wall of police and get back to Queen street.
My decision to get to Queen and Spadina proved a good one as it led to arguably my most dramatic shots of the week. Even though I arrived at the burning police cars a good fifteen minutes after I first noticed the smoke – I was surprised how few police were in the area and how close the crowd was to the burning car. It would be a few minutes later when hundreds of police in tactical gear would flood into the area pushing everyone far back.
By the time I arrived at University and College starting my day – I caught the tail end of the protesters marching out of Queen’s Park. The bulk of protesters had already marched south into the city and my plan to follow “Black Bloc” looking protesters off the march was dashed.
My first time through at Queen & Spadina streets. The police cars were not yet on fire, though people were trying. I later saw pictures of this guy being dramatically led away from that car on fire and arrested.
When I was walking up Bay st. a little later after the anarchists had been through there. I could spot in store alleys and behind bushes trails of black clothing, scarves, and black gloves. It seemed to me the anarchists busted shit up, quickly shed their “Black Bloc” type clothing, and blended back in with the peaceful protesters evading police.
While violent demonstrations and protests occurred right around Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square – the TD Jazz Festival continued. Headliner Herbie Hancock played to a sold-out main stage tent. In one of the more surreal moments for me – during a quiet time in Herbie’s set when he had dedicated a piece of music to global peace – I could hear the wail of police sirens going off all over the area.
After I finished my night at the Toronto Jazz Festival – I walked home north on Yonge St. After midnight, you could see many crews of workers replacing and boarding up store windows. It was the first time that day I had a sense of exactly how much damage the anarchists managed to pull off that day.