This is what democracy looks like?

My name is Alison Henderson and I was one of the innocent protesters arrested at the G20 Summit protest on Saturday June 26, 2010. I attended the protest to fulfill my democratic obligation as a concerned citizen of this interdependent world, to speak out against injustice. I attended because the G20 is an illegitimate and undemocratic body through which imperial corporate powers solidify and perpetuate social inequality and injustice in the world.

I went to Queens Park in Toronto at 1pm to join the G20 Summit protest. Upon my arrival I was submersed in a sea of political protesters. People were protesting issues as diverse as freedom of expression, globalization, capitalism, corporate greed, aboriginal rights, fair trade, maternal rights, queer rights and environmental protection. Although each group and individual had their own reasons for attending the protests, we were all united through solidarity and our collective dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The protest left Queen’s Park and made its way down University Ave. shortly before 2pm. The crowd was peaceful but definitely loud! We cheered nonstop, yelling “this is what democracy looks like!” People were dancing and singing and laughing, there were instruments and colorful signs and props! I have never felt so apart of something so strong and united. I marched side by side with people of all ages, from children to seniors.

Contrary to the picture painted by the mainstream media there weren’t just “hippies” present either. I saw protestors wearing basketball jerseys and sweater-vests. We marched together along the designated protest route, down University, west on Queen, up Spadina and east on College and made our way back to Queen’s Park. QP was the designated safe haven for protesters of the G20 Summit.

Not long after I arrived back in Queen’s Park, the police began pushing us out. They lined up side by side in full riot gear, with hardly a space between them. They began banging on their shields to the beat of dum, dum, dum, dum, as they marched towards us. We asked the police why we were being forced to leave. We did not get a response, I had no idea why we were being forced out or what was going on. They just stared at us straight faced trying to intimidate and frighten everyone. I remember people yelling “we have the right to protest!” and “why you are making us leave? We are being peaceful!” No reply. They continued to push peaceful protestors out of the designated protest zone without cause or provocation. I never witness a single act of violence or vandalism, except for from the police officers.

I would like to pause here for a brief moment before I continue, to talk about the Black Bloc. They broke off from us early on in the protest and were no longer apart of out peaceful group. The police were fully aware of this, they did not go after them to stop their acts of destruction and the vandalism. They instead chose to remain by us peaceful protestors and left shopkeepers alone to defend their property on Yong Street. Perhaps the police used the actions of the Black Bloc as a scapegoat to justify the cost of security and their attempt at silencing peaceful protesters. Whatever the Black Bloc did, we can not be held accountable for. I’m confident that the police were fully aware that we were two separate and distinct groups, with two very different tactics and messages. This story is just my story, and I am going to leave the Black Bloc out of it because they had nothing to do with us.

Back to Queen’s Park. The police continued to force us out and push us back. There were protestors sitting on the ground peacefully singing, with peace signs high in the air. All of a sudden and without warning, the police from one section of the line quickly charged at a group of chanting people. They would single out one or two people from the crowd like heat-seeking missiles and then ripped them across the grass and dragged into the crowd of police to be arrested. A girl I met said she was dragged through horse excrement and beat with a baton as the police arrested her for sitting in the grass. When the police got about halfway up Queens Park, some began to gallop up the pathway on horseback. Groups of six or seven huge horses chased peaceful and confused people out of the area. People were getting trampled or pushed over by the horses, because they were shocked and disoriented and did not know which way to go.

After the police herded us out of Queen’s Park like cattle, we walked up the west side of Queen’s Park Crescent. To my right I could see hundreds of police officers hiding deep in the park. We took the protest west on to Harbord street. At this point, police presence finally faded behind us. They appeared to be allowing us to protest on the street and did not attempt to stop us. We took the protest up Devonshire Place in the University of Toronto to Bloor Street, where we proceeded to march east.

As we marched, we did so right down the middle of Bloor Street blocking traffic, some cars honked in support, while others sat silently as they waited for the protest to pass them by. At this point there was still no police presence. We continued east, cheering and chanting until we turned south down Yonge street. We began singing O’Canada and various Beatles songs, for the most part people along Yonge appeared to be supporting us and joined in our singing when we passed. We even picked up a few new protestors along the way. I texted my mother and told her how beautiful I thought it all was. There was no violence or hostility whatsoever at that time, in fact I never saw aggression between the protestors of any kind during the protest. The protest headed down Yonge and continued south, a festival-like mood still pulsated eagerly in the air.

On our way, we stage a peaceful sit in, most of us sat down on the ground in the pouring rain, arms raised with middle and index fingers pointing at the sky. By now it was about ten o’clock. There were now rows of full gear riot police standing in front of us. At this point, we demanded to speak with somebody from the G20. Obviously nobody came. A man with a megaphone stood up in front of the crowd and explained to the police exactly what and why we were doing what we were doing. What is very important to understand, is that from what I could see from my vantage point, communication between protestors and police was non-existent. They never told us to stop, or where to go or what they wanted us to do. And if they did, absolutely nobody was able to hear them. They just stood there silently and aggressively once again, staring us down.

About half an hour later we got up and headed south, we were headed to the fence, but not to break it down, or enter it, or even touch it. We were headed there to peacefully protest well in front of it, so that we could comply with the fake five-meter law. We did so for a few minutes until we saw police retreating from the fence, seemingly to head up a side street and attack us from behind. Afraid that what happened to those innocent people in QP might happen to us, we began to move east along Front Street. We made our way to The Esplanade and stopped in front of the Novatel Hotel, where some heads of state were lodging.

Outside of the Novatel we continued our demand to speak to a participant of the G20 Summit. We stood together singing John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and then began chanting to the rooms above us, “no justice, no sleep!” The entire time I was in the crowd, I still did not see a single act of violence amongst the protesters whatsoever and neither did the police. They could not have. We all began to sit down together in the street to create another peaceful sit in. It was the greatest act of solidarity I had ever witnessed, let alone been a part of, it was empowering. But that empowerment quickly disappeared as rows riot police seemed to materialize in front of us out of the cold wet air. It was one of those things that’s really fun, until all of a sudden it isn’t, like when you’re playing sports and you suddenly sprain your ankle. They advanced towards us through the rain beating on their shields. They stopped about ten feet in front of us, angrier than I had even seen anybody, the rain still whipping in my face, I began to get a little frightened, the pathetic fallacy was all too eerie. It’s hard to remember the exact order of events, but at one point, a woman from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) from Montreal stood up from the crowd and walked over to the police in an attempt to create some sort of dialogue. I’m not sure what was said, but obviously no agreement or constructive dialogue took place, because riot police moved in behind us. A man sitting cross legged and crouched over into a ball with his hands over his head was the first to go. They casually, but purposefully, consumed him like a child drinking his first chocolate milkshake.

The chants in the crowd shifted from excited demands, to reminders to the police that we were peaceful protestors; “peaceful protest! peaceful protest! peaceful protest! peaceful protest! peaceful protest!” We chanted. “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching, the whole world is watching, the whole world is watching!” Reminding them that they would be held accountable for their actions.

The police moved in on us from both sides now, they were coming at us from the East and the West. To the North of us was a Spaghetti Factory and to the South was the Novatel. They were boxing us in, alluding to our fate on Eastern Avenue. I was sitting on the sidewalk at the front of the protest and before long a riot cop’s plastic shield was pressing up against my shoulder. I moved back as much as I could, which wasn’t much before I was practically on top of other protestors. Now people were getting scared.

All around me, people were begging the wall of police to give them a way out and the police just stood there, silent and power hungry. People were crying, and screaming, “where do you want us to go?!” And I haerd people say, “we’ll leave – just tell us what you want us to do!” There was no dialogue and no one knew what to do. They had quarantined us between two buildings and were slowly moving in, banging their batons to that familiar rhythm on their shields. I still don’t understand why we were not given any information, not a single police officer would speak to us.

My story moves much quicker now, as I can remember a low voice behind me yelling, “this one!” Something swooped down on to me from behind, grabbed my backpack and yanked me into a cluster of police officers. The only thing I could think to say at that moment was “I’m not resisting arrest! I’m not resisting arrest!” Thank god the officer agreed. He could easily have accused me of doing so, as I would learn they had done to many others.

I was told I was being arrested for breaching the peace and was taken behind the row of officers arresting the crowd and was told to put my hands behind my back. After I was cuffed with thick plastic zip-ties, I was pushed to my knees and my legs were shackled. I waited there, freezing in the rain for someone to come and speak to me. Finally an officer came over to me, read me my rights and asked me some personal information about myself. He then asked me if I would like to give him the phone number of somebody I wanted them to contact on my behalf. I gave him my mother’s cell phone number and he told me she would be notified of my arrest. I would later learn that she was not.

I asked him why they had not allowed us to continue our peaceful protest in Queen’s Park that evening. He told me that because the protest had become violent, it was no longer a legal protest and thus QP was no longer a legal safe haven. I sat back down in the rain for the next half hour confused and disheartened. Feeling very much like a pawn.

Finally the officer who arrested me came back and said, “I have to take a picture with you.” I felt like a trophy on a mantel piece or a huge marlin being dangled in front of the camera. I was then shuffled along and escorted to a paddy-wagon. I was taken to the front of the wagon where I was placed in a very small compartment with another girl, there was about a foot of space in front of me dividing us and the other girls in the next section.

We sat idle in the wagon for what seemed like hours, but must have only been about a half hour, until we finally began to move. I did my best to get a sense of where I was being taken by peering through the grate to my right. “Gardiner Expressway……” I had no idea where we were going. Finally the wagon stopped moving and I eagerly awaited my release from the cramped and crowded cell. We waited and waited, I could see through the grate a large group of officers enjoying a cigarette break right beside the vehicle. They were laughing and exchanging elaborate stories as if they didn’t realized that there were scared and innocent people locked up right beside them. As we sat, I got to know the girl sitting beside me, she was a waitress at Swiss Chalet and had joined the protest to support one of her family members who had been involved in organizing it.

Finally, I heard a garage door open and the wagon drove into what looked to me like a warehouse. As we drove in, we passed a few cages. They had taken us to some sort of human pound. There were women in one of the cages and men in the others. Inside the cages was a single bench and a porta-potty with no door. I was asked to get out of the wagon and was taken into the female cage. It was a morbid feeling inside the cage, but spirits were high. One of the “bodies” in our cage immediately took charge and began reciting us our rights as prisoners. She gave us the phone number of the Movement Defense Committee, a group of lawyers that got together specifically to defend the arrestees of the G20 protest. She suggested that we contact them when we were granted our phone calls. We all recited that number in unison over and over again, even the men in the cell next over joined in. I will probably remember that number for the rest of my life.

Women we using their bodies to make a human door whenever somebody used the toilet. Using the actual toilet was a challenge in and of itself because all of our wrists were still bound with zip ties. The teamwork was incredible, most of the time no directions inside the cage had to be given, we just knew what to do. I sat on the cold floor of the cage still wet from the rain for what seemed like two or three hours with about thirty other girls. We exchanged our respective tales of capture and reasons for protesting. Not surprisingly, none of the girls had been violent, in fact many were peace activists or independent journalist who before that night, could never have imagined themselves in police custody. Some were bystanders, or people on their way home from work who somehow got caught in the cross fire. One girl I spoke to didn’t even know what the G20 was. I didn’t speak to a single person who had ever been arrested before, during the entire duration of my detainment.

The police called us out of the cage one by one. Every time an officer approached the cage, my heart raced with the hope that my name would be called next. The first time it was called, it was so that the police could take a picture of me behind a whiteboard with my name and a number on it. This was the second time they had done this, the first time was in the rain in front of the Novotel.

After my picture was taken, I was sent back into the cage, only to be called out again shortly after, to have my photo taken once more because they had spelt my name wrong the last time. Disorganization like this would become a trademark of our detainment. Finally I was escorted out of the cage and was told I would be speaking to an officer of some sort. Before I was taken into the next room, I was read a sign that stated everything I did from then on would be video and audio recorded.

I was pulled through a corridor and was taken into another cage, I was not in this cage for very long, maybe about an hour or so. I was tired by that point, it must have been two in the morning. I didn’t do much talking, nobody did. We just sat there in disbelief. By this time I think I had been given a single 6 oz. cup of water. I waited for my name to be called again, as I was told it would be. Eventually a kind looking police officer walked up to the gate and called out for Alison Henderson. I rushed over to him and wrapped my fingers around the wires of the cage. He said the last thing I would ever have expected him to ask me;

“Alison, do you have a twin sister by any chance?” I shook my head. “Oh,” he said “it’s just because we have the same picture of you twice, under two separate names.” I’m not sure if he thought I was lying or not. At this point, I began to get frustrated at the apparent lack of communication and organization among the police officers. He then told me I would be taken to be questioned and would receive food and access to a phone. Then he left and I anxiously waited for his return. He came back for me about twenty minutes later and escorted me out of the cage. I could feel the other girls’ eyes all over me when I exited the cage, as they looked on in envy.

I was taken to a series of trailers and was taken to trailer number two. When I entered the makeshift office, I was asked to put my hands on the wall and was immediately patted down by a female officer. I then sat down, was read my rights and was asked for my personal information once again, age, date of birth, information I had already been asked. The officer beside me then proceeded to lift my backpack on to the table and began to remove its contents. At one point the officer removed a DVD of Romeo Dellair’s documentary ‘Shake Hands with the Devil” from my bag. He lifted it up and said “shake hands with the DEVIL?!” Not having any idea what it was about and probably thinking I was some sort of satanic cult member. He then accused the DVD of being bootlegged when it was not. He kept announcing to the officer who was writing down my information on the other side of the desk that I was in possession of an illegal DVD. It became clear to me then that false allegations like that was the reason for so many arrests that weekend.

After my meeting, I was taken to yet another smaller cell (we decided that it was about six by nine feet,) and was told I would finally be given food and a telephone. On my way, the zip ties around my wrists were finally removed. When I arrived at my final and most memorable cell, there were four girls already inside. A few of them had been given warm clothing by the officers because it was so cold. As I was still wet from the rain, I asked an officer for a pair of sweatpants. She said she would see what she could do and returned shortly after with a pair of evergreen sweatpants. I asked if I could remove my wet jeans and replace them with the cozy sweatpants. She said no, so I put them on top, although I did get to replace my wet socks with a brand new pair of ‘prison socks.’

Shortly after I arrived, or what seemed like shortly, another young woman was delivered to the cage. Over the next few hours many others would also be delivered, until we would finally reach a maximum of about eleven or twelve. We talked and got to know each other a little bit, as we all sat shoulder to shoulder in the corner of the cage for warmth. The formation of a friendship was quickly sped up, however, when we became so cold that we all decided to lay in a row on the concrete floor of the cage and spoon each other.

We did so for some time, I was still freezing as the cold floor must have been sucking the heat out of me. I drifted in an out of sleep for a couple of minutes, but couldn’t get much more sleep than that. Big bright florescent lights shone down on us for the entire duration of our detainment like a permanent glass sun. As I lay awake on the floor I heard a police officer mutter “holy shit,” as he walked past. Another officer called us “dogs.” After my body became too sore to continue laying on the concrete and I could no longer block out the screaming around me, I got up and sat in a ball for while.

Eventually the entire line disbanded as we joined in with the detainees in the other cages in a collective demand for our rights. People were banging on the side of their cages for hours and hours, just begging for water, or a phone call or a lawyer or to use the washroom. These cages were not equipped with porta-pottys. Some women had to wait for hours until they somehow managed to grab the attention of an officer to escort them to the washroom.

Many people were crying, one girl in my cage who began to cry sad “I just don’t understand how people can treat other people like this” as she reclused into the corner. I could hear girls screaming as loudly as they could from the other side of the room. The truth is that we heckled the officers and they heckled us right back. But all we had were our words and they had everything else.

None of us in the cage had received a single phone call or the right to council. We heard that some of the girls in the next cell over had gotten to speak to lawyers over the phone. They told us that they had offered an officer one of their cheese buns in exchange for speaking with a lawyer. We tried that. It didn’t work. Instead, one officer told us to use it as a pillow and go to sleep. We were desperate. Nobody knew where I was. I just sat there worrying about the people who were worrying about me.

We were all very hungry and thirsty, I think food came around three times for us while we were detained. The ‘meals’ we were given consisted of two thin hamburger buns with margarine and a slice of soy cheese in the middle (props to the police for being vegan friendly). We all scarfed down the cheese bun the first time around. After we finished eating however, we quickly realized our mistake because it took a couple hours for a single cup of water to come our way. From then on we were very careful about when we ate, because we were uncertain when the next time water would be coming around. I remember one specific dry spell where I became very thirsty, I asked an officer for water and he informed me that I had just drank.

Uncertainty in detainment became the only consistent thing. Every time an officer would walk by we would beg them for any little bit of information. Nobody knew anything. Nobody. I asked one officer if she had any idea how long we would be detained for, she looked my in the eye and said sarcastically, “a looong time!” Many of the officers would not even turn their heads in our direction. The police were clearly very disorganized.

I heard rumors of a few people getting phone calls, some speaking to lawyers, inconsistent charges, police loosing people’s property and paperwork. The list goes on. There was also lack of any order whatsoever in which people were released, I can only assume it was whoever’s paperwork was found first. There was a young woman in my cage who had been detained for twenty three and a half hours with no charge, no lawyer and no phone call.

After a very long time, about fifteen hours, we finally got the attention of a concerned police officer. She said she would try very hard to get us released. She asked us if we either wanted our phone calls or to speak with the legal council that was present at the detention centre. Some of us said legal, and others said phone call. As I waited for her return, I peered through the side of the cage and saw a young woman with a sling around her left arm and placed in solitary confinement. I asked her if she was okay and what had happened, she told me she was shot with a rubber bullet. The officer finally came back to our cage and said something along the lines of “Fuck the phone call! I’m just going to try and get you guys out of here!” We all smiled instantaneously, I think I may have even done a little dance. About an hour later she came back and called the first name.

I was finally released at approximately 6pm on Sunday June 27th. I was in police custody for approximately nineteen hours. I made my long awaited exit of the temporary holding facility, walked around one final wall of police officers and burst into tears upon seeing how many supporters there were waiting for us outside. People offered me water and food, use of their cell phones, lots of hugs and told me where I was. I shared a cab home with a friend I had made in the cage and was finally on my way home.

* photos by Ally Henderson

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