Why Supporting Activists Matters (and What You Can Do) – Thoughts on the Toronto G20

July 14, 2010 at 1:10 pm (Actions, Events) (, , , , , , , , , , )

At the end of June, people from all over Canada and the U.S. gathered to protest outside of the G20 meeting of world leaders in Toronto, Ontario. In a heavy handed, and mostly unprecedented (especially in Canada) way, the police arrested over 1,000 people in the streets, and targeted a small group of organizers by preemptively arresting them, “snatching” them off the street, or charging them with serious crimes such as conspiracy. Some of those activists are still in jail, weeks later.

Why the arrests matter, and what you can do

Most of the thousand people arrested have been released, however, about a dozen remain in jail, charged with conspiracy and other crimes. Some of those people are my friends. I’ve been spending time this last week raising money for their legal defense because what happens in these cases matters. Whether or not you agree with what or how they were protesting, these types of cases are an attempt by law enforcement to take long-term and effective community organizers and activists out of circulation by tying up their time as well as personal and community resources, for months and years. Most of those arrested were not caught in the act of doing something criminal (like setting a fire) but for organizing. See this post by Harsha Walia for more on that.

The outcome of these cases matters. One of the simplest things you can do is to donate to the G20 Legal Defense Fund. These activists don’t have the support of big NGOs and sharing the financial burden of providing them with a strong legal defense is part of sharing in an outcome that will impact us all.  I made a donation and then sent a personal appeal to everyone I know who I thought might give even $5, urging them to donate. I hope that you will do the same.

Please make a donation and follow the updates at the G8/G20 Toronto Community Mobilization page as well as the Toronto Media Coop.

Have we seen this before? In the last decade of protest in the US there has been some use of these types of charges against activists, but it appears that it is happening more, and going to trial more often. For example, as far as I know there weren’t any conspiracy charges for Seattle in 1999 or A16 (2000?) – but there were elevated charges for the RNC in Philadelphia in 2000. Another recent case is the RNC8 – activists charged with conspiracy for organizing around the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul.  Their trial is starting at the end of October, and supporters are traveling the US in July and August on a “Conspiracy Tour” to educate people. Info and their schedule is here.

Good Protester v Bad Protester

OK. Let’s talk about protesting in general for a minute.

There is a never-ending debate among activists about property destruction, “nonviolence,” and the myriad ways these terms can be interpreted. Toronto is no exception, and of course the debate rages in Oakland, which I hope to write about next.

I read this article on the Vancouver Media Coop site by Peter Gelderloos, author of How Nonviolence Protects the State. It’s a great piece, where he puts the violence in context:

So, RBC can fund gentrification and oil drilling, British Petroleum can kill their workers and destroy the Gulf of Mexico, border guards can murder immigrants, cops can torture youths, the normal functioning of the Canadian economy can murder over three times as many people through workplace “accidents” as are claimed by homicides, but if protestors smash a bank window or light a cop car on fire, they are denounced as violent.

I know I’ll be repeating this when I talk about Oscar Grant and Oakland, but focusing on a little window smashing takes the focus away from the larger, bigger violence that is going on: here, the violence of capitalism.* Scott Neigh echos this sentiment.

There was a lot of speculation over the interwebs that police let the “black bloc” run rampant on Saturday so they could use it as an excuse to crack down and make mass arrests on Sunday. (Also in this clip too.)

Really, that’s nothing new. What I want to talk about here is a different article I read on the Vancouver Media Coop site that called out well-known progressive activists for publicly denouncing the Black Bloc and/or those engaged in property destruction, called, “Snitching on the Resistance: How celebrity activists have set off a witch hunt against anarchist militants.” A few of the people called out are individuals I know or work with. I thought about this a lot and found it really upsetting.

The piece is not focused and kinda drops off before making any real analysis,  but it has great documentation (links to interviews, etc), and makes what I think is a big and important point: supporting the “good protester v bad protester” narrative is setting a dangerous precedent. It creates an us v. them scenario, where groups that generally want the same thing are pitted against each other. This divides the left and sets up a game where people and organizations must choose whether or not to align themselves with demonized groups or individuals, instead of advocating for the right of people to protest and supporting those who are in jail for political reasons, whether arrested legitimately or not.

And in terms of creating and escalating violence, we cannot underestimate the role of the police themselves, who, even by their presence in full riot gear with weapons can escalate almost any situation.

Sometimes I question the efficacy of mass protests in general, these gatherings that happen outside of big meetings of global leaders like the G20. Alan Sears says, “Every protest (this side of the revolution) involves some combination of demonstrating our insurgent potential in the streets and registering symbolic dissent from the way things are.”

But now that even peaceful mass protests result in conspiracy charges and activists tied up in the system instead of continuing their important organizing work, is it time to innovate and expand to something different?

I support our need to express righteous outrage at the mechanisms of capitalism that create and maintain systems that reward a few at the expense of many. Even still, I want to encourage activists to think of new and different tactics for protest that challenge ourselves and the system.

And why target the G20 specifically? Here’s a great video talking about why people were protesting in Toronto.

End Notes

* Gelderloos’ piece, is, essentially, an argument FOR property destruction as a tactic, where he says such things as:t “A burning cop car is a beautiful thing” and “What matters is that a great many more banks and cop cars will have to be thrown on the trash fire of history before we can talk about a new world…” He says that property destruction is a legitimate tactic choice and it’s a mistake to blame it all on agent provacateurs.

1. I thought that these personal accounts by journalists who had been swept up in the arrests were interesting to read: Lisan Jutras, Krystalline Kraus and Michael Talbot.

2. I also appreciated this summary of police tactics by Lesley Wood.



  1. Jen Angel said,

    In general, I’m against changing pieces once they are posted, but I want to make an addendum here.

    Friend Derrick O’Keefe sent me this post from a Vancouver resident responding to the post I reference above about snitching – while I still stand by the basic argument (at the end) about perpetuating a good v bad protester narrative being disruptive, this is a really great and thoughtful response to that that I’d love for people to read:


  2. resistrantrelax said,

    Thanks for the link to my little post. : ) I like what you’ve got here.

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