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- Posted on Jul 2nd 2010 5:40PM by Jesse Ship
Parts of downtown Toronto's vibrant music scene became a violent battle zone last weekend as the G20 Summit was held. In the wake of a small group of so-called anarchists attacking store windows and burning abandoned cop cars, heavily armoured riot police shot tear gas, rubber bullets, physically attacked peaceful protesters and used other forms of psychological warfare. Over 1,000 people were arrested and detained, media included, many just for showing up to exercise their rights as citizens.
Much of the action took place just steps from the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, Steve's Music Store, and MuchMusic's Queen Street TV studio. Yonge-Dundas Square, where Iggy Pop and the Stooges performed for NXNE less than a week before, also fell victim to destruction and violence. Present among the peaceful protesters -- some in body, others in spirit -- were a handful of Canadian musicians.
Julie Penner, a gifted violinist who has played with Canadian bands like Broken Social Scene, Do Make Say Think, Lowest of the Low and the FemBots, marched on Saturday during the peaceful protest alongside Feist and Penner's boyfriend Jason Tait, drummer for the Weakerthans.
"We were in the official march with ten thousand people in the pouring rain, and it was great. We eventually came to abandoned police cars and couldn't understand what the cops were thinking by leaving them there." The police cars were eventually torched by groups of black-clad people identified as anarchists -- some speculate these cars were left intentionally by police to bait violent protesters and de-legitimize the peaceful ones.
"I thought this was a horrible step backwards in our history of democracy," Penner says. "I read things online, like, 'What are you going to do? At least we're not living in Iran.' F--- off! We do have rights here!"
Despite his involvement in the Weakerthans, a folk/punk band that have always been vocal about their politics, Jason felt the Toronto G20 was one of the most politicizing events he's ever been involved with. "I hadn't felt like this since the nuclear rallies in the '80s, where I really felt that I could die. I felt that my confidence in the police force, my government, and the powers that are supposed to look out for me was dissolved in the matter of a weekend."
Rapper, poet laureate of Edmonton and self described "song and dance man" Cadence Weapon (aka Rollie Pemberton) was not present for the events, but saw the summit as "a meeting of two extremes who both want to tear s--- up. You have people who come from miles around to smash windows under the banner of protest, and then there's cops coming from all over the country who want to beat up women or trample people with horses. They're both doing things they would normally never do."
Watching from Ottawa while rehearsing for a Canada Day celebration for the Queen of England, Pemberton saw familiar Toronto locations in a context he never thought possible. "I've walked past Queen and Spadina a million, trillion times. It was quite surreal to see it turned into a warzone. I can't imagine how long-time Toronto natives must have felt to be told, 'No, you can't walk down the street that way!'"
Damian Abraham of F---ed Up, who was playing a gig in New York that weekend, shares a similar point of view. "People shouldn't have to live in fear if they gather publicly in a peaceful manner."
Adam Scott, drummer of Green Go, environmental activist specializing in climate policy and an official observer at international UN meetings on climate change, made a conscious decision not to attend the protests.
"I'm not too keen on having my message mixed in with just anyone else's who decides to show up at a protest," he admits. "I feel for them and many of my friends were there, but it didn't make sense for me to go down."
Singer-songwriter Katie Stelmanis also lives in downtown Toronto, but was at work in the suburbs when the protests went down. Stelmanis actively tweeted protest reports and watched news broadcasts from local news network CP24. "I felt that our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, used the G20 as a giant dinner party for heads of states," she argues. "In no way do I support him -- mostly for his serious cuts to arts grants, but also because he completely abolished our right to protest."
While some Torontonians faulted casual onlookers for being caught up in the chaos when they were warned to steer clear of troubled areas, Stelmanis retorts, "A lot of the suburbanites don't understand. How can we stay away from the violence while it is literally happening at our doorsteps and our streets are being overrun by riot police who are marching like it's the Third Reich? It's crazy!"
Plenty argue over whether this would have happened under the rule of a different political party than the Conservative government -- is the G20 bigger than one country? Bigger than the world even?
"It's weird that there's this arbitrary decision on what is worthwhile and what isn't," Pemberton muses. "It's like, 'We're going to snap our fingers and you're going to change your lifestyle for the entire time while we're around.'"
Abraham agrees, "I always thought our government to be a bit more refined than that of our neighbours to the south, but what this showed me was that we are no different than any Western government that uses force to keep people in line."
Although plenty of bands associate themselves with political or social causes, Abraham warns that not all are as committed as they pretend. "There's a lot of bands that market themselves politically, but until you actually do something about it, like write political songs or play at a demonstration, you're just a jack-off with a microphone using the 'political' label as a costume," he says.
John K Samson, former member of political punk band Propaghandi and founder of the Weakerthans, has written songs about world politics and human rights for many years. But rather than leaving his political involvement at that he also founded the left-wing publishing group, Arbeiter Ring Publishing (ARP), as a measure to protect people's rights.
"Maybe I'm naïve, but I was shocked at the overblown and criminal police response," he says. "I really admire all those who protested against these meetings, meetings that really only serve to impoverish the world in so many ways. I think when the real stories are heard and clear judgments are made, it will prove to be a victory for the protesters."