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(Photo illustration by Woodside/Morales/McLeod)
(Photo illustration by Woodside/Morales/McLeod)

Facts & Arguments Essay

Swept from a peaceful protest Add to ...

It was a slow start to the day. My teenaged son and daughter turned on the television to find that the number of G20 protest-related arrests had risen to 400 from 70 since the Saturday night before.

Craig Kielburger of Me to We and Free the Children fame was interviewing a young woman who was joining a march to the temporary detention centre in Toronto's east end because her friend had been arrested the night before. My son Diarmid had wanted me to walk with him on Saturday, but it had been some time since I had marched.

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I had gone on quite a few during the years I lived in London and Glasgow - including the infamous poll tax march of 1990. I still had my yellow "The Enemy Within" button from the Thatcher days. (My community took ironic possession of her insult). So I knew the spirit wasn't completely lost. We had spent most of Saturday in front of the TV. Now Diarmid and Anya were asking me if we could join the group at the detention centre.

I had watched that centre grow over the past few months - watched them bring in the concrete ramparts and fencing and witnessed the growing police presence. It was a menacing landmark in my Toronto neighbourhood, and I didn't feel good about it from the start. I didn't feel good about the swell of arrests overnight. And I didn't feel good about teaching my children that we should just sit and let the world be interpreted to us by TV. Did good citizens stay home and mimic the broadcasters or endeavour to find the truth out for themselves?

I thought since the detention centre was local and far away from the G20 security zone, it would be a gentle introduction into the peaceful art of protest. I cared for the community, I cared for the people who were unjustly detained and I cared that my children cared too.

So we got together a knapsack with water and cameras and walked the 15 minutes to the detention centre. My partner David was going to walk our puppy first, then join us.

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It was warm and we were chatty as we walked to be part of something. When we arrived, we stood back from the small crowd. Some were sitting, some standing, all facing the police lined up in front of the detention centre. Some were singing, some chanting, some drawing birds in chalk on the pavement. There were young folk, folk my age, folk with dogs, folk with children on their shoulders, older folk and media.

I think there were three releases from the prison in the hour we were there. Every time someone was released, the crowd cheered and the media swarmed. It reminded me of the Sunday school picnic feeling that existed in Trafalgar Square before the horses stormed 20 years ago.

I should have listened to my parallel thinking, for with no warning, there was a sudden penetration and retreat in the crowd. The police had moved in for a couple of arrests.

I called Diarmid and Anya in closer. David was there now. He was our anchor as we moved in and out to take pictures. Tensions eased a little.

Then, without warning, police officers stormed the peaceful crowd, swinging their sticks and throwing people to the ground.

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I saw Anya being pushed by one of the group of police. I screamed out her name. They threw the young man next to her to the ground. Diarmid ran toward the skirmish just as a kind boy pulled Anya out of the policemen's path. She looked so thin and vulnerable and 14 in her short shorts beside the black, violent swarm.

The front line of protesters sat down again, hands held in the air in peace signs, chanting, "We are peaceful, how 'bout you."

Someone called out to take care because a line of police officers was approaching from the other end of the street. I had just enough time to take in the notion that we were surrounded when a line of riot police moved in on the crowd. There was smoke and sounds of shooting. Diarmid and Anya ran to us and we all turned to run down a side alley. I felt a punch on my back and calmly thought, "Oh, that's what a rubber bullet feels like."

We found our way to the nearest street and headed for home. Diarmid and Anya walked side by side, all sibling rivalry forgotten. They now had a common enemy: injustice. They knew the police had a job to do, but what they had witnessed wasn't it.

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There were three haunting moments for me. One was seeing a young girl being slung to the ground and then forced, skinny limbs everywhere, into an unmarked police van. Another was seeing my daughter stand beside danger. That moment will never leave me. And the last was seeing people walking up the street, hands above their heads in surrender as if they had committed some terrible crime. Walking? Talking? Caring? We didn't commit the criminal act, unless the laws have secretly changed overnight and the powers that be have neglected to inform us of those changes too.

Once home, we downloaded our photos, posted them online and listened to the news tell us what we knew not to be true (that there were no rubber bullets fired). Anya was on the phone to a local news station wanting to tell her story, but she never got through. I understand why it was so important to her, for the same reason I wrote this.

We tell our stories to regain our sense of self and our sense of our rights after they have been so brutally, and without warning, taken away from us. We tell them to protect the values we feel are Canadian. To serve and protect. Whom? What? O Canada, we stand on guard for thee. Tell me: Who are the guards of Canada?

Cinders McLeod is a design editor at The Globe and Mail and lives in Toronto.

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