Sewell: G20 has got to be haunting Bill Blair’s sleep

By John Sewell – 
Imagine yourself as police chief Bill Blair. It’s New Year’s evening, you’ve gone to bed a few minutes past midnight and then are roused awake by a nightmare. What’s it about? Surely the G20 meeting in Toronto this coming June. It is hard to think of anything that will be more trying for the chief this year than being responsible for the safety of those leading politicians from around the world when they meet here to talk about free trade and maybe climate change.
We had a small preview of what’s in store a few weeks ago in Copehagen. Demonstrators filled the streets, and they managed to get themselves into places where they were not supposed to be. Police were dressed in an extraordinary array of hard black material, as well as face masks, and they lined the outsides of buildings. One day 200 demonstrators were arrested, and most of them released within a few hours. Copenhagen police are known to be restrained in their actions. (Earlier this year the Copenhagen police had a campaign to get more cyclists wearing helmets. They did this by standing at the side of a bike lane, waved for the cyclist to stop, then reached over and gave the cyclist a friendly bear hug, followed by the gift of a helmet.) But are Toronto police able to be that refined?
Maybe Toronto will turn into something like Seattle during the World Trade Organization meeting a decade ago, when streets were filled with tear gas and demonstrators were beaten before being arrested. The police chief resigned shortly thereafter. Much the same occurred in Quebec City in 2001, where apparently 9,000 police officers were deployed to protect those negotiating for free trade. No one is quite sure exactly where demonstrators will gather, or where they will decide to march.
Front Street in front of the convention centre will probably be a key spot, as will the banking buildings at King and Bay. Maybe up University Avenue toward the Legislature. At Nathan Phillips Square? Up Yonge Street and along Bloor? Will police line these streets? Chief Blair is probably thinking about these very options right now. His nightmare probably also included some thoughts of what happens if one police officer loses it and starts to whack someone with his baton, or feels threatened enough to pull a gun or a Taser. That’s when all hell can break loose.
This isn’t as simple a matter as the corralling of the Tamil demonstrations last fall when they occupied University Avenue and Dundas Street for several days running, then one evening gained access to the Gardiner Expressway and stopped traffic. There was no hint of violence in that crowd, which was one good reason for the police to back off and allow the demo to play itself out. Among the G20 demonstrators there are bound to be a few whose intention is to create trouble even though the vast bulk of protestors do not share those goals. And almost all of the officers involved in policing the Tamil demonstrations were from the Toronto force, so the chief had significant control over their actions.
For the G20, lots of other police will be brought in from neighbouring forces and maybe the Ontario Provincial Police as well as the RCMP. It’s not quite so clear how everyone will work as a team in a very trying situation. That’s the chief’s nightmare for 2010. One wishes him luck.