Olympic torch chaos

Media reports seem to be dulling the impact of tonight’s events, but let me share my evening with you.

My original plan had been to watch part of the Olympic torch relay in the early evening and then head directly over to Nathan Phillips Square (NPS). It was supposed to make its way down Yonge Street and arrive at Yonge & College at precisely 6:18. At this point it was to board a TTC streetcar and travel a few blocks West via streetcar – at which point I was going to make my escape and find my way to NPS. By about 6:30 (after waiting out in the -5 weather for over half an hour and observing countless traffic/people near-collisions in a colossal crowd control fail), it still hadn’t arrived, but they finally started closing off the streets to traffic… a few minutes later I heard screams and chanting. I immediately recognized it as the sounds of a protest, and it was getting closer.

After this, I lost track of time. The protest arrived and basically set up camp at Yonge & College (it had come from the West). The chanted became more clear – “No Olympics on Stolen Native Lands.” Amongst other reasons, it was mostly a protest against the Olympics being held on land where aboriginal land claims have not been resolved. Which is a cause I support – while I AM attending the Olympics, the situation in Canada is disgraceful and has been neglected by every level of government and political party.

Anyways, after a few minutes of standing there kind of unsure as to what would happen, I realized the torch wasn’t going to come that way and that the protesters weren’t going anywhere — and that this could get quite interesting. I started taking as many pictures as I could (and started text-tweeting which I hope worked, though I can’t access Twitter to find out) to document all that was going on. Many of the spectators (what I’ll label the people who were there to see the torch) started booing and hissing… kind of childish, but whatever. At one point, though, very near to the beginning of all this, someone made the comment “the problem with this country is that the police aren’t allowed to just shoot ’em.” Shudder. More on ignorance like that later.

My camera died almost immediately after so I switched to my iPhone (Note to self: Buy new camera battery as it dies super-quick now for some reason). I got closer to the protest group to get pictures and was surprised by the lack of police presence. For a good period of time there was total chaos – protesters stopping to make a point and block the route, spectators intermittently booing and wondering what the fuck was going on. It’s not clear what spurred it, though around the same time that some police reinforcements arrived the protest group divided – about 60% or so of it headed North and a handful remained at Yonge & College to keep the streetcar from moving.

I ran ahead, realizing that at this point the torch had to be near, and a collision was ensuing. I got just North of Maitland street just as about 10 police officers on bikes arrived and set up a roadblock. (It wasn’t much of one – it was literally just their bikes turned sideways, but I think it was symbolic more than anything). Fortunately, I think, I was on the North side of the roadblock – which extended across the sidewalks to prevent anyone from going North or South from their current position.

Since I was stuck up there anyway (and also since I didn’t realize at the time that it was in fact a roadblock), I headed up to where the torch itself was being carried – just North of Wellesley, and moving at a snail’s pace. Shortly after I arrived at Yonge/ Wellesley it moved slowly so the vehicles at the front of the pack were on Yonge, South of Wellesley, the torch itself was in the middle of the intersection, and the rest of the entourage were in behind. I kept hearing people talking and word on the countless police radios (at this point there were dozens of police everywhere, on bikes, horses, cars, and foot) that they were diverting to Bay but it wasn’t clear how or when or where or why. For what seemed an eternity but was probably 10-15 minutes all parties were at a stalemate – the protesters blocked onto Yonge Street by the police roadblock, immediately North of which was about half a dozen police cars, followed by the lead relay vehicles, the torch itself at Wellesley, and the rest of the vehicles behind that. For much of this time I stood on a bicycle stand right at Yonge & Maitland trying to get photos of the whole situation with my iPhone (I’m still mad my camera died so I couldn’t take video). It was standing here when I heard somehow loudly proclaim “Go back to where you came from!!!!” … the irony and complete ignorance involved in telling that to aboriginals (and others) protesting about land claims doesn’t even need to be explained.

In what felt like a simultaneous action, the police seemed to convince the protesters to clear the road (I still don’t quite know why or how) and the relay party itself started to shift – a string of police officers on bikes rode South through the dividing protesters (half of which each ended up on either side of Yonge Street), and at the same time the police cars started to turn around, along with the relay party, to head West on Wellesley towards Bay. Non-police people were still not allowed to cross Maitland at Yonge, except at the far West end (in front of Sobey’s) where we were allowed to pass in small numbers. The relay having vanished at this point I decided to follow the protest.

With about half of the 60% that traveled up Yonge to Maitland stuck on the East side, the remaining group on the West side decided to charge on ahead. I wandered in their direction back towards College via alleys and then back on Yonge Street. By the time I got back to Yonge/College the crowds had mostly dispersed but there was still an overwhelming air of complete and utter chaos. There were police all over trying to figure out what their priority was, people walking in all sorts of directions, and traffic was starting to flow in certain directions but it was inconsistent and very poorly controlled. Most of the protesters were gone but some still remained, along with some very confused spectators, and a whole bunch of passers-by.

At this point I was half-frozen (using iPhone (for texting & photos) requires the removal of gloves) and beginning to be concerned about frostbite. I ducked into College Park to use the bathroom and defrost briefly. Once I got the feeling back in my fingers, I headed back out – originally towards Bay Street where it was supposed to be but then police sirens at Yonge & Gerrard distracted me. When I found nothing but a handful of police and an equal number of spectators I headed back towards Bay, where there also seemed to be a small crowd gathering. I fortunately found a high-ground planter to stand on to photograph as the torch procession moved by, along with, to my astonishment and joy, a group of protesters walking along the sidewalk alongside, still chanting. “Protesters 1, Cops 0,” I thought.

That group passed with little incident and headed to Yonge. Wanting to avoid any other blocks and/or getting trapped in a crush, I headed South and cut across Elm to Yonge Street where the whole group, flame and protesters, passed once again. Likely out of concern for an attack, the torch was surrounded by a tight group of police on bicycles (riding as close as possible to one another on both sides of, and in front and back of, the torch runner) – all I remember is the one in the back yelling at the others to ride closer to one another. This time I followed it along to Edward where, once again, the police had set up a pedestrian roadblock immediately after the torch passed.

From there I cut through Atrium on Bay (thank goodness I know this city!) where it was clear that the relay had long gone past and I’d lost track of the protesters chasing the torch so I headed West on Dundas to Bay to ultimately make it down to NPS (it was almost 8PM at this point – an hour after the torch should have arrived there). I arrived to a completely closed-to-traffic Bay Street, and there were crowd barriers surrounding city hall and NPS all the way around. I and the handful of other curious pedestrians were diverted Westwards behind City Hall along the barriers (which I recalled having seen being driven down Yonge when I crossed college to enter College Park earlier – perhaps a bit too late!)… a break in the barriers at the immediately West side of City Hall allowed us into NPS which was PACKED with people. As I was arriving the torch was literally in the middle of the giant crowd on its way to the stage which faced Southwards in front of City Hall. What did I see not a couple metres behind it? The banners from the protesters who stayed back at Yonge/College. Impressive.

Not much interesting happened after that. I worked my way around to the back of the crowd in time to see the cauldron getting lit and for the 3 Tenors to sing O Canada (which, after the evening’s events, I chose not to participate in)… I worked my way around in behind to discover protesters mingling in among the crowd and chanting and waving flags and banners throughout NPS. And then merch vehicles. EVERYWHERE. It was disgusting. Anyways, at this point I was cold and it was clear all the real drama was over, so I headed back towards the Eaton Centre (but not before snapping a picture of a couple protesters who set up their banner on Queen in front of the Sheraton, and congratulating them on a very effective protest) and defrosted and grabbed food.

All in all, I was blown away by how effective the protesters were. Despite being divided into three, they accomplished exactly what they intended – got a lot of attention, successfully blocked the torch relay, and kept up with it the entire way. They were loud, peaceful, and consistent – all the random groups that got broken up kept with the same chant the entire time. They caught a lot of people off guard which is a pretty great tactic if you want to get far.

I also have to reluctantly commend the police — they didn’t fight the protesters, they didn’t attack them, and despite being caught WAyyyyyyyy off guard at first they jumped into action within a pretty reasonable timeframe (it doesn’t hurt that there’s a huge police station at Bay & College). The only thing that really disappointed me was their roadblocks — the roads were already closed for the relay and for the large crowds so it was kind of unnecessary… and there were lots of people who were genuinely trying to get places who got heavily diverted despite the fact that even if the protesters keep walking (on the sidewalk, I might add, after the initial conflict) they couldn’t have caused any damage. The Maitland one I could understand because it was clearly headed for a major collision, but blocking people from entering Dundas seemed like a poor decision – especially since Yonge-Dundas Square was immediately South which would allow them a place to gather without blocking the roads.

Either way – I’m now home, and still shivering! Looking forward to crawling under the covers… but photos will be up on Flickr soon, hopefully before I get to bed!

EDIT: Pics are now up at http://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetone/sets/72157623022977092/

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4 responses to this post.

  1. That sounds crazy. I’m glad I didn’t feel inclined to see the torch. I’m also glad that the protest stayed peaceful, that’s a much better way to get the point across.

    Reply

  2. Thanks for the great write-up and photos. I was at the rally and although I know it’s sacrilegious to protest the Olympics, I hope people got the point as to why we were there.

    Reply

  3. I hope so too, but judging by some of the online comments threads (and a heated debate I just had with my roommate!), it’s not clear if they do. Which I think is a systemic problem, rather than a problem of the protest itself. I still think it accomplished getting attention for the causes and issues, and if anything, that’s an accomplishment. Congrats on a great job!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Anonymous on 2009/12/20 at 4:24 pm

    on the subverting of police discretion
    thanks for the write-up. i wanted to share this with people, so i decided to write it here.
    earlier in the demo, as we were will still gathering at College and University, i overheard a cop talking to a elderly woman, who was asking about the torch parade route. The cop said that the torch would be travelling down yonge st. and added, in a tone marked by self-assurance and pride, “these people won’t be getting that far.”
    well, we did. and for the rest of his career, that cop will know that his arrogant assumption, which carries with it the full force of state violence, couldn’t manage to convince a tiny group of arguably Canada’s most socially-powerless that their goal was unreachable. the joy that overcame me as crossed onto yonge st. continues to bring a smile to my face, as we chanted the only true fact of human history: “the people, united, will never be defeated.”

    Reply

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