Steve Paikin, veteran Canadian journalist, describes arrest and beating of Guardian newspaper journalist
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, reporting from the G-20 in Toronto. Now joining us is Steve Paikin. He’s the host of TVO (used to be known as TVOntario), which is the major public broadcaster in Ontario. The show is called The Agenda. Thanks for joining us.
STEVE PAIKIN, HOST, THE AGENDA (TVO): Sure.
JAY: Now, you’ve been a current affairs broadcaster at TVOntario for 18, 19 years. Have you seen anything like what you’ve witnessed this weekend in terms of the police?
PAIKIN: I saw a crowd of people very organically just sort of gathering on Yonge Street. It was a very peaceful group of people, actually. Came together quite organically. There was no ringleader of it, no people with masks on, no people with signs. It just was people coming together.
JAY: So none of this black bloc look.
PAIKIN: None of that. None of that. We had seen earlier in the day people with masks on their faces trashing stores, torching police cars. This was the furthest thing from that. This was a group of people who had a very simple message, which is whether the G-20 is here or whether they’re not here, we ought to have the right to freely assemble and freely speak in this city. There’s a history of that in the city of Toronto, capital city of Ontario, and that’s the message they were trying to get out. So they wandered around the streets. There was, I don’t know, maybe a couple thousand of them walking down Yonge Street, you know, moving onto some side streets, walking around for about an hour, would come in contact with a police line, would turn around and go somewhere else. This wasn’t a group that was looking for a confrontation. In fact, there were a couple of moments during the course of it where they came to the big fence, which, of course, is well known as surrounding the whole G-20 area. And I thought to myself, okay, here we go; someoneï¿½there’s 100 police on the other side of that fence, and some crazy person is going to try to scale that fence right now and get themselves on TV. Didn’t happen. They got to the edge of the fence. They sang their songs. Peaceful protest, peaceful protestï¿½that’s what they kept saying. And then they turned around and went somewhere else. At one point in the eveningï¿½crowd is a little smaller right now. There’s rain every now and then, so the crowd was thinning out a bit.
JAY: What size was the crowd at this point?
PAIKIN: It’s probably down to 500 or 600 at this point. They find themselves trapped at the base of one of the biggest skyscrapers in the city, the First Canadian Place. And there’s a police line, police all clad in riot gear on one side, police line on the other side, and they got nowhere to go. So they sit down. Everybody’s making a peace sign. They’ve got nowhere to go and they don’t want any trouble. And all of a sudden, for no apparent reason that I could tellï¿½because it certainly didn’t appear as if the police were threatened; their safety certainly wasn’t in jeopardy, there was no potential damage to property or their livesï¿½the line started to move in.
JAY: How many police?
PAIKIN: I’m going to say probably, you know, 50 on one side, 30 on another.
JAY: Shields? Batons?
PAIKIN: Oh, yeah, and guns. I didn’t know what they were firing, but at one point, you know, they started firing on the crowd, probably rubber bullets, maybe justï¿½but it was definitely pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.
JAY: Now, Chief Blair of the Toronto Police Services said there’s been no firing of rubber bullets. You saw something being fired.
PAIKIN: I asked whatï¿½look it, somethingï¿½I felt it whiz right by me, and it was repeated. And I don’t know what it was. I couldn’t swear it was rubber bullets. I asked the police afterwardsï¿½’cause I had my media badge onï¿½I asked the police afterwards: what’s in those guns? And they said smoke bombs and rubber bullets. So I’m assuming that’s what they had.
JAY: And these are at 500 or 600 people sitting.
PAIKIN: Yeah. They scatter, needless to say. The crowd goes off in any number of different directions. But then the police backed off, and somehow the crowd reconstituted itself after a while, walked further south towards the G-20 area, stopped on a side street called the Esplanade. The Esplanade’s a veryï¿½it’s kind of a thin street. You’ve got a large hotel on one side; you’ve got a bank of restaurants in the other. And once again the crowd just sort of gathered, and somebody said, we’re going to stay right here until somebody from the G-20 comes out and tells us why they’re taking away our civil rights; we just want the right to peacefully protest. Well, at that point, kind of history repeated. Fifty copsï¿½well, maybe more than that, maybe 75 cops on one side, you know, taking their batons and smashing their shields and moving in, establishing a line. Same thing on the other side. The protesters aren’tï¿½I even hesitate to call them protesters, ’cause they weren’t really protesting. They were sort of gathered as a crowd, and once again sat down on the road making peace signs, most of the time not even chanting, just quiet.
JAY: So the police are doingï¿½this is usually the symbol of intimidation.
PAIKIN: It worked, believe me.
JAY: And it’s usually when you’re up against demonstrators that are being very aggressive.
PAIKIN: Yeah. There was no aggressive demonstration here. It was just a peaceable protest. Anyway, the police lines start to move in further and further and further, and clearly they have everybody surrounded by right now. And there’s nowhere to go. And it then got quite bizarre, because one line came in and said, get out, get moving that way, leave, and the other side of police line kept coming in and saying, get out, get out the other side, leave, and the protesters are saying, we don’t know where to go. You know, you’re telling us to go this way, you’re telling us to go this way. What do you want us to do? Where do we go?
JAY: Still any rubber bullets?
PAIKIN: No, nothing at this stage. At that point, the police just decided that I guess they’d had enough. Now, I don’t know if they’re operating onï¿½I don’t know if there’s a protocol here, Paul. I don’t know if they’re operating on some order from somewhere off-site. I don’t know whether there was a commander on-site who ordered. But clearly something had changed, because instead of just standing there as they had for a few minutes, they moved in. The police basically say, you’ve got a choice: you can stay and we’ll arrest you and take you away, or you can leave. And they started saying that to everybody. And some people left; you know, the crowd, some started to disperse. And others just stayed on the ground, not saying anything, flashing the peace sign, and the police would come in and pick them up and take them away.
JAY: And where are you at this point?
PAIKIN: I am on the south side of Esplanade. And I don’t know if you know the hotel, but there are several very thick columns in front of the hotel, between the hotel and the road. And I’ll tell you something, I wasï¿½I don’t mind saying itï¿½I was hiding behind those columns, because the police had their guns drawn.
JAY: And by “guns” we’re saying rubber bullet guns.
PAIKIN: Rubber bullet guns, smoke bomb guns, whatever they were. They were big and they look scary. I didn’t want to have any arguments with them. And at that moment, I just thought: it would only take one idiot protester or one idiot police officer to do something stupid before this got really dangerous. And it was very scary. So I was kind of, you know, finding a position behind the pillar and sort of peeking out every now and then, just to see what was going on. At that point, a couple of police officers came up to me and said, okay, you’ve got to go. And I said, but I’m here doing my job; I’m with the media; here’s my G-20 accreditation. And they said, well, you can stay and report, but we’ll arrest you if you do, or you can go and we’ll take you off-site and you can leave. So at that moment, I thought to myself: I’m not going to be able to do a lot of reporting sitting in a jail cell, so okay, I’ll go. As I walked away, these two police officers escorting me away, escorting me away from this site, I see, 5 feet away from me, a reporter by the name ofï¿½I later found out his name; I didn’t know it at the timeï¿½Jesse.
JAY: Is it Jesse Rosenfeld?
PAIKIN: Jesse Rosenfeld.
JAY: We know him, ’cause he’s done some work for us from the Middle East.
PAIKIN: Okay. He’s reporting, apparently, for The Guardian. He doesn’t have a G-20 ID badge; he has the Guardian ID badge. So the police officers say to himï¿½one grabs him by one arm, the other grabs him by the other arm, picks him up, drags him over, says, we’re going to take your badge, we’re going to check and see if you are who you say you are, and wait right here. He had no choice to wait right thereï¿½they were holding on to him. Jesse wasn’t rude and he wasn’t belligerent, but he continued to press them: Why are you detaining me? Why won’t you let me do my job? I’m here from the The Guardian. It’s a reputable newspaper. You know, he kept going like this. And they took the badge. One officer left, presumably to do the identity check. He continued to push the officers by asking them, why am I here, what are you doing, why won’t you let me do my job. He was completely immobilized. Jesse’s, like, 5’5″, 140 pounds. I mean, he’s a scrawny little guy. A third police officer, wearing T-shirts and shorts, not riot gear, walked over and just hauled back and gave him one right in the gut, and Jesse doubled over.
JAY: This is while he’s being held by other policemen.
PAIKIN: Jesse fell down, face first, onto the ground. Same officer then came, elbowed him right on the back. And he’s obviously out of commission at that point, and I think screaming as well. The officer who was escorting me away at this pointï¿½I mean, we both saw it, looked at me and said, “Geez, that shouldn’t have happened. Shouldn’t have done that.” And then I was kind of rushed away. And I was attempting toï¿½I’d been Tweeting all night long, and had, I guess, a good number of people following what was going on. And at that point, my battery died and I couldn’t Tweet the fact that this had happened. So I hustled myself to a computer and eventually filled in the blanks. But that was disturbing, to say the least, to see that. That was very disturbing.
JAY: Now, this is not the only instance of an attack on a journalist over the last weekend. As people that watch The Real News know, one of our journalists, Jesse Freeston, was hauled away from covering a confrontation and was punched in the face a couple times. We’ve heard of some other journalists that have been arrested. Others, the same choice: if you want to stay and report, you get arrested, or get the hell out of there. What do you make of this? What is the significance of what’s happening?
PAIKIN: Frankly, I don’t know why it had to happen. I think there’s a distinction that needs to be made between people who only want to destroy property and torch police cars, and are wearing disguises so you can’t make out their identity, and they have a kind of orchestrated strategic approach to, you know, damaging property and harming people. There’s that. And then there was what I saw, which was middle-class people of all ages, a very diverse crowd, just trying to make a point that whether the G-20 is here or whether it isn’t here, we don’t necessarily give up all of our civil rights to speak freely and to assemble. That’s the only point, as far as I can tellï¿½and I’ve talked to probably 50 demonstrators over the course of the nightï¿½that’s the only point they were trying to make. And for trying to make that point, several hundred of them ended up in jail and a few of them got beaten up.
JAY: Yeah, the numbersï¿½last number I heard is 500, but since I heard the number, it sounds like a few hundred more. What does it tell us about democracy in Ontario that it seems like the cabinet, first of all, can pass a piece of legislation, actually, enact a regulation of a piece of legislation called the Public Works Protection Act, which essentially allows the police to designate an area and search, seize, and eliminate probable cause? And then most of the people that were arrested are actually being told what they’re doing is an illegal assembly, even though what they’re doing is simply peaceful assembly. Where are we?
PAIKIN: I’ve been watching protests in this city for 30 years. I’ve been covering events in the city for 30 years. This was not a great day for democracy in Toronto. I saw things I’d never seen before. I saw things that frankly should not have happened. And people will come to their own conclusions about what they believe the state of democracy to be in Toronto and in Canada as a result of what happened. It was a sad bloody day, I’ll tell you that much.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.