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A bubble bursts in a zone of freedom

I live in Toronto’s Kensington market, a small enclave of cool smack in the middle of one of the most multicultural cities on the planet. The wonderful thing about Toronto is that for the most part, people get along. They come from all walks of life and belong to every economic stratum but generally treat each other with mutual respect and kindness.

That’s why it was so unnerving to see the peaceful streets of Toronto turned into a segregated war zone for the G20. We in Kensington groaned at the very thought of the conference. The idea of world leaders discussing further globalisation is disturbing. We are at the heart of the eat local, cycling and public space movements and see the G20 at best as irrelevant and at worst as a contributing factor in the downward spiral of the planet.

Kensington is a place where we create temporary autonomous zones of freedom one Sunday a month, closing the streets to cars and celebrating the liberation of our public space with music and dancing in the streets.

For seven Sundays every summer, we own the streets. Corporations do not sponsor our festival; in fact we refuse the whole notion of sponsorship. This feeling of local ownership and celebration of public space is cherished by us in this neighbourhood, so we were particularly offended when roving gangs of police began showing up all over the town.

Holding the summit in Toronto also seemed to be a cruel joke played by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. An out of touch neo-con and a master at media and public manipulation, Harper has no representation in Toronto, thinks it’s far too Left and has gone out of his way to hurt the city by denying funding and cutting programmes.

Militarising the police, bisecting the city with a security fence and creating business havoc seemed to many like another jab at this town for denying him the majority he so deeply desires. Citizens spent time gawking at the bored police, but as the summit neared, the atmosphere became more heated, the police more aggressive and our feeling of helplessness more pronounced.

Things started off well on Saturday. I joined a large peaceful protest and played saxophone with a group of drummers. They are veterans of the 1960s protest movements and love a good parade. My favourite moment was serenading a phalanx of storm troopers as they rushed to defend the American embassy. I tried to puncture their air of importance by standing right next to them and playing just as a high school band might play the football team onto the field.

We marched peacefully for an hour, feeling safety in numbers and laughing at the absurd police manoeuvres going on around us. And then things started to get surreal.

I rushed off to perform at a jazz club. There was live coverage of the protest on one screen and the Ghana-USA soccer match on the other. Just as Ghana scored the go-ahead goal, a police cruiser was set ablaze and the Toronto game got more intense.

Police stood by and let the Black Bloc smash windows and vandalise some of the commercial areas of town. No one could stop a handful of easily recognisable vandals from running amok?

Our suspicions were raised about agent provocateurs, because soon after the spree of property violence, the police became much more aggressive. Throughout the weekend, the police attacked hundreds of peaceful protesters and left most Torontonians in a state of shock and anger.

As the leaders leave and the security fence comes down, this city has a powerful hangover that may never go away. In one short weekend, we went from being a peaceful and prosperous city to a deserted ghost town patrolled by roving gangs of angry police. The New World Order hit Toronto with a resounding thud. Our bubble has been burst, our civil liberties denied.

I hope we will have the courage to fight back and regain control of our own streets. For now, we remain bowed but unbroken. The next time the G20 comes calling, we will say no thanks.

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