The G20 riots weren’t pretty, and social media was there to capture it all. Still, what we saw wasn’t so much its successes as its limiations. Information about the riots poured down from everywhere – the Globe & Mail’s Live Blog, youtube, blogTO and Torontoist’s bloggers, tweets from everyone and their mother, and even the occasional facebook friend who braved the terror and reported back with cellphone pictures.
Still, for me, it’s CP24 and CTV’s old fashioned, live TV coverage that came out on top every time. For one thing, although the cameras could only cover a small area at a time, TV coverage wasn’t limited to the few-minute-long clips of a cellphone camera, or to Twitter’s 140 characters. You could watch an event from start to finish, see every side’s every move, and for the most part judge the events for yourself. The bias came from the editing choices, the commentary of the journalists and the angle of the camera.
Not so with social media. Although Twitter and blogs were updated live, they were horribly limited. The video that’s been going around in the past half hour or so has been that of protesters peacefully singing “Oh Canada,” and being rushed by police officers, on cue, as the song ended. It’s short, shot from up high, and leaves far more questions than answers: what prompted the order for the police to rush forward? were the protesters given a warning? did they obey this warning? were they really peaceful, or did the protesters you can see walking towards the police at the end of the video threaten them in any way?
Protests have always made me nervous, but Toronto’s recent Tamil protests a bit more than usual. They’ve been able to gather massive amounts of participants – by CP24’s estimate, Wednesday’s protest was to have had 100,000 attendees, although I don’t think it actually reached those numbers – and have managed huge disruptions, from forming a human chain through the downtown core a few months ago to Sunday’s impromptu blockade of the Gardiner Expressway.
Peaceful protests are great, but unfortunately it doesn’t take much to change a peaceful protest into a deadly one – especially when so many people are involved. Just how real this concern is was shown on Sunday when, in CP24’s words, without prior warning “protesters overwhelmed a handful of police officers on bikes…and swarmed onto a downtown Toronto highway.” What if someone had been hurt? Or what if these kinds of numbers had been gathered for a more polarizing issue, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Are our police prepared to deal with (God forbid) violence on such a large scale? Canada’s usual lacklustre attitude to security, as well as the “handful of police officers on bikes” do nothing to reassure me, for one. There was a much larger police presence on Wednesday, but the fact that it was a reactionary, rather than proactive, measure worries me.
The protests also raise another question: to what degree do protesters have a right to disturb Canadian civil society for the sake of a conflict in which Canada is not directly involved? On the one hand, it’s important for NGO’s and protest groups to be able to get Canadian society off of its collective behind to stop massacres, and disrupting pedestrian and motor traffic in the downtown core is a great way to get the message across. On the other hand, the peacefulness of Canadian society (among others) is what sets it apart from places like Sri Lanka, so isn’t disturbing that peace therefore counterproductive? Shouldn’t we keep stable and peaceful countries stable and peaceful, while helping others become more so?
So far the protest has only been a nuisance, but one with a penchant for unplanned detours. Sunday’s fiasco was repeated again on Wednesday when the protest, which should have been confined to Queen’s Park, spilled into the downtown core. Added to this is the use of the Tamil Tigers flag: although the protesters claim that it is nothing more than a nationalist emblem, it nonetheless brings with it a mental association as violent as the two crossed rifles in its design. This protest is clearly too volatile and potentially threatening for comfort, and while these questions apply to more than just the current situation, the time to answer them is now.