Bringing Together the Grassroots: A Strategy and a Story from Toronto's G20 Protests

Lesley Wood

When the location of the 2010 G8summit was announced, many grassroots organizers in Toronto were wary. Some were concerned that such protests would weaken local organizing and lead to serious repression against the communities of poor people and immigrants we work with. As a member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), I wanted to make sure that such an event wouldn’t simply suck energy out of existing local campaigns around transit, childcare, poverty, welfare rates, immigration, and housing. Like many, I had participated in summit protests in other cities and remembered them as exciting events, but ones that had led local organizers to burn out – and often left local organizations facing criminal charges, non-association conditions, local hostility, and financial ruin.

At the same time, many of us saw opportunities in the looming summit. Some of us saw a chance for local groups to build capacity, skills, and relationships with each other. If we were able to build a widespread, diverse, radical network of grassroots organizations in the city and the region, the possibility of successfully making longer term change would increase. The mobilizations coordinated by the less formal and more temporary networks that usually surrounded summits weren’t ineffective; in fact, they were often successful in disrupting the summit by educating and building alternative institutions. Nevertheless, we felt that for the effects of the summit mobilization to last – and to really challenge power – the convergence needed to be rooted in diverse communities: in housing projects, in schools, in people of colour led, and poor people’s organizations.

After a couple of short-lived efforts to begin organizing around the G20, which attracted limited participation, a group of organizations – including OCAP, No One Is Illegal, and others – that had been meeting to coordinate around responses to the economic crisis began to talk about their vision for the G20mobilization. These organizations argued that resisting the summit could enable people across the city to feel their power, and could help us understand and educate about how G20and G8decisions affect our lives. Organizations participated for different reasons, but we all wanted this convergence to be different from previous ones. Specifically, we wanted this convergence to build stronger, more militant, and well connected movements that would be better equipped for anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggle. In order to achieve these goals, and to build solidarity in the city, we needed a mobilization that would foreground local campaigns and organizations. We proposed a joint protest for the Friday before the summit that would highlight local campaigns; we named ourselves the Toronto Community Mobilization Network (TCMN) to highlight our strategy and our intention of providing space for community activists to network beyond their immediate organizations and issues and develop a joint strategy. We talked to other activists about this strategy and built ties with the groups involved in the People’s Summit. We presented our vision in workshops at the Toronto, Hamilton, and Montreal anarchist bookfairs. When we did this, we tried to convince other activists that by building coalitions amongst community organizations and organizers, we were more likely to be successful than if we only put our energy into disrupting the summit.

We explained our strategy for the G20mobilization by telling a story that was rooted in a particular critique of the summit protests of 10 years before. By telling a story about community organizing, privilege, and direct action, we presented a model that combined the energy of summit protests with an emphasis on local coalition building. This story facilitated a coalition amongst movements and shaped the convergence that followed. But the construction and use of this story also made it difficult for organizers to perceive other dynamics.

According to Eric Selbin, the stories organizers tell deeply influence the way that organizing takes place.1They explain who we are and what we’re doing, and, sometimes more importantly, who we’re not and what we’re not doing. As Charles Tilly has noted, such stories of mobilization “link people’s commitments to shared projects.”2Nevertheless, Tilly found that “the trouble with stories is” that “they are not real explanations of what is happening. They do not represent the complexity of social life.” Consequently, organizers “need to look at both the stories and other systematic explanations of social interaction in order to understand anything – including political strategy and successful movements.”3The TCMN’s strategy was intentional and explicit. Nevertheless, the story we told in order to devise this strategy was rooted in a specific interpretation of movement history and norms around storytelling.

Those of us who began to mobilize around the G20knew that the summit protests of the global justice movement were laboratories for innovation that provided opportunities for different movements to network and collaborate. They pushed the boundaries of street militancy and confrontation in important ways. Each time a summit convergence took place, new people would become mobilized and radicalized through their participation. Through these summits, alternative institutions such as law collectives, medic collectives, and community spaces were developed. At times, the protests themselves had an impact on authorities by exacerbating fractures in the structures of global governance and creating crises for the host governments. In Cancún, even though the walled fortress of the summit kept the protesters at a distance, delegates from the developing world walked out of the meetings in disgust. Despite small and heavily repressed protests in Miami, the Free Trade Area of the Americas was largely abandoned because of disputes concerning the agreement to liberalize agriculture. Massive protests against the G8summit in Gleneagles, Scotland in 2005 pushed leaders to promise increased aid to Africa. The subsequent abandonment of those promises led to the 2007 anti-G8summits in Heilingendamm, Germany that called into question the legitimacy of the G8and contributed to the formation of the G20.

Despite these successes, activists advanced widespread critiques of these protests, and of the “summit hopping” associated with them. The summit protesters were characterized as largely white, young, middle class, and disconnected from local campaigns and struggles. A widely followed debate erupted on anarchist listservs in 2001 in response to a piece called “S-Top hopping!” posted by someone named Marco, a member of the well respected Dutch organization EuroDusnie. In this account, the typical “summit protester” appeared as an outsider who would arrive in town solely for the protest. For Marco, summit protests were in conflict with local organizing. As the wave of protest slowed, many global justice activists shifted their energies from “summit protests” to local organizing. In this way, they distanced themselves from their earlier activities. As was the case elsewhere, the critique of summit-hopping was widespread in Toronto during the early 2000s.

When we developed our strategy for the anti-G20mobilization, we used this critique to justify our emphasis on local organizing, anti-oppression politics, and coalition building. We told a story that used the tension between summit-hopping and local organizing to express our strategy and convince others about how the convergence should take place. We framed the movement in a way that we hoped would allow ordinary Torontonians to see themselves as part of the mobilization. In our story, the convergence was a space in which marginalized people would join together and win. By highlighting the connection between grassroots local campaigns and summit protests, we attempted to overcome prior divisions amongst Toronto organizations, and build the type of summit protest that would strengthen long term campaigns. We achieved some of our goals. However, the difficulties we encountered in creating a story that truly transcended our present circumstances led to other problems. In order to understand the construction of our story, as well as its telling and reception, we need to look at the recent history of organizing and protest in Toronto.

Local Histories, Local Networks

Unlike Montreal, Ottawa, Halifax, Vancouver, New York, or DC, Toronto had never experienced the trauma and opportunity of a large summit protest. Nevertheless, Toronto was a centre of anti-neoliberal organizing in the mid and late 90s. This organizing arose in response to the provincial government’s widespread cuts to social services, education, the public sector, and health care. During this period, unions, student organizations, and the provincial New Democratic Party took the lead in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people in a series of rotating one-day strikes in various cities. In Toronto, anti-capitalist community organizations brought a particular direct action repertoire to the labour movement mobilizations as they disrupted government meetings, occupied offices and blocked roads. The high point of these combined activities was two Days of Action in October 1996. During these days Toronto witnessed a general strike, occupations, and a massive march of 150,000 people. As opposition to the province’s austerity measures waned and the anti-cuts coalitions fragmented, the strategies of mass mobilization and direct action that had complemented each other during the Days of Action became decoupled. Increasingly, the proponents of each model became isolated from one another. This division moderated the influence of the Seattle protests on Toronto three years later. It also affected the way that organizers mobilized against the G20summit in 2010.

In the wake of the Seattle protests, a number of local anti-globalization coalitions including the Mobilization for Global Justice (Mob4Glob) emerged in Toronto. Mob4Glob brought together activists from labour movement, student, and community groups. Their main activity was to organize activist infrastructure for Torontonians going to Washington, DC(2000), Quebec City (2001), and Kananaskis (2002). When organizing protests in Toronto, the coalition didn’t introduce the tactics and formations of blockading, black blocs, and affinity groups associated with summit protesting. Instead, they focused on mass marches and rallies similar to those held during the Days of Action (albeit with the addition of spectacular street theatre and puppetry). At the same time, other Toronto activists were developing a community organizing strategy that emphasized building leadership in oppressed communities and de-emphasized coalition building in favour of serving the needs of specific constituencies. Although these activists used direct action to disrupt the offices and homes of decision makers, they avoided the repertoire of the summit protests.

At the height of the anti-cuts mobilizations these coalition-building and direct action strategies were mutually reinforcing. Organizers combined occupations and mass marches. During this period, groups often collaborated through the city-wide Metro Network for Social Justice.4However, after the coalitions associated with the anti-cuts protests fragmented, tensions increased between those who worked with political parties using mass mobilization and those who used direct action. In the wake of the Seattle protests, and after demonstrations by OCAPwere seriously repressed, mass mobilization and direct action became associated with the antithetical terms of the global vs. local debate occurring elsewhere in the global justice movement.The city’s protest networks became increasingly divided. Considering Toronto Starcoverage of protests between 1998-2002 reveals that the Toronto organizations who engaged in street protest and made it into print were clustered around only two highly visible actors – the labour movement on one hand and OCAPon the other. However, the two clusters weren’t working in tandem.

In 2003, I asked activists from Mob4Glob, the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG), and OCAPabout the groups and movements that influenced their organizations. I found that, although both Mob4Glob and OCAPcited more than 20 influences (past and present), there was little overlap between their networks. Indeed, they were linked only through sections of the labour movement and by OPIRG. Identities and strategies were divided in the city between those who used direct action and those who favoured mass mobilization and coalition building. As the anti-Mike Harris and anti-globalization protest waves declined, Mob4Glob dissolved, and OCAPwas weakened through repression, isolation, and turnover. In this way, the tension between the two organizing models subsided, and the possibility of reconciling grassroots organizing and direct action with mass mobilizations began to gradually to re-emerge.

Reconfiguring the Networks

Vital to these historical accounts of anti-summit organizing and local struggle in Toronto is the rise of the immigrant rights organization No One Is Illegal-Toronto (NOII-Toronto) in 2003. By 2006, the organization had gained momentum and brought organizations and individuals together to build a city-wide immigrant rights movement based on an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial analysis. Using some of the language and organizing models of the global justice movement while incorporating the anti-oppression politics which critiqued that movement, the organization provided the city with a model that combined casework and coalition building with mass mobilization. These features were particularly evident during NOII’s annual May Day march and rally. As the Harper government escalated its attacks on immigrant communities by raiding workplaces and neighbourhoods and increasing deportations, contact increased between NOIIgroups in Toronto and Vancouver. The Toronto group began to experiment with direct action techniques and demphasized casework. In this way, it forged a new approach to organizing in Toronto.

In 2006, NOII-Toronto travelled to the Grassy Narrows blockade. There, a number of immigrant rights activists were arrested in a protest coordinated by environmental justice activists. Although these arrests led to tensions among the activists involved, ongoing conversations betweenNOII-Toronto and Grassy Narrows support activists has deepened alliances. New multi-issue coalitions began to emerge. In 2007, a coalition of women’s organizations and anti-poverty groups organized a housing takeover. That September, a Day of Action on poverty and housing brought together a wide range of organizations, including a nascent Disability Rights movement. During this action, small scale direct action and street theatre were combined with a mass march.

At the same time, the organizations that had been most active in the early 2000s were less visible. A new set of organizations began to take centre stage in Toronto. The city’s most visible street protests in 2008 and 2009 were those organized to support Tamil, Tibetan, and Palestinian sovereignty and human rights; all combined direct action or civil disobedience with mass mobilizations. Previous animosities between the unions, International Socialists, anarchist networks, and community organizations became less prominent since none of these groups (with the exception of striking CUPE3903 members at York University) was visibly active.

As a result of these changes, coalitions amongst various grassroots groups began to emerge. In 2008, when OCAPcalled a meeting of grassroots groups to strategize around the economic crisis, over a dozen organizations attended and a new cluster of organizations – including community organizations outside of the downtown core – began to consolidate.

The Possibilities and Limits of the Story

By 2008, new possibilities of collaboration were becoming increasingly visible in Toronto. Nevertheless, many activists were still wary of organizing around the G8and G20summits. These events presented an entirely new situation marked by significant challenges. The need to develop a strategy to address these challenges was exacerbated by the increasing pace of organizing. In Ottawa and other cities, 2010 was declared a “Year of Resistance.” In order to offer a coherent way forward, we began to construct and recount a particular story.

Selbin writes, “the right story at the right time… enables and enobles revolutionary activity” (186). However, the norms of storytelling mean that the stories we tell are not simply a reflection of reality, nor an articulation of a complete strategy. Francesca Polletta defines stories as “accounts of a sequence of events in the order they occurred so as to make a normative point.”5Narratives gain legitimacy because of their coherence, which works to contain the ambiguities and complexities of social life. Stories are most likely to succeed when they use a plotline that resonates with the experience of their listeners. The story of a militant, grassroots summit protest against the Toronto meeting of the G20placed events in a sequence that, to us, made normative sense both politically and morally. The story of a militant grassroots convergence of community organizations that would confront the G20summit in the short term and build capacity in the long term made enough sense that it encouraged some people to participate, and participate in a particular way.

In addition to the story’s plotline of social transformation, its telling activated particular collective identities and de-activated others. Stories help to consolidate shared identities by activating the boundary between those who are and are not mobilizing. They help to create a sense of “us,” a version of “we, the people, who are fighting back.” In this way, the story we told de-activated the boundary between “summit hopper” and “community organizer” and produced the new categories of “grassroots activist,” “anti-capitalist,” and “anti-colonial activist.” We made use of existing racial, class, and historical boundaries and tensions in order to make our story more coherent. We drew on myth and memory in its construction. Framed partly as a critique of the global justice movement, it was a story that had a certain moral heft. In this story, grassroots organizations, people of colour, indigenous communities, and long term, coalition-building strategies were valorized. One can see this in the way that the TCMNdescribed itself on the website:

The network is a collection of Toronto-based organizers and allies, that will use the fleeting moment of the G8/G20 meetings in Toronto in June 2010 in Ontario to come together and share the work that we do every other day of the year. We will build the momentum for a movement for Indigenous Sovereignty and Self-Determination, Environmental and Climate Justice, Migrant Justice and an End to War and Occupation, Income Equity and Community Control over Resources, Gender Justice and Queer and disAbility rights…

The TCMN’s emphasis on building ongoing campaigns rather than engaging with the agenda of the summit is clear. In contrast to the recent G20 mobilizations in Pittsburgh and London (where the coalitions were organized around a particular ideology, issue, or event) the TCMNattempted to mobilize a broad range of organizations and individuals (as allies) for the entire week of action. In contrast to summit protests in Quebec City in 2001 or Montreal in 2003, no invitation to participate was extended to people in other cities. Little emphasis was placed on the specifics of the summit agenda. The story we told about building our strength for long-term transformation helped to make this happen and allowed community activists to locate themselves in the summit protest. The TCMNself-description reads: “with power and vision, people of colour, indigenous peoples, women, the poor, the working class, queer and trans people, and disabled people will create and lead alternatives; will decide for themselves; will transcend the systems that oppress them and keep them from talking to one another.”

The story being told is a particular one. It emphasizes communication, grassroots mobilization, and leadership by the most marginalized. Individuals and groups who aren’t marginalized are framed as allies. There is little energy given to mobilizing those who already see themselves as “militant summit protestors.” We assumed they would show up for the mobilization regardless of what we did. The attempt to reach out to people of colour and poor activists was even more explicit in the material surrounding the “Justice for Our Communities” action on June 25. The callout for this action listed the same set of identities as the TCMNstatement and continues: “Toronto’s communities are uniting to take back what is ours!” The way this story valued certain identities and strategies downplayed tensions between mass mobilizations, direct action, community organizing, and summit protests.

However, our story had unintended consequences. By emphasizing grassroots people over summit protesters, local targets as opposed to global ones, and people of colour and more marginalized folks over white and more mainstream folks, the story made some dynamics and contradictions invisible.

1. Grassroots People vs. Summit Protesters: From the beginning, those who were attracted to the meetings to plan for the G20summit protests tended to be activists who didn’t represent theTCMN’s presentation of itself. Instead, most of those who showed up for TCMNmeetings were white, many were students, and most were in their twenties and early thirties. Despite the repetition of the story that this was a network of marginalized people of colour and poor people in grassroots organizations, and despite the establishment of formal processes to prioritize the participation of such participants, meetings were increasingly comprised of these more typical “global justice” activists. Our refusal to recognize the actual rather than the proclaimed demographics meant that some of us didn’t always pay attention to our actual resources, connections, strengths, and weaknesses. This was evident in our outreach. Although we presented ourselves as a network of grassroots organizations connected to a wider range of community groups and neighbourhoods, in reality we remained limited to smaller and more particular section of these communities. Seeing this, other groups became wary of engaging in the summit mobilization in any significant way.

2. Build it Up vs. Shut it Down: The story of coalition building and bottom-up revolution didn’t convince activists whose political identity and strategy emphasized disruption and confrontation. While the goal of the story for many of us was to combine “build it up” with “shut it down” during the Days of Action, the way the story was told sometimes presented our strategy of (long term) “build it up” as standing directly in contrast to a strategy of (short term) “shut it down.” This was partly a result of trying to build alliances with grassroots activists who were wary of participating in more confrontational protest. As a result, the story reactivated a division between a grassroots, marginalized identity engaged in community organizing and a white, young, militant, “anti-capitalist” identity and strategy.

This dualism reiterated the recent history of the global justice movement, even as we tried to transcend it. In instances where activists were able to build enough trust to have the conversations that would overcome this division, useful synergies developed. For example, support for direct action amongst anti-racist activists countered the accusations that property destruction was a strategy of privileged white kids. However, at the point where the tension between grassroots coalition building and direct action was most potent, opportunities for increasing the militancy and creativity of the actions may have been missed. For example, in our efforts to ensure that the Justice for Our Communities action was a welcoming space for community organizations with less experience in street protest, we may have lost our chance to disrupt the summit directly. At no point did we strategize with experienced activists about how to disrupt without undermining our other goal of remaining welcoming to as many participants as possible.

3. Fetishizing the Local and Excluding the Diaspora:Our emphasis on “local mobilizations” emerged in order to provide space for local campaigns, and to distinguish the anti-G20 convergence from the “global” emphasis of past summit protests. In this way, we sought to avoid the criticism of being “disconnected” or “elitist.” This was particularly true for the Justice for Our Communities event. However, the story we told did not resonate with immigrant organizations working on issues in their home countries – Iran, Palestine, Mexico, Sri Lanka or Chile. This oversight is especially significant when one considers that grassroots mobilizations of diasporic communities have produced some of the most active street campaigns in the past few years and constitute a clear bridge between local and global organizing. With more energy and reflexivity, we could have redefined “local” to include such struggles; however, as we struggled to keep up with the pace of organizing, the story remained unaffected. Consequently, diasporic activists were marginalized from the June 25th demonstration.

4. The Disappearance of the Labour Movement: The story we told was intended to mobilize grassroots activists and bring them together so that they could build relationships and confront the G20. However, we defined “grassroots activist” in a way that was rooted in an anti-oppression critique of the whiteness of the global justice movement (Martinez 1999 and others). This critique was heavily influenced by a US-based analysis that emphasized the particular significance of people of colour-led grassroots movements. This critique largely ignored the role of organized labour and created a separation between “grassroots movements” and the “labour movement.” As such, the story we told largely excluded the labour movement. This allowed pre-existing tensions between direct action strategies and mass mobilization strategies to persist. In the end, the labour movement played a significant role in the anti-G20mobilizations, but most of the collaboration between the TCMNand organized labour was invisible. This changed after state repression began in earnest.

The story of a convergence of grassroots communities opposing the G20allowed a new type of summit protest to emerge. The story was coherent partly because it accorded with our understandings of social protest and how it is affected by race and class. But the dualisms contained in our approach paradoxically limited our potential to strategically bring together grassroots communities for a militant convergence.

The story’s limits were not simply a reflection of the limits of storytelling; its content and form reflected historical relationships and divisions among social movements in Toronto (and between social movements in Toronto and elsewhere). As organizers, we used this story to help bring grassroots organizations together for a long-term, radical transformation of society. We were partly successful but the story was not enough on its own. We also needed to build trust among coalition partners, listen to their different perspectives, gather and redistribute resources, and improve our understandings, practices, and relationships. Grassroots groups converged, but the relationships of trust weren’t strong among those we wanted to reach, so the story’s power was weakened.

The history of tensions between strategies and identities in Toronto meant that bridging different repertoires remained difficult. As Marx said, we could make our own history, but we couldn’t make it as we pleased.6The circumstances under which we make history are not self-selected. They are given and transmitted from the past.

Conclusion

As the protests unfolded, the story we had told nearly washed away as we tried to make sense of what was going on. We struggled to figure out whether things were working, whether the actions were a success or a failure. By Sunday, the last day of the summit, we compulsively told and retold stories about what we’d experienced and tried to make some sense of the protests, the arrests, the police actions, and the media coverage. What had happened? Why had it happened? What did it mean? Gradually, people’s stories began to consolidate around particular positions. Those of us who had invested a great deal in the story of a community-based summit protest returned to our narrative and looked for a conclusion. Two weeks after the protests subsided, TCMNposted the following summary on their website:

Nearly 40,000 people took to the streets, gathered in discussion, watched movies, set up a tent city, danced and fought… For the first time, an economic summit saw a march of thousands against colonization and for Indigenous sovereignty… Instead of simplifying our diverse struggles in to one issue, we supported actions for queer and trans rights, environmental justice, income equity and community control over resources, gender justice and disability rights, migrant justice, and an end to war and occupation. We created the conditions for over 100 grassroots organizations to come together, to build relations, to grow stronger together… We saw communities in ongoing resistance, people of color, poor people, indigenous people, women, disabled folk, queer folk, and others leading the days of action. This in itself is a victory.

It was the coherent conclusion that the story needed, and spoke to our hopes for the future. It helped us to maintain the priority of grassroots participation and it encouraged the maintenance of new coalitions. The story reflected real strategic achievements. However, TCMN’s claim that the mobilization was a success was met with skepticism. Who was declaring victory already? With so much going on, so many new players, and so much still uncertain, many people resisted any pat evaluation.

It’s too early to see whether the heralded connections between these different struggles will last. The story of coalition building allowed us to come together and bridge historical fractures – for the short term. But its manufacture and telling also distracted us from other stories, tensions, and complications that limited our ability to see clearly. Once the summit was over, we felt the pressure to conclude the story and give our experiences meaning. And so we did. However, we need to remember that this story is an oversimplification and there are many voices and stories, particularly when new people are mobilized. As organizers or as supporters, we need to look at all of these stories with an awareness of both their value and their limitations. Even now, four months after the G20 protests, multiple stories are being told about what happened this summer in Toronto. And this variety and range of storytelling is productive. A good story can be compelling, but sometimes the confusion that arises when we consider what comes next is the most fertile opportunity of all. H

1 Selbin, Eric. 2010. Revolution, Rebellion, Resistance: The Power of Story.Zed Books: New York.

2 Tilly, Charles 2006. Why: What Happens When People Give Reasons. Princeton UP.

3 Tilly, Charles. 1999. ``The Trouble with Stories` in The Social Worlds of Higher Education: Handbook for Teaching in a New Century.Editors Bernice A. Pescosolido, Ronald Aminzade. Pine Forge Press.

4 Conway, Janet. 2000. “Knowledge and the Impasse in Left Politics: Potentials and Problems in Social Movement Practice,” Studies in Political Economy 62: Summer 2000 http://spe.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/spe/article/viewFile/6735/3734

5 Polletta, Francesca. 2006. It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics.Chicago UP.

6 Marx, Karl. 1852. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm