Siobhan – “they were going to strip search me … this feeling, this experience, is the hardest for me to reconcile and one of the times in my life I have felt the most powerless”

We went to Toronto to protest. I’m not going to lie about that because I don’t feel like I should have to. We went to protest the G8/G20 in Toronto because we wanted to exercise our right to protest something we don’t agree with, which is not a crime (and even if it were…) We arrived Friday and took part in the demo leaving Allan Gardens, as well as the People First march and the demo at Queen’s Park on Saturday that turned into police charging, beating and arresting protesters. We made our way through the city Saturday night to the place we were staying, deciding not to go to the prison solidarity dance party that evening because we were exhausted.

Sunday morning we got up early and skipped breakfast to head to the greyhound to put my friend A on a bus. A and I had two large backpacks each, while T had a large bag. As we got off the subway and started to walk down Bay St (about 11:00 am), a cop car passed and all of the police inside turned to look at us. Just as we started to think side streets might be a good idea, the car pulled up alongside us and two officers got out. One ordered me to hand over my backpack.

“Am I legally required to do so?” I asked and he said “As of this morning you are.”

He pulled my backpack out of my hands and barked at me to ID myself, to which I replied that my ID was in the backpack. He made me stay on the curb while he looked for it as another police car and van arrived with five (or four?) more officers. The officers split us up, two of them to one of us. A and T were sat back on the grass by a fence, and I was stood on the curb, handcuffed, in the sunshine as I watched the officers search my bag. They commented on the contents they thought would embarrass me most- my underwear, some personal things- and kept up a steady stream of verbal assault calling me a cunt, a dyke, an asshole protester. The male cop suggested that he should turn me over the the crowd at large to “do whatever they wanted” with me, and suggested that would not just include being beaten. He also talked about violently ripping out my septum piercing, punching me in the face, attacking my family and my home. Throughout this, the female officer called me a cunt or a bitch and laughed at me. The police officers also invited passersby to take photos and tried to publicly humiliate me, telling people I was one of the scum who had trashed their city, asking if they wanted to take a swing at me, creating the idea that I was violent and had taken part in the vandalism the day before.

In my backpack, the following contents were deemed suspicious: my black clothing, including a pair of black underwear (??) that they said made me a member of the black bloc; two bandanas (red and pink); a water bottle full of water; a bottle of vinegar and water solution; a gas mask; an umbrella. I also had Movement Defense Ontario’s number written on my arm and leg, which they said meant I was planning to commit a crime.

The police officers told me these things could lead to “Real jail time, bitch, not just charges.” They ordered me to sit on the curb, handcuffed, and took my boots off as they bagged my things. I told them my cuffs were too tight and they ignored me. More officers showed up to change my cuffs for other cuffs, and the female officer in charge of me laughingly told them I was from Montreal.

“Can she at least speak English?” a new officer asked.

“Enough to tell me her cuffs are very, very tight.” She replied.

The male officer in charge of me took down my physical descriptions, insulting my haircut, making comments about my weight, insinuating that I was unattractive and disgusting. All the time, they asked me questions to which I would not respond, ranging from how I got to the city to whether or not my parents would be proud of me (they are, thank you.)

Finally, they put all of us in a wagon, handcuffed. The wagon was metal and small, just enough room to sit down because the three of us aren’t super tall. We rode around for a bit and then were moved to another, larger wagon divided into groups of people the officers identified as male or female, and each side was divided in two, a larger compartment with the door/window, and a smaller one. The three of us were put in the smaller section with little light. The wagon was full of mostly French speaking people (I think three of us were Anglos) and many of them had been picked up randomly/at various sleeping places. It turns out, a good percent of the people arrested were from Quebec.

Eventually (an hour or so later, probably around 1 pm?) we arrived at the detention centre, where they left us in the wagon, in the sun, for about an hour. By this point, I had to pee and we were overheated, the metal roof was hot from the sunshine. Finally, they took us one by one out of the van, removed our cuffs and replaced them with zip ties. I told the officer in charge of me that I had to pee, badly, and that I needed a bathroom ASAP. They took us one by one through metal detectors, and then assigned us cells- mine was D8. They assigned us numbers and wrist bracelets, and this is where I became Female #5656.

The cell was 20 by 13 feet, approximately. The bathroom the officer had told me would be provided was a porto potty with no door. The walls and ceiling were metal bars crossed over each other, with metal sheeting on two walls to block us from other cells. There was one metal bench along one of the sides, facing the metal detectors and the officers’ station. The place was full of cups and sandwich wrappers, and someone had made a heart out of cups on one wall. They crammed about twenty-five of us into this cell, mostly younger people, many several years younger than me (I range in at almost-twenty-five for anyone who’s curious.) All of us were fairly shocked, unsure as to why we had been arrested. Most of us hadn’t eaten, needed water- but neither food nor water was provided when we asked. A woman in my cell had need for medication, but her pleas for it were not met- she missed two doses before the police took her to take the meds and then did not bring her back. Our wrist restraints were not removed, and we had to eat, sleep, use the washroom in them. I’m not going to go into detail about how hard it is to use the toilet in restraints, but it is very difficult and unsanitary and humiliating to do so in an open stall.

We were really lucky to all be together. We formed a pretty solid group, supporting one another when we needed to cry or needed legal information. We also tried to provide support to the people being entered into the detention centre looking battered and upset. We played theatre games and talked- many of the others had faced threats of sexual assault, racist and homophobic comments. The police started releasing people around 10 pm, but no one from our cell was let out. About eight hours after we had been put in the cell (and at least 10 after being arrested) they brought us food- white bread and cheese slices with margerine, a small styrofoam cup of water. Refills were denied. When those of us who were vegan or lactose intolerant complained, we were ignored or jokingly told “it’s soy cheese, you can’t taste the difference.” We argued back that we could feel the difference as many of us started to get ill. When we asked for a bag to clean up the garbage, the officers told us to just leave the trash in our cell, and eventually it piled up and we ended up sleeping in it. At one point, a chant of “WE WANT VEGETABLES! WE WANT VEGETABLES!” went up, followed by banging on the cell walls. In fact, we took as many opportunities as possible to make noise with our cells, the cages on the right side of us we couldn’t see but could hear very well were so loud sometimes the cops went running to shut them up.

There were no mattresses or beds provided, and the air conditioning was turned up. When we asked for things to keep us warm, the officers told us there weren’t enough clothes to go around, and tried to pit us against each other saying things like “These clothes are supposed to go to this cell, but those girls over there are cold. Do you think their needs are more important than yours?” I think, between the constant overhead lights, the banging, the noise of the officers, and shivering all night I got two hours of sleep.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, as we lay on the concrete cuddling each other, trying to share police issue t-shirts as blankets to stay warm, the police started taking female prisoners our of their cells. At first, we thought they were being released and cheered for them. We soon found out they were being taken off to be strip searched and interrogated. It came to the point where if someone was marched off with a bag of clothing, we knew they were probably being released. If a cop showed up without your belongings, it meant you were going to be processed and re-assigned to a different cell. Most of the people they took out were young, younger than me, some probably between 17 and 19 years of age. They would lead them back past our cell, and often they would be sobbing. Many of the people in my cell had to watch their sisters, cousins and friends return traumatized after these searches.

When my turn came, about twenty hours into my detention, I felt nauseous from nerves, sleep deprivation and the food I had been eating. I was walked through the metal detectors and through rows of cops on each side who took the opportunity to taunt and insult me, one of them “accidentally” banging into me as he passed. The cop assigned to me led me to a small trailer and told me to enter. I entered facing a desk (which held a computer) and three officers. They verified my information (name, d.o.b, address) and showed me that I was being videotaped. They then told me what they were charging me for: weapons possession and breach of peace. I asked them to clarify what weapons possession meant and they told me it meant that the officer arresting me felt I had something on me I could use as a weapon…my umbrella, in this case. A detective started asking me questions and I invoked my right to council. He told me he was not trying to incriminate me, but it was quite obvious he was. Then they told me that because I was so high risk, I was being assigned to a level three search.

“Does that mean that you are strip searching me?” I asked. The officer said yes. “You need to know that I in no way consent to a strip search.” I told the room. The officer shrugged- my bodily sovereignty was unimportant to these people, they were going to strip search me against my will and I couldn’t stop them. I need to stop and say that this feeling, this experience, is the hardest for me to reconcile and one of the times in my life I have felt the most powerless. And that this blatant disregard for people’s control over their own bodies permeates the whole system under which we live.

As I was heading out of the room I stated that two female officers needed to be the ones searching me, and the police officers made fun of me for my demand, though it was met. Two officers escorted me to a small plywood room with a table, in a row with others that looked like change rooms. The cops cut my wrist restraints. They made me undress and they told me I couldn’t put my bra back on because it had underwires. I told them that it was a matter of physical comfort I have a bra, and they looked at each other, told me I couldn’t have it. I repeated that it was a matter of physical comfort that I have one. Eventually, I got them to agree to cut the underwire out and let me wear it that way.

After my nonconsensual strip search, I redressed and was led, handcuffed in metal cuffs, to have my photo taken. There the officers joked about how I was going to burn and the photo would be a good souvenier. One officer said to another “The prisoners say we are violating their human rights” and laughed. The other joined in “What rights?”

After this, I was taken to an empty cell (D6) Once I was inside, my hands were freed for the first time and I stretched my arms, lay down on the bench, briefly trying to process what had happened before realizing that I couldn’t right then. Every time an officer walked by, I demanded they let me speak to my lawyer- this was about twenty three hours into being detained and I was worried because a weapons charge means actual jail time. Every officer told me to wait and I started to demand it, loudly, until an officer came and told me that she had to find two other officers to escort me because my charges made me too dangerous to only have one officer leading me to the phones. I suppose they were worried about that dangerous umbrella of mine again? I told her to get them, that she was violating my rights.

Five minutes later, an officer showed up with a bag of my things and told me I was being released. Wait, what? Released? I thought I was so dangerous that even in handcuffs I needed a three-officer-escort?

The officer led me out, handcuffed me, and put me in a release holding cell in front of a bunch of cops on their lunch break. They finished their pizza, then processed me. They photographed me and led me out into the heat in my police issue sweats and t-shirt, wearing my police-issue socks, clutching my bag of belongings. I was told I couldn’t open it till I get past the gates and then they pushed me out. The crowd across the street cheered, and someone came over to hand me a bottle of water and phone numbers for legal aid and a support line, I was fed and taken care of by an amazing group of activists.

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3 Responses to Siobhan – “they were going to strip search me … this feeling, this experience, is the hardest for me to reconcile and one of the times in my life I have felt the most powerless”

  1. Jackson says:

    They knew very well what they intended to do before the G20, before the vandal/legitimate protester split ocurred. The Toronto Blue Line police forum very clearly indicates that: much lip-smacking about the overtime they would get, and talk about “REAL FUN” and ”smashing hippies” in the ”So it begins G20 Toronto” thread in The Rant forum. Your experience again highlights the the gang mentality that these people have, and how not so different from organized criminal gangs, such as bikers, they really are. (Wonder if that forum thread will remain up, or if they will delete it.)
    What I really like are the polls that cite the majority as supporting the police actions. Not very convincing, since some of those polls are based on in-house panels of paid respondents (Angus Reid).

  2. Kimi says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I hope you got badge numbers because the police you encountered have to be locked up.

  3. Pyne says:

    You spoke too much, whenever you are accosted by the police, only these sentences should be spoken: I want my lawyer. I do not consent to any searches. And I am going to remain silent.

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