Riot police used stun guns and 12 canisters of debilitating tear gas yesterday as the G-7 protests turned violent, sending people to hospital with burning skin and eyes. Thirty-four were arrested, and late last night, protesters gathered outside the Halifax police station where those arrested were locked up.
The confrontation, which at its height in the middle of the afternoon saw police standing four rows deep in the Grand Parade, looked like a scene from another country compared to the peaceful protest a day earlier.
With protesters hurling insults at them, police officers in riot gear arrested the most antagonistic demonstrators. “You fascists!” yelled one protester. “Put a swastika on the cop car!” yelled another, before being wrestled to the ground.
Marc Vassallo, a 21-year-old protester, seemed shaken as he moved away from the marching police officers with his protest drum tucked under his arm. “It’s just ridiculous. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Vassallo said the protest turned far uglier than he had expected. “I was planning for a peaceful protest. I’m a peaceful person. I’ve gotten into one fight, and that was in Grade 2 ... it’s very scary.”
About 400 protesters began their march peacefully at noon yesterday from the Commons to Argyle Street, but they were met by a massive police barricade in front of the Five Fishermen restaurant at 1:30 p.m. As the G-7 finance ministers left the World Trade Centre under police escort, some of the protesters broke down two tiers of metal barricades at the corner of Carmichael and Argyle streets.
Half a dozen people kneeled, making peace signs in front of riot squad members before things exploded. Officers kneeled down too, but to place gas masks over their faces as the drums beat louder and louder.
Some protesters panicked. “They’re going to gas us,” a girl near the front said. “I can’t believe it.”
One woman tried to hand purple, yellow and white daisies to officers, who didn’t budge behind their plastic shields. Several police vans pulled up in front of the World Trade Centre and opened their back doors.
‘Let’s do this’
Protester Chris Arsenault yelled into a megaphone: “We can push these barricades down and we can push the G-7 out of our city,” he said, prompting a loud cheer. “Let’s challenge this unjust barricade, let’s do this.”
Protesters, sensing the mounting tension, started pulling bandanas over their mouths and noses and pulling ski and swim goggles on their eyes as the crowd chanted: “The people, united, will never be defeated.” Within minutes, a group of men trying to light an American flag on fire, turned on the cameramen who were filming it. Some protesters threw balloons filled with vinegar as the officers stood motionless.
At 2:10 p.m., 40 minutes after the barricades came down, three loud bangs could be heard, then screams and clouds of yellow smoke as protesters fell to their knees after inhaling gas. Police fired at least two volleys of about 12 canisters of tear gas.
Last night, a police spokesman said the action was in response to bottles, rocks and sticks. “This is not a black eye on the people of Halifax, this is not indicative of the good people of Halifax,” said RCMP spokesman Sgt. Wayne Noonan.
“We believe that the actions that you saw today ... were the actions of a few — an organized group that were there for that purpose,” he said. Noonan said tear gas was to respond to “the actions of these small groups of individuals intent on bringing violence to what was a peaceful protest.”
Halifax police are investigating reports that police drew guns to make arrests, said Sgt. Don Spicer. In his 24-year career, Spicer said he could not remember tear gas being used on demonstrators in Halifax.
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