guest post: michael stone bears witness at the G8/G20 summit

Peaceful protest: sangha members at the G8/G20 summit, Toronto.

From the frontlines of the G8/G20 summit, Michael Stone reflects on nonviolence and engaged living. The first in a three-part series.

When I search for an image to describe the core of my spiritual practice, the one that presses up through the other narratives of my life is this one: June 26, 2010, carrying my six year old son away from a burning police car in front of a bank tower on Bay Street in downtown Toronto. Three young protesters using “black block tactics” jumped on the roof of the car as my son and I turned away and walked towards the empty street behind us to make our way home.

I lead Centre of Gravity Sangha, a thriving community of Yoga and Buddhist practitioners in Toronto. Our community formed five years ago with the intention of integrating Yoga and Buddhist practice, everyday urban life and social action. When I first read the teachings of the Buddha, I connected with his full engagement in life – not just with internal states of mind, but how he taught that our actions sculpt who we are.

Karma is not something that happens to you, it’s the ongoing choices and effects that determine who and what we actually are. We must cultivate an awareness of and responsibility for our actions and their consequences. This is the lived experience of karma. I see both the Buddha and Patanjali (the seminal author of the Yoga-Sutra) as enlightened beings committed to a life of social and political engagement.

If learning to work with anger and greed can teach us how to respond creatively to our inner struggles, can this same skillfulness help us interact with institutional greed and imbalance and global forms of suffering?

All week leading up to the 2010 G8 and G20 summits in downtown Toronto, where the leaders of the world’s largest economies would meet to chart the course of global economic development, security forces were fortifying the urban core: two enormous fences were built around the meeting areas, trees were uprooted (the city claimed they could be used as weapons), garbage cans and bus shelters were removed, and military boats cruised the Toronto harbor. Every morning members of our sangha gathered at the fence, surrounded by police, and sat in meditation, following the breath and bearing witness to the vast range of feelings and observations that arose in the face of police presence and military build-up.

Early in the week, it was easy to feel fear or anger soften to compassion when policemen would come and ask if we could teach them some meditation because, as one officer from Huntsville said, “these are long days on my feet away from family, eating garbage food.” As the weekend approached and 10,000 police filled the downtown core, sitting meditation became unsafe. Though I wanted to sit with others I decided to spend time researching the issues and biking the city bearing witness.

Although my background is in psychology (I am a psychotherapist in private practice), I always thought of non-violence as a way of using meditation and bodily awareness to stay disciplined during times of turbulence. In my life as a father in the relatively peaceful city of Toronto, most of the violence I have encountered is in my own heart and mind: a temper, old emotions rooted in my childhood, and irritation when my son takes an hour to put on his snowpants. I’ve never had to respond to a group of young people burning a police car in front of a bank, with military helicopters circling overhead, and a son in my arms asking for an explanation.

When the young group of activists broke away from the enormous gathering of peaceful protesters and broke through small gaps in police lines, my first feeling was fear that they would get hurt. Within minutes I saw several of them struck with batons, one of whom lost consciousness and was taken to an alley by some of the practitioners in our community, who administered help. The streets looked like a war zone and I realized it was time for my son and I to leave, even though I was also appalled by the countless instances of police aggression against protesters and wanted to somehow reach the police and the protesters alike and ask everyone to stop. It was too late. And with all my Buddhist training and years of psychological practice, I recognize that some other voice inside me wanted to see the protesters tear the fence down and disrupt the closed-door meetings that $1.2 billion had been spent to “secure.”

Watching the young protesters split from the peaceful march of 20,000 concerned citizens, I couldn’t tell where my allegiances lay. Such a massive gathering of citizens in the face of widespread police repression and hysteria was in itself a victory. But when the peaceful protesters were pushed far away from the fenced-in meetings, it was also clear that there could be no relationship or communication with those inside the meeting, who collectively held the fate of millions in their hands. There was no place for voices calling for justice. We were barred from expressing discontent. Or, as my son asked, “How can you protest a meeting when you aren’t allowed to know what they’re meeting about?”

Part two will be published tomorrow!

Michael Stone is the director of Centre of Gravity Sangha in Toronto and the author of many books, most recently Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life (Shambhala Publications, 2011). Find Michael at www.centreofgravity.org

  1. I saw this at the IDP blog and commented on it there (although my comment appears as “anonymous.”) Thanks for posting it here as well; I think that this type of serious thinking about what social engagement really means and requires is all-too-rare today, not only in the yoga community but in general.

    Still, like I said before, in my view the thinking still doesn’t go far enough. It may feel more efficacious to join the ranks of the police car burners, but is it really? Or is this really just an emotional response? Because looking at the situation (and others like it), from a purely rational, nothing-but-the-facts as we can best understand them point of view, I truly don’t believe that the violent protesters were any more efficacious than the non-violent ones.

    The really disturbing question is: what can we in fact do that might really have an impact on this type of very complex, huge, international institutional apparatus – not to mention the world beyond it? It’s very very hard to answer. With the Bush Administration plowed ahead with the Iraq War despite street protests ALL OVER THE WORLD, I really lost my faith in the efficacy of that type of action. Plus we in the US have even more of the controls against protest being effectual (which also extend in the media) that Stone describes here.

    Not to be pessimistic and negative, but – I truly think that burning police cars is emotional catharsis, not effective action.

    • hi carol ~ i don’t think michael stone is advocating for burning police cars or arguing that violent protest is effective social action here. it seems to me like this is a reflection on peace and nonviolence in the face of an extremely violent scene, which he witnessed with his son.

      and anyone who paid attention to that summit knows that burning the police car, in fact the entire 20,000 person protest, didn’t shut down the meetings. they were completely ineffective. but those images and the subsequent media coverage had a powerful impact on the whole city, as did the summit itself and the police state-style lockdown.

  2. Love this article – looking forward to reading the next bit.

  3. I am from Toronto. My husband also participated in the main Peaceful Protest. Initially he was moved to witness such a great mass of concerned individuals coming together to stand up in the name of those who are likely to be made to pay for a crisis they played little or no part in causing. However, he walked away disappointed that this message was all but lost in the violence of the day and the media frenzy that focused mostly on the
    destructive few. On that day, a little piece of Toronto’s innocence was lost…by the way Michael, your little boy sounds like a wise young man.

  4. What I find difficult with this kind of event as with a large part of the usual political debate, is what appears to be a much deeper barrier than whatever can be built with concrete and steel: it’s how our views of the human world are so entrenched that they can only clash with each other, as if there was no way we couldn’t step outside the conflict and attempt a really peaceful resolution.

    When I read Michael’s book on ethics a few weeks ago, I was both deeply pleased by the capacity he had to step away from any rigid frame of thinking, at least from the perspective of Buddhist values, and also quite disappointed by his take on the western tradition of ideas, including what appeared to me like a very crude (mis-) understanding of thinkers such as Descartes or Adam Smith.

    Yet for people like me, who’ve grown quite attached to that modern western tradition, with the same sincerity as that of the protesters themselves, events of this kind are also profoundly saddening, not only because people actually get hurt, which is bad enough in itself, but also because dialogue just seem impossible.

    I don’t mean the dialogue between protesters and the authorities though, because it is this conflict itself that is the result of the missing conversation. What’s missing first is a capacity on all sides to accept that people who do not share our views may have good reasons for that, and that we should stop thinking that we have some sort of right to force other people out of their differing views.

    Democratic institutions are just collective means to apply that idea, through a few relatively simple albeit imperfect mechanisms. Now, I’m certainly not accusing the mass of protesters to have deserved the repression they got, but I wonder why some of them may even have thought for a second that they had any legitimacy in using violence, especially given that we are fortunate enough in this country to have institutions that do allow us to voice our concerns peacefully.

    Isn’t this violence precisely the result of attachment and identification to conflicting worldviews? An attachment that is so strong that some of us think it is worth destroying others’ livelihood, “by any means necessary”? Isn’t this a strange concept of peace?

  5. “Democratic institutions are just collective means to apply that idea, through a few relatively simple albeit imperfect mechanisms. Now, I’m certainly not accusing the mass of protesters to have deserved the repression they got, but I wonder why some of them may even have thought for a second that they had any legitimacy in using violence, especially given that we are fortunate enough in this country to have institutions that do allow us to voice our concerns peacefully.”

    You clearly are living a privileged life, and probably have not been in the middle of mass protests in recent years. The tactics of police and other “security detail” involved in these kinds of protests now include provoking, interjecting violent, fake protesters into the crowd to stir up passions, as well as to deploy weapons on people before anything at all has happened. I saw all kinds of madness being done in the name of “security” here in St. Paul, Minnesota during the 2008 Republican National Convention. In fact, I’d say that part of my city was basically in lock down for a week – stepping a foot into the wrong area could mean risking arrest, and during protests, those areas shifted sometimes every 15 minutes. It’s all set up to upset people, and it’s ridiculous to expect every last person in a crowd of thousands – even if they were all yogis or buddhists – to remain completely calm and contained.

    There’s no way to know for sure how the violence that happened in Toronto started, or what people’s intentions were. And frankly, take a look at what the media covers. I’ve met more than one activist who has given up trying to be heard by staying calm and rational.

    Saying all this does not mean that I advocate violence. But property damage is different than harming people or animals. And before you tisk-tisk the protesters involved in violence, you might want to take a closer look at what happened. Canada and the U.S. are freer than a lot of other nations, but there’s a lot more repression going on these days. Step out of your comfortable, middle class neighborhood and take a good look around.

    • Hi Nathan,

      I have to agree with you that I’m a very privileged person, and yes, by many standards I’m quite a lucky middle class joe. However, I’m not sure that this should discredit the views that I adhere to, and if I do hold these views, let me assure you that it is for the simple reason that I have not learned of any other ones yet that I could find more convincing.

      Now, I did not intend to debate the substance of my disagreements with the deeds or words of either the police or the protesters here, but the point I was trying to make – and clearly didn’t do too well – was that people like you and I are not alone, each with our views that do not sit well together. But can we share resources and cooperate despite that? Sure, we can think that one can convert the other, but if cooperation is required now, and agreement can wait, what are we to do?

      I do believe that liberal democracies provide us with the best institutional means to handle such disagreements, and this certainly includes the right to manifest one’s opposing views in the streets, and to be protected in so doing by the police. Yet, I just see no acceptable way of translating this into a right to force other people, by whatever means, to agree or even to care. Am I missing something there?

      Also, I find the distinction between “property damage” and hurting people somewhat problematic. If I burn your house or even merely destroy the contents of your fridge, am I only doing property damage? And as far as I can understand the world in which I live, I don’t think it is the rich bankers’ money that pays for the “property damage” that goes on in these events. It’s much more likely to be people who are less privileged than I am. I don’t see the justice in that either.

  6. “I don’t mean the dialogue between protesters and the authorities though, because it is this conflict itself that is the result of the missing conversation. What’s missing first is a capacity on all sides to accept that people who do not share our views may have good reasons for that, and that we should stop thinking that we have some sort of right to force other people out of their differing views. ”

    Also, you don’t seem to have a sense of the power dynamics here. I’ve mostly stopped going to protests because of similar questions to the one’s Carol above posed. But you seem to posit here some kind of equal playing ground, where people are just not listening to each other. Nice pipe dream that is!

    People protesting in the streets have already been shut out of the conversation. Whatever ideas they have were dismissed by those in power long ago. Mass demonstrations are an attempt to be heard when other attempts have failed. They are often kind of desperate acts, and it’s rare to see an actual sustained, intelligent, coherent movement like the Civil Rights Movement be the driving force behind such events. As such, it’s quite difficult to get any message of depth across, even under non-repressive conditions.

    So, it’s probably a secondary tool at best. People need to find other ways to change corrupt, oppressive systems.

    But if it all boiled down to just getting people in a room to listen to each other, we’d be in a different place. I’ve been “heard” by numerous Congress people here in the U.S. over the years – often as one person amongst large group of constituents – it rarely has done shit to change their votes. If you have money and power, you get heard. If you don’t, you have to find other means.

  7. totally interesting angela. thanks for the link.

  8. I think we also have to just keep reminding ourselves that we can do what we can as individuals – that individual effort counts and does make a difference. I take a lot of cheer from what No Impact Man is doing:
    http://noimpactman.typepad.com/blog/2010/11/can-americans-bond-over-their-shared-concerns-intead-of-fighting-over-their-differences.html

    -and I also think that sooner or later people will be drawn kicking and screaming into the philosophy of interdependence as the full impact of global warming is felt.

  9. Yvan,

    I’d say not all property damage is equal. You took a most personalized example, whereas the situation above was about a publicly owned vehicle being burned. Breaking the windows of a Wal-Mart store, for example, is different from breaking the windows of my neighbor’s house. The impact is very different.

    “I do believe that liberal democracies provide us with the best institutional means to handle such disagreements, and this certainly includes the right to manifest one’s opposing views in the streets, and to be protected in so doing by the police. ” I’d argue that more and more, the “protection” being offered by the police is not protection. They’re mostly trying to keep people away from whatever group of elites is having the official discussion.

    “Now, I did not intend to debate the substance of my disagreements with the deeds or words of either the police or the protesters here, but the point I was trying to make – and clearly didn’t do too well – was that people like you and I are not alone, each with our views that do not sit well together. But can we share resources and cooperate despite that?” You’re writing this as if we live in classless societies, where people are just not sharing or listening to each other.

    The way I see it, most of the time, the terms of the debate are being set by the top 2 percent of the economic scale – usually white men just to add the racial and gender elements in – and the rest of us either go along, tune it out and live with it, or buck against it loudly. As a Buddhist and yoga practitioner, I’m trying to cultivate a different way of being with all of this, but also see it essential that I understand things as they actually are. Here in the U.S., I and millions of others want to have a single payer health care system, just to give one example. But even with a Democrat in office, and Democrats holding both houses of Congress, that was completely off the table. The few Congresspeople who supported those views were laughed out of the room. There was zero opportunity for dialogue because the corporate elites and most of the elected officials decided, in closed door meetings, to do everything in their power to suppress single payer discussions and shift the entire dialogue towards health insurance “reform.” If Bill Gates, or the Walton Family (owners of Wal-Mart), or the giant bank owners, or any number of other rich, powerful folks don’t want to share their resources, or listen to alternative ideas, they don’t have to. Their views usually win out anyway, and anything they “offer” to the public in terms of charity is thought to be a wonderful gift, even though the reality is that they withhold so, so much more then they need.

    You’re not seeing the power dynamics going on, nor the impact such dynamics have on people struggling just to get by – and there are more and more of us struggling everyday. In comparison to nations like Burma or Iran, we have it great in terms of opportunities to speak out and have some impact. But those liberties are sliding away, and it’s up to each of us to stay vigilant enough, engaged enough, and open to not knowing for sure enough – because if we don’t, it’ll be far more oppressive before too long, and all that talk about liberal democracies will be just nostalgia.

    • Nathan,

      I respect your views but I don’t share them, and I don’t think we can do better for now than agree to disagree. Our basic assumptions seem much too difficult to reconcile. You are right, by the way: I am writing as if we lived in classless societies, because in fact I do not think that class is a very useful category. But that’s just me.

      I’m no less convinced though that we’re both equally sincere and well-intentioned. Maybe that’s something we could work with, but maybe not.

      Namaste

  10. Honestly, you can disagree with me on pretty much all of what I said. That’s fine.

    Mostly, I just hope that you and others who respond to people involved in protests who become violent might have an open mind, and question what you believe happened. As far as I’m concerned, until you’ve been under such pressures yourself, it’s impossible to know if you’d respond violently or non-violently. Having a deep yoga and/or meditation practice certainly helps downgrade the chances of acting out violently, but it doesn’t guarantee it. And most of the people in protests aren’t devoted to practices that cultivate peace and non-violence. Perhaps if more of us involved in such practices got active in broad scale social movements, the outcomes might be different.

    But I’ve been to enough protests to know that there are always a few people, if the crowd is big enough, that just want to cause trouble. I don’t automatically assume innocence of activists, or guilt of law enforcement. It’s often more complex than that. But I stand by the view that the power balance is far out a whack in favor of a few, and this is one of the reasons you end up with such large demonstrations filled with desperate, pissed off people who don’t know what else to do.

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