Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’ – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s The Times They are a-Changin’ serves as an appropriate anthem to capture the spirit of revolution and the wave of change that is spreading across North Africa and the rest of the Arab world. This sentiment is unusual in nations which had seemingly gotten used to being ruled by dictators for decades. One can only guess what sparked it all; perhaps it’s simply an outburst of deep rooted resentment which was bottled up in the hearts of men for years. The protesters have sent a clear message across the world; they’ve had enough and they can’t take it any more.

On the surface, these uprising can be traced to the massive protests in Tunisia which led to the successful ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who had been in power for over 20 years. News of the success of the Tunisian people spread like wildfire across the Arab world. This resulted in similar protests sparking up in Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, amongst other places. All the demonstrations made the same demands; they were sparked over issues of unemployment, food inflation, corruption, freedom of speech and poor living conditions.

The protests in Egypt have now intensified greatly. The army was called for crowd control and curfews were declared in Cairo and other cities. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ruler for thirty years, responded by reshuffling the government. While this is not what the protestors wanted, it is indicative of how seriously they are being taken. The uprisings continue despite this announcement and have gained fuel as Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Laureate, who is seen by many as the next president, openly joined the protesters.

On another positive note, the referendum in Sudan was successfully executed and there is now hope that the decades long civil war between North and South Sudan will finally be over. Some 99% of South Sudanese voted to secede from the North which indicates that they have secured the mandate to soon become the world’s newest nation.

What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but I hope that it will be something positive and the civil unrest will eventually lead to good. The success of the Tunisians serves as a model as to how unwanted and unjust rulers can be removed in the Arab world. It’s a stark contrast to the methodology employed during the unjust invasion of Iraq which led to astronomical bloodshed. True social reforms happen in a society when its own people lead the change, not when foreign powers force values down people’s throats.

Originally written for The Mirror


The controversy surrounding Park 51 or the so called ‘ground-zero mosque’ has been making headlines all over the United States. The intensity and interest surrounding this debate has been unprecedented. Everyone has an opinion on it. Sadly, it seems, most Americans are against the idea of building such an institution close to ground-zero. The very fact that this debate exists is indicative of several facts about the present day America. Following are some of the things it represents:

1) Most Americans still hold the collective Muslim community responsible for the World Trade Center attacks. After all the bridge building and dialogue that has happened over the past decade, it seems that public opinion is still against the Muslims. Unfortunately, the general American population can’t differentiate between the terrorists that attacked the World Trade Center and the average Muslim. I was outraged when I heard politician Newt Gingrich saying that the Nazi were to the holocaust victims what the Muslims are to the 9/11 victims.

2) The ignorance of the American people. Ignorance on innumerable levels. Ignorance about the project itself for example. A lot people don’t know that the mosque is actually a community center which will be open to everyone. Also, as Keith Olbermann pointed out, an existing mosque (Masjid Manhattan) close to ground-zero has already been in operation for the past 40 years; why then has this project become so controversial? Ignorance about Islam in general is another major problem and is the main thing fueling this debate. The project was initially named Cordoba House in honour of the historic city of Muslim Spain which was known for the peaceful co-existence of the Muslims, Jews and Christians. Opponents of the group forced the name to be changed, as to them it falsely represented Muslim subjugation of the medieval Christian world.

3) The good of the American people. Despite all the the opposition, there have been numerous people that have stood up and defended the Muslim community despite being themselves non-Muslim. These include journalists such as Keith Olbermann, politicians such as Mayor Bloomberg and even comedians like Jon Stewart. I greatly admire such individuals for their courage and strong indignation. Their open mindedness and their faith in American democratic values is not only inspirational but helps balance out the image of prejudice and ignorance painted by numerous Americans.

4) The work that still needs to be done by the Muslim community in order to change how the beautiful religion of Islam is perceived in America. The pious and upright character of early Muslims is something even their enemies attested to. Even up until the 60’s being Muslim in America was associated with something good thanks to the Black Muslim movement led by Malcolm X. Present day Muslims need to walk in those footsteps and take it upon themselves to educate the general populace about Islam. It is only through knowledge that ignorance,injustice and prejudice will be defeated.

After hearing about the crazy protests in Toronto this Saturday, I decided to take a stroll downtown on Sunday to take a look at the damage that was done and to see if I could get a glimpse of the action myself. Things of that magnitude never happen in Canada so it was a once in a life time opportunity. I’ve never really been to a protest or witnessed vandalism of that sort so curiosity dragged me to the core of Toronto where the G20 was happening.

My bag was thoroughly searched as soon as I got out of Union station; apparently the police was given full permission to go through everyone’s stuff. I started walking around to see if any protests were going on. The downtown area was pretty much empty around 4:30pm, with the exception of a small group of people protesting by King and Bay. They were just sitting in a circle peacefully surrounded by police; there wasn’t much action there. I then starting walking North. The vandalism from yesterday was still quite apparent; windows of nearly every other store were smashed up till Dundas Street. The Eaton Center was almost empty; nothing like what you’d normally see on a Sunday. I made my way up to Queens Park and it was deserted too. ‘I missed all the action’ I thought to myself. After surveying most of the downtown core, I started walking back to Union station to head home.

I saw a girl handcuffed and being questioned by a few cops on University Avenue as I was heading back. I decided to stand and watch what was going on. All of sudden this officer turns around and yells at me, ‘What the hell you doing standing behind my back you creep!! Get back!! Do you know this girl??!! This is none of your business! Get Back you Creep!!’. I was infuriated at the unnecessary rudeness demonstrated by this officer but there wasn’t much I could do. ‘Try being a little nicer’ I whispered. Two cops came up to me and started searching my backpack (this was the third time now) and questioning me. I protested when the officer pulled out my journal and started skimming through my notes, ‘So you guys are just gonna violate our basic right today’ I said. He bluntly responded, ‘Right now, you have no rights’. I was about to experience that statement in full force a few minutes later.

I was ready to go back home after this quick confrontation with the police. However, walking back I saw a large group of protestors rallying westward on Queen Street. I got a little excited and quickly joined them. There must have been over a thousand odd people, it was a pretty large group. After walking with the group for a few blocks I started to realize that most of the people weren’t really protesting anything significant. I heard them chant random things such as ‘Whose Streets? Our Streets!’ every once in while; only a few people actually had banners and signs. Majority of the crowd comprised of curious young adults and teenagers walking along peacefully and taking pictures; trying to be a part of the G20 experience. I’d say may be about 50-100 people were actually a part of the protest, the rest were random folks like myself who just wanted to check out what was happening.

The ‘protestors’ were finally stopped by a wall of police officers and their bikes at Queen and Spadina. We couldn’t go forward or turn southward on Spadina. I don’t really know what the police wanted us to do. The protestors started chanting, ‘Let us through! Let us through!’ but the police wouldn’t budge. People settled down in the middle of the intersection and starting protesting in various ways. One guy started throwing out monopoly money in the crowd while dancing with a boom box on his shoulders, thus symbolizing the money wasted on this summit. Another guy was holding a sign that read ‘Everything is OK!’. He would go up to the police ocassionaly and say things like, ‘Are you guys a fan of oppression?!’ and ‘You guys need to quit your jobs and start doing something more meaningful with your lives!’. Others just sat around in circles and sang songs like ‘We shall over come…’ and ‘Oh Canada’. There were journalists taking video footage and reporting live from the scene. With the exception of the southbound traffic being blocked on Spadina, everything was very peaceful. It was quite the party actually.

After about fifteen minutes our so we started noticing riot police arrive in their vans in the distance; it was about 6 pm at this point. They parked on the south side of Spadina. People started booing and expressed disappointment, ‘Oh Right, cuz we are just that scary’ one protester exclaimed. After about 10 minutes they quickly marched up and instantaneously replaced the regular police officers and their bikes. Their sheer presence was intimidating and I got a little frightened. I decided I was going to head back. Some protestors continued and chanted, ‘You’re sexy! You’re cute! Take off your riot suit!’ Only a few minutes later another group of riot police marched up from behind the first group in their usual robotic swagger and quickly blocked off the eastern end of Queen Street. They pushed and knocked over innocent bystanders as they did so. We were blocked from three sides now. I was only thinking about heading northwards when I saw another group block the North end of the intersection. Th intersection at Queen and Spadina was blocked off from all four corners now.

Panic was in the air at this time as most of the people were just innocent bystanders and curious onlookers checking out the protest. It wasn’t fun and games any more. Police in riot gear are scary as hell and to top that they were screaming and yelling at us, telling us to move back while banging on their shields with the batons and marching forward. Amongst those corralled were journalists, seniors, young teenagers and dogs. Most people just wanted to get out of there but there were no options. Tensions were running high. I heard some people started to cry out of fear and anxiety. The officer in command went around telling the police, ‘If they cross the line, they are under arrest’.

We asked the riot police how we could get out. Many of them were just as clueless as we were and some told us to just calm down and they’ll soon give us a way out. I thought this was their way of breaking up the crowd and clearing the intersection; it worked fairly well as we were pushed to the sides and the intersection was cleared up in just a few minutes. I figured they’d let us go soon. All of a sudden I saw a group of 4 or 5 officers violently jump one guy from the crowd and took him in. He was pinned against the floor and handcuffed. I figured he might be one of the violent protesters they were searching for from yesterday. A few minutes later another guy was taken in, not as violently this time. This procedure was repeated several times. So much so that at one point it seemed that they were doing it completely randomly; if you were close enough they’d grab you. I decided to stand as far as I could from the frontline where they were snatching people.

After about an hour or so, rumors started spreading around in the crowd that we were all under arrest. I was horrified when I heard the news. Will I have a criminal record now? That’s gonna ruin my future I thought. How am I going to tell my folks at home where I am? My mum would freak if I told her I got arrested. How am I gonna explain my absence from work? What will my manager think? All these thoughts were running wild in my head as I stood there helplessly waiting. I was beginning to regret my decision to come downtown. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, it started raining cats and dogs. I don’t think it has ever rained as hard. It continued to pour and pour. Some people had umbrellas and others didn’t. Luckily I had mine and a group of people flocked under it as soon as I held it up.

There were several media personnel from stations such as CP24, CTV and 680 News. This gave me some hope as I thought they’d get us out of here; however after sometime most of these people had disappeared. Either they too were arrested or were allowed to leave because of their special name tags, I don’t quite know. I started asking the riot police for updates and they confirmed the rumors about all of us being arrested. They told us that they only quick way to get out of the rain was to voluntarily get arrested; they’ll eventually come get all of us anyways. About two hours later several people lined up and voluntarily turned themselves in out of desperation. I too thought about doing the same but later decided against it, ‘they’ll have to come get me if they want me’ I told myself.

The crowd was slowly shrinking. People were hungry, cold and wet; many feared they’d contract hypothermia. The rain wouldn’t stop and the cops weren’t making things easy. No official instructions were given to us and we weren’t told what they were going to do with us. All the information received was either rumors or information individuals received after inquiring with some officers which was later spread around. Many officers wouldn’t even answer questions. At one point they stopped arresting volunteers. We were told that there wasn’t any room to put us and they were waiting for buses to come that would take us to the detention centre. I saw buses arrive at around 8:45 pm. Some were TTC streetcars and others were large Greyhound style buses.

At one point even the riot police put their guards down. They started chatting and joking around with those that were corralled; even they recognized that something wasn’t right. By this time people had made new friends within the crowd. I met this poor woman who was on a lunch break from work and got stuck here. People continued complaining about how their rights were violated and how they’d sue the city as soon as they got out. Many compared the treatment to that of the Nazi’s. I soon realized that this experience was a slight preview into the lives of those that are oppressed around the world. The Palestinians go through oppression far worse than this on a daily basis. This feeling of complete helplessness and subjugation is something I’ve never experienced. I thank God for the freedoms he’s blessed us with in this land.

At about 9:40 pm, over 3 hours after this episode began an officer came out and made an inaudible announcement. Shortly after, the riot police magically dispersed and those remaining in the crowd were allowed to go free. There were still around 100 odd people left. The crowd dispersed immediately and people started running home as soon as they were released. Bystanders clapped and cheered us on as we made our way out; we felt like heroes. There were reporters standing outside filming us and taking interviews, I even managed to make my way onto live television. It was quite the moment.

I came looking for an adventure and I got more than what I asked for. In the five hours that I spent in Toronto, I’ve learned lessons worth a lifetime. Its hard to believe that things of this nature could happen in a free democratic state like Canada; I’ve learned to not take our freedom for granted. As frustrastring as the situation was, I must say that the experience was certianly unforgettable. I returned home, tired yet thankful, only to hear the ‘I told you so’ lecture conveniently prepared by my mother.

More on this :
The National Post
The Star
Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Report – see page 4
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