Tooker’s Prison Diary

By Tooker Gomberg, Toronto, Canada.

Tooker reflects on time spent in jail following events in Quebec City. (Originally published in NOW Magazine.)

Nine of us were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the “salad basket,” the “panier à salade,” the ‘paddy’ wagon. Fellow arrestees were singing our song, “Si j’avais les ailles d’une ange,” if I had the wings of an angel. Robert Charlebois, the patron singer of the nation, yearned to fly to Quebec. If only we could fly out.

We were grounded, choking on the toxic tear gas fumes wafting from our clothes and bodies. The door of the van was closed, and it was stifling.

“Turn on the fan. We need air!!” we shouted. We were lucky — they let us go to the bathroom when we needed to. Others weren’t so lucky. I later heard of people who defecated in their pants when guards wouldn’t let them out.

We huddled in the paddy wagon for seven and a half-hours with our hands plastic-strapped behind our backs. Some were in pain from too tight cuffs. The cops had emptied our pockets, but miraculously, I just happened to have a safety pin. A bit of deft finger work loosened nearly every manacle. Little victories are sweet.

Then, one by one, we were stripped, “decontaminated” with a cold shower and suited up in matching grey sweatpants. No stripes.

“Nice suit,” a policeman said to me as I waited to be fingerprinted and photographed. “Ya, it’s made in Granby, Quebec,” I replied. “It would have been cheaper if it came from China,” he joked back. They knew why we were there.

Jail means no rights. There were four of us in a cell with two beds. The solid steel door clanged behind us. The windows were slits made out of super-thick glass.

Denizens of biker gangs had been there before us. The place was designed to snuff out any hope of escape.

I survived on cheese sandwiches and mock mayonnaise. After a day locked together, they moved me to my own cell, where the door opened and I could wander the halls and talk with other protestors.

We swapped war stories to pass the time. One guy was walking away from the front with a bunch of friends. Out of nowhere, a line of riot cops appeared, chased him down, tackled and arrested him.

Somebody manufactured a deck of playing cards out of thin paper. The television blared constantly — French translations of Japanese animation got some attention, but everyone listened up when Bart Simpson started wisecracking en français. A CBC news clip of Maude Barlow getting gassed brought a tear to my eye.

I slept a lot, trying to pass the time.

One is entitled to an appearance before a justice of the peace within 24 hours of being arrested. It took two days until I had a few moments before the justice. Sort of.

I stood in a room with two giant video screens. On one I saw myself, large as life. On the other was a courtroom, somewhere. I asked if my lawyer was there. A tiny figure waved from the corner.

There were two charges against me: participating in a riot and obstructing police. My lawyer entered a not-guilty plea. A court date was set and bail set at $300. As I was about to be whisked away, mute, I asked if I could speak.

It’s not right, I said, to have an appearance on video rather than a live appearance with the judge present. And I noted that I was a journalist, and it was unacceptable in a democracy that people who protest peacefully are rounded up indiscriminately as if they were criminals. Or something to that effect. Then I left, and waited for bail to be posted.

Next day I was halfway out the door, given my video camera back and asked to fill out a form. I was free to go!

Miraculously, the camera seemed to be intact. The police, I was told later by witnesses, had treated it with the extreme care. They respected property, it seemed, but abused people.

But the tape that had been in the camera was missing. I asked to fill out a form noting the missing tape. They refused. I asked again. They said I should talk with the Quebec City police. I insisted. They ordered me to put down the camera, grabbed me and locked me up again.

Three and a half hours later, they finally let me go. After almost three full days of detention, I stepped out into freedom. Cheers rose from the couple of dozen protestors who had set up a jail solidarity camp right outside.

If the purpose of jail is to crush your spirit and show who’s boss, it backfired. We went in scared, assaulted by the forces of the state. But we shared stories and hopes. Everyone I spoke with came out stronger from the experience and more deeply committed.

We went in alone, and came out a force.