Behind the Black Mask and Shattered Glass: Pre-Sentencing Interview with G20 Arrestee Kelly Pflug-Back by Comrade Black
On May 28, Kelly Pflug-Back will stand in front of a Toronto courtroom to be sentenced.
I first met Kelly when she was a 16 yr old traveler kid who had just arrived in Victoria. We hung out on the streets, at drop in centers, and did Food not Bombs together which developed a lasting friendship. Over the years Kelly became quite the well known community organizer and activist. So it was a surprise when her picture went out across the internet, TV news, and newspapers last year following the G20 as police released pictures of their most wanted suspects in their sweep of 1100 activists who arrested, most of which would be released with no charges.
This interview was conducted by email by Comrade Black
PE: You have been active in community organizing for many years preceding this arrest? Can you tell us a bit about how you became involved in the struggle and what types of organizing or activism you have done?
KELLY: I’ve always been most interested in long-term, sustained efforts to build networks of social support so that people don’t have to rely on the state. I’ve done a lot of work with Food Not Bombs in a few cities, worked with needle exchange programs and anti-stigma AIDS resource centres, and facilitated workshops for queer youth and street-involved youth on self-esteem, safer drug use and sexual health. I’ve also participated in a couple of land occupations opposing developments on Indigenous territories, and I’ve recently been doing a lot of journalism for magazines.
PE: What were the charges you are about to be sentenced for and what are they supposedly in relation to?
KELLY: I’m being convicted of six counts of mischief over $ 5000, as well as one count of being masked with the intent of committing a crime. When the G20 economic summit was held in Toronto in 2010 I participated in corporate property damage. For folks who don’t know much about the G20, it stands for “Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors.” They are essentially the leaders of the world’s most powerful national economies, and they meet in different cities periodically, spending billions of dollars on security and luxuries every time. They make decisions geared toward enhancing the economic power of elite nations while continuing to impoverish the global South. These meetings exclude anyone from the exploited nations which the G20 derive much of their wealth and resources from. They also exclude any input from Indigenous groups that many G20 countries, like Canada, have robbed of their traditional lands in order to establish their nationhood.
PE: You were also charged initially with a few other charges; can you speak about those and how/why they were dropped?
KELLY: I initially had charges of conspiracy to commit an indictable offence, as well as assaulting a police officer with a weapon, obstructing justice and intimidation of a justice system participant. I never assaulted a police officer, and there was no evidence to suggest I did. The guy who they were saying I assaulted testified in court that he had never seen me before, a year after the charges were laid. The conspiracy charge didn’t stick because they were unable to associate me with any co-conspirators…they were trying to frame it as though I was a conspiracy of one person. This is a good example of what people mean when they say “trumped up charges.” A person can be slapped with serious or violent charges as a way of intimidating them, strong-arming them into a plea agreement or justifying harsh punitive measures such as restrictive bail conditions. The assault charge was a convenient excuse for them to keep me on house arrest for a year.
PE: How did police use Hate Crimes Legislation in your case?
KELLY: They didn’t. One prosecutor who was on my case for a short time was briefly posturing about applying it to me, before they dropped my charges of assault police and obstruct justice. He was saying that I had committed hate crimes against police, because police are allegedly “a recognizable group.” Those laws are ideally there to protect vulnerable people who are at disproportionate risk of prejudice-based violence in our society. Police are not vulnerable, they carry firearms and have monopoly over the legitimized use of violence.
PE: The police also tried to portray you as the/a leader of the bloc?
KELLY: Unfortunately, yes. I’m definitely not the leader of anything, nor do I want to be.
PE: You are taking a non cooperation plea bargain, which involves pleading guilty? Does that mean you did everything they have accused you of? How did you get a plea offer and what does that entail?
KELLY: That means I’ve pled guilty to the six counts of mischief as well as the masked with intent. The deal involved me pleading guilty to those charges so that the others would be dropped. It’s funny, because I feel like I wasn’t actually wearing a mask with the intent of doing anything. It was pretty incidental that I ended up being part of the property damage, and I didn’t make much of an effort to hide who I was. I’d never thought of wearing a mask during a protest as something that you necessarily do in order to break the law, but covering your face in Canada is becoming increasingly criminalized, not only for protesters but also for Muslim women who want to wear the niqab. Muslim people and protesters are both increasingly profiled as being a threat to the security of the Canadian state, so I think there’s some important parallels to be drawn there.
As far as the counts of mischief over $5000 are concerned, I definitely didn’t single-handedly cause over $5000 worth of damage to six things. I don’t have super-human strength, and I was using a wooden stick somebody gave me, not a pickaxe or a sledgehammer. All those charges relate to events where pretty large groups of people were damaging property together. I am being scapegoated for the actions of an entire protest which over a hundred people participated in, and I’m fine with that. I realize that if they didn’t single me out, they might have just done it to some other poor sucker. The entire legal process surrounding G20 charges has been about scapegoating individuals, and I think that this serves the purpose of distracting the public from having to think about the reasons why people are pushed to the point of rioting in the first place. If you blame the G20 protests on a few deviant “ringleaders,” or make ludicrous claims that the vandals were all actually undercover police, you don’t have to think about the reasons why a pretty substantial number of people chose of their own volition to participate in a very impassioned form of opposition to symbols of global economic apartheid and corporate consumer culture. Whether or not you agree with property damage as a form of protest, I think it’s undeniable that the mass-scale environmental devastation and human rights abuses being perpetrated by multinational corporations and the governments of G8 countries are brutal and unconscionable. An event like the G20 protests in Toronto is in many ways an inevitable by-product of these injustices. The ugliness of sweatshop production, child labour, factory farming, and civil war in nations that have been impoverished by colonialism and neo-liberal economic policies slips into the public psyche, and the disgust and sorrow that comes with acknowledging those realities is bound to come out somewhere.
PE: You were under house arrest for quite a while, and then had rather strict conditions. What were those restrictions?
KELLY: Being on house arrest meant that I lost my job and my apartment and was also forced to drop out of school. Before my arrest I was doing free meal servings in downtown Guelph every week, helping run a needle exchange program, doing shifts at a queer and trans library/social centre and hosting a radio show at the university every week. It was awesome. Me being removed from that community meant that the free meal servings fell apart and the understaffed library had one less volunteer and was able to stay open less often. Not being able to give my love and support to people who really need it was the most painful part of being on house arrest.
Confinement and stress are also pretty bad for anyone’s health, and while I was on house arrest I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, which is a muscle condition that causes chronic pain, as well as some other auto-immune conditions. I’m still very ill a lot of the time, and I had to register with my school as being a student with a disability. Losing the privilege that comes with being able-bodied has opened my eyes to a lot of issues surrounding health care, illness, ageing and disability. Too many social justice movements disregard these issues, and it is definitely time to change that. If you want to build a free and co-operative society, providing long term care for ill and elderly people is a huge part of that.
PE: At the time of your arrest you were in a long term romantic relationship, how did the arrest affect that relationship?
KELLY: I had been with this guy for a couple of years when I was arrested, and were living together at the time. One of the conditions of my release from jail was that I didn’t communicate with him unless we were in the presence of one of my parents. This was a strictly punitive measure. We were never co-accused, and his charges relating to the G20 were dropped very early on. It was very stressful for both of us. His mother ended up dying of cancer while I was on house arrest, and I wasn’t able to be with the family much during that whole process, or give my full support to him. He was absolutely devastated, and so was I. She was a really amazing woman, and it was awful to not be able to visit her when she was in the hospital. It’s for the best that me and him aren’t together anymore, but I would have preferred to split up with him under different circumstances.
PE: We are told that people are innocent until proven guilty, but the house arrest, conditions, and depiction of you and the other G20 arrestees seems to contradict that?
KELLY: Most of the constitutional rights we supposedly possess can be trumped very easily. I feel that violating people’s rights is most frequently justified in two ways: assigning them sub-human status, or saying that they pose a threat to national security. It’s fine to arbitrarily arrest, detain and brutalize homeless people, sex trade workers, drug users and racialized people because our society generally views them, either consciously or unconsciously, as being less than human. And it’s perfectly excusable to bomb Pakistani civilians, blatantly profile Arab people in airports, and torture detainees in Guantanamo because their rights (as well as the standards of international law) are trumped by America’s security interests. If the law were an impartial thing that granted all people equal access to the same rights and freedoms, Stephen Harper, Obama and George W. Bush would be sitting in holding cells underneath the International Criminal Court.
PE: When charges were laid the police released a list of suspects on the large to the media. Why were you included in that list? Were you on the run?
KELLY: I was never on the run. There is not a grain of truth to that. I turned myself in the second I found out I had warrants. You can’t trust anything the Toronto Sun says…for god’s sake, they run feature articles on the Lingerie Football League. I like to think of the Sun as a less entertaining version of the National Enquirer.
PE: Why did you decide to be involved in the resistance to the G20?
KELLY: Even as a really little kid I had a vague kind of concept of what global capitalism is doing to the world. Way before I even understood what the G20 is, I knew that I loved the earth, I loved animals and I loved people, regardless of how screwed up most of us are. I knew that bulldozers and guns and bombs and money hurt all of those things, even if I didn’t understand the specifics.
PE: How involved were you in the organizing?
KELLY: I actually wasn’t involved at all. I felt like a bit of a loser during the lead-up to the G20, people would always be asking me to come to this or that meeting and I would always be staying home to sleep and study or busy running stuff for the free meal servings we were doing. The only thing I really organized was an anti-G20 show with a bunch of Ontario punk and metal bands at this loft space in Guelph. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever set up, and I can’t wait till my conditions are over so I can do concerts again.
PE: Why did you decide to mask up as part of the Bloc?
KELLY: I think covering your face during a protest can be a way of conveying a sense of uniformity and anonymity during protests: my individual identity does not matter, it’s the broader cause that matters. Like I said, I’ve never thought of it as something you necessarily do with the goal of breaking any laws.
PE: Can you explain your politics and how they come into practice in your lived experience?
KELLY: I definitely don’t see myself as someone who subscribes to any kind of ideology. I just believe that humans don’t need authoritarian governance, social hierarchy or capital-based economic systems to live peacefully with one another. That’s how we lived for the majority of our time on the planet, and we caused a lot less damage to each other and our environment before we invented these types of institutionalized control and domination. The word “anarchist” is kind of arbitrary to me, since people attach all kinds of different meanings to it, many of which contradict each other. Plus, I know a lot of people who are very anti-statist and anti-authoritarian but do not see themselves as anarchists or any other political category. A lot of Indigenous folks I know don’t believe in the validity of the state, but don’t attach the label of anarchism to their beliefs.
As far as practising those beliefs goes, I think it’s about trying to relate to the rest of the world in ways that aren’t based on control, domination, competitiveness or superiority. And it means helping each other let go of the self hate that we all carry around as a result of a lifetime of internalizing the dominant society’s sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and other harmful prejudices. Everyday things like that are still political acts, and they’re really important.
PE: Can you talk about the importance of Indigenous Solidarity as a settler person organizing on stolen lands?
KELLY: This country was built on the largest genocide known to human history, and genocidal acts are still being carried out against Indigenous people today. Trying to deny or downplay that reality is such a fucked up thing to do. On every continent, colonialism has meant mass-scale murder, torture, rape and the systematic destruction of people’s cultural customs and languages. I think it was Beaudelaire who said that in the crime of genocide, “half the crime is forgetting.” The Canadian state has granted a few superficial concessions to Indigenous groups, but on the whole our government is very afraid of being held accountable under the Genocide Convention and wants to keep erasing that history and trying to silence people who speak out about it. So I think all people on this planet have got to acknowledge the central role of Indigenous issues in social and environmental causes.
PE: Recently liberal pundit Chris Hedges wrote a article condemning the Black Bloc and calling it “the Cancer of the Occupy Movement” I am wondering how do you think that this type of public criticism effects people like yourself who are going to trial for actions associated with The Black Bloc? Does it have any effect on your support?
KELLY: Chris Hedges’ critique struck me as particularly week-kneed, because he had rather passionately supported property damage as a means of protest in the past. Then he writes this article without disclosing his previous view point or explaining what made him change his mind. It seems like he wrote this piece because public opinion currently disapproves of property damage as a protest tactic, and he was swayed by external pressures to revise his views to suit the status quo. A good journalist questions dominant opinions regardless of whether they are the only one doing it, and offers a lateral scope of social issues. I think his piece was just a polemic rather than any kind of investigative story. It’s certainly possible that this could affect the outcome of some people’s charges. As far as my individual situation goes, most of my friends and family are my most vital supports, and they don’t know or care who Chris Hedges is.
PE: Many liberals or pacifists allege that people breaking windows or rioting discredits the message. Can you respond to this from your own experiences as a Black Bloc participant?
KELLY: I have trouble believing that a couple photos of burning police cars is the only thing dissuading consumers of mainstream media from listening to Indigenous land claims, environmental issues or labour politics. People who want to think critically will look past the sensationalized photo spreads, and people who refuse to think critically will continue to buy into whatever moral panic the news is selling them.
PE: Hedges also has characterized the Black Bloc as “infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity.” As a womyn with disabilities, how do you feel about this characterization?
KELLY: Patriarchal society in general is infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity! Patriarchy and prejudice against people with disabilities are deeply connected, and both pressure people to believe their worth depends on whether their body is “attractive,” “useful,” “normal” and non-threatening according to dominant standards. Many of the things that people vandalized during the G20 were symbols of patriarchy, like window adds with emaciated, underage-looking girls in hyper-sexualized poses. Being constantly bombarded with these unhealthy images is hurtful and violating to people of all genders.
Global capitalism is also inextricably linked to kinds violence and exploitation that disproportionately affect women and girls, so in that sense any form of opposition to the G20, multinational corporations or trade blocs is also an opposition to patriarchy. There are many documented cases of female workers in sweatshops being systematically raped because they protested their work conditions, and the colonial history and ongoing economic exploitation of the Congo is what has caused the civil strife and pandemic of gang rapes that Congolese women are suffering right now. If Chris Hedges wants to speak out about the prevalence of hyper-masculinized violence in the world, he should rail against governments and multinational corporations, not a scraggly bunch of protesters who opposes them.
PE: What about writers like AK Thompson who have characterized the Black Bloc as being a “white Riot” of mostly middle class youth? This seems rather contradictory considering how many of the people charged in relation to the G20 Black Bloc were People Of Color.
KELLY: It’s definitely important to address the fact that a lot of activism is white-dominated, but generalizing too much just erases the presence of racialized people in radical movements. Quite a few of the people arrested for vandalism are racialized or come from poor backgrounds, and looking at the news coverage of G20 arrests, I noticed a class division in how they described people with vandalism charges versus people who were charged with the main “conspiracy.” The conspirators were “masterminds,” and we were “violent thugs.” Most of the conspirators are in their 30′s and a lot of them have formal education. Many of the people with vandalism charges are punked-out looking kids with crappy clothes and no bail money, and it was framed a lot of the time as though the conspirators were the brains behind the operation and we were the idiot proles who did their bidding. Framing it like that certainly shows more than a little racism, classism and ageism in the media.
PE: What do you say to those who state that terms like Diversity Of Tactics is just a code word for Smashy Smashy?
KELLY: I usually stay out of the diversity of tactics debate. Don’t we have more important things to do?
PE: You seem very much to have been targeted. How was it that the police knew of your involvement, or knew you were someone to watch?
KELLY: From reading my court disclosure, they weren’t really keeping tabs on me at all before or even during the G20, except when the actual mini-riot-thing was happening and they were taking photos of people breaking stuff. When I was first arrested, it was on arbitrary charges that they had no evidence for and dropped. It was weeks later, after I’d been released, that they re-arrested me for all the mischief charges. In court they had some undercover police officer lying on the witness stand and saying that I was at a pre-G20 organizing event that I never attended. They’re trying to back-pedal, and make it look like I had some kind of organizational role that I didn’t have.
PE: You told me a while ago that you were more afraid of the trial affecting your schooling than you were of going to jail. Can you explain why that is? And is that still true now that your about to be sentenced?
KELLY: I really love studying and learning, and because I didn’t finish high school it took a lot of extra time and hard work for me to get into university. The thought of having to interrupt that pursuit bothers me more than the thought of jail time. I have a really positive outlook on life, and I think that I gain something and learn something in all situations, no matter how difficult they might be. Jail is just another one of those proverbial bags of lemons that you have to make into lemonade, or however that saying goes.
PE: have your views on militancy, direct action, or Black Bloc as a tactic changed since your arrest?
KELLY: I’ve always had a pretty neutral view of property damage, and I actually hadn’t thought about the politics of it much before I ended up participating in it. It was something I just steered clear of. Since my arrest I’ve thought about how messed up it is that you can get a harsher sentence for breaking windows than for assaulting someone or harming a living thing. I think that really shows how much our legal system is rooted in preserving and protecting the material property of the wealthy. Breaking a window is basically an assault against money, and the idea of money. Treating that as a more severe offence than committing harm against a living thing is basically saying that you value money more than life, and that’s pretty psychopathic.
PE: Did you receive much in the way of support since your arrest?
KELLY: Definitely. People I’ve never met have sent me books and zines and letters, and people from all walks of life have given me support and solidarity. People seem to think that folks who live in the country are all a bunch of backwards rednecks, but when I was on house arrest in my home town I had so many people saying they thought it was just awful what I was going through, and supporting me in whatever way they could. Another really cool thing was the Women’s Co-ordinating Committee for a Free Wallmapu, which is an Indigenous Mapuche women’s group in Toronto, set up this rally in support of all the female G20 defendants and the Mapuche women political prisoners who are being criminalized by the Chilean state.
PE: How could people have supported you better, and how can people support you now?
KELLY: Nothing means more to someone in my position than a phone call or a visit.
PE: You have been doing a lot of writing since being on strict conditions? And spamming white-power forums with gay porn from what I remember you saying?
KELLY: Oh man, that was some awesome gay porn. It was from the ’80′s, and all the dudes had the most epic moustaches. But yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of writing…I’ve had short stories and poems in a couple of anthologies, and I write articles for The Dominion and a couple of other magazines. I also just got a gig doing editing for Fifth Estate magazine, which is ridiculously exciting to me!
PE: Any plans for when this shit's all over?
KELLY: Unfortunately, a couple of my friends have died since I’ve been arrested, and I haven’t been able to go to their memorial services because I’ve been on house arrest or had a curfew, so I can’t travel.
So I think as soon as that’s done I’m going to go out to BC, visit my friend’s grave, and pay my respects properly. Other than that I just want to keep going to school, get back into doing FNB servings, and probably go on lots of overnight camping trips. I’ll probably be done my degree by the time this is all over, so I’m also excited about places I could do internships and apply to grad school!