An extraordinary day in the life of Occupy Toronto
It's hard to create a community based on love and compassion in the middle of a society based on greed and fear. The hippies tried it without much success even in the backwoods. We tried it in the women's movement but even in all-women groups, the training we received in a patriarchal society restricted our ability to achieve it. The Occupy camps are the closest I've seen to that beloved community that has so escaped our grasp.
It was never clearer to me than when Occupy Toronto was taken down by the city, the courts and the police for the terrible crime of camping in a city park. Oh excuse me, it was for violating a city by-law that they mobilized 100 city staff and uncounted number of police. This we were told was to restore the park to its original beauty so that citizens could use it unimpeded, at the end of November. When one reporter asked me about what a mess the park was, I responded, well if authorities are so worried about that, why do they support the tar sands and mining exploration which destroy trees and water. The only thing destroyed in this park was some of the grass. As one tweeter put it: "Occupy 2.0 will include the right to walk your dog."
In some ways Occupy Toronto was the poster child of the Occupy movement. They negotiated consistently with city officials, fire department and the police, never receiving a single citation for health and safety or fire hazards. As with other Occupy sites, there was a growing number of homeless people, some of with serious mental health issues, who arrived because Occupy created such a welcoming environment in which they could be fully part of the community. It wasn't easy and there were incidents but from what I could see they were handled with compassion and intelligence. They built alliances with like-minded groups around the city from the labour movement to the disability rights movement. St. James Park became the centre of activism in an increasingly activist city.
There was not a shred of an excuse to shut down the camp except for the complaints of a few of the neighbours. As we know, the threat of the Occupy camps was political; the emergence of a movement that not only challenged the greed and lack of democracy of neo-liberal capitalism but also demonstrated on a micro level that it was possible to build a community based on different values and a deep democracy. That's why they shut down the camps.
The occupiers had every right to be angry. And they were angry but they behaved with amazing discipline, militancy and calm. I got a text at 5:15 a.m. from a friend on the site asking me to come down. I'm not much good at midnight but I wake up early so I told him to feel free to text me as soon as the cops were coming. I got there about 5:45 just before the police moved in. There were not a lot of people spread out on the very large site. Despite requests on twitter and texting for people to come down, at first there were not very many who came.
There were people barricaded in three locations around the fire, in the gazebo and of course in the famous library yurt. When I arrived, I asked what the plan was and people just shrugged. There wasn't so much of a plan as an attitude. The people barricaded were prepared to get arrested. Everyone else was there for support probably hoping to avoid arrest.
It was agreed that there would be no effort to stop city workers from taking down the tents. And the workers were very respectful, folding and tagging clothing and other items found in the tents and carefully taking them down. These are workers from CUPE 43, a union under threat of privatization and imminent lock out. No doubt many of them hated what they were doing but they were told they would be terminated if they refused to do the work and there was one supervisor for every three workers. They were also working very, very slowly.
At first it was just regular police around watching the workers and occasionally chatting with some of occupiers. People watched them work and from time to time began chanting but no-one screamed at them as was reported in some media. To my eyes, the occupiers didn't seem very organized. But they moved to where they were needed and when spirits were failing someone showed up to sing or lead a chant or do a mic check. The live stream guy with his laptop hanging from a string around this neck and an assistant walking beside him was filming everything including doing interviews, excited that more than 1,000 people were watching his broadcast.
The people in the gazebo and around the fire seemed in good spirits most of the time. The people defending the library yurt were firm and determined, some of them outside the yurt shivering in the cold. I was pretty sure the police were clearing the tents before they were going to approach taking down the barricaded structures so I suggested they take a walk. "No," one young woman replied, "We are resisting." But you are shivering I replied, your body temperature is getting too low. "I don't resist with my body," she replied pointing to her head and smiling. And I remembered what it was to be 20 years old and went to look for blankets or sleeping bags that might keep them warmer. That they accepted.
Around 10 a.m., a young woman sat in front of a city truck barring its way and she was arrested. The entire park moved towards the vehicle chanting, "Let her go, let her go." In an incredible scene they surrounded the in charge police officer and began talking to him as a group using the human mic method of repeating what people were saying, including him. This group of people without any visible leader negotiated that she would be released. When he said, she will just be given a $75 fine for trespass, someone asked, "How can you be ticketed for trespassing in a public park during the day." And the crowd repeated it. I couldn't believe that the police officer allowed himself to be surrounded like that or that the crowd would be so bold as to do that. But both he and they understood that there would be no violence here. There was no threat.
Around 11 a.m., most of the tents were down and we noticed that riot police were massing on the east side of the park. They weren't wearing helmets or shields but you could tell by their uniforms and their stance that they were riot cops. Some of the union people on site had been asking Sid Ryan to adjourn the Ontario Federation of Labour convention and march over to the site. Now those efforts became more intense. There had been a wonderful rally the night before with about 1,000 union brothers and sisters. Great speeches from labour leaders acknowledged the inspiration that the Occupy movement is to their movement. But this was the moment that solidarity was needed. Most of the people in the park had been there all night and a reinforcement of energy was needed before the tough part came. Then at 11:30 a.m. we got word that the OFL had voted to adjourn the convention and march over to the park. A huge cheer went up.
A few minutes later the police formed a perimeter around the first structure with the fire. It had been a sacred fire but the elders had put it out a day or two before but still people wanted to protect the fire. Tensions were rising because the perimeter kept people well away from the hut. The riot police came in quietly and stayed in the background. It was clear by now that the police were not going to provoke violence.
At 11:45 someone saw the flag leading the OFL convention and they poured into the camp. I am not sure how many people came but it felt like a thousand. Of course they started chanting and the energy was amazing. OFL President Sid Ryan spoke and said they would be leaving soon but they were there to show their solidarity. "We are not here for a confrontation with the police," he said. "Your movement has been an inspiration to millions of Canadians because you have been non-violent. So let's keep this non-violent." I would have felt better if he had included the police in those remarks but no-one seemed to mind. The injection of energy and real gesture of solidarity was what was important and that is what occupiers responded too. And once again I was reminded of how often my mind and others of my generation to go to the negative, the critical. Sid left with about 50 people but the rest stayed. Then we heard that the police were negotiating with those inside the hut and the union brothers and sisters were asked to stay about 20 minutes until the negotiations were concluded and they did.
I don't know if the negotiations would have happened anyway but there is no question that the union presence just when they were needed gave the occupiers a lot more leverage than they perhaps otherwise would have had. One woman was arrested fairly roughly. She was yelling but we couldn't hear her so people chanted again, "Let her go, let her go." She resisted arrest a little but she wasn't charged either.
After that more and more people kept coming into the park, some on their lunch, some perhaps because they realized that no-one would be arrested. The next amazing moment came when we heard that the occupiers barricaded in the library yurt had negotiated with the police to take out the books and carefully take down the Yurt. One of those chained to the Yurt had a joint press conference with the police officer in charge and astonishingly they praised each other for their co-operation.
I've been around a long time and I've never see anything like this. The occupiers didn't save their camp, that wasn't possible but they delayed their eviction by a week through an injunction. They created an atmosphere that meant that neither the tents nor their content were damaged. They created enough resistance that it took an entire day to dismantle the camp, all of it broadcast on local TV and through live stream. And through their action no-one faced criminal charges despite around ten arrests. It was brilliant.
Perhaps it is true that the police were trying to recover their reputation post G20 but I also think they had a lot of respect for what the occupiers were doing. I heard that a lot cops were referring homeless people who won't go to shelters to Occupy Toronto where they would be well treated. The police negotiated every situation with considerable skill. When three young men refused to leave the yurt and were arrested, the crowd once again surrounded the police van. The officer in charge offered to have the Occupy chaplain come with them to ensure they would be well treated and promised they would only be ticketed for trespassing to get the crowd to let the vehicle drive away.
I like to think that it was really because of the atmosphere created in the camp, an atmosphere of love and compassion, an atmosphere of commitment and determination, an atmosphere of a loving accepting community. I think maybe the police were affected by it too. I know that I have been.