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Zimmerman: Occupy Toronto: Round 2…?

November 28, 2011

From October 15th 2011 to November 23 2011 the Occupy Movement maintained its presence in St. James Park in Toronto.  As of this writing the eviction has been enforced and the tents all dismantled, including the Library Yurt, and all the occupiers (save the original homeless occupiers) have left the park.  As we know similar evictions have taken place elsewhere in Canada and the world at this time.  Unlike New York’s eviction of Occupy Wall St. the Toronto one was mostly peaceful and the occupiers managed to negotiate with the police force to spare the library books, whereas the New York counterpart library was burnt to the ground books included.  The Occupy Movement’s fate is uncertain worldwide and the specific Toronto movement has found itself in a state of limbo.  Some of the major organizers have regrouped already and held on a makeshift convention on November 25th.  Some activists and journalists have commented that this is only the first round of the movement, including The Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume.    People are meeting every evening at Nathan Philip’s Square (City Hall) to hold General Assemblies.  There is much frustration and feelings of defeat in the post-eviction Occupy Toronto movement, but the participants seem strong-willed and many appear to be ready to carry it on to the next level.  What that next level is, if it happens, wont be apparent immediately.  The issues, largely based around income inequity, marginalization, and eco-destruction (with a strong focus on the Tar Sands, the questionable practices of Canadian Mining Companies, and the actions and inactions of the Harper Government on climate change) have been building up for quite some time in Canada and still exist despite the absence of the makeshift village in St. James Park. 

So where does it go from here?  I have been documenting the movement, although I never had the chance to stay for too long at a time due to other commitments.  From day one the movement looked promising, although I have to admit I, along with others, was somewhat disappointed and perplexed by the location of our final destination once the march was completed.  We were in a park, just a relatively small downtown park.  I was expecting this to be directly on Bay St., a sort of Occupy Wall Street of Canada, but instead we were in a park in the shadow of an old cathedral which was in turn in the shadow of the largest banking towers in Toronto that make up the skyline of our financial district – interesting, the new great architectural manifestation of power overshadowing the old great architectural manifestation of power.   Everybody who is somebody in the world of Toronto-based activism was present: environmental justice activists, those bearing the flags of organized labour, Marxist groups with their self-printed, self-righteous (and sometimes self-absorbed)  newspapers, students and post-students swimming in debt, local community activists from all over the Greater Toronto Area, Palestinian rights activists waving the forbidden green, red, white, and black flag on the streets of Toronto, First Nations representatives brandishing pre-Canada symbols, and enough left-leaning citizen journalists to make every movement of the crowd available on the internet from every angle.  I managed to capture the images myself from that first day:

Things started promising enough, despite whatever reservations people may have had about the location (it was decided in the first Occupy Toronto General Assembly that St. James Park would be the camping spot).  The first day the park was completely full.  Free food was handed out, people meeted and greeted – some ready to become eachother’s neighbours, and the movement planted itself in the core of the city.  The days following were full of large-scale rallies, workshops and teach-ins on various causes, non-violent resistance, and explanations for the rules of the movement.  The social media scene sprung to life with people from Occupy Toronto contacting one another through facebook, twitter, youtube, livestream, and making contact with other occupy movements from New York to Montreal, from Oakland to Cairo, from Johannesburg to Paris.  Occupy Toronto was linked to the outside world, a new movement emerging onto the global scene ready to affect worldwide discourse straight from the streets to the web. 

The mainstream media in Toronto went straight into the action, unlike the U.S. media that ignored the Occupy Wall St. movement until it became too big and pressing to ignore.  There was spin by some outlets and newscasters and outright hostility from some commentators such as Kevin O’Leary and SunTV’s Ezra Levant.   One of the major criticisms of Occupy Toronto was that the protestors didn’t have one specific message.  This is not true as, much like Occupy Wall St., the movement largely points to economic inequity, what are percieved as the failures of the current neo-liberal financial system and the ecological degradation that takes place as a result.  People come from different backgrounds (socially, culturally, financially, politically), but the general message is fairly clear.  The long-term solutions are another thing altogether.  Perhaps only when the people who are fed up with this system get together can solutions then be made apparent.  It is with this optimism that I approached the movement. 

Another criticism levelled at the movement is the situation in the encampment itself.  Some comments on SUNTV videos re-posted on youtube describe it as a magnet for problems and accuse the occupiers of attracting “feral kids” and homeless people, some with drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental health related issues.  The park, according to these critics, has thus become a dangerous place.  Similar accusations have been levelled at Occupy Oakland.  The response, in both cases, is that problems such as alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness, and violence have been present beforehand.  The presence of the downtrodden, of those who are at the base of a system that creates inequality, are going to inevitably be present within the movement inside.  The organizers did what they could to keep the park safe, opening tents designated as women’s safe space, having marshalls patrol the area and welcoming people and explaining the situation within the park itself.  A type of collective vigilance developed, a sense of tightly knit community where everyone is offered help if in need. 

Their methods were apparent on some of the dark evenings I visited on.  One time at a General Assembly held at the local park gazebo (a kind of improvised communal gathering space) a drunk man, a previous local resident of St. James Park, was continually shouting at the participants who were trying to hold their group discussion.  People were getting frustrated at the intrusion.  Instead of using any force against him a volunteer marshal sat down beside him and started talking to him calmly.  The General Assembly could continue and it did so with no more interruptions.  The problem emerged but was de-escalated within minutes without any harm done to anyone. 

Another night I saw a worse scenario.  I do not know the full details, but I got the jist that one regular was having problems (mental health related) and was lashing out at others verbally.  Again, I know little of the scenario, but at one point I observed he was arguing with some marshalls.  Things were escalating at one point as a crowd of marshalls came about him.  There was talk about calling the police by one of them.  A large man who had been assisting the organizers came in, separating the troubled individual from the marshalls.  Things heated up as the smaller young man lunged at the larger man.  I expected a furious beating to follow, perhaps followed by a swarm of police officers (who were always around the perimeter of the park) to arrest both of them.  This would make things worse for everyone directly involved and reflect badly on the movement itself.  Instead though, as the one man lunged his fist, the larger of the two grabbed his arm and with one swift move, not unlike Batman, he brought the guy to the ground on his back.  It was one move that incapacitated him, but it did not look like he was hurt.  Another marshal came in to speak with the troubled man, telling him he was going to stay with him and wasn’t going to abandon a friend in need.  I was a bit shaken up at first, just seeing the sight of a physical altercation of any kind in the small village where many vulnerable people stayed, but I came to conclude that this approach taken by the marshalls and the skilled “guard” was probably the best outcome possible.  The problem was de-escalated and effectively neutralized before it became worse.  I can think of times when I’ve seen police officers, or even security guards, take actions that appeared to have made the scenarios worse rather than better.  The organizers were committed the safety and well-being of the community, something that I personally feel is largely missing from my own neighbourhood in North York (Northern part of Toronto).  New techniques, new ways of dealing with problems emerge in such a context as the camp at the park.

I wont soon forget the morning of the eviction.  A bunch of people sat in the media yurt, some connecting online to explain the situation to distant observers, others huddled in warmth around a propane-powered heater.  One man drank a small flask.  Generally drinking wasn’t allowed on the premises, but people were either too busy to notice or did not care as it was the last few hours of the occupation.  He was harmless anyway.  I spoke to him and we watched a clip from one of my favourite films, The Battle of Washita River from Little Big Man starring Dustin Hoffman (1970), a scene where General Custer and the 7th Cavalry attack an encampment of Native Americans.  Something about this scene resonated with the situation we were in ourselves.   We were sitting in our tents in the rain, awaiting the inevitable emergence of a fighting force much more (physically) powerful than ourselves.  After the G20 we didn’t know if the police would use violent force and attack the tents like the NYPD did in Lower Manhatten.  Perhaps, some figured later, the police did the eviction as peacefully as they did because they were afraid of another PR disaster like the G20. 

I also spoke to the people int he Library Yurt.  They had barricaded the library entrance with makeshift items; tarps, chairs, planks of wood, and placed fish-line all about it, creating a kind of web for the police to cut through.  They themselves were chained to the place.  These people were perhaps the bravest among them:

They ended up negotiated successfully with the police to spare the library books which were largely collected from donations from occupiers and supporters.  The Toronto community library did not share the fate of the NYC library (and perhaps the fate of Toronto’s official libraries with Rob Ford’s upcoming budget).  St. James Park is now emptied of the movement, but the movement has made its impression.  Where it goes now is anyone’s guess.  I, and numerous others, plan to watch where it goes from here.  Whether the Occupy Toronto movement will continue in this current manifestation is uncertain, but so long as the problems that spawned it in the first place remain there will be more movements and actions to come.

P.S. : Some mates and I filmed two episodes (so far) of a talkshow at St. James Park.  It was filmed within a tent, hence the title ‘The Tent Show’.  More episodes are to begin production soon, but we have to figure out the next steps of the movement first.  Below are the first two episodes, visit my youtube channel jmzimmerman1984 and that of my co-host Kriss if interested in seeing more in the coming days and weeks.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob permalink
    November 28, 2011 10:01 am

    The “Occupy Toronto” movement accomplished absolutely nothing. It was more a haven for the homeless and drug addicts. Their message did not resonate with the general public who were too busy going to work to earn a living something that these “occupiers” have never done. They destroyed a park they hijacked and turned it into a drug party. More than 150 used syringes were cleaned up. Ordinary working Canadians have no time for “high” protesters attempting to give a drug induced message. The cost to the taxpayer for policing and the clean up once again falls to the working public not those who caused these expenses. After a week or so people just ignored these unemployed drugged protesters and went about their day. There was no message that will be lasting and this entire protest was for not. Money for drugs but not for rent. Money for tattoos but not for food. Taxpayers welfare monthly cheques for illegal substances. The average Torontonian had no time for these people nor should they. Good riddance to them all.

  2. November 28, 2011 3:28 pm

    Thanks for your input Mr. Mayor.

  3. Sandra permalink
    November 28, 2011 3:32 pm

    Hey Rob, opinions are like assholes, everyone has one and like yours, they are usually full of shit!

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