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May Day Starts With Chess, Ends With Arrests

Tuesday's May Day events had everything from human chess to civil disobedience, and saw the re-emergence of Occupy Toronto after a quiet winter.

Photo by Dean Bradley/Torontoist.


Tuesday’s May Day protests, organized by a variety of groups—including No One is Illegal, the May 1st Movement, and Occupy Toronto—had a little something for everyone.

For those who like to mix their politics with a sense of whimsy, there was a giant human chess game, as well as some guerilla gardening. Fans of fiery speeches would have had more than their fill at the Nathan Phillips Square rally, while people who feel that any good revolution involves dancing would have been impressed by the constant pounding of anti-capitalist samba group Rhythms of Resistance. If, on the other hand, you just wanted some non-violent civil disobedience ending in arrest, there was some of that, too.

Lighter Fare

May Day—also known as International Workers’ Day—kicked off at 11 a.m. with the Occupy-sponsored Operation Chess Magik, a human chess game/performance that took place in a largely empty Nathan Phillips Square. Naturally, the game ended with the pawns banding together, rising up, and turning on those who attempt to play them against each other.

According to Occupy’s Lana Goldberg, Chess Magik was born out of a desire to show the exploitation of working people in a creative, unexpected way.

“It seemed like a good idea to take a game where there’s a king and a queen and pawns, because that’s how the one per cent act,” she said. “[It seems like] the rules are set, you can only move in certain directions, the king is the most powerful… but actually when people come together, they have the power to take control.”

Chess Magik was followed by the Occupy Garden Party. Half meal break, half guerilla gardening exercise, it saw a few dozen protesters break bread on Queen’s Park’s south lawn, before heading to the north lawn to dump several bags of topsoil on the ground and plant crops while singing “Give Peas a Chance.”

“We wanted to bring people together…in a celebration of life, but also to raise awareness of food issues, and also to inspire people to join us in planting no less than 99 gardens around the city today,” said Garden Party co-organizer Jacob Kearey-Moreland. “We’ve got grandmas, little kids, people from every age and background getting dirty in the gardens today.”

Rallies, Marches, Songs

Operation Chess Magik and the Garden Party may have only attracted a few dozen protesters, but the rally at Nathan Phillips Square and subsequent march to Alexandria Park attracted a few thousand.

Speakers from No One is Illegal, the May 1st Movement, Stop the Cuts, Afghans for Peace, and several other organizations whipped up the crowd with speeches denouncing a wide variety of injustices, including “imperialist wars,” austerity measures, racist immigration policies, and a lack of respect for workers’ rights. The crowd was also repeatedly reminded that this protest, as well as everything else in the city, was taking place on land stolen from native peoples.

After the speeches had concluded and a massive banner had been dropped from the pedestrian bridge above Queen Street, the rally turned into a march. The massive, slow-moving parade from the Square to the park wound its way west along Queen Street, up Spadina, then west on Dundas, led by a colour guard holding various First Nations flags and accompanied by the percussive soundtrack of Rhythms of Resistance, and also protest chants that were occasionally too long to be effective. (“Lock up [Immigration Minister Jason] Kenney, throw away the keys. Justice for immigrants, freedom for refugees,” was just too much for a call-and-response chant.) The procession stopped every few minutes, usually to allow the back of the march to catch up. At Queen and Spadina everyone paused for a fifteen-minute mini sit-in and some chalk drawing.

At Alexandria Park, the protesters were treated to a wide variety of musical entertainment, including revolutionary raps, acoustic Cee-Lo covers and more drumming.

Occupy’s Sakura Saunders says the march and rally exceeded expectations.

“Turnout today was amazing,” she said. “We had three-to-five thousand in the streets, and that was great. That’s the biggest May Day we’ve ever had.”

Saunders says that Occupy was happy to give the assist to No One is Illegal, who have been organizing May Day celebrations in Toronto for the last six years.

“We’re always having people come to our general assemblies and ask if we can endorse such and such a march,” she said. “Generally there’s a little bit of discussion, but most of the time we say yes and show up with an Occupy contingent…It’s an open space that we’re creating, so people can come into that space and get support for whatever social injustice they’re trying to remedy.”

Re-Occupation

Shortly after 9 p.m., the protest took to the streets again, accompanied by a huge number of police. This time, the crowd headed south and east towards the still-undisclosed re-occupation site. They came to a stop at Simcoe Park, a small park on Front Street, across from the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The Convention Centre will play host to Barrick Gold’s Annual General Meeting later today, a meeting Occupy plans to protest due to Barrick’s history of questionable environmental practices and displacing people near their mine sites.

Police warned protesters that they would not be allowed to set up tents in the park, due to a City bylaw that bans camping and the erection of structures there. After much people’s-mic-enabled discussion of how to proceed—one suggestion was that people should simply stand and hold a tarp in the air while other people slept underneath it—some of the oldest occupiers opted to test the police officers’ resolve and take matters in to their own hands. The Occupy chaplains attempted to erect a chapel tent in the middle of the park, and after ignoring a police command to stop, all three were arrested. The arrest prompted the crowd to cry “Shame,” and things like, “Your children are fucking embarrassed of you,” to the police, who hustled the three senior protesters away.

“Two women and one man were charged with engaging in a prohibited act,” said Constable Tony Vella. “They’ve been arrested. They’re going to be charged with a provincial offence—it’s not a Criminal Code offence—and issued a fine.”

Occupy’s Ben Hirsch says the occupation was a success, not only in spite of the arrests, but also because of them.

“It’s so inspiring that three of our eldest members here today—chaplains, people of God, peaceful people…made that decision really consciously,” he said. “It’s a flawed system, and it’s ridiculous that this is a crime, but within that system, they made that decision [to get arrested] and they’re OK with it, and I’m OK with it.”

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