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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.”


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.”


  • Anonymous
  • Sssslip

    Chanting “we are the 99%, you are the 1%” at people leaving the symphony was an idiotic display of ignorance and prejudice. Enjoying symphonic music does not have anything to do with political leanings, nor does it reflect wealth. Many tickets to the symphony are half the price of a rock show, even those by enlightened groups like U2, Radiohead and Pearl Jam, and people under 30 can go for $10 or $15.

    The TSO is funded through donations and ticket sales, and the prices are such that nobody is excluded, even people who live $5000 below the poverty line like me.

    By chanting at fans of a particular kind of music they are doing nothing more than exposing themselves as mouthpieces of wisdom received through pop culture stereotypes who are in love with their own commodified radicalism. This is a major barrier for the left in general because it values self-righteous emotional confrontation more than it does rational communication and persuasive arguments.

    • Geoff Gilmour-Taylor

      I’m a leftie, but when I saw the march as I was coming out of Roy Thompson Hall, I ducked down to the PATH.

    • Margarets

      You’re right. It’s stuff like this that keeps me away from marches, even if I essentially agree with marchers.

    • Anonymous

      “This is a major barrier for the left in general because it values self-righteous emotional confrontation more than it does rational communication and persuasive arguments.”

      That sounds more like the right than the left.

  • Jeff Halperin

    I hate simplified chess allegories. The pawns are the backbone of each game, the king and queen cannot simply oppress them. Each pawn is crucial, they’re only expendable the way any piece is if sacrificing it leads to a better position or some other gain. They are worth less, not worthless. More importantly, each pawn can become whatever piece it wants if it makes it to the opposite end of the board. Pawns can give mate just like any piece.

    More accurately chess is a metaphor for the traditional American dream. Rethinking things, perhaps next year they’ll play a live version of Settlers of Catan.

    • Anonymous

      Chess is a board game about war and strategy. It may be a metaphor for the American dream but that dream is much more of a nightmare for those forced to fight those wars and the civilians in their way. At least in the middle ages the kings and leaders of society, in this march’s terms the 1%, used to lead these wars themselves, since then they realized its much better for themselves to force the poor, the peasants and the powerless to fight in their place.

  • Colin Kelly

    I particularly liked how they encouraged then threw to the wolves their senior citizens….a little glimpse of their utopian society?

    • Anonymous

      The seniors were pastors that were trying to set up a chapel tent, they did it of their own accord and weren’t forced into anything. People who are protesting for social equality, the rights of refugees and workers are not the sort of people who would force anyone to do anything. Use your brain and ignore the propaganda against such political views we all get spoon fed everyday in our mass media.

  • Anonymous

    Can anyone look at those massive numbers of cops, way more of whom can be seen in other photos of the march, and not think we’re way too heavily policed here in Toronto? What a load of crap they were there for “public safety”, those cops were the risk to public safety, not the marchers. I’ve never seen any march with such a massive police presence. Face it they were there to keep those “bad people with their wrong headed” political beliefs in line and to make such people with differing political and social views from our current political masters appear to be very dangerous. That’s the sort of police presence they use to protect neo-nazis when they march in whatever city. I have no doubt such overwhelming numbers of cops were used to discredit the voices of those marching and make them appear dangerous.

    The fact that we have so many extra police that they could spare so many thousands to line the route of a peaceful political march points to a good way of cutting our city’s budget. Instead of attempting to end programs that feed hungry school children or sell off much needed social housing get rid of a few hundred cops instead, we’d still be over policed even if they did that but its a start.

    • Vashty Hawkins

      I was present at the march and the # of cops was sheer overkill

  • Toby Lake

    As a student of social community studied I bring my involvement with Occupy Toronto into my classroom with my speeches, assignments, and discussions with friends. If I found something we did to be harmful to our city I would speak out against it, with strong conviction. I have seen nothing wrong, however, which cannot be fixed with a little discussion and dialogue. I admit we need to have strategies for communicating among eachother and with the media. However, I feel we are doing great given the criticisms and police resistance toward Occupy Toronto since last fall.