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politics

Ford Fest 2014 Starts Weird and Turns Ugly

Tempers flare, crowd confronts LGBTQ activists at annual Ford family barbecue.

RobFord

Men and women who have been in a warzone describe it as long stretches of boredom punctured by short bursts of action. Ford Fest 2014 was hardly Da Nang, but it was slow, it was hot, it was tense, and it was confusing. It was sometimes pitiful and largely absurd. It was a lot of waiting broken up by emotion and violence. It was a whole lot of ordinary people looking for a free burger, undercut by an angry, pushed-to-the-edge faction.

By the end of the night, mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson had ridden in on a bright white steed; people had been shoved, slandered, choked; LGBTQ activists had been goaded, and at least one had been assaulted.

This year’s edition of Rob Ford’s annual booster barbecue—which was not a campaign event, mind you, and there were bylaw enforcement officers present to make sure there were no violations of the fest’s community activity permit—was scheduled to start at 5 p.m. Friday, but the mayor was over an hour late. Thousands had lined for a Ford Nation T-shirt. A few hundred more snaked across the park, waiting in front of a canopy tent where Ford was scheduled to do a meet-and-greet. This was old-time populism in action.

William Scriber and his family had arrived at 4 p.m. to stake out first place in the line to shake Ford’s hand. “He is so colourful,” Scriber said. “And he’s the best damn mayor this city’s ever had.”

A hundred yards down the queue, the love for Ford was fierce and protective. “The media is really on him,” said one man, who asked not to be named. “It’s clear somebody’s got an axe to grind, that’s all.”

And the personal problems? “Everyone has their faults,” said a young mother with kids in tow. “But he does what he was elected to do. Let people who are without faults cast the first stone.”

What about Ford’s use of racial slurs? The media’s focus on that is unfair, suggested one woman—a passionate Ford supporter with a T-shirt and flag to prove it. “Let’s get Olivia Chow and John Tory really drunk and see what they say in their own home,” she said.

It was into this soup of die-hard Fordies that Sarah Thomson rode, surrounded by a very small squad of campaign members.

She was greeted by jeers from the crowd, many of whom now streaked alongside the silently nervous horse, shouting at Thomson.

“Very tacky, Sarah.”

“I smell horseshit!”

“Can I vote for the horse?”

Ford had invited all his fellow candidates to attend the barbecue—and Thomson had a point to make. “A horse can get here faster than above-ground transit,” Thomson said to the gathering media scrum. “We have to advance underground transit.”

That’s when the bylaw enforcement officers stepped in. They took Thomson’s team to task for having a horse in a public park without a permit—a bona fide violation of municipal code.  A woman cut in demanding the bylaw people take action against a photographer who’d trampled her picnic blanket. Bystanders taunted her. She threatened to drop her pants in protest.  The guilty photographer approached and apologized. She shoved him hard.

Back in line waiting for the mayor to arrive, Ford Nation was getting antsy.  Nearly 6 p.m., and still no Rob. George Chuvalo, Canadian boxing giant and staunch Ford supporter, entered the meet-and-greet tent. No one took notice. A small segment of the line was being whipped into a frenzy by a cameraman, while everyone else wilted in the heat. Thomson passed by on foot. And the hardest man Muhammad Ali ever fought, the one the Champ never could knock down, quietly ate a burger.

Finally, the main attraction. Ford and an entourage appeared from the parking lot and proceeded to the canopy tent. The crowd surged. One woman was left lying in its wake. Tiny men wormed their way under tall women’s arms; everyone pushed and hollered. From somewhere deep in the crush came a whiff of bourbon.

The Scribers got to meet the mayor. William looked overjoyed. Maybe everything was looking up.

And then things got properly dark. A group of LGBTQ activists showed up, which rankled some of the other attendees. LGBTQ community organizer Poe Liberado later told CTV News that the contingent was the target of slurs and was told to go home. Before the barbecue had ended there was an image making the rounds on Twitter, of a man in a Pride flag being throttled by a fellow Ford Fest attendee.

It was the worst imaginable outcome for a party hosted by a man known for troubling public displays. Worse than liquor licences being denied, worse than Ford maybe campaigning at a public park. This was a display of Toronto at its lowest. This was division, and victimization, and anger. This was Ford’s Toronto four years in. Welcome to it.

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