Why we only have one chance to learn from the past.
When we first heard an Occupy Toronto protest was set to coalesce downtown, we imagined fists pumping and flags flying in the middle of the banking district, its towering walls and plate-glass windows rattling furiously. In our mind’s eye: tents everywhere, blanketing the brutalist, antiseptic space; we imagined the beating heart of corporate Canada transformed, suddenly resembling something more human.
Then, of course, we imagined what the police might do, and that’s when some of us decided to keep our bike helmets handy when we got there. Considering what went down barely 14 months earlier—and then, more recently, in New York City—”guarded” may be a bit of an understatement.
But we came to the wrong place when we arrived at King and Bay on October 16. Instead of the scene in our imagination, there was a small, considerably tame concentration of hangers-on with signs and banners, one more notable than the others: “Occupy Toronto has moved to St. James Park.” Heading east, we passed groups growing in size the closer we got to the cathedral. Some wore Guy Fawkes masks, others were less anonymous, and others still carried guitars, kids, and picnic baskets, like it was any other Saturday in the park. Again recalling the batons of 2010, that’s when we started involuntarily wincing at the possibilities.
Very much in contrast with that dystopian weekend, though, what we saw in the Occupy Toronto encampment was everything the G20 protests should have been. As tents went up, so did the positive tenor of overheard conversations. We heard older protest veterans praising the generosity of youth. We saw handshakes, hugs, and other gestures of affinity between, it seemed, total strangers. In many instances, there were visibly friendly encounters between demonstrators and members of the police force, with representatives from the movement laying out the occupation’s objectives for officers on duty.
Overall, it’s a scene bearing little resemblance to the gaggle of aimless troublemakers many imagine, or infer from media reports. The readership of major dailies on both sides of the border has been partially—though not entirely—convinced that the populations occupying public squares in their cities have been a self-serving cross-section of “paid demonstrators,” the unemployed, the drug-addicted, and others marginalized by public opinion. From the beginning, that opinion about Occupy has been like an alimentary process of what the media feeds and what the people consume, regurgitated as complaints against the already disenfranchised, with the end result in the U.S. being a shock-and-awe police crackown of near-unprecedented proportions. Locally, we’ve had all of the above, but with the fortunate exception of that third characteristic.
But the question remains: for how long?
On Tuesday night, members of the Toronto encampment were breathing a sigh of relief. Earlier that day, word came down from City Hall that the jig was up, followed with a morning visit by police and bylaw officers distributing eviction notices. It came on the heels of Rob Ford’s swaggering assertion that Occupy Toronto had to pack up and get out, and not everyone was in the mood to comply. While some struck their tents in a hurry and made their way out of the park, others dug in, making it clear that they weren’t about to go quietly. No doubt some of the assembled had images of the G20 flash through their minds, too, envisioning something like what happened at Queen’s Park.
Still, if those gathered at the encampment’s makeshift library, or strumming guitars in the pagoda, or engaged in conversation and debate throughout the camp were asked, what’s on the line in 2011 is more than just a passing opportunity for dissent on a global stage. And the powers that be are doing themselves no favours in stifling it.
“I’m deeply concerned with Mayor Ford’s trespass against the local chapter,” Amy MacPherson, an activist in the local movement, told Torontoist. “I’m even more curious he seems defiant to learn from the G20. The public’s frustration has reached its threshold and won’t dissipate with further oppression.”
“We’ve already seen how this tactic will play out through our collective experience with the G20,” MacPherson continued, addressing what seemed like the inevitability of a pre-dawn police raid. “The establishment seems willing to challenge Occupy’s mettle and in the process will only galvanize their individual messages to form a larger driving force.” If the greater community thought Occupy was aimless, she suggests, the brute force of the state brought to bear on the matter could change that completely, forcing demonstrators to aim higher.
“Much energy has had to go into the logistical end of maintaining park occupations,” she said, “but now as that busy work becomes threatened, it is also freeing occupiers to look beyond the confines of location.” In short: bring out the big guns, the game changes.
Those guns have yet to be deployed. Late Tuesday evening came word that the occupation received a temporary injunction, stalling eviction proceedings until Saturday, when an Ontario court judge will issue a ruling regarding the occupation’s right to remain in the park. Police involvement in Occupy Toronto as midnight fell—the time at which the eviction notice technically kicked in—remained limited to a watchful eye. With the caveat that no new demonstrators can join the encampment, and with warnings shared among members that the police may still show up, Toronto is out from under the threat of another G20. For a few more nights, anyway.
Still, the possibility of something like Oakland or New York City, or even Toronto circa 2010, coming to St. James Park remains on the radar. “Democratic practices are not always easy and quick,” Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale)—a signatory of Tuesday’s open letter to Mayor Ford—told Torontoist. “But until we have exhausted our means of mitigating the impact of protest on local businesses and residents, we would only be inviting more anger and frustration by forcibly clearing the park.”
“There is no room for violence in the City’s dealing with Occupy Toronto,” Wong-Tam emphasized, “and we must not become a government that sends in police in a pre-dawn raid to evict dissenting voices from public spaces.”