Organizing To Occupy: Inside Occupy Toronto
By Brandon Gray
[b][i]For forty days this past autumn, approximately 500 people, mostly youth, maintained a protest camp in St. James Park, a couple blocks from the third largest stock exchange in North America. As part of the global 'Occupy' movement against economic inequality, the park was a base in which a political dialogue could happen using direct action and non-hierarchical decision-making.[/i][/b]
I had intently followed the Tunisian uprising, watched the battles for Tahrir Square and paid close attention to the Spanish Indignados as the wave of revolt headed westward and finally reached Wall Street. Through facebook I signed up for the logistics and outreach committees nearly two weeks before the occupation, hoping that one area of work would compliment the other. The first logistics meetings were awkwardly tense because nobody knew each other, a proper meeting structure was absent, and almost everyone there was new to activism. However the people showing up to meetings were working very hard to make the occupation a success and had diverse backgrounds to draw on. We soon had a long list of needed items, beginning with the big stuff: generators and toilets. I thought that the best relationship to have with the unions was one in which all materiel support would be welcomed but any members taking part would do so just like everyone else at occupy.
I was hand-billing at U of T campus before heading down to Berczy Park for the second planning assembly, when a man walked up to me to ask me about Occupy. It turned out he had participated in the early protests that evolved into the Egyptian uprising. He helped me get our flyers out to people before we headed down to the assembly together, discussing how to build a movement here based on the specific tactics they had used in Egypt. It was very exciting: revolutionaries were finding each other and sharing experiences and advice, integrating the nodes of this world struggle.
On October 15, as the crowd swelled to over 3000, we collectively ratified the logistics committee's proposal to occupy St. James Park and began to march there from King and Bay. Our march was adorned with plenty of corporate media and filled the entire street, seeming to grow as we moved along. Our first General Assembly (GA) was massive. The press scrum at the front of this GA was dense and a bit too pushy; they created a barrier between the people giving announcements and helping to facilitate and the thousands of people taking part in the meeting, and they ignored our requests to make room for those participating in the meeting. With that many people using the "people's" mic, it took three echoes for a few words to make it out to those on the outer rim of the meeting. It was awkward getting used to speaking in such a way, but luckily my announcement for logistics was short and simple. The rest of that first day I spent directing people to committee tents and taking requests for needed supplies while a festive mood began to take over the park.
Having a protest camp worked well as a base. Marches and actions were able to happen every day, and sometimes twice a day, in addition to the GAs held at noon and 6pm. The most exciting protests were those that made decisions on the move and used direct action tactics to make demands. My favourite example was a sit-in at King and Bay, in which it was proposed and agreed that we would block the streetcars until the TTC executives stopped blocking Wheel-Trans service to St. James Park. An amendment to move our sit-in a couple blocks to Yonge and Dundas was adopted so that transit riders could transfer from their blocked streetcars to the subway. Seeing news helicopters circling overhead broadcasting to a huge screen in the square gave someone a great idea. They proposed we form '99%' in the intersection to send a message to those watching at home. The crowd produced chalk to make an outline and we all sat on these lines, proving we could self-organize on the spot and successfully carry out somewhat complicated actions. As the weeks went on, there was a decrease in the frequency of actions but large protests still occurred, usually on Saturdays, with sizable union mobilizations and public engagement through our outreach street teams. We crashed a Bay Street meeting by the Minister of Labour, marched in solidarity with the call from Occupy Oakland for a general strike, shutdown the major banks on Bay Street with a massive union solidarity rally, organized twin snake marches of several thousand people that ended at City Hall to demand mayor Ford's eviction, and carried out many other exciting actions while we held our protest camp.
In the first couple weeks, a long time activist and I trained over one hundred people in de-escalation tactics and the general policies we would use to keep everyone safe. One of the main challenges we faced was how to handle conflicts involving addiction and mental health. It fell to the marshals to develop practical policies that would remove the conflict without ostracizing or criminalizing those involved. Supporters visiting the park were sometimes verbally abused and intimidated by a small number of individuals suffering episodes of severe mental illness which the existing government services had utterly failed to treat. It was a serious problem undermining our support and credibility with no immediate remedies in sight. We worked out a policy whereby marshals would pool information on the individual in question, identify a friend of theirs, and bring them in to work with the marshal with whom they shared the best rapport. These two, along with a mental health professional or street nurse, would communicate and work with the individual to try and get them real help. The rest of the marshals avoided getting involved unless there was violence.
To supplement this process, reliable marshals either living on the streets or with the relevant experience formed a 'street team' that would work with the local homeless population – many of whom they knew personally – to find common ground and avoid conflicts. It was through this team and those they worked with that we would regularly hear that homeless, and/or people suffering from mental health or substance abuse problems were being sent to the park, or dropped off by police after being detained or arrested. The reasoning was that they would cause disruptions, violence, and prove that we could not handle the park without the police. Consistent with these reports was the refusal by the officers maintaining a 24/7 perimeter around the park to hear complaints of assault made by those seeking police protection. In one case, an occupier asking to report a crime was told to "fuck off" by one officer.
After a month of occupying the park, the mayor was finally ready to send the police in to remove us. Contingency planning took over the park's usual economic and social conversations and the beginnings of an anti-eviction strategy formed. Occupiers would choose from one of three colour-coded teams to designate the risk level they had accepted. Green was for those who would leave or seek sanctuary beside the church as the eviction began, orange for those that would stay in the park but reserved the option to leave, and red was for those who would engage in non-violent direct actions to protect certain areas of the park and who would refuse to leave. Marshals would have scouts on radios watching for large police movements outside the park, while a couple of us with air horns would signal when an eviction was imminent. I also carried a phone donated by a union that would hold all the numbers we collected for a 'phone tree' and send mass texts to mobilize our supporters on short notice. We would then prioritize escorting 'green liners' to the area beside the church or out of the park and help coordinate getting 'red liners' to where they needed to be. Unfortunately the injunction our legal supporters filed, when put into place, prevented us from growing or otherwise altering the camp. It also stretched out the period of eviction, so that supporters who were on standby to rush to the park during eviction were left in limbo for over a week.
Naturally, to impartially ascertain whether our right to protest trumped the rights of local condo residents to use the entire park as their dog's toilet, the government had Ontario Supreme Court judge Brown, a Christian fundamentalist Bay Street lawyer, make the ruling on whether we should be evicted. Needless to say, Brown ruled in favour of the dogs, declaring that "Canada has not chosen anarchism." We were prepared for an eviction to come right after Judge Brown's ruling. At around 2pm, when about a dozen officers entered the park to serve fresh eviction notices, the air horn alarm prematurely went off and we sprung into action. With 'green liners' out of the park and all the largest tents, save for the library yurt, with plenty of 'red liners' assigned to them, I made it a priority to beef up the defence of the library – especially since in New York, the police had seized Occupy Wall Street's library and burnt all the books. Luckily I had bought a couple of thick chains and some locks the day before and had proposed to an anarchist friend and fellow marshal that we chain ourselves to the door of the library and hold out as long as possible. With help from our comrades, a barricade of scrap wood and shipping palettes festooned with black flags and anarchist slogans was quickly erected around us while the corporate press buzzed around videotaping and snapping photos. Another anarchist set to work barricading the large gazebo in the centre of the park, while another barricade went up around the First Nations' fire. Massive union rallies filled the park each night while those of us chained to the front of the library – we had grown to four, with three others inside the library itself – did a constant succession of interviews with the press. We also received well wishes from hundreds of supporters, many of whom told us they were visiting the occupation for the first time after seeing us on the news. Alas, the police played their cards well, delaying the actual physical eviction for two days in hopes that our numbers would wane. The weather was certainly on their side, with freezing rain throughout the second night taking its toll on even the most dedicated defenders. Eventually I was arrested, along with ten others, and quickly released with a trespassing charge.
Nearly all the Occupy cities have been evicted from their parks. For our part, Occupy Toronto has consistently maintained our GAs outside City Hall every night at 7pm. We have carried out several actions since the eviction, including a climate justice march, an anti-prison march to the Don Jail in opposition to Harper's omnibus crime bill, and a shared GA with Occupy Buffalo on the “Rainbow Bridge” US-Canada border crossing – to name a few. Shortly after the eviction we attempted to squat a city building with about 80 occupiers, but found it unexpectedly locked despite reports to the contrary. A smaller group from the food team held a large basement on Queen St, but were evicted about eight hours after going public. Since the police are not allowing anyone to sleep in parks, regardless of whether they are part of Occupy, our priority was been getting our homeless occupiers out of the cold by scouting out abandoned buildings and getting them blankets to stay warm. We are now focused on getting our GAs inside for the winter. We have learned a lot and are eager get back what we had in St. James Park. With such huge economic battles ahead, whether it's in squats or parks come springtime, there will be more occupations to come.