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A Safety of Our Own

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Issue: 80 Section: Canadian News Geography: Ontario Toronto

January 2, 2012

A Safety of Our Own

Security and community in St. James Park

by Megan Kinch

Jordon and Brooks were on the Marshal Team in the park, de-escalating conflicts as they occurred. Photo: Kristyna Balaban

This article was published by the Toronto Media Co-op prior to the eviction of Occupy Toronto from St. James Park on November 23.

TORONTO—How does a non-hierarchical movement deal with the safety of its participants? “Occupy” encampments in many countries have been struggling with this question, and Toronto’s “Occupy” is no exception. Located in the downtown east side, St. James Park has been a refuge to many homeless people, and drinking and drug use have always been present. Dick Johnson, who has been helping de-escalate problems, told me that it was important to be sensitive to the needs of long-term park residents: “We have to remember that they were here first and a lot of the problems are with people who were here before us. The longest resident has been living here for 10 years.”

A team of marshals is trained and on call to de-escalate problems. “The issue is that we are dealing with the acts that go on in the park whether we are here or not,” one member of the Marshal Team said. “We have had to evict several people from the park in a non-violent way. There have been a few instances of extremely disruptive people who we were able to deal with in a non-violent and loving way and who were then able to be extremely productive members of this community. We need to publicize the idea about crisis prevention and de-escalation. What we are doing here is very different from the way society at large deals with conflict. There is a lot to learn for everyone.”

General Assemblies (GAs) in particular have been a site of significant disruption. In the most serious incident, a man showed his penis to the crowd during the meeting. But occupiers are taking steps to deal with these problems. A policy on drugs and alcohol (they are banned) has been passed through the GA.

“Marshals never quit,” said Johnson, one of the marshals. “There have been a lot of proactive solutions happening.”

“Security in the park should be all of our responsibility,” Johnson said. “We should not let either paranoia or apathy get to us—we also should not be vigilantes. Sometimes the best thing to do is to ask someone one else to help deal with the situation.”

There has also been an education in dealing with mental illnesses and police; people are realizing that it's not appropriate to call the police for mental illness or intoxication and that the paramedics and crisis intervention teams are better for situations that have become too out of hand for the park community to deal with.

Mental health and nursing professionals have started volunteering for the medic committee to help deal with these sorts of issues. There has been a general agreement only to involve the police in serious incidents of assault, and only when the survivor wants to go that route.

Taylor Flook is an experienced environmental activist who has been a key member of many committees at Occupy Toronto that deal with safety in the park. She says that at first people were reluctant to deal with problems out of a misplaced liberal social-ideology where people didn’t want to interfere with anyone else. “And we’re now…ending our third week—we are at a point when I mention that a sexual assault has happened again and that we liaised with the police and had them assist in the apprehension of the perpetrator, people clapped. It was very bizarre [to see such a change in attitudes]. So, we’re seeing that people are getting it. I hope that people are getting it fast enough to mitigate any further trauma upon an individual while people suss out their ideologies of how to deal with things.”

There have been several incidents in which occupiers reluctantly felt they had to involve the official justice system. In the first week, a man was stealing from tents and sexually assaulting people by touching their feet—occupiers caught him, took him to the edge of the park, and turned him over to the police. This week, a team of marshals searched for another man who allegedly sexually assaulted someone and turned him over to police, as the victim wanted to file charges. There was also a citizen’s arrest made of a Sun TV reporter who was pursuing people so aggressively they were being hit with the TV cameras. While the Sun TV reporter was banned from the park, other reporters from the Sun newspaper respectfully camped out for several days without any incident.

Flook regrets that the camp still doesn’t have a firm process for restorative justice and as a result still has to deal with police regarding serious incidents: “…we don’t have elders or first nations people or anyone with a restorative justice process to actually play that out and show what healing is like, what atoning for your actions is like in a community.”

She says that marshals are a good first step (she’d rather they were called “mediators”). She told Toronto Media Co-op: “Marshals are just a bunch of people who were willing to volunteer; brave individuals who were trying to be the piece that is missing in our greater society. The police have, depending on your experience, failed at the ability to mediate conflict, they actually help escalate conflict…instead of that, what we’re trying to do is create community.”

Megan Kinch is an activist and journalist in Toronto.

Questions? Comments? Drop us a line: info@mediacoop.ca.

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