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Is "Fighting to Win" a Criminal Act?

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Issue: 16 Section: Features Geography: Ontario Toronto Topics: police, poverty, OCAP

March 16, 2004

Is "Fighting to Win" a Criminal Act?

OCAP's John Clarke on the "Queen's Park Riot" and the changing rules of class warfare

by John Clarke

John Clarke is an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) in Toronto. The following is an edited transcript of a talk John gave at a public discussion on the criminalization of dissent in Halifax, NS on December 16, 2003. A full transcript and audio recording are also available.

[Coming from the print edition? Jump to the beginning of the second half.]

John Clarke at an OCAP demonstration. Clarke is one of OCAP's two paid organizers. photo: OCAP

I'd like to bring a message of solidarity from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty to this meeting, but more importantly to everyone here in this city who is facing harassment and intimidation because they stand up for what is just, and what is fair.

On June 15th, 2000, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty organized a march for homeless people and allies on the Ontario Legislature, and we faced criminal charges as a result. In Halifax, it was a protest against the G7.

If we're talking about the criminalization of dissent, the first thing that must occur to us when we look at those kinds of examples is that we live in an insane world, where people who go out and challenge injustice are the ones who must defend themselves from the charge of being criminals.

When we marched on the Legislature, back in Toronto, we were aware that so far that year, 22 homeless people had died on the streets of Toronto. When it comes to the crimes of the G7, even the known ones would fill volumes. Those that we don't know about would probably fill volumes more.

To say that anyone who stands up against such acts of theft and murder and violence - and fights back against them - must defend themselves from the charge of being criminal is astounding, and insane. We should keep that in mind.

Further Reading:

ZNet: From Protest to Resistance: and interview with John Clarke

Naomi Klein: Would You Invite John Clarke to Your Riot?

CNEWS: A discussion with John Clarke [includes responses to several hostile callers]

John Clarke: Interrogation at the US Border

Eye: John Clarke calls from jail

It's important to look at some of the backdrops to the state and legal attacks that are coming down on people today.

The first and most important one - and it plays out everywhere - is what is sometimes called the neoliberal agenda. A decision has been made in the corporate boardrooms (and correspondingly, in the legislatures and parliaments) to completely change the rules of the game. To take back all barriers that stand in the way of the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many, and to remove all previous social entitlement - all regulations that limited the banditry of multinational corporations.

That is the agenda that is unfolding. As it unfolds, and as populations start to feel a sense of grievance, and start to resist those changes - whether it be fishers in PEI or people in any Canadian city - when people stand up against that agenda, increasingly the response of the state is to say that "we are not going to make concessions; we are not going to provide social provision; we are not going to provide health care and social programs. Our solution to your grievance is going to literally be the policeman's billy club." And the jail cells, and the courts.

That is the backdrop to this whole situation.

"2,000 people per month are being evicted in Toronto"

We went through a long period in history after the second world war - especially in the privileged parts of the world - when concessions were being made. When living standards were improving, when social programs were being introduced, when the succeeding generation had a realistic expectation that they were going to do better than their parents had done in their living standards and their future.

And that has come to an end.

That period of tactical concessions, sometimes referred to as the post-war settlement, has been replaced by its complete opposite. During that period of relative social compromise, the reality was that social resistance became more constrained, more limited... less explosive, and more ready to settle for compromise, because concessions were being provided.

The difficulty we have today is that the other side has unilaterally revoked the deal, but many on our side are still playing by the rules of that dead deal, of that exhausted compromise.

And so we have to grapple with the question of how we can, as we say in OCAP, fight to win. That question of how we deal with resisting - of how we take up an effective resistance - is an absolutely decisive one.

At an earlier period in history, people didn't believe that the notion of resistance was raising a futile moral protest in the hope that the governments were listening. Because the governments of those days certainly weren't listening.

They weren't interested in moral protest. In order to win things, you actually had to build a movement, a social movement that would be strong enough and powerful enough to actually achieve things. That's how the trade unions were built. That's how people in the 1930s were able to organize for their survival in the face of the great depression.

In 1929, when a delegation of the unemployed was allowed to meet with the Prime Minister of the day, R.B. Bennett, they suggested to him that the government should introduce unemployment insurance for unemployed people, which at that time made up a huge chunk of the population.

Police watch a feast for homeless people organized by OCAP in Yorkville, a posh Toronto shopping district. photo: OCAP

Bennett's response was: "Never will I, or any government I'm part of, put a premium on idleness." And yet, in 1935, Bennett tabled a bill for the introduction of unemployment insurance... just before he was voted out of office.

And today, I think what is happening is that people are beginning to realize that we cannot go on playing by the rules of a dead deal. We cannot go on resisting on the basis of hope that those in the parliament buildings are listening to us because we make a compelling moral argument.

During the days of the protest movement against Mike Harris, I was always enormously irritated when I heard people make the comment: "Mike Harris, I hope you're listening." Believe me, Mike Harris was not listening.

But he could have been made to listen.

But to do that, you had to speak his language. It's no good speaking to him in the language of reason and moderation and compassion; you have to speak in a language that he's going to understand.

And so, throughout the world today, you're starting to see people organizing to fight back in a way that really makes a difference. It's in what is sometimes called the South, in the historically oppressed countries, where you see the most compelling examples.

A couple of weeks ago in Toronto, we were enormously pleased that Joao Pedro Stedile, one of the leading figures of the landless peasant movement in Brazil, came to Toronto and gave a talk on the struggles of his organization. In countries like that, you're seeing people organize resistance that isn't based on the possibility of a good sound byte on the six o'clock news, or putting forward an argument that will be compelling and interesting to the people in power.

"It seemed to us entirely reasonable that homeless people should be allowed to speak to people who were in many ways the direct architects of their misery."

People are actually organizing to take what they need, and to make a difference in their lives. I think we need to start looking at those kinds of examples ourselves.

At OCAP, a small poor people's organization based largely in the city of Toronto, we've tried to put into effect the same kind of notion: that it is today absolutely imperative, if we are going to organize an effective resistance, to proceed on the basis of fighting to win.

We live in a very large city where there is an enormous amount of homelessness, and an enormous amount of poverty, and where each and every day, there are rampant injustices going on. People are denied welfare, people face deportation from the country, people are being evicted from their housing - some 2,000 people per month are being evicted in Toronto at the moment.

We try to organize on a case by case basis to fight back against those things. So we've organized something that we call "direct action casework". It doesn't usually mean going to tribunals and speaking to adjudicators, it means bringing fifty people to a welfare office to ensure that a family gets the cheque that they're entitled to. It may involve going to Pearson Airport to try to prevent a deportation from happening. We've done that successfully on a couple of occasions.

"I was always enormously irritated when I heard people make the comment: 'Mike Harris, I hope you're listening.' Believe me, Mike Harris was not listening.

But he could have been made to listen.

On one occasion, it involved going to a Shell gas station that was refusing to pay wages owed to an employee who had been laid off, and putting up a picket line to prevent them from pumping any gas for a couple of hours. This had an enormous impact in creating social conscience on the part of the employer.

We organize these kinds of actions all the time; we intervene in hundreds and hundreds of situations.

The one action that seems to have offended the powers that be, perhaps more than any other, was the event on June 15th.

On that day, we brought around 1,500 people to the Ontario Legislature. A great percentage of the crowd was made up of homeless people. We didn't want to do what most people do when they go to Queen's Park, which is make 78 speeches and then leave. We wanted to do something that would be more challenging to the government. Something that could actually have the potential to force them to show a mark of respect to people who really were what you might describe as "despised collateral damage", homeless people. We therefore went to the legislature with a simple demand: that a delegation of people affected by homelessness be allowed to address the legislature.

We're not, I confess, experienced Parliamentarians, and we were told, in the words of the speaker's executive assistant, that "it would be outside the Westminister Model of parliament" for such a thing to occur. We knew that Hillary Westin, the lieutenant-governor, gets to yammer on in front of the legislature all the time, and we knew that visiting dignitaries get to do it, so it seemed to us entirely reasonable that homeless people should be allowed to speak to people who were in many ways the direct architects of their misery.

We also anticipated that it was likely that they would take a different view. We were aware that we would be blocked, and we were ready to press the demand and hope that we might broker a deal - that we might be given the opportunity to meet with the Premier, to meet with senior cabinet ministers, whatever.

But they chose a course that we were astounded by. They moved to clear the grounds of the legislature. They rode horses into the crowd, and they began what the riot police refer to in their technical terminology as "punch outs" - that is, full speed baton charges into the crowd. And when the head of the riot squad was asked in court, "I take it, sir, that your officers are trained to hit with these large clubs as hard as is necessary," he said: "No, they are trained to hit as hard as they possibly can."

So when this happened, I imagine they anticipated there would be a rout - people would flee the grounds. What actually happened is that there was a battle. People stood their ground and people fought back. It wasn't organized, it wasn't planned that there would be a confrontation, but once they began the confrontation, there is no question that the people we brought to Queen's Park did not turn their backs.

Now, at the end of this, they began a process of demonization and criminalization. The event was portrayed in the mainstream media as the most evil thing that had ever occurred in the history of the planet... I'm only slightly exaggerating.

As well, they went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to win the right to all the media tapes and photographs of the day. They ended up arresting 45 people, and charging some of them with quite serious things. Between a third and a half of the people arrested were homeless, they had the hardest time of all getting out of jail. One young homeless man, James Semple, spent seven months in the Don jail before he could make bail.

I was there to pick him up when he got out, and the first thing he said was "It was worth it."

Now, what they also did was impose absolutely rigid bail conditions. Every person who was arrested was given the condition that they could not associate with any other member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. So that was 45 people who were faced with the sort of banning order that we could associate with the Apartheid regime in South Africa. There would also be serious repercussions when anybody would get arrested on a minor charge afterwards.

I was arrested at a political protest some time afterwards, and because of the bail conditions I had, it took a month for me to get out of jail. That was an experience that several people had.

What they also did was to single out three of us - Gaetan Heroux, Stefan Pilipa and myself - and they charged us as so-called "organizers of a planned riot". They laid two charges; against Stefan and Gaetan they laid the charge of "participating in a riot", which carries a two-year jail term.

To participate in a riot, it is only necessary that you are one of "three or more persons gathered together for a common purpose in an unlawful assembly that has begun to disturb the peace tumultuously".

That could be Jerry Springer. That could be just about anything. It could be any picket line skirmish; it certainly could be a demonstration where any level of disturbance occurs.

Against me, they laid two charges: "counselling to participate in a riot", and "counselling to assault the police", based on a speech I had made just before we went up to the legislature.

To lay a charge of that kind against somebody who makes a speech has implications that are so obvious that I don't even need to spell them out, but a conviction on that would have been incredibly serious. Conviction on the two charges together could have meant seven years in jail.

Now, I would like you to step back and say that the laying of those kinds of charges in the post war period has been very, very rare. And to lay them as part of an orchestrated attempt to crush an organization is almost unprecedented. You would have to go back to the charges that were laid against the leadership of the Communist Party in 1931, where they laid section 98 criminal code charges and seditious libel charges against them, and gave seven members of the Communist Party something like fourty years in jail.

And you would have to go back to the kind of charges that were laid - "conspiracy and riot" - against unemployed workers in Newfoundland in 1935.

When they sought to bring in legal precedents to put before the judge, they themselves had to keep coming back to the 1930s; that was where all the precedents lay. We couldn't find any direct comparisons to charging someone for making a political speech. The two examples we could find in Canadian history were Annie Buller, who got six months of hard labour in 1931 for a speech that she never actually made because she wasn't there.

And the other one would be a Nova Scotia example in the 1920s: J.B. McLaughlin, who in protesting against a brutal police attack on striking steelworkers, wrote a letter deploring this to his own union members urging them to take solidarity action in support of the steelworkers. He was sentenced to two years in Dorchester penitentiary for "seditious libel". And the prosecutor in that case argued that it didn't matter whether what McLaughlin said about the police was true or untrue; the very fact that he was trying to create disaffection by saying it made him guilty, and a jury right here in Halifax convicted him.


So those are the kinds of charges that we were looking at and basing our case upon. Now, the whole point is that when they go that kind of a route, they have to make a real go of it. They have to lay on all the trappings.

So we had the right to a jury, and we had the right to full answer in defense. And we decided to utilize that right to the maximum. We went with a jury, and we put forward a defense that was, to us, very very important. We were looking at serious criminal charges, but we also knew we were engaged in a really vital struggle. We didn't want to engage in some set of wretched, cringing apologetics.

We didn't want to go into that courtroom and put forward a defense that would shame the movement that we were a part of. Even if we were going to jail, we were determined to put forward a principled but effective defense. I really believe that we did.

So much so, that I remember when I'd finished my testimony, the prosecutor suggested to the judge - when the jury had left the room - that I had made a de facto admission of guilt.

It didn't quite work out the way they wanted. We put forward this basic theory of the defense: that we were a militant poor people's organization; that we were an anti-capitalist organization; that we were engaged in a struggle against an inhuman system and an inhuman government, and we were working for the defeat of that government. And that we came to Queen's Park to demand that a delegation of homeless people be heard, and that we were prepared to organize a militant standoff with the police; that we were prepared, if necessary, to pull away a section of the barricades that they had erected in order to facilitate that standoff.

But: we also argued, quite truthfully, that the confrontation that occurred in the way that it did, occurred because - through incompetence or deliberate provocation - the police hadn't erected the barricades properly and they collapsed en masse. And secondly, they engaged in an insane drive to clear the grounds of the legislature, despite the fact that after some initial interaction, there was a palpable, undeniable lull in the situation. They organized this punitive attack that precipitated what became known as the "Queen's Park Riot".

We put that forward, and we put it forward very clearly, and without any hesitation. What happened at the end of the day, to their amazement, was that the jury became deadlocked. Now, it didn't really amaze us, because we sort of thought that the jury tends to be drawn from more conservative sectors of society, and it's not really operating in what you'd call a worker friendly environment.

But nonetheless, we calculated that a jury would probably reflect some of the political differences that exist in the province of Ontario. And it did.

So the jury became deadlocked. The crown had assumed that 20 police witnesses, hours and hours of video tape, pictures of people wearing bandanas, and the accused making militant speeches would guarantee a conviction. And they were wrong.

The jury became deadlocked, and at the end of the day, the judge had to declare a mistrial. They then made a pathetic attempt to try to go it again. They decided to stay the charges against Gaetan and Stefan, and put me on trial before the jury a second time on the same charges.

What happened was that we put forward a constitutional argument that I had not been given a trial within a reasonable period of time. And that was won. My charges were stayed, and it never went to a jury the second time. The Attorney General intervened to ensure that the crown would not appeal, and the whole thing died.

As I said, what was enormously important about all this to us was that we wanted more than anything to be able to put forward a defense that counted for something. I believe that we did. And I believe that at the end of the day we can say that you don't have to go into court and get down on your knees and beg, and say, "I'm sorry, I do really live in a wonderfully fair society, and I don't know what went wrong but it'll never happen again." You don't have to do those things, but on the other hand you don't just have to say, "I defy you and your filthy system, take me away and lock me up, and I'll love every minute of it."

It is possible to put forward a defense that actually counts for something. It's possible to put forward a defense that can actually win you some things. That's the most important lesson that we draw from the whole June 15 trial experience.

However, what has also happened in the wake of June 15 is that we have experienced, on an ongoing basis, the most insane levels of police mobilization against our demonstrations. There are a lot of cops in Toronto, as you can imagine, and they're not very nice people by and large.

But there aren't enough cops in Toronto to police OCAP demonstrations anymore.

When we organize a demonstration, they bring in police from Barry, from Hamilton, from the Ontario Provincial Police, from the RCMP; they bring in police reinforcements from other police forces to bolster their numbers. They're all kitted out in riot gear, and the horses are there. And they have tear gas launchers and plastic bullets.

So the mobilizing that we've done after June 15 for a whole extended period had to be conducted in the face of that. We've also had to learn some important tactical lessons about how to deal with the fact that they have state power and they're better organized than us at the moment. We're working for the day when that changes, but for the moment, the point is well taken: they have a capacity to deal with us that we can't just ignore. We have to find ways to deal with them.

What we've tried to put into effect is a form of mobilizing that works to achieve our objectives, and still takes a militant and disruptive direction, but at the same time neutralizes - in one way or another - their capacity for violence. That has been important.

One year and a bit after June 15, we organized a march into the city's financial district. We organized about 2,500 people to march into the Bay Street area of Toronto - the financial part of the place, the belly of the beast, as I like to say. The march deliberately aimed to have a major impact: a march by a poor people's organization into the largest financial centre in the country.

We knew that the police mobilization would be insane. They used seven different police forces, they had I don't know how many, but there was a four-figure crowd of cops. They had the plastic bullets ready to go, and the rest of it.

We used the tactic of the snake march - the tactic of not actually having a specific place that we were bound for, but marching in different directions and making it up as we went along, all with the purpose of getting into the financial district. It was an incredibly effective tactic.

Since then, the police have learned to respond to it, and you can't just endlessly replicate your tactics, but used on that occasion in that way, it was enormously effective. It threw them into an absolute quandary. People who were arrested that day were listening to the police radios, and got a sense of just how perplexed they were by the whole thing. At one point, they decided we were going to the Stock Exchange, so they moved a whole pile of cops down to the Stock Exchange. Then they decided we weren't, so they pulled them away. Then they decided they were again, so they pulled them back. And then they had a conversation in which they said, "They're not coming to the Stock Exchange, but we can't leave again because someone in the media is going to get the idea we don't know what we're doing."

We were told by two paramedics who were standing next to Chief Julian Fantino that at one point he slammed down the phone receiver and said "There is nothing we can do to stop this."

For me the highlight of the whole thing was the Deputy Chief of Police Boyd doing this interview with City TV, saying that "There is absolutely no way that these people are going to get to the corner of Bay and Adelaide." And at that moment, City TV's cameras show a crowd of 2,000 people standing at Bay and Adelaide.

So that was an effective technique. There have been a couple of other examples where we've used the same approach of trying to find a way to get around their capacity for violence.

You may remember a couple of summers ago the Pope came to Toronto. We thought that the Papal visit might be an occasion when even Julian Fantino would be a bit embarrassed about clubbing homeless people on the head. So we organized the takeover of an empty building and we called it the Pope Squat. We got enormously wide support from whole sections of the community, including many Catholic people who came out and supported it.

And our calculation was correct: It was the lowest kind of police mobilization that we had seen for a very very long time. The place actually held for three and a half months before they finally found a legal pretext to evict, although it is now going to be opened up as a rooming house. At least it won't remain a totally empty property.

Then, during the summer, we organized a huge feast for the homeless... in Yorkville. If you don't know Toronto, Yorkville is the most upscale restaurant and boutique district you could imagine. On a Saturday night, it's astounding who goes to Yorkville, and what money there is to spend. The Conservative government in Ontario had introduced a massive cut to social assistance. At the same time, it had implemented lavish tax breaks for the wealthiest in society.

We did a little bit of research, and we discovered that a corporate CEO making a million dollars a year (of which there are a few) would be receiving from the government the same amount of money that had been taken from 17 single parent families on welfare.

"In countries like Brazil, you're seeing people organize resistance that isn't based on the possibility of a good sound byte on the six o'clock news, or putting forward an argument that will be compelling and interesting to the people in power."

We went to Yorkville that night to target that whole sick transfer of wealth. We didn't want to have some street theatre soupy gruel to give to homeless people; we really did want to organize a feast. We appealed to people in the community to cook, and to do a huge huge feast up. The high point of the thing was that the people from the Mohawk community Tyendinaga, which is down near Belleville, brought up 600 servings of venison. There was picnic table after picnic table full of every kind of desert, and every - it was just a fantastic feast.

Finally, just last month we organized another takeover of another empty building and were able to win that when the reigning Member of Parliament for the area intervened and offered to resign his seat in Parliament if he couldn't succeed in getting the building turned into social housing within a month. We actually discovered in the last couple of weeks that that was successful, and that building will be opened up. [It has since been discovered that Dennis Mills, Liberal MP for Toronto-Danforth did not secure the building for social housing, despite announcing that he had. Mills did not resign, though OCAP has since intervened. - ed]

I'd just like to conclude by saying that I think the most important lesson, when it comes to this whole question of the criminalization of poverty is that our right to resist must be regarded as non-negotiable. Our right to organize resistance is something that cannot be stopped. It is imperative when we face these criminal charges - and sometimes they appear very serious, and sometimes they are. But it's enormously important that we not be diverted from what we're doing.

At the end of the day we came out of it stronger, wiser, and with a much more diverse and wide set of activists actually organizing within OCAP. In large measure, we owe that to the prosecutors and the cops who provided us with that enforced training regimen.

I think we're now dealing with this situation, where there is this inhuman agenda that is being imposed on communities. It's reflected in a thousand different ways. It's reflected in the privatization that's happening to the people in the townships in South Africa, and in what's going on in the streets of Toronto and Halifax. It's an agenda that has to be resisted, and has to be stopped.

And I believe, in the course of building that struggle, if we organize effectively - politically and legally - we can come out of those battles stronger than we went into them. We have to learn to share our experiences, to share the victories - and the setbacks as well - but I believe that we are on the road to building a movement of resistance that really is going to fight to win, and even ultimately transform the society.

Thank you very much.

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