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Fighting To Win

Kari Lyderson

On October 16, 2001, Ontario Premier Mike Harris, commonly known as "Chainsaw Mike" because of his hard-line conservative budget-cutting policies, announced that he will resign before the end of his term.

On that same day, thousands of homeless people, high school students, First Nations people, union members, homemakers, activists, and other residents marched through the streets of Toronto, blocked roadways with slow-moving car caravans, walked out of class, and shut down parts of the business district for the morning in what a coalition called the Ontario Common Front termed an "economic disruption" campaign in protest of Harris's policies.

But the campaign was more than a "protest." In fact, in the words of John Clarke, a leader of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) — one of the country's best-known community organizations and one of the driving forces behind the Common Front — the acts of dissent that swept the country on October 16 and in the ensuing days were anything but a protest.

"We are against protest," said Clarke at a Direct Action Network conference in Chicago this September, using an oft-repeated phrase that often draws startled looks from rooms full of activists. "We're not interested in the politics of respectability and tokenism, making our moral case and then expecting the inevitable being ignored. We need to begin to redefine what it means to resist capital."

The "O16" campaign of economic disruption, which actually began on October 16, but was slated to last for weeks or months, was based on OCAP's motto of "fighting to win."

The resignation of Harris could definitely be seen as a concrete victory for the Common Front, a coalition of about 75 social justice and community organizations that came together for the purpose of defeating his policies and changing the increasingly conservative tide of Ontario politics. Though Harris claimed he resigned for personal reasons, including wanting to reconcile with his estranged wife, members of the front see it as no coincidence that Harris announced his resignation on the O16 day of action. Coverage of his resignation by the Associated Press noted that Harris had come under attack for privatizing water treatment and other state services — something critics say contributed to a massive outbreak of E. coli in the water in May 2000 — and for police repression, anti-labor policies, and massive budget cuts.

"The widespread belt-tightening prompted labor protests, including several teacher strikes and violent demonstrations by anti-poverty groups," the AP said of Harris.

Direct Action Casework

Fighting to win concrete gains, rather than just making a statement, has been central to OCAP's work since its founding by Clarke and others in 1990. The group practices "direct action casework," a concept that combines the direct action tactics of the anti-globalization movement and its glitzy roving mega-protests with the day to day grind of community organization work on tenants' rights, immigrants' rights, labor rights and policy work.

For example: a typical community organization will fight an eviction, a case of discrimination or harassment on the job, an illegal firing or a pending deportation, by filing paperwork, appealing to local politicians, letting media and the public know about the situation, and possibly holding protests or informational pickets. OCAP also uses these tactics but, if they are not successful, they are prepared to take it to another level.

This is where "direct action casework" comes in where OCAP members physically prevent authorities from evicting or deporting a person or turning off their gas, or where they take concrete action that is too creative, destructive or persuasive to be ignored. Among their many actions in the past few years, members have opened squats in vacant buildings owned by absentee landlords, confronted officers who have beat up homeless people, picketed a restaurant whose owner was trying to get an adjacent shelter shut down, and occupied a hospital which was standing empty while a nearby shelter was overflowing. The hospital administration ended up opening 150 beds for homeless people.

"We do hundreds and hundreds of these things and have a 98- or 99-percent success rate," said Clarke. "These bureaucracies don't know how to handle that kind of response."

Originally formed as an anti-poverty and homeless people's advocacy group, OCAP, which has about 300 actual members and a wide base of support, has expanded to a wide and diverse range of issues. Along with advocating for homeless and poor people, OCAP focuses on the rights and struggles of indigenous people, immigrants, workers, high school and college students and potentially any other person or group who is being victimized by the capitalist system.

A summary of the group's mission says that: "Everyone in society deserves to be treated with respect. Native people must have their land, working people must be paid a decent wage, unemployed people must be given benefits that will let them survive with dignity, and homeless people must be given housing — all without exception."

"We are not a social agency or a legal clinic or a charity. We are a political organization of the poor, whose goal is to secure a just society, a society that does not allow people to sleep and die in the streets, that does not allow the police to target people of color and the poor, and does not allow vast segments of the population to live in grinding poverty."

Defeating Harris

While OCAP's work predates the Mike Harris era, the conservative leader's policies and the general ascendance of conservative politics, often modeled on U.S. examples, have upped the ante for OCAP and other groups over the past six years.

Harris led the conservative Tory party's rise to power in 1995, when it won 82 of 130 seats in the Ontario legislature. Home to 40 percent of Canada's population, Ontario plays a major role in setting the agenda for the whole country.

Harris's government has slashed social services and called for tough-on-crime policies, as well as targeting immigrants for arrest and deportation, and gutting the sovereignty rights and harming the economies of First Nation tribes.

He cut welfare rates by 22 percent, closed hospitals, and slashed state employment rolls by as much as 50 percent in various departments. He passed "Safe Streets" laws that criminalize homelessness, and instituted massive standardized testing in schools.

"The Ontario Crime Commission spent a lot of time visiting [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani in New York and [former Gov. Tommy] Thompson in Wisconsin to study their ways of operating," said Clarke.

As in the U.S., Harris's government has imposed increased state control on First Nation tribes and attacked their autonomous decision-making powers.

"Under new Tory 'child welfare legislation' there are 5,300 more children in state custody than there were five years ago, and most of them are aboriginal," wrote OCAP member Sue Collis. "The law is written in such a way that all children in most native communities are now defined as being at risk and subject to removal. Kids from remote reserves all over the North are rapidly disappearing into foster homes in Southern Ontario."

In 1995, the mainstream media reported that Harris had met with senior police officials shortly before police brutally cracked down on First Nation protesters at a park and shot one protester to death.

Dire economic conditions for the Pikangikum tribe, where Harris instituted a freeze on federal funds, fostered a rash of suicides under Harris that was 36 times higher than the national average. The tribe has suffered eight suicides already this year, including one by a 12-year-old girl who said she felt desperate because she had nothing to eat. Funding for the Pikangikum, fishing rights for other native tribes, and racism by federal employees against Indians were some of the topics of a First Nations gathering that OCAP participated in on September 27.

Immigrants and Union Members

Along with First Nation struggles, deportation defenses and other actions in support of immigrants have been a major part of OCAP's work in the past few years.

On September 5, OCAP members say they actually prevented the deportation of Kenyan immigrant Abdalla Soud, a man who has been in Ontario for 12 years and is married to a woman in Toronto with serious health problems. After an OCAP action leafleting passengers and visiting the immigration office at the Toronto airport, Soud got a message from immigration that his deportation date of September 11 had been canceled.

"While immigration claimed that they had merely had a sudden change of heart because of his wife's medical condition, Abdalla's lawyers noted that it was certainly unusual for them to cancel the date before the matter was challenged in Federal Court," says a statement from OCAP.

In contrast to some direct action groups that tend toward the homogenous, OCAP's membership and support base includes a well-balanced mix of homeless and poor people, students, First Nation people, long-time activists, people with families, and older people.
The group has gained widespread media attention in Toronto and around the country, with government officials and police quoted in the Canadian media referring to the group as "terrorists," "opportunists," and "disgusting."

"They've already compared us to Osama bin Laden," said Clarke.

Members gained significant media coverage — and jail time — for "evicting" Finance Minister Jim Flaherty from his office on June 12, actually throwing furniture out the window and trashing the place to protest privatization and policies that OCAP says attack the poor and increase poverty. OCAP members sliced through the awning that held Flaherty's name, wrote obscenity on the walls, and overturned office furniture and filing cabinets.

At the time OCAP member Sue Collis issued a statement saying, "Today's is the first skirmish in an all-out war on the government."

Clarke and others are facing charges of assault, resisting arrest, unlawful assembly and other charges from that action. Clarke already served 25 days pretrial detention jail time. Members are also still facing criminal charges from a June protest in Queens Park, adjacent to the government seat.

The eviction of the Finance Minister and other increasingly radical tactics cost OCAP the support of the Canadian Auto Workers, previously one of their major funders. In the past OCAP relied primarily on organized labor for their funding, but Clarke said this is likely to change as they are not willing to compromise the militancy of their tactics to appease more moderate unions like the auto workers.

"In this climate, if trade unionists are willing to be passive in the face of something like the Harris government, that's very troublesome," said Clarke. "That's a problem all over the world."

Other unions and union members have been a major force in these militant actions, most notably CUPE (a large union that represents public sector workers) and the postal workers union. A long-time OCAP tactic has been to bring "flying squads" from unions to confront managers or CEOs and prevent business during labor disputes.

October 16

Constable Debbie Abbott, spokesperson for the Toronto police, said that the department has no problem with OCAP unless they are engaged in something illegal.

"They're not protesting right now so we have no real concerns with them," she said in September. "We deal with them as they bring issues to us."

The police were definitely ready for the O16 events, however. Protesters were met by lines of riot cops throughout the city and many were illegally searched and arrested for having vinegar-soaked bandannas, gas masks, or other protest gear. By the end of the day, at least 34 people were arrested, facing an array of charges.

The government and corporations in the business district knew about the O16 event well in advance, with many businesses closing or asking their employees to stay home. A memo from Bell Canada declared a "Limited Condition Orange Alert," according to activist Jaggi Singh, and a memo from the First Canadian Place bank tower warned that "normal building operations will definitely be disrupted on Tuesday until all threats of violence and/or vandalism have passed."

The actions started at dawn on Tuesday, and lasted for over three hours, with close to 2,000 people "snake-marching" through the financial district in three or four simultaneous marches. A snake-march is a highly mobile and flexible march meant to specifically block operations and respond to changing situations, with marchers changing direction and branching off from each other frequently.

"There was a clear disruption in downtown Toronto today, although there wasn't a complete shutdown of Bay Street, Canada's Wall Street," reported Singh. "Major intersections were systematically barricaded with overturned newspaper boxes, while subway station entrances were temporarily closed. Many buildings locked their doors for large stretches of time, or implemented security measures which amounted to the same thing."

A large contingent in the snake-march was made up of high school students who had previously walked out of class. In addition to walking out, students used the internet to post the answers to a standardized test slated to be taken by 150,000 10th-graders that day, reportedly costing Ontario $7.5 million.

Also on October 16, cars created slowdown barricades on major freeways and solidarity demonstrations and actions were held throughout the country. Ongoing protests and actions, including economic disruption actions at the border, are scheduled as part of the campaign for the coming weeks.

"The idea is to elevate things to the level where you are putting a literal price-tag on the government's policies," said Clarke. "In their language, you're making their policies cost-ineffective."

Direct Action Post-9/11

While the direct action casework tactics of OCAP and the Common Front have received widespread attention in North America, Clarke notes that similar radical tactics with concrete goals have been commonplace for decades, or even centuries, throughout much of Latin America and Asia.

"There are parts of the world where this is used all the time," Clarke said. "You have rural movements in places like India where peasants are going against agri-business and digging up crops. In Argentina and other parts of Latin America, you have massive roadblocks against oil companies and foreign investment. They're already way beyond the moral appeal."

While OCAP and Common Front participants celebrated the resignation of Harris, they noted that this is only the start. Some protesters noted that Harris's resignation may be something of a ploy by the conservative government to take the heat off their party while continuing to push for the same policies advocated by Harris.

And fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks has made the situation for immigrants, activists and poor people in general even more dire, presenting OCAP with increased challenges as well as increasing repression against activism.

"September 11 has huge implications in terms of our casework," said Clarke. "Especially in terms of immigration. Canada is being pressured by the U.S. to develop common border policies so 'undesirable' people don't get into North America at all. Eighty-six percent of Canada's economy is based on exports so if Canada doesn't agree with the U.S., the U.S. can slow down trucks at the border and bring Canada to its knees. And there's no doubt they will implement much harsher policies against immigrants and refugees. We have a lot of work ahead of us."

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