Resistance and Retreat


The OCF actions over the weekend of the March 22/23rd were inspiring and are at the forefront of resistance to the Tory regime. As a result, they were also the target of a large police operation aimed at crippling the OCF as a functional coalition of working-class political resistance. While union leaderships mobilized a respectable and ineffective gathering at the Convention Centre, we stood up and raised a banner of defiance and disruption. It is true that because we are mobilizing under such tough conditions in the face of naked state repression, some nervousness and doubt have crept in and needs to be responded to. Indeed, we are always ready to look at our mistakes and learn lessons so that we can do better but, fundamentally, the actions were successful in OCAP’s view and we draw the following from what took place.

Friday

We defended our right to mobilize and our capacity to challenge the agenda we are confronting. On Friday night a crowd of up to 800 marched through the streets and, just as had been said, opened an empty building complete with unused running water, electricity and heat, so that the ugliness and injustice of the Tory attacks could be seen by all. Under the chants of What do we want? Housing! When do we want it? Now! and If you dont build it, we will take it! people re-took the empty Mission Press building at 53 Dundas East turning it into free, tenant controlled, social housing.

In the words of one young women who occupied the building, Were here in peace, were here non-violently, and were not causing anybody any harm. All we want is a place to sleep, a home, affordable housing and a living wage.

The anger of the police at this was telling. Quickly hundreds of riot police and the Emergency Response Team surrounded the demonstration and the occupied building. The riot police violently pushed the crowd gathered outside past the buildings entrance trapping the people inside. Then, in a deliberate provocation, the police charged the crowd from the rear violently arresting a number of people who had some oh-so-dangerous bongo drums. However, the police attempt to manufacture a violent confrontation was unsuccessful as people stood their ground but bravely refrained from responding in kind. Having failed in producing even the smallest pretext for a outright police riot the police soon pushed the demonstration off the block leaving only the police, the squatters and patrons and staff trapped inside the Imperial Pub as witnesses to their brutality.

Shortly after the evening news, they fired, unannounced, numerous tear gas canisters through glass windows behind which squatters stood. Facing the very real possibility of the ERT assaulting the building with pistols and submachine guns and having difficulty breathing due the use of chemical weapons in such an enclosed space people decided to leave the building one at a time where they were arrested at gunpoint. One young man was electrocuted four times by the police using their newest instrument of repression the Taser, which fires tens of thousands of volts of electricity with a single shot. He was left with numerous burn marks from where he was shot, including two on his neck, but fortunately survived. Even by police standards this was clearly uncalled for as the Taser is only supposed to be used as a substitute for a firearm and the young man was both unarmed and not resisting in any way.

After being arrested the brutality continued with people faced up to twelve hours handcuffed in police vans, holding cells with open windows blowing the cold winter air, one man was literally slapped around while being strip searched, and in one instance a young girl was hit in the throat and had her head slammed between a door while handcuffed. Despite the brutality of the police, the 58 people arrested at the squat stayed strong and were eventually released on a single count of mischief under $5000. (At the time of this writing, the last defendant was released on bail today, a full 12 days later.) The police used tear gas, Tasers, beatings and mass arrests to intimidate and break the spirit of those who joined. However, their efforts were largely unsuccessful as the events of the next day showed.

Saturday

On the Saturday, the event proceeded despite the intimidation of the previous night and despite the police declaring over megaphone that the demonstration was an illegal assembly. They ordered the crowd to disperse and threatened to make mass arrests. Attacks were made on the crowd as it left and arrests and harassment continued throughout. As a result the police succeeded in preventing people from marching on the street, and in many ways controlled the speed and route of the march. It should be remembered that the level of police mobilization required for such a small victory on their part comprised of no less the combined efforts of hundreds of OPP riot cops, Chief Fantino (as a so called observer), Metro Intelligence, the Mounted Unit, Toronto Police Service, and at least two other jurisdictions of police. The combativeness and defiance of the demonstrators in the face of such a large and over-powering police presence prevented the march from being completely crushed. Many times marchers faced off with police trying to take the street, and each time more were arrested. It is clear people coming into the OCF will not be diverted from their aims or, much less, be silenced. Never before, since the free speech fights of the 1930s, has the right to assemble been so viciously attacked or so courageously defended.

79 people were arrested in less than 24 hours for engaging in protest activity that was in no way new to Toronto. On the Saturday police were seen brazenly pointing out organizers for arrest before the demonstration even started. At least one young man was beaten so savagely his nose and ribs were broken, while in the background an unprecedented amount of anti-protest firepower was proudly displayed. The point must be made that the police did not simply over-react. Like police tactics in Montreal at the recent anti-police brutality demonstration where 371 people were arrested en masse, the new strategy being pursued is, to quote the head of the Torontos Public Order Unit, hit as hard as you can. This is a very deliberate political choice being made by the Toronto Police Service, designed primarily to dissuade popular participation in effective demonstrations and foster a climate of gun-shyness in the established activist community. Headlines like Fantino Calls for Tougher Protest Laws suggest a pre-formulated game plan including disinformation to the press: protesters bring drums to spook police horses. The police are looking to break the spine of those forces that have continued to resist in Toronto, and the union leadership is playing perfectly into their strategy. A lack of unity, increasing isolation and marginalization, and misinformation campaigns undermine our ability to hold on to three of the essential ingredients for an effective fight back: numbers, militancy, and sustainability.

Leaving the Fight to Single Mothers and Homeless People

The role of the labour leaders in this situation is sad to the extreme. No one in the OCF is anti-labour. We realize that the Labour Movement was created in mass militant action like the 1937 Oshawa GM strike and the landmark car blockade of Ford in Windsor in 1945. This tradition was continued in the 1960s when postal workers struck illegally, establishing their union and unleashing a wave of public sector unionization. Most social gains, from unemployment insurance to minimum wages to medicare would have been impossible without the unions. We stand on the shoulders of the men and women who built the trade unions and the generations of activists who came after them.

It is because of our respect for this proud and vital history of struggle that we have been frank and vocal about what is wrong with the Labour Movement in Ontario today. The truth is that the Tories have dismantled social programs and attacked communities, and even gutted the Employment Standards Act, without the Labour Movement seriously attempting to stop them. The Days of Action had vast potential but were never allowed to reach the level of a General Strike. Today, we have slipped back to a situation where a new Tory leader is elected to launch a whole new series of attacks and the labour leaders allow this to unfold without even making a show of resistance, even as tens of thousands of OPSEU members are actually out on strike!

On the Saturday we faced down police repression while the union leaders organized another rally timed, quite deliberately, to be a ‘respectable’ antidote to the OCF action. The police openly praised the union leaders in the media and made dark threats about shutting us down. At one point on Friday night a PR officer fell over himself in a news interview underlining the point that the OCF had no connection to organized labour, and that he expected no problems from the union rally the next day. Their rally, despite the fact that hundreds of sincere union members attended it in good faith, was an exercise in tame, futile protest. The cops put token forces in front of it. They knew that the union marshals would do their work for them and hold back any workers who tried to express their anger. The event was hurried through so as to make sure that the OCF march would not be able to link up with it. The OCF had made supportive banners and was looking forward to standing in solidarity while being an agitational shot in the arm. The police made sure the union rally had ended and dispersed before they let the OCF march proceed to the convention centre. In the end the great power of organized labour was reduced to an insulting token while blocks away single mothers, homeless people, students, and workers struggled with the police.

Two notable exceptions to the literal retreat of the OFL were the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Local 707 Flying Squad. The IWW contingent at the OFL rally made an effort to rally unionists to leave the rally and join the OCF who were facing heavy police repression. While the IWW crossed the street and joined up with the OCF the only other contingent to leave the rally, the CAW 707 Flying Squad, chose to stay on the other side of the street and act as observers to any police brutality but not to join the OCF march itself. While we welcome this development and seek to re-establish working with CAW Flying Squads we are obviously a long way away from the level of trust and coordination that we once enjoyed.

Sleeping Giants

We are all out to build unity in the face of the Tories and their attacks but we have to face up to one undeniable fact. Under the present leadership, unions have become a sleeping giant and the vast power of organized labour is held back from being brought into the struggle. The old Wobbly song points to the strength of the strike weapon when it says that ‘without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn’, yet health care is destroyed before our very eyes, the homeless die on the streets, the Walkerton tragedy unfolds and the sixty hour work week is brought back from the Dark Ages while the union leaders act as if nothing can be done. The Ontario Common Front is determined to build a militant, united movement that can stop these attacks. We have mobilized First Nations people, the homeless, tenants, university and high school students and anti-globalization activists but, as yet, only a thin layer of union members. We want to change this but we can’t go on waiting for the top leadership in the unions to decide that the time has come to take real action. That’s why we are appealing directly to rank and file workers to join us. Get involved in our struggles. Get ready to fight the next Tory budget. Call upon your Local to affiliate to the OCF or, if its conservative minded leaders block this, form a rank and file committee that will work with us.

The OCF is ready to fight the Tories and all they stand for and, as this weekend has shown, face the dangers involved in such a struggle. We can defeat this Government and derail its vile agenda but we need a union movement by our side that is ready to fight to win.

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