Fighting to Win

This interview is an update of an earlier interview, ‘From Protest to Resistance’, that appeared on ZNet.  OCAP, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (www.ocap.ca), is a community anti-poverty organization based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

What does OCAP mean when it calls on people to “fight to win”?

OCAP talks of going from “protest” to resistance and fighting to win in an attempt to capture in a phrase or slogan a vital question regarding trying to stop the present neoliberal agenda. In the years after the Second World War, corporations and governments adopted a policy of making limited concessions to the working class population. Unions were recognized and bargained with, social programs were incrementally strengthened, and living standards were allowed to rise. In return, union leaderships accepted having their organizations incorporated in an edifice of state regulated “labour relations.” Strikes were permitted, but only on a limited basis and not within the life of collective agreements. A whole network of public and private agencies emerged to settle issues of social entitlement through “public discourse.” Protest still occurred but the earlier, explosive movements were replaced by much more limited forms. Over the last couple of decades, we have now seen a new agenda develop that is dedicated to taking back the earlier gains. The bureaucratic structures of the unions, and the pervasive idea of limiting extra- parliamentary mobilization to the application of moral pressure, now act as a disastrous brake on social resistance. OCAP argues, then, for an end to the notion that we must still respect a social compromise that the other side has walked away from. We advocate a return to disruptive and generalized resistance so as to create a counter power to the neoliberal agenda and create the conditions for its defeat.

Can you elaborate on the “earlier, explosive movements” that forced concessions from Canadian state and corporate power?

Prior to the “post-war settlement,” when social struggle was significantly tamed in return for measured concessions from those in political and economic power, class relations were much harsher. At times when movements were in decline, employers simply rode roughshod over workers and those kept out of the workplace could expect no social provision. When resistance did emerge, it took the form of disruptive and hard fought conflict with authority. The 1930s unemployed movements are a reflection of this. The notion that the misery of the unemployed would be countered by moral appeals to those in power was not a serious part of the equation. The unemployed organized to win their immediate needs by disrupting relief offices, bringing commercial centres to a standstill, entering restaurants and taking the food they needed and other similar activities. When marches and large scale demonstrations were organized they were met with state repression, and the right to assemble was often won only in literal battle. The formation of the unions in the late ’30s and in the immediate post war years involved occupations of factories and mass pickets that held their ground in the face of police attack. Unions were granted recognition because the level of upsurge by workers simply had to be acknowledged and accommodated. In many international conflicts today, movements are similarly using disruptive mobilization to attain their goals. The Landless Peasant Movement in Brazil and the road blockades in Argentina are examples of this. The rediscovery of this kind of method of resistance is what OCAP suggests is needed at the present time in Ontario and we try to give a lead in this regard.

In what practical ways has the commitment to reviving the politics of struggle shaped OCAP’s strategies and campaigns?

It is simply that OCAP has looked for ways to win tangible victories or move the struggle in a direction that raises the prospect of victory. We have not been powerful enough to turn back the Tory Agenda by ourselves, so we have tried to hamper the implementation of that agenda and to be a pole of attraction for fighting to win that can influence the thinking of others. Direct action casework – in which we have intervened in thousands of situations to win social entitlements, prevent evictions and deportations – is one example of winning tangible results through collective action. Mobilization on broader issues has followed the same logic. When the last Chief of Police tried a crackdown on panhandlers, we held a mass panhandle in the Eaton Centre as a means of backing him off. When the City refused to open the abandoned Doctor’s Hospital as a shelter for the homeless, we took it over and forced them to act. Our present campaign of housing takeovers that we are joined in by others across the country is also a way of actually forcing concessions in a vital area by raising the level of resistance to the point of crisis for the other side. OCAP realises, of course, that it will require a turn to resistance by much bigger forces than we have at our disposal at present to stop the Tory onslaught, but we fight as best we can and work for the kind of generalized movement that must be built.

In Ontario, the Tory government has plainly been on the front-lines of the neoliberal offensive you described. With the provincial Conservative government gearing up for an election, how do you think social movements can effectively relate to more “progressive” political parties such as the Liberals and the NDP?

It is, of course, true that the Tory Regime is only one of two parties that could assume the task of implementing the neo liberal agenda in Ontario. They also have a Liberal Party that, should it capture power in the next election, would be very ready to proceed with social cuts and other regressive measures. The social democratic NDP has no prospects of forming a government, but might hold the balance of power in a minority situation, in which case it too would do what was demanded of it by the corporations and banks. It is viable to see the Tories as the expression of the regressive agenda and to work to build up movements against them. We are going so far as to actively work for their defeat in the next election with ‘rapid response’ mobilizing to confront their leader and candidates on the campaign trail. As we are putting it, our only demand to the Tories is ‘Get out!’ At the same time, we are preparing for the possibility of a Liberal Government in the near future. We have already delivered letters to Liberal offices warning them that demands for the repair of the social damage done by eight years of Tory governments will be thrown at them from the moment they take power. We have put specific calls forward on welfare rates, the minimum wage and tenant legislation, and made clear that we will work with others pressing forward on other areas of vital concern. There is no doubt that a Liberal Government will, to some extent, enjoy an initial grace period when people will be waiting to see how they behave. For our part, we will work to minimize this and encourage a sense that measures of redress must be rapidly granted. It is not impossible that some concessions can be won from the Liberals as they try to avoid the perception that they are just like the Tories. However, massive social reforms that put the movement to sleep are unlikely to be a very serious problem for us. The future we face is one of attack on our political, social and economic rights. That is the fundamental issue. Hard right regimes that give way to ‘kinder and gentler’ fakers are part of the way in which this will all develop, but the political situation is dominated by the fact that Canadian capitalism has stopped making concessions and is taking back past gains.

One way that the Canadian state has responded to the threat that OCAP represents is to force people into resource-sapping legal battles. It particular, the state seems eager to punish those of you that participated in the march to Queen’s Park on June 15, 2000. Can you outline what happened that day, and your present legal situation?

Dozens of people have passed through the courts and some have done jail time as a result of the demonstration at the Ontario Legislature on June 15. On that day, we brought 1,500 homeless people and supporters to the seat of provincial government at Queen’s Park to demand that a delegation of people affected by homelessness be allowed to address the Legislative Assembly. We wanted to force the most reactionary and intransigent post-war Ontario Government to deal with the victims of its policies. Such a mark of respect would lay the basis for advancing our grievances and winning ground. Our demands were rejected by the Government and the police used riot officers and mounted units to clear the grounds. This precipitated a major confrontation and, in its wake, mass arrests took place. All of those charged who were able to secure release were hit with highly restrictive bail conditions. The worst of these, a total ban on association with any members of OCAP, was defeated in court after a couple of months. Still, the remaining conditions have put dozens of us in a problematic position in terms of continuing activism. Three of us, Stefan Pilipa, Gaetan Heroux and myself, were deemed to be the ‘leaders’ of a ‘planned riot’ on that day and, as such, were charged under the ‘public order’ provisions of the Criminal Code. We were hit with charges that carried penalties of between two and five years in prison. Such measures against social activists had not been seen since the attempt to crush unemployed movements in the ‘30s and to stifle trade unions in the immediate post-war years. From January 13 of this year to May 11, the three of us were on trial on these charges. Finally, the Judge had to declare a mistrial on the grounds that the Jury was hopelessly deadlocked. That twenty police witnesses and a set of allegations by the Crown was not enough to convince a jury to convict, took the authorities by surprise. On June 18, they announced that Stefan and Gaetan would have their charges dropped but that I would face another trial in October. The saga is still unfolding. The attack we still face is very serious and poses a huge threat to civil liberties and the very rights of assembly and expression. Still, it would be very wrong to see us as a beleaguered organization on the verge of destruction. The attacks they have made on us have only made us stronger. We have more members, a much more experienced and capable leadership and much wider support than we did on June 15, 2000. We have continued to mobilize and carry on our struggle and no amount of legal persecution can remove the grievances that have produced OCAP.

Looking at how to plug into OCAP’s work can be overwhelming – after all, the organization’s presently involved in a wide variety of activities: legal defense battles, resistance against the detention and deportation of immigrants and refugees, actions demanding affordable housing, anti-Tory election work, etc. What would you recommend to people who want to contribute to these struggles?

It’s quite true that OCAP works on a wide range of issues, but the members of the organization are able to focus on particular activities and areas through the various committees and working groups that exist. We are actually trying to build a movement amongst poor people that can struggle on the issues that affect their lives, so it’s vital to be able to move on various fronts at the same time. People are being denied income, face eviction or are threatened with deportation and we must have the means to respond. At the same time, there is usually a major event or campaign that the membership of the organization is particularly focused on and that is seen as the major activity of OCAP. At the moment, we are concentrating on the fact that the Ontario Conservative Government is preparing to seek re-election on a hard right wing platform that threatens to increase poverty and social exclusion dramatically. We will organize a series of major actions against the Government and a ‘rapid response’ system of mobilizing to confront leading Tories on the campaign and pre campaign trail. Despite all the other work going on, this ‘campaign against the campaign’ will be the leading feature of OCAP’s struggle over the next months

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