From Protest to Resistance

OCAP often argues that social movements need to move “from protest to resistance” if they wish to have a serious impact. What do you mean by that?

    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.

    Access to mainstream information systems in Canada is largely restricted to supporters of wealth and power, and people have grown to take the Canadian welfare state for granted – even as it is being dismantled. Awareness of the struggles that produced it has largely faded from collective consciousness. Can you elaborate on the “earlier, explosive movements” that you referred to?

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 occupation 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 a crisis for the other side.

    OCAP, of course, realises 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. As a result, some of Ontario’s most dynamic social movements have framed their struggles in terms of a battle against the Tories. How do you think social movements can effectively relate to more “progressive” political parties such as the Liberals and the NDP?

    This question puts its finger on a very serious problem. The history of the mounting neoliberal offensive is to advance hard line regimes (like Britain’s Thatcher or the Tories in Ontario) but to also slow the pace down periodically with softer parties or governments. It is not that the agenda is ever allowed to be reversed or even brought to a halt, but a more squeamish brand of the same thing is brought in to buy time and prepare for the next all out attack. There are no simple answers to this problem.

    Without even changing the regime in Ontario, but only bringing in a dubiously new look Premier, they have disoriented opposition to a serious degree. If the Liberals won the next election (I think we can safely rule out the NDP, although the issues would not be that different in that event) there is no doubt that it would take a period of time for people to see through their promises to reverse the damage of the Tory years. It is not that an organization like OCAP would be fooled but rather that the space we had to operate in would be limited for a period.

    I suppose the answer to the question is that we can’t completely overcome this problem. We must do all we can to show people the common thread of the neoliberal attack that runs through all governments, and push the capacity for resistance to the limits. We should certainly respond to less overtly brutal regimes by organizing very seriously to hold them to the promises they got elected on. If they said they would reverse the erosion of health care, they should face immediate demands on this front. If they promised to decrease poverty and homelessness, their failings should be challenged right away.

    Finally, I suspect that the logic of neoliberalism takes the attack to the point where kinder regimes can’t be fronted with any seriousness. In the end, the agenda itself, rather than the political regimes that implement it, will become clear to people.

    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?

    On June 15, 2000, we brought about 1,500 people to the Ontario Legislature. Our key demand was that a delegation of six people affected by homelessness be allowed to address the assembled politicians. 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.

    No political representative dealt with us that day. The police simply blocked our path. We had intended to press forward in the face of such a response and try to attain negotiation and some mark of respect. The police, however, were used to simply clear the grounds. This they accomplished with considerable brutality but only with great difficulty.

     Dozens of people have now been charged and passed through the courts. Ninety day prison terms in two cases are the most serious sentences they were able to obtain, and most of the original charges were dropped. This is not to forget that several of the homeless people who were arrested that day spent weeks and months in jail unable to make bail, or that two women are still facing indictable charges on this matter.

    There are three of us, Stefan Philipa, Gaetan Heroux and myself, who the Crown has determined to be “leaders of a planned riot.” We face charges of “participating in a riot,” “counseling to participate in a riot” and “counseling to assault police.” These carry terms of up to five years in jail. The truly serious thing about these charges is that they are selective in nature. Stefan and Gaetan are not alleged to have done anything very serious on the day but have been picked out just as “leaders” for prosecution. In my case, the allegation is that my speech to the crowd was given with the intention of provoking a riot. This has the most serious implications for any movement that organizes resistance and is a major attack on democratic rights.

    We will be facing a months long jury trial in January and will offer a serious legal defence in court and take this up as a political fight in the broader public arena. We will muster support around this case that, whatever the result in the courtroom, makes us stronger for the struggles ahead that we will take up.

    Looking at how to plug into OCAP’s work can be overwhelming – after all, the organization’s presently involved in a wide variety of struggles: legal defense battles, resistance against the detention and deportation of immigrants and refugees, actions demanding affordable housing, etc. What would you recommend to students or others who are interested in contributing to these movements?

    Students can join in our work in two main ways. Individuals who would like to participate in our work can certainly consider joining OCAP. After a simple intake interview, a person can become a member, attend meetings and plug into the committees and working groups around which our work is organized. At the same time, we are always ready to form working relationships and engage in joint struggles with campus based bodies that want to take action on issues. Whether that is best achieved by advocating that existing organizations take certain directions and actions or it would be easier for students to form new groups is a matter they can best decide.

    The following is an excerpt taken from John Clarke’s “Anti-Capital/Anti-Poverty,” published in 2001:

     “The British Tory, Margaret Thatcher, used to tell those who criticized her government’s cutbacks that ‘there is no alternative.’ She was right in the sense that there’s no alternative under this system … If decent paying jobs, living income, adequate housing, health care and education are ‘impossible’ under this system, then we have to look beyond capitalism …

    At present, we are fighting [the Tories], but we fully understand that this fight won’t end until working and poor people take society and its resources into their own hands. Democracy can and must be about more than voting every four years on which gang of pirates you want to be robbed by. It must mean the mass of people actually running things and, especially, taking control of the production of society’s wealth. OCAP never begs for crumbs. While we may have to defend our crust of bread today, we’re working for the moment when we take over the bakery.”

Check out OCAP’s website at www.ocap.ca

Leave a comment