BASICS Issue #22 (Sep/Oct 2010)
by Mike Brito
This summer marked the 10-year anniversary of a protest outside the Ontario Provincial Legislature that has come to be known as the “Queen’s Park Riot”, which happened on June 15th, 2000 after a march organized by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). At the time, the provincial Progressive Conservatives, led by Mike Harris, were implementing changes that would go on to have huge impacts on the lives of people across the province.
While in power, the Harris Conservatives cut social spending, changed laws to benefit landlords, cut back on public spending for education, offloaded provincial responsibilities to municipalities, and basically did everything that they could to ensure that Ontario was open for business, describing their efforts as “The Common Sense Revolution”.
In the months leading up to the protest, 22 homeless people died on Toronto’s streets, and all over the province communities were bearing the weight of the Conservatives’ cutbacks and policies.
The June 15th protest was organized around several demands including a restoration of the 21.5% that was cut from social assistance, and investments in social housing. They also called for a repeal of the so-called ‘Safe Streets Act’, a law that criminalized panhandling, and the so-called ‘Tenant Protection Act’, which did little to protect tenants and afforded landlords new powers to raise rents.
This protest was part of a larger initiative to build a province-wide, ongoing campaign against the Harris Conservatives that eventually grew into the Ontario Common Front.
On June 15th, over 1500 protesters marched with OCAP to Queen’s Park, with the intention of having a small delegation of mostly homeless people and supporters address the provincial legislature. This demand was denied by police.
Shortly after, protesters pushed through one line of barricades and began to approach the front door of Queen’s Park. It was later revealed that police intelligence only anticipated 200-300 people to participate in this protest, and they were not prepared to deal with the crowd. The police scrambled to take control of the situation, using horses, pepper spray and batons and charged the crowd many times, both with mounted units and officers in riot gear.
Dozens of protesters were injured, some suffering broken bones and concussions. Some protesters also fought back, using anything that they could find.
After the protest, Toronto Police Staff Sergeant Brian O`Connor said that, “There was a fury in these people, an intensity, that I`ve never experienced.” In the months leading up to the protest, Toronto police intelligence units routinely infiltrated OCAP meetings, harassed members and their families, and monitored the movements of OCAP supporters.
Similar surveillance continued after the protest, and people continued to be arrested at other demonstrations throughout the summer. On June 15th, and in the weeks and months following, over 40 people were arrested and charged in relation to the protest, many of them homeless people, activists and some OCAP members.
For many of the folks living on the street, it was difficult to get bail. One man spent over 7 months in the Don Jail following the protest. Three OCAP organizers were arrested as “ringleaders” and faced charges including participating in a riot, and council to assault police. The case against the three leaders was eventually declared a mistrial after the hung jury failed to deliver a verdict. The crown elected to go to trial again – with only one defendant, John Clarke – but was again defeated, this time because of a ruling of unfair delay. Many of the court cases took over 2 years to even get started.
As we saw at Queen’s Park 10 years ago, when pushed into a corner, people will resist and fight back, even if it means going against the police with their riot gear, batons, horses and pepper spray.
Ten years later we are in different situation. Now we have a Federal government implementing similar policies across the whole country. Internationally we are seeing governments enacting austerity measures that follow the same logic as Harris’ Conservatives, and all over the world people are resisting.
At the recent G20 meetings in Toronto, people took to the street in protest, only this time the police arrested over 1000 people, almost as many people as there were at Queen’s Park 10 years ago.
It seems they won’t be able to build enough jails to stop people’s resistance.