by Hassan Reyes
It has been an bizarre week in the City of Toronto.
The ‘Big Smoke’ has turned into the ‘Big Joke’, with the Rob Ford ‘crack’ scandal being ridiculed globally, from the Daily Show, Colbert Report, odd Taiwanese animations, and mixed into a surprisingly catchy autotune. It’s easy to see how this entire spectacle can be funny, especially from the outside. Who could resist a chuckle, hearing Ford explain his crack use and general debauchery by saying that he was “in a drunken stupor”? Throw in a couple of retired wrestlers, and you have the makings of a perfect political parody.
It would be great if this entire situation could just be laughed off, but there are some harsh realities that this situation has brought to light. As people continue to react and discuss the implications of Mayor Rob Ford’s crack use admission and the meltdown of Toronto municipal politics, a few commonly expressed opinions among those of us who oppose Ford, that need to be challenged.
1. “People who elected and support Ford are stupid!”
Even before ‘crackgate’, some people who dislike or disagree with Ford have commented on the ‘stupidity’ of those who voted for or support Ford. What’s worse, immigrant-heavy, lower-income areas in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke have been identified as key areas of Ford support and votes. Aside from the fact that these areas are also where abstention rates are amongst the highest (such as Ward 7 and 8, where 55% of eligible voters stayed home), the conclusion becomes that Ford’s victory is attributable to ignorant, poor, new immigrants.
First of all, let’s review the 2010 municipal elections. In the lead up to 2010, Rob Ford did indeed make a name for himself with ignorant public outbursts and opinions. His comments about cyclists being at fault if they were run over by cars and ‘orientals taking over’, or his harassment of Star columnist John Barber in Council Chambers are only a few examples among a long and shameful list. At the same time Ford also became known as a politician who would personally respond to people’s calls and concerns, regularly making personal visits with City staff to attend to people’s issues. He was also very public in criticizing the ‘excesses’ at City Hall, which not only ironically included attacking harm reduction and rehabilitation programs for drug users, but also included attacking Councillor pay increases, office budgets, and perks. One of Ford’s notable crusades included denouncing the $12,000 retirement party that former Councillor Kyle Rae threw for himself using his office budget. This was at a time when people were being told that they needed to tighten their belts as well as cough up more money in TTC fares, user fees, property taxes and other newly imposed taxes. Thus, Ford presented himself as a people’s champion, exposing political hypocrisy and personally attending to people. Ford continued calling for better management of City finances and promised that no cuts to services would take place (one of his many lies, of course).
Ford’s opposition, on the other hand, did not have a contrasting vision or approach, at least none that was believable or addressed many of the growing concerns of the people. Former Deputy Premier George Smitherman was associated, as the former Minister of Health for Ontario, with the eHealth scandal, which was being portrayed as a $1 Billion waste. Smitherman, and former Liberal Party National Director Rocco Rossi, were open and enthusiastic about cutting public spending and looking at privatizations. In their plans and ideas, Smitherman and Rossi were not that different from Ford but they lacked the credibility among the people that Ford had earned through his approach.
On the ‘left’ Joe Pantalone, Miller’s Deputy Mayor, ran a lacklustre campaign directed mostly at Toronto’s downtown, urbanite residents, and presented himself as a continuation of the Miller administration. By this point, Miller’s administration had been effectively painted by the media as entitled political elites who misspent the public’s money (which incidents like Kyle Rae’s farewell party seemed to confirm).
Given such options, does a vote for Ford seem all that irrational, let alone stupid?
Ford’s ‘respect the taxpayer’ mantra was and is popular, precisely because it speaks to people’s feelings of being ignored, ripped off, and abused by political elites in government. People have suffered the cutbacks and deterioration of social programs and services, while scandal after political scandal unfolds throughout the country. In Ontario, the Liberal government emerged from the eHealth and Ornge scandal only to waste another $1Billion on canceled power plants, allegedly to not risk losing key political ridings during the election. At the Federal level, the supposedly frugal Harper Conservatives wasted $1 Billion on the G20, and their Senators got caught red-handed claiming hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses from tax payers. Everyday people feel more squeezed by the economic recession, falling further into debt while seeing their taxes being misspent by politicians fixing deals for themselves, as the Senate spending scandal only confirmed.
Unfortunately, there has not been a mainstream political voice calling out this treachery while directing people’s frustration at the political structures, including the politicians and parties, that are driving the neoliberal agenda to enable the rich to become richer at the expense of public resources. Rob Ford’s populist message and approach then tapped the legitimate and growing grievances of the people who saw him, incorrectly, as a working class hero and political outsider.
Ultimately, the argument that Ford voters and supporters were stupid is not only extremely patronizing and elitist, but it also misreads many peoples views on municipal politics and politics in general. It also doesn’t acknowledge the failures of those who consider ourselves ‘progressive’, since we have been unable to engage meaningfully with huge sections of the working class in this City. It’s this vacuum – the lack of a progressive, let alone of a revolutionary political alternative, that Ford has been able to fill.
2. “Ford needs to step away, get cleaned up and then come back to serve his term”
Many people have expressed some level of sympathy for Ford on a human level. This is understandable given how common drug and alcohol abuse is in this country. Health Canada estimates that 4 to 5 million people in Canada engage in high risk drinking while a 2009 survey estimated that 1.2% of the adult population – or roughly 310 000 people – had consumed cocaine or crack. Unfortunately, many people have had to deal with substance abuse or know someone who has. The impulse then to feel sympathy for Ford and his family (including his wife and two children) is understandable. Rob Ford, the person, does need help and support.
However, Rob Ford the Mayor and politician, needs to be mercilessly attacked. His political brand, which includes that of his brother and advisor, Councillor Doug Ford, need to be exposed for what it is – a hypocritical attempt to use the ‘economic recession’ to further attack and exploit working people and communities. The Fords have been unrelenting in their attempts to cut social programs while also trying to present all financial and efficiency problems in the City as the ‘abuses’ of public sector workers and unions. At the same time the Fords have been defenders of other abuses, such as the Toronto Police arresting and attacking 1118 protestors at the G20, with Rob Ford stating that he had “very little sympathy for the people who were down there and I support our police.”
Rob Ford, Doug Ford, and their deceased father Douglas Ford, a former MPP in the Mike Harris government, have consistently demonstrated this throughout their political careers. The Harris Government of Douglas Ford showed little mercy to those on social assistance when they implemented a 22% cut, one of the many brutal cuts implemented during their so-called common sense revolution. The Ford political agenda have been unsympathetic to working communities impacted by the program cuts they championed, or to the public sector workers that they have continually and relentless labelled as lazy, entitled, and overpaid.
In return, no mercy should be shown to the political careers of these individuals at a time when their credibility and integrity are finally being questioned by the public. Quite the contrary, this is the perfect time to engage people, particularly those who express support for Ford’s agenda, to highlight the fact that what Ford’s agenda has actually meant so far is $23 million in increased user fees including TTC fare hikes and $73 million in program cuts.
Going after the Ford’s isn’t about revenge (as sweet as that is, admittedly), but rather a sober calculation to ensure that the Ford political monster is decapitated once and for all while exposing the political project that they are a part of. There are several politicians including Karen Stintz and John Tory who are attacking Ford the politician, while promising to continue his right-wing policies. For his part, Doug Ford has been preparing himself to run for office provincially for the Conservative Party. The popularity of the Ford political brand, if not dealt with appropriately, could recover and lead more attacks on working people at other levels of government.
Any talk of having him go away and return fails to recognize that both Ford’s ideals and his career are in danger. In addition to their crass display of arrogance, deceit, and hypocrisy, there is also a growing amount of evidence revealing them to have sinister connections. By this, I am not referring to those youth he has pictured with, but rather, the elements that are behind the guns and drugs in Toronto neighbourhoods.
This leads to the last opinion which needs to be challenged.
3. “We need to move on from discussing the crack issue and focus on Next Elections/’City Building’/Municipal Reform/Etc.”
Far from moving on to other subjects, there is a desperate need to look closer at what this scandal has actually revealed. Indeed, the focus of this story needs to shift from the comedic to the tragic.
There are still few answer regarding the murder of Anthony Smith and shooting of Mohammad Khattak as well as Hanad Hussein’s sixth-storey ‘fall’ from a building in Edmonton. Smith and Khattak where in the infamous photo of Ford in front of the crack house, while Hussein lived in the same apartment as the man arrested for Smith’s murder. All three have a connection to the Ford video and Project Traveller, and a mounting number of press articles are starting to mention these acts of violence in relation to the Ford case. This includes the communications between Ford and some of his shady associates on the day after Smith’s murder.
While we cannot speculate yet as to what involvement Ford might have had in all this violence, there are too many connections to Ford for this to be ignored. Recently, allegations have emerged about the involvement of crime syndicates in retrieving the video, including threats to the lives of those attempting to broker its sale, as well as the shocking conclusion of an Ontario judge that the former spouse of Ford’s sister was viciously beaten in jail for threatening the Ford family.
Without a doubt, there is a growing urgency to know the truth about all of this. The public needs to know about the connection between Ford and these events, and what connection organized crime has with those in power. It is far more important to understand Ford’s role in a murder and two attempted murders than it is to know about his potential addictions or whereabouts during a Council meeting. This should be the prime concern now, and the story should not be dropped, forgotten, or misdirected until this becomes clear.
A scandal involving one guy’s use of crack cocaine is developing into a scandal about the stark and frightening reality about the sources of violence in this city, their methods, and their relationship to power. More frightening is the prospect that this could only be the tip of the iceberg.