Challenging targeted policing: my experiences in the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty


Mike Harris came to power as Premier of Ontario in 1995. Harris could easily be characterised as ruthless, callous and even authoritarian. One of his first acts as Premier was to slash welfare payments by a whopping 21.6%. Under his “Common Sense Revolution” Harris cancelled funding for affordable housing and curtailed services to the homeless, introduced workfare, repealed pro-labour legislation, brought in tighter eligibility criteria for disability allowance, and introduced legislation in relation to renting and tenants rights that resulted in many more becoming homeless in the process.  Poor people were demonised and cast as scroungers and cheats, with welfare fraud hotlines established to report them.

One of the more draconian, poor-bashing measures he instituted was the Safe Streets Act. Essentially a social-cleansing bill, this legislation pushed the poor and homeless out of sight, outlawing ‘aggressive’ pan-handling (asking for money) and squeegeeing (cleaning of car windows at stoplights in exchange for spare change, often done by ‘kids’). This act also allowed for targeted policing (or community action policing as Harris called it). Modelled after Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” policing policies in New York City, it gave increased powers to the cops. This armed police force routinely harassed and illegally searched the homeless and youths in an attempt to remove them from public spaces. They have also beaten up several homeless people at random. Homeless people and squeegee kids were often arrested and charged with loitering! Another common tactic was to issue fines for supposed breaches of the Safe Streets Act. These fines are unaffordable and also restricted movement in their own space and communities as a way of driving the poor out of certain areas of the city. A study conducted by a Toronto legal clinic reported that 11.5% of street youth claimed their worst victimization was at the hands of the police, as opposed to other ‘hazards’ like sickness, being attacked or threatened or sexual assault.

It was in this climate I joined the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty or OCAP. The brainchild of John Clarke, OCAP is a direct action anti-poverty organisation based primarily in Toronto. Clarke’s idea was to build a movement of poor people to resist oppression. The history of OCAP stretches back over twenty years, beginning with a founding conference in 1990. Prior to the formation of OCAP, many of its now members were involved in marches against poverty during the late 1980s. The 1990 conference brought together groups from over twenty five different communities in Ontario, solidifying OCAP’s identity and purpose. It thereby defined itself as an organisation committed ‘to mobilizing poor and homeless people to fight back through militant, direct action’. Most significantly OCAP decided to reject “notions of basing the organization on methods of consultation and compromise with those in power” (OCAP 2009).

OCAP has been a formidable presence on the political landscape of Ontario. They have organized around housing issues, deportations, First Nations struggles, and campaigns against capitalism. They employ creative yet militant techniques to challenge oppression. Among the tactics used are mock evictions and takeovers, street feasts and festivals for the homeless and poor held in wealthy areas of the city, pickets of employers using workfare, and crashing glitzy fundraising events organised by political parties. OCAP also engages in direct action casework or advocacy for individuals, acting as a go-between for poor people and hostile services like welfare offices.  To date they have an office in downtown Toronto with a paid organiser to help with their campaigns.

One of the first demonstrations I participated in was the Allan Gardens takeover in August 1999.  Allan Gardens is a large park in the heart of Toronto that was frequently used by the homeless as a place to sleep and congregate. Police had consistently been driving people out of the park using the Safe Streets Act as their justification. OCAP organised a mass sleep-over in an attempt to reclaim the space. On the first day a large part of the park was cordoned off and supporters from a number of sectors including students and unions participated to show their support for the project, including many homeless people. The idea was to have OCAP members and supporters camp in the park with its regular ‘residents’ as a means of deterring the police.

While at this demonstration I spoke with many members of the homeless community who relayed stories of their experiences of police brutality. One man in particular stands out in my mind to this day. A man in his 40s, he was homeless upon his release from prison after being incarcerated for attacking a man who had raped his daughter. At one point in our conversation he pulled up the leg of his trousers to show some of the injuries he had from being attacked by police on countless occasions because he slept in the park. Down one side of his leg was a large amount of scarring and disfiguration which he received from being run over by a police cruiser in the park one night – something he believed was intentional. His story was by no means exceptional.

Over 100 people stayed overnight in the park, many patrolling the area to keep it cop-free. It lasted four nights until the cops invaded the park just before dawn to evict all those present. Twenty-seven people were arrested. We met the next day to decide what the next step would be. There was a decision taken to abandon the permanent takeover and leave the park for the immediate future, though since that time OCAP has organised subsequent takeovers of Allan Gardens, the most recent held in 2009.  While these takeovers have not resulted in a permanent reclamation of the park, they have drawn considerable attention to the plight of those who use the park as a safe space and to the abuse they face at the hands of Toronto cops.  They have also increased support for OCAP and resulted in an increase in its membership base.

Another action OCAP organised to protest the Safe Streets Act, and particularly the cops’ harassment and ticketing of the poor, was a mass pan-handling demonstration at the Toronto International Film Festival in the same year. Several OCAP members, including members of the homeless and poor communities, parked ourselves at the end of the red carpet, with our pails for panhandling and shouted “the films might be nice but the homeless pay the price.” Many of the glitterati in the Canadian and international film industry were shuffled in through a side entrance to avoid us while others braved the red carpet for the photo op, thereby ensuring that OCAP’s presence was felt. It also drew attention to the heavy nature of policing OCAP actions. As John Clarke himself noted, the huge police force in attendance of the event, many on horseback, only added to the action’s success.

These were just two actions in a series that were aimed at challenging police criminalisation and targeting of the poor. Other OCAP actions included collecting tickets handed out to the homeless and squeegee kids who were deemed to be in violation of the Safe Streets Act and challenging the tickets in court. This had considerable success. We also invaded Toronto’s wealthy Yorkville district, home to celebrities and Canada’s elite, for a mass-panhandling action, storming the restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel, grabbing food off the plates of the rich who looked on in disgust, jumping on tables and disrupting their luxurious lunch. This action was successful because a decoy bus was arranged to travel to a publicized action as a means of confusing the police who were following us – the Yorkville action was kept secret even from members until the bus arrived at its location. Other tactics have included mock evictions of government ministers, and mass squatting in abandoned buildings.
With every success OCAP has had it has been met with increasing force from the police. Every OCAP event had an increasingly large and hostile police presence. A good example is the protest on Parliament Hill in 1999 where those of us attempting to gain access to the public government chamber, many of whom were homeless, were attacked by riot cops with pepper spray and batons. It was the first time pepper spray had ever been used on Parliament Hill.

Many OCAP members have been targeted by the police over the years – followed, threatened, arrested and falsely imprisoned as a means of intimidation. Perhaps the culmination of police outrage against OCAP resistance was the June 16th (2000) protest which was deemed a ‘riot’ by the Toronto police. This protest resulted in the unprovoked attack and beatings of many protestors, several arrests, including that of John Clarke, and a court case to charge John with inciting a riot. Clarke and two other members of OCAP were strip-searched upon their arrest – again as a means of intimidation. OCAP has managed to successfully challenge these acts of intimidation through the courts on a number of occasions, with at least four OCAP members successfully winning their cases against the Toronto cops and receiving settlements as a result.

These direct action tactics further mobilised people and OCAP’s membership continued to substantially grow over the next four or five years. Several chapters of OCAP opened in other parts of the province.  I think this shows that even small acts of resistance are important mobilising tools and are effective in drawing attention to police behaviour and challenging it.

OCAP empowers people to stand up for their rights and to stand up to the police. Those who have been the target of policy brutality can now stand in solidarity with others who have experienced similar treatment. They can see that their experiences are not isolated incidents but part of a broader structure designed to further marginalise and oppress the poor.
OCAP continues to organise against police brutality and the criminalization of dissent. This has increased pertinence since the Queen’s Park Riot as police officers from outside towns and cities are now often brought in for OCAP demonstrations. Forced to be creative in the face of increased policing, OCAP adopted interesting techniques as a means of achieving successful actions. These included snake marches and timing demonstrations to coincide with events happening simultaneously in the city (e.g. the Pope’s visit) as a means of ensuring that the police would be on their best behaviour. Most recently they successfully mobilised in the face of increasing police harassment at the G20 protests in Toronto in June 2010. For OCAP the right to protest without threat of harm or criminality is central to their overall goal of societal transformation.

OCAP is particularly appealing to those from poor and working-class backgrounds because their message is an empowering one. It offers the opportunity to participate in a group that not only recognizes that this targeted policing of the poor exists but actually overtly challenges it. Their rhetoric and action helps to make sense of one’s life and the all too routine experiences that accompany growing up in poverty. OCAP has made a tangible difference in the lives of many people.
While OCAP may not have yet fully changed the nature of policing in Toronto, knowing the group takes such experiences seriously, recognising them as systemic is quite empowering in itself. It lets you know that you have somewhere to go to share your similar experiences and gives you a means of challenging such repression. That, I think, is invaluable.   

WORDS: Garda Research Institute

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