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Toronto the Good

Killing Us Softly

by DAVID Ker THOMSON

St. James Park, Toronto.

It seems churlish to complain about having been insufficiently buffeted about the head, ears, and spleen, what with our community having experienced so many satisfactions in that regard during last year’s G20 and all.  But it must be said that this round of Occupy Toronto ended not with a bang but with a whimper on Wednesday, the twenty-second of November in year eleven.  Attentive, friendly cops facilitated the departure of Occupy Toronto from St. James Park, putting the move back into the movement, gently robbing it of its in-tents-city.

Now that the leaves are down, it’s easy to look up from the park at the buildings that loom immediately to the west.  For all its astonishing immensity, this vista of the whole of downtown Toronto is after all just five buildings and assorted outbuildings.  It’s a question of scale.  This here in the front, this is the church, and this is its steeple.  And the four corners of the Toronto skyline behind, holding the whole cope of sky and line in place as if Babylon had returned in global formation?  Those?  Those are the towers of four of the six biggest banks in the country: ScotiaBank, BMO, CIBC “Imperial,” and TD.  They are an architectural imperium of BladeRunner proportions, darkening the sky so thoroughly as to blot out even the CN Tower.  In effect, Toronto’s skyline from St. James Park is banks.  With the Occupiers gone, capital accumulation can carry on without even the check of visual or auditory disruption in the perfect corporate semiosphere.

An onslaught of G20-style cops had been expected every day for a month, and in the two days after an extended deadline passed, every brave young person who could get their neck through a loop of chain and tie themselves unmoving to the yurt library for long stretches amidst the leaks of rain and sleet had done so, and in time had been rotated out and replaced with others eager to put their bodies on the line, with similar actions ongoing throughout the camp.

I came by every few hours prepared to witness scrum, melee, scrimmage, and tumult.  Yet on every passthrough the camp lay unchallenged, except by inconsequential eviction notices, day after day along the Little Bighorn of ideas at the confluence of Jarvis and Adelaide.  Tents, woodsmoke, mist.

It must be nice to be a state.  You can’t lose if you have the carrot and the stick: persuasions gentle and fierce.  This is the story of how Toronto the Good got what it wanted, and both everything and nothing that it deserved.

By Wednesday I was so ready for the violence to come that I put a tie and a white shirt on, something I hadn’t done in years.  A tie and a shirt, like a dark arrow drawn down and pointing at the penis, is reputed to be a magical talisman against pepper spray, and I wasn’t taking any chances.

But when judgment day arrives it’s a caress.  Big, expensive, gaudily painted “recruiting” buses have pulled up on King just before I show up and are still disgorging police.  Each bus features a huge painting of a multi-ethnic orgy of cuddling policemen.  Even wrecking Occupy Toronto is a big recruitment lovefest for a population used to bread and circuses.

By seven, I’m in the saddle and this is what I write:

Brandon, Kyle, Walrus, and Ian are beside me here chained to the yurt of the library.  They’re on the inside of a wall of pallets and I’m sitting on the outside, on a bit of a slope so I can watch people slipping in the mud.  The temperature’s about one degree above zero (Canadian).   

“Walrus” is sleeping through the eviction,” Ian says.  “We all make jokes about Walrus,” says Ian.  “He’s the youngest.”  Ian looks as if he might be the eldest.  The locks are locked and if anyone knows where the key is, they’re not talking.

The silver chains look good on the men, but they’re tight, and when coffee arrives there are jokes about what they’re going to do when the coffee goes through them.

A woman goes by wearing dance slippers.  She starts sinking into the mud.  But she pulls out a cigarette and lights it and that seems to restore her buoyancy.

A woman with two sled dogs in slow-chariot position ambles by.  “I support these guys,” she says, shaking her reins.  Not just the dogs, she means, the Occupiers.  The Samois stamp their feet in the mud and look around for snow.  Their tongues are lolling sideways in the heat. The woman is an expat who came here from New York in 1969.  “In a few years Zuccoti Park will be thought of as Stonewall,” she offers, as if it’s part of a larger conversation.  Indeed, the postures, gestures, tempo, and material structures of the park, it occurs to me, have a kind of Jungian place value, as if they are standing in for a sort of collective archive of good will and combined intelligence that needs only a few words to move things along.

Plus, I suppose, the antithesis of all those things.

Speaking of which, I’ve been walking around and through all the cops, calling out for Wendy, the police press liaison, and tossing the CounterPunch name about to see if it’ll get a purchase on something. Somehow I never seem to find Wendy.  Possibly because I always walk the opposite way I’m told to.  At first about fifty blue officers did the whole serried-ranks thing, but I noticed that if you just walk around and talk to the next row behind their backs it wrecks the effect, and they actually started getting friendly and moseying around, too. “Wendy?” I say.  “Just missed her,” the cops keep telling me.  They’re mostly the yellowjackets, bike cops.  Threat level minimal, like what a lion with a full belly is to a Thomson’s gazelle.  A cameraman from Ryerson tells me the bike cops all drove here with their bikes on the cars, and we joke about the cars being on trucks, and the trucks getting airlifted in.  This is sure no G20, I say, but as soon as I mutter that four cops with a lot of prodding and poking equipment go by, slipping in the mud beneath the burden of so much stuff. [later, and that was about it!]

A hippie goes by handing out earplugs.  A subtle but powerful point. [nothing came of that, either!]

Scores of camera people go by holding their big pieces like the gunslingers in Aliens.  In the age of miniaturization, cameras have gotten hefty again to impress people.  I remember doing interviews a couple of years ago at the City Without Cars Bumper Donation Day while holding a six-foot bumper in cell-phone position, and people seemed to take it in stride.  You can only take miniaturization so far before it starts going the other way.

An undercover cop goes by with, on a leash, a poofie dog who doesn’t seem to have ever met him.

A young lady from 1010 News is interviewing the chain gang and says sympathetically, “so just because you might get driven out of here today, we haven’t seen the lost of you.”  She means “last” but I like the idea of not seeing the last of the lost ones.  Eight tones from the tower at St. James make subliminal claims for and against the existence of God, for and against the existence of the rector and the dean.

A guy wanders past strumming a baritone ukulele.  A motherly lady tries to get everyone moving so they don’t get too cold.  Someone’s handing out flowers.  There’s chanting here and there.  “Save yurt. No one gets hurt.  Cops go.”

The undercover cop goes by and now his poofie dog knows him, so neither of them is undercover nor cop.  My bad.

“Who’s park?” chant the Occupiers, as they find their stride.

“Aardvark,” comes the response.

“Who’s library?

“Everyone’s library.”

“Who’s park?”

“Aardvark.”

“Aardvark” turns out to be “our park,” and is a common refrain this morning.

The National Post claimed that the barricade was made of pallets and nails, and you’d think from that it would be bristling with steely points, but it’s no more made of nails than is a regular house.  A few nails hold the pallets together in a rough porch appended to the yurt. [later: this will be the final Iwo Jima photo-op site of the struggle, as friendly cops with names like Jim and Neal converge and with gentle, paternal insistence ease the last holdout apart while a black-clad flagwaver does what he has to by way of striking a pose]

A middle-aged woman who gives her name as Linda Duval and occupation as artist says she’s from the neighborhood. “It was much better when Occupy was here—way safer.”  She’s saying this wistfully early in the morning, as if the Occupation is over.  “This is traditionally the drug park, you know.  But the Occupiers have made it way safer.  I couldn’t walk my dog [Tony, an engaging chocolate lab] before at eleven o’clock, now I’m out here at eleven every night.”   She concludes, “There are few neighbors who don’t support it.”  Nancy Miller, a teacher and children’s writer, lives down the street and comes up as I write that sentence and says, as if she’d read the sentence, that she supports it.

But I talk to a well-dressed man from the neighborhood who doesn’t support it.  I ask if he’d be open to splitting the park in half, with tents on one side and grass on the other.  He says no, “the park should be for everyone,” unconsciously echoing the words of the protesters.  He says he hasn’t felt like he could walk through the tents.  I’m sympathetic but I tell him that that’s not been my experience.  I can walk easily anywhere here, and it’s a very welcoming, friendly environment.  Eight tones from the St. James tower round off the conversation.

“Aardvark,” chant the Occupiers.

Twenty cyclists still get killed every year, the financial centers of Toronto still profit from the vast filth of the tar sands to the west, the whole tawdry financial structure is in cahoots with the nation’s biggest trading partner to the south.  The nation’s still an eager-beaver bumboy to the sad clusterfuck that is American military aspiration, on and on.  Too many reasons to resist, occupy, and just say no.  But Occupy Toronto was goodcop’d out of St. James Park while 98% of the populace sat and watched, unwilling to lift a hand in their own interests.

“Aardvaark” is the last thing I hear as I leave the park to pick up my son, but it won’t be Aardvark for long.

*    *    *

Psst.  I’m in city hall right now, Committee Room 2.  The meeting’s been four and a half hours so far.  This is the day after Occupy was ousted.  Reporters aren’t allowed to use computers, but I’m not a real reporter.  The meeting’s about getting elephants out of Toronto Zoo and down to sanctuary in California.  Earlier, I gave a little speech on behalf of three old elephants.  Some CP reader—now a friend—had ferreted out my sentimentality towards animals and then guilted me into coming here.  First time I’ve ever been in a city hall of any sort.  This is bizarroville for someone who’s never voted.

My goal with the speech was to do something really important for the world and also to get some cheap laughs if I could.  Seems to have worked.  A councilwoman with dirty blond hair who was apparently on our team asked a nice question and I was thinking, “whoah, what riding are you from?”  Actually, I don’t know really know what the august body is I’ve been addressing.  It could be some kind of board, or it could be the Council of Elrond for all I know.  I don’t even know if they’re running the whole city or just the zoo, or if there’s much of a difference.  My contact had said only, “go to room 2.”  Actually, maybe it isn’t the elephant meeting, now that I think of it, and they might have thought my imitation of a trunk was something else.  I forgot that trunks are attached so high up.

No, I have to believe it went well.  It did, or at least people laughed—here I’m finally leaving…five hours…I just, can’t, take, another, minute.  It went well, I insist, although I should admit that as I’m leaving I see the city diorama and someone has painted out with perfect precision the “Don’t” in “Please Don’t Throw Things at the Diorama” and I—here’s the point—laugh out loud.  The huge diorama of Toronto in city hall is littered with thrown objects. [Later I tell my friend Katrina about this and she says we’re going to go back and Occupy Diorama: she’s got some little trolls and tents and stuff and we’re going to set them up in St. James Park.]

Anyway I believe my speech went well.  Afterwards I slowly worked my way up into the press section in the middle of the room where there weren’t any elephant team and I sent notes down the line to this chick that said things like, “if you’re bored stamp you’re right forepaw.”  She did, but after ten messages in one direction and none in the other I wrote, “one of us isn’t working as hard at this as the other.”

But I think it was a great speech, that speech of mine.  Even one of the guys on the opposing team whom I’d cast aspersions on said, when I met him outside the men’s room, that he “liked my act.”  We exchanged state secrets.

After my speech I’d done a Shrek-style victory flex down what I believed to be the pro-elephant side of the room.  Now I’m really hoping it was the elephant meeting.

Anyway, the problem with democracy is that everyone gets to speak, not just yourself.  BO-RING.  I’ve been at lots of general assemblies the last few weeks at Occupy Toronto.  It’s hard to get anything done because everyone has an opinion.  But it’s nothing like as bad as what happens here in city hall.  Are they serious?  Everyone’s like, point of procedure this and Mr. Chair that and governance the other and Mr. Grimes has the floor.  Seriously, there was a Mr. Grimes, just as Dickensian as you’d imagine.  Five-hour meeting to see if the zookeepers can figure out how to transport the elephants to sanctuary in California, and I’m like, zookeepers helping animals escape?  Isn’t their job to keep animals from breaking out?  Zookeepers are the last people we should ask about getting elephants to sanctuary.

Well, outside past the diorama—I see St. James park as I go by as a little snatch of curly pubic green against the ivory of the city, and someone has tossed a Pepsi onto the CN Tower—I bump into two splinter groups of Occupy in the square in front of city hall, or City Hall as it styles itself.  The Occupiers are plotting their next move.

A little farther along the square I see a cluster of a certain kind of people.  I’m pretty far away, but I can hear one word clearly: “Occupy.”

David Ker Thomson lives in the nation of ’nada.  This is the final portion of a five-part series on Occupy Toronto: including “Occupy This,” “In Praise of Failure,” and “Toronto Occupation.”   dave dot thomson at utoronto dot ca