In Loving and Proud Memory of My Friend Derek Soberal

Derek Soberal, singled out for attack by Toronto Police, at a Metro Hall OCAP Occupation in 2013.

Derek Soberal, a friend I had lost touch with in recent years, was a proud Canadian whose most inward being recoiled against Canadian fascism. Derek committed suicide on Tuesday morning in awful, spectacular fashion. Emergency personnel received a call about a man covering himself with accelerant in front of the Esso station at Dundas and Church streets.

It was Derek. He proceeded to light himself on fire.

Soberal escaped initial response from fire and police personnel, running to a nearby Rabba where he obtained a knife from behind the deli counter. He used it to stab himself, per multiple reports. At some point during the sequence at Rabba, Toronto Police officers decided the best way to help my fiery friend in ecstatic distress involved pumping him full of more heat with a conducted electricity weapon, commonly known as a Taser.

Joe Warmington has quickly whipped off a piece in the Toronto Sun, sympathetic and mostly full of praise and admiration for Derek, but essentially blaming the death on Soberal’s re-entry in recent months into a world of activism, particularly indigenous solidarity, that he had left behind the last few years to start a young family. Warmington and Soberal had something of a friendship, it seems, a natural fit given the way Derek was politicized.

Warmington is a far right-wing columnist who has never met a heinous set of police activities he has not been willing to step right up and defend vociferously.

With one glaring exception, that is.

Toronto Police overreached with such pageantry and terror during G20 meetings held in Toronto a decade ago this June, that even old Joe Warmington was forced to turn his purple pen against his friends in blue.

It was the self-same stunningly wild G20 exercise in police state fascism that brought Derek into the world of activism and forged his friendship not only with Joe, but with this Mennonite pastor. I was, at the time, in the midst of an eight year stint as a street pastor with Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, seconded for most of my work to a one hundred year old red and brown brick church building near Yonge and Bloor now known as Sanctuary. Sanctuary, like Derek (and temporarily Joe Warmington), grew out of deeply conservative roots into a place where it cares deeply about things like people in poverty getting their asses beaten by police while they are just trying to survive in an ever more isolated, unequal, and cruel world.

Derek Soberal’s years of activism growing out of his G20 awakening meant constant conflict with police and also the start of the life project he took most pride in—an Occupy Canada Facebook page that now has 99,000 followers. Derek maintained that page scrupulously with journalistic pride. For years I was a contributor, and Derek never sent me packing even though I had not posted until yesterday in three or four years.

I will say this, having written pieces for a half dozen outlets including the Toronto Star and Jacobin Magazine and having been a key sources for many dozens of media pieces, Derek was as fastidious and thorough a fact checker and stylistic warrior as any I have ever met.

One of Derek’s proudest moments was when Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) recognized him as a journalist and issued him credentials for one of their leadership nominating conferences.

Derek wore and showed that credential often when covering events on behalf of Occupy Toronto. In March 2013 an Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) led occupation took over Metro Hall in protest of severe shelter overcrowding, overcrowding that reached a crisis point from which it has never recovered after police destroyed Occupy Toronto’s encampment in 2012. At the time, City Hall steadfastly and specifically refused to repeat its 2002 Tent City efforts to house more than 100 homeless people gathered with Occupy Toronto at St. James Park.

Soberal covered the 2013 Metro Hall OCAP occupation and argued with police, while showing his credential, that he should be able to join other journalists in continuing to film even as police ordered protesters out of the building. Toronto Police refused his request and, in fact, specifically targeted him for special treatment during his arrest. He was dragged into an out of the way hallway by a half dozen or so officers who proceeded to thoroughly thrash him.

Derek’s physical wounds from the Metro Hall attack by Toronto Police would heal, the emotional scarring lasted years beyond

Derek filed an access to information request, since Metro Hall is publicly owned, and obtained clear footage of the illegal, immoral, and wholly unjustified police behaviour. He proudly sat on the front row when, in Spring 2014, we premiered that footage in What World Do You Live In?,  a 90 minute documentary on community resistance to Toronto police violence against poor people, indigenous people, and activists. (See the Toronto Star review of that premiere here.)

Derek’s peculiar set of ethics and personal needs meant he never posted that footage to Occupy Toronto. He decided to sue police instead, and when he won a moderate settlement a few years later, he asked us to remove his portion of the film. (We did; the original film with that footage will now be re-released in due course.)

The money and closure from that settlement were critical in Derek taking a break from activism and starting a family. From 2014 to 2016, Derek and I had many, many in-depth talks — spiritual, political, often in his apartment — about the cost that activism and being targeted repeatedly and clearly by police (whom he never stopped respecting) had extracted from him. For years, he suffered rather severe post-traumatic effects.

My last communications with Derek were in August 2016, when his case against Toronto Police settled. He made it clear that, while he needed protection from further police harassment including taking away his settlement, he wanted me to eventually find another way to get the footage out.

Again, I will do so in due course in the weeks and months ahead.

Derek is not the only media personality targeted by Canadian or Toronto police in recent years. And he is the third activist I know of in recent years who has committed suicide after speaking out specifically over time about Toronto Police brutality. Only those of us who have personally experienced its insidious toll can understand just how devastating it is to be targeted for speaking truth to that terrifying power.

I have taken a serious break myself from that kind of prophetic highlighting of police misconduct, but near the end of my stint as co-lead pastor of a far more affluent Mennonite church in Waterloo, I began returning once day a week to Toronto for work and friendship this past October. I was following along quietly on social media, planning to reconnect with him soon, as Derek returned to citizen-journalism in support of Wet’suwet’en and for the future of his own indigenous children, whom he was thoroughly bowled over with love by and posted about regularly on his personal feeds.

So why did Derek self-immolate on Tuesday, an act he would know from his enthusiasm for the Arab Spring to be thoroughly political?

It is true that Derek had been pushed over the edge by recent events around COVID-19. There is no disputing that his final words, recorded partly in a twenty minute live Facebook video (now removed, and where the last six or seven minutes were without sound), suggest someone who has lost touch with reality.

There is, however, a deeper reality that remains consistent over ten years and more of Derek’s life. He loved Canada and expected beyond all expectation that it would live up to its ideals of freedom and respect for human rights for all. He saw, rightly or wrongly, the state of emergency over COVID-19 as an irreversible pathway toward a full blown Canadian fascism as displayed unmistakably at the G20 meetings in 2010 and in recent law enforcement actions overrunning the sovereignty of Canada’s First Nations.

Completely overwhelmed, tragically so, by this prospect, Derek Soberal did what he thought best, as he always did. He took his own life very publicly, imploring us all to take more seriously the dignity, rights, and freedom of all.

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Doug Johnson Hatlem writes on polling, elections data, and politics. For questions, comments, or to inquire about syndicating this weekly column for the 2020 cycle in your outlet, he can be contacted on Twitter @djjohnso (DMs open) or at djjohnso@yahoo.com (subject line #10at10 Election Column).

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