Fighting To Win!: Anarchists And The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty

[From the Northeastern Anarchist #4, Spring 2002]

Fighting to Win!: Anarchists and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
by Jeff Shantz (NEFAC-Toronto, OCAP)

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) is a direct action
anti-poverty organization which, since 1989, has fought bosses and
governments of all stripes in Ontario, left (so-called), right and center
to defend the needs of poor people and to work for a future where people
are able to live decently. In doing so, OCAP has become the focal point of
resistance to neoliberal capitalism in Canada's largest province. It has
also become a strong pole of attraction for class struggle anarchists in
Toronto. This article outlines the political context in Ontario, how OCAP
fights, and some of the connections with anarchists. The discussion should
make clear why most class struggle anarchists in Toronto are involved with
OCAP.

Unlike much of the Left and labor in Ontario, OCAP had no illusions about
the ruling social democrats during their reign (1991-1995). OCAP
confronted the New Democratic Party (NDP) throughout their years in office
as the party moved more and more to the right.

Most of OCAP's battles, however, have been fought against the virulent
neoliberal Progressive Conservative (Tory) party and their harsh policies.
The 1995 provincial elections saw the backstabbing NDP replaced by a
regime led by former golf and skiing instructor (no joke) Mike Harris. The
Tories campaigned on a vicious anti-poor platform which demonized welfare
recipients and poor people as drains on social services which the
Conservatives were keen to dismantle. Upon election, Harris declared
Ontario "open for business" and rigorously began a sustained attack on
union gains, public services and social programs.

Keeping their election promise to brutalize poor people, among the Tories'
first acts was an immediate cut of 21.6% from social assistance. To make
matters worse, the Tories cancelled funding for 17,000 units of affordable
housing. Later acts included the perversely misnamed "Tenant Protection
Act" which did away with rent controls in Ontario.

The Tories have also attacked organized labor. Among many anti-labor acts
the Tories repealed NDP legislation which had made it illegal for struck
companies to hire scabs. Other pieces of legislation have taken away all
penalties against bosses who interfere with organizing drives and force
workers to wait one year between drives.

Last year, now into their second-term in office, the government passed
legislation attacking the few employment standards which remain in
Ontario. The new laws, reminiscent of the "Master and Servant Act" of the
1940s, allow for a 60 hour work week and the end of weeklong vacation
periods. It is now mandatory for all unionized workplaces to post union
de-certification procedures. Incredibly, employers can now opt out of such
policies as the minimum wage by arguing the their "global competitiveness"
is threatened.

Unfortunately, the response of the labor movement to these vicious and
ongoing attacks has been to retreat further into hopes that the NDP will
win the next election (no chance) and make all the bad stuff go away. That
was the position which allowed the Tories to claim a second term in office
in 1999 and it remains the only vision for much of labor in Ontario. As
OCAP organizer Sue Collis notes, the labor movement, throughout the Tory
reign has "failed to stand and fight when called upon to do so, even in
its own defense."

DAYS OF ACTION

The status of large-scale resistance to Tory neoliberlism hasn't always
been so bleak. Only months after the Tories' first election victory,
unions, social justice organizations and community groups launched a
series of one-day, city-by-city mass strikes called the "Days of Action."
In each city substantial portions of the workforce struck.

The Toronto Days of Action shut down the city and the second day
culminated in the largest demonstration in Canadian history as nearly
300,000 people took part. While results varied from city to city, the Days
of Action cost the Tories' corporate backers hundreds of millions of
dollars. The Days of Action brought together diverse participants from a
vast range of groups and constituencies into coalitions which held the
potential for great social action. Sadly that potential was never
realized.

The hoped-for culmination of the Days of Action in a real province-wide
general strike, an action which could have brought the Tories to crisis,
never occurred. While members of the Ontario Federation of Labor (OFL)
voted in favor of proceeding with a general strike the initiative was
cancelled in an underhanded manner by conservative bureaucrats tied to the
NDP. Fearful that the Days would hurt the NDP chances for re-election
bureaucrats worked to withdraw resources and slowly wind the movements
down.

Even prior to labor's retreat, however, cracks were showing between those
who wanted a real movement for change organized to drive the government
from power and those who saw the Days of Action in primarily symbolic
terms. While anarchists tried to take over the stock exchange and invade
the Tory policy convention, others wanted to march to an empty legislature
and listen to Billy Bragg. Union marshalls acted to police militants,
including rank-and-file workers. Some openly questioned the participation
of anarchists in the Days.

Ever since the collapse of the Provincial Days of Action and the failure
to follow through on a province-wide general strike in 1997 the resistance
to neo-liberal government in Ontario has been fractured and confused. From
the other side, the disintegration of the Days of Action left the Tories
emboldened to surge forward with their agenda sensing that the opposition
to them was not serious.

Among the groups most forcefully arguing for a province-wide general
strike were OCAP and Anti-Racist Action (ARA). After the collapse of the
Days of Action the two groups forged a closer working relationship which
has formed a solid pole of resistance against bosses, cops and fascists in
Toronto. Many individual anarchists, frustrated by the lack of militant
initiative in most community groups on one hand and the relative
detachment and "lifestyle" preoccupations of many anarchist efforts, got
involved with OCAP as a way to match their militant perspectives with
actions rooted in community struggles.

DIRECT ACTION

As an organization OCAP recognizes that the only way to confront these
attacks is through collective action to disrupt oppressive institutions
and practices. Acts of direct action at the point of oppression are the
most effective means we have to challenge hostile agendas and make gains.
OCAP works on DIY principles in which those affected by harmful policies
are directly involved in making it impossible for those policies to be
implemented. This power of disruption is used both to defend individuals
and families and to challenge broader political practices. In this way it
speaks to what Lorenzo Komboa Ervin refers to as "survival pending
revolution," practices which win real gains for people in the here and now
but also contribute to building the struggles necessary to bring this
rotten system down.

In the first instance OCAP has developed "direct action casework." In
these situations OCAP brings large numbers of members and allies directly
to the offending agency, landlord or workplace and insist on staying until
we get what we came for. If no settlement is forthcoming we raise the
costs of offending agencies to the point where it is no longer worthwhile
for them to act in an oppressive way. OCAP "identifies what its members
need and fights for those needs with an unwavering clarity" (Sue Collis,
2001). Direct action casework has brought victories in winning social
benefits, fighting evictions, stopping deportations and winning back pay.

These same methods of collective direct action have been applied to
broader struggles.Recognizing that direct interference with the practices
of various levels of government and their business backers is the only way
poor people can effect a real measure of control in their own lives OCAP
avoids token protest in favor of actions which upset our enemies' plans.
Rather than pleading with them to stop hurting us we act to develop the
means to prevent them from implementing their plans.

In 1997 OCAP acted against the brutal situation which sees hundreds of
empty apartment buildings in Toronto boarded up by speculators looking to
drive up property values or rents on other properties. OCAP marched over
300 people to two abandoned buildings with the intention of opening them
up for homeless people. Police used horses to keep people out and laid a
variety of charges against participants. A year later the buildings were
opened as social housing.

Anyone who took part in 1998's Active Resistance (AR) anarchist gathering
in Toronto will recall that the climax was a march and demonstration of
over 1000 people. The "Hands off Street Youth" march was jointly organized
by AR, Anti-Racist Action and OCAP. Participants demanded that police and
city officials immediately end their harassment of squeegeers. That summer
OCAP began fighting tickets in court. "We see that people get a proper
defense that is not afraid to challenge the credibility or intent of
'Toronto's finest' and ensure that the judicial system incurs the maximum
cost for every ticket that is written" (Sue Collis, 2000). Every ticket
fought gets a cop off the street and into court. OCAP has won every case
that it has fought.

SAFE PARK

In August 1999 OCAP organized a several hundred strong occupation of Allan
Gardens Park, where cops routinely cleared homeless people out or harassed
people because of skin color or appearance. Just prior to the occupation
the park had been the site of a major flashpoint in Toronto's racist
policing projects.

"Local homeowners lined up across the street on the south side of Allan
Gardens and clapped and cheered as the cops raided the park. Cops rounded
up 65 black men who were just hanging out, playing soccer and dominos. The
cops made them get down on their knees, searched them, gave out three
thousand dollars worth of loitering tickets and told them not to come back
(Gaetan Heroux, 2001)."

In the manner of the Diggers in 17th century England, the park was
established as a communal "Safe Park." As OCAP put it in their communiqu鍊from the occupation: "Let the City be on notice that it is our right to
secure a safe place to sleep, eat and live that won't be interfered with"
(August, 7, 1999). For three days the park was a beacon of mutual aid in
practice: people lived together, fed helped and cared for each other.
Police response was swift and vicious.

One of the major lessons concerned the role of mainstream media and the
futility of symbolic actions aimed primarily at "raising awareness."

JUNE 15, 2000: FIGHT TO WIN

During the summer of 2000, OCAP and allies from unions and community
groups raised the level of resistance by several degrees. A summer of
direct action kicked off on June 15 with a mass effort to address the
Provincial Legislature, recognizing that the Provincial government has
been at the forefront of attacks against poor people in Ontario. OCAP
demanded that a delegation of poor people be allowed to address the
legislature and notified the government of our intentions months in
advance. There were three very specific demands which participants wished
to deliver to legislators: (1) reinstate the 21.6% already cut from social
assistance by the government since 1995; (2) Repeal the pro-landlord (and
absurdly named) "Tenant Protection Act" which removed rent controls within
Ontario and has directly led to thousands of evictions in Toronto alone
since its inception, and; (3) Repeal the "Safe Streets Act."

"We took up the slogan of "Fight to Win!" with every intention of making
the action a call to all those suffering under this government. We wanted
it to be clear that moral appeals to the Tories are worse than useless and
the time has come to create a mobilization that can stop them (John
Clarke, 2001)."

The action ended in a full-scale police riot during which demonstrators
put up so much resistance that many cops contemplated leaving the force.
Despite full speed baton charges by mounted riot police it took over an
hour for the cops to clear people from the grounds. Longtime officers
claimed afterwards that they had never encountered such stiff resistance.
The head of the riot squad infamously told reporters afterwards that it
was as if the crowd "didn't feel the blows."

June 15 marked a potentially significant turning point. First it showed
the entire province that we could and would stand up to the state's
horrible force and fight. Secondly, the day brought radical activists
together again as part of a broader and hopefully sustained mobilization
against the local agents of global capital. It gave the battle against
global institutions up to that point in Seattle, Washington and Windsor a
specifically local and ongoing focus.

Since June 15, much time and energy has been spent building the fighting
spirit of that day in neighborhoods and communities where violence is
inflicted everyday. This is the work which OCAP and its allies have begun.

COMMON FRONT

Last year OCAP organized in cities, workplaces, towns and reserves
throughout Ontario working towards a series of acts of political and
economic disruption throughout Ontario and beyond. First Nations, homeless
people, teachers, students, rank-and-file unionists and others committed
to begin the difficult work of putting forward a coordinated effort to
make it impossible for the ruling governors to continue governing us.

The Common Front campaign got off to an encouraging start on October 16
with an economic disruption right in the heart of Toronto's (and Canada's)
financial district. Over 2000 people marched through the streets of the
business core targeting significant corporate backers of the Tories,
especially the major banks and real estate developers. While the snake
march did not completely shut down the financial district, it did make it
impossible for many companies to carry on business as usual. Overall, the
Tories' business backers took a financial hit of hundreds of thousands of
dollars.

Actions in several other cities, including Sudbury, Hamilton, Peterborough
and Ottawa followed Toronto's model of a march in targeted areas of each
city's downtown (October 16 and the problems of replicating the Toronto
action in other places has already received some discussion in this
publication so there is no need to add to it here).

What should be noted is that the OCF drew many more anarchist individuals
and organizations (Freyheyt and Black Touta in Toronto, Haymarket and the
Anti-Capitalist Task Force in Ottawa and CLAC in Quebec) into an alliance
with OCAP. Actions in Toronto, Ottawa and Guelph would have been much
diminished without the crucial parts played by anarchists in organizing,
publicizing and putting their bodies on the line. Anarchists put out calls
for action in Toronto and Ottawa. In Ottawa the successful snake march on
the 16th was an anarchist initiative and anarchists did most of the
organizing to pull it off. This is an important step in bringing militant,
class struggle anti-authoritarians together to actively develop
strategies, tactics and hopefully structures of action.

That anarchists were able to take such active and open roles in the OCF,
as opposed to the Days of Action, showed not only the similarity of
anarchist ideas and practices with those of OCAP but also confirmed OCAP's
respect for autonomy and decentralization. While OCAP initiated the fall
campaign, put most of the resources into it and did much of the organizing
work to get it going there was never a question that OCAP would direct the
campaign or interfere with local actions in the manner of some groups.

BORING PROCESS STUFF

Not surprisingly, anarchists are drawn to OCAP's values, commitment to
direct action, self-determination and autonomy. Also agreeable to
anarchists are OCAP's radically democratic group practices. Decisions are
made at biweekly meetings which are open to all members. Despite many
anarchists' preference for consensus decision making, OCAP shows that
majoritarian votes can be taken in a participatory, democratic and
effective manner. Time is always made for lengthy and vigorous debate and
all sides are heard regardless of perspective or ideological bent. Debate
is regularly carried over several meetings where further discussion is
required.

Ideological fetishes are left at the door and meetings generally maintain
a focus on developing effective, winning strategies and tactics. The
filibustering and manipulation which divert so many organizations with
people from different political backgrounds and perspectives are largely
absent. This is largely possible because of shared commitments to
anti-capitalism and libertarian socialist visions of a future free of
bosses and bureaucrats in which people are able to make the decisions
which affect their lives.

ANTI-CAPITALISM

Underpinning OCAP's activities is a grounded commitment to
anti-capitalism. When OCAP takes on bosses, landlords and governments we
always remember that oppressive institutions and individuals arise from
specific contexts. "They are the products of a whole system that is unjust
and that creates the poverty and misery we fight back against every day"
(John Clarke, 2001). It is this system of social relations,capitalism,
which must be overcome not merely the variable policies or figureheads
which sustain it. This understanding underlies OCAP's analysis and shapes
strategies and tactics. OCAP takes its lead from members' needs, not from
what rulers tell us is "possible," or "realistic."

"If decent paying jobs, living income, adequate housing, health care and
education are "impossible" under this system, then we have to look beyond
capitalism...This is the most simple but also the most important reason
why OCAP is an anti-capitalist organization (John Clarke, 2001)."

OCAP shows an important aspect of the recomposition of working class
forces in Ontario. It brings together the growing sections of working
poor, unemployed, unsecured workers. It is unfortunate but perhaps not too
surprising that this convergence would clash with the privileged sections
of the working class which are clinging desperately to the last vestiges
of status enjoyed under Keynesianism.

Over the years many anarchists have been drawn to OCAP because of its deep
vision of the possibilities for a better world and a relentless commitment
to act to make those possibilities real. On our terms alone, according to
our needs not those of the bosses.