By Mersiha Gadzo
“Speaking of funny…” the young comedian with dark curly hair said casually. He was standing on a platform in front of a crowd at Occupy Toronto’s campsite.
“… Steve Jobs just died.”
The crowd laughed, and I wondered what explanation could justify this bizarre statement.
“Workers at his Apple manufacturing plant in China kept on committing suicide by jumping off the building because of the horrible working conditions. And do you know how this man responds?” he asked the crowd.
“He puts up nets!”
Occupy Toronto protesters say they’re fed up with corporate greed and the big banks, which have caused the economy to collapse, creating the biggest recession in generations. Inspired by the Arab spring uprising, they seem determined to bring change to their own country.
Signs are strewn all over St. James Park reading, “Participatory democracy. Iceland did it, so can we,” and “God is not a dollar bill.” On the streets you hear them chant, “We are the 99 per cent,” while they march and link arms in solidarity.
It’s a global movement, which has spread worldwide. On the weekend of October 15, the world witnessed protests erupt in over 1,500 cities as people gathered together for the “Occupy” movement.
“[The movement] aims to expose how the richest one per cent of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future,” reads their statement on Occupy Wall Street’s website, where the movement first began in mid September.
Protestors are convinced the financial system is broken and they want it fixed.
Visiting their campsite at St. James Park on a mid October afternoon, they seem to be united as a group at their General Assembly. It was a chilly day, the orange leaves had started to fall and the accumulating grey clouds overhead warned rain will be falling soon.
In the park’s centre, the participants formed a circle, some standing while others sat on the grass, bundled up with hats, scarves and coats. One by one each person voiced his or her concerns, advice or ideas for next steps.
“Hello brothers and sisters!” one young, thin man said loudly addressing the circle.
“Hello brothers and sisters!” everyone else repeated.
Since there is a large group present at meetings, everyone repeats the speaker’s every few words to make sure the speaker is heard clearly.
The young man calls himself “Black Leaf,” because of the black maple leaf painted on his face from the top of his forehead down to his chin. His green eyes and reddish hair stand out in contrast from his black painted face.
He explains, in his experience with the mainstream media, they’ll often ask him “Why are you here?”
“But the question is…” he said loudly.
“But the question is…” the circle of brothers and sisters repeated.
“Why aren’t you here?” Black Leaf asked defiantly.
“Why aren’t you here?” everyone repeated in agreement.
They raise their hands in the air, twinkling their fingers which means they agree. (This helps to reduce noise). When they have something to say, they silently make a shape of a triangle with their fingers in the air.
“It’s that kind of question we should be asking,” 31-year-old Black Leaf explained to me as we sat on a bench at the campsite’s north side, after the General Assembly ended.
“It seems like most of the wealth generated these days is generated through cheating, corruption, [and] through the destruction of the environment,” he said.
“Is that earning what you’ve got?” he asked, referring to the top one per cent.
Black Leaf has been camping on the grounds since the first day of Occupy Toronto’s protests, and believes this movement has potential to make history.
He explained the way the top one per cent earned their money, is like a criminal who breaks into a building and claims he earned the stolen possessions because he broke in and took it.
“You didn’t earn it, you stole it and that’s what this movement is pushing back against,” Black Leaf said. “Enough of this. We need to go back to civility, bring back the rule of law, and bring back the accountability for these actions.”
He explained the black maple leaf painted on his face represents the dark times Canada is experiencing, the dark shadow that has placed itself over the country.
“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is a proverb, which Torontonians will only hear more and more often. A September 2011 report from the Conference Board of Canada shows the gap between the rich and the poor is growing faster in Canada than in the United States. This is happening while the top one per cent of Canadians has almost doubled their share of national income since the late 1970s.
Conference Board of Canada’s report shows rich neighbourhoods in Toronto have doubled over the last 35 years, while the number of middle-income neighbourhoods have shrunk to 30 per cent. Low-income neighbourhoods today occupy 50 per cent of Toronto while in 1970, it was only at 20 per cent.
“There’s over one million people, two thirds of which are visible minority, living in low or very low income neighbourhoods,” Rahul Bhardwaj, President of the Toronto Community Foundation told CityNews Oct. 4.
Bhardwaj told various Toronto media outlets in early October this is an issue that needs to be addressed quickly. If it’s ignored, by 2025, 60 per cent of Toronto will consist of low-income neighbourhoods, he predicted.
“To have 61 billionaires in this country that have more wealth than 17 million people [put together] is a preposterous way to organize a society,” said John Clarke, founder of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) at their downtown office at Dundas Street East and Bayview Avenue.
OCAP is an anti-poverty, anti-capitalist organization based in Toronto who believe in resistance and fighting for one’s rights. They’ve been helping the poor by protesting against social service cuts, helping people find housing, and taking on individual cases to stop evictions for over 20 years now.
They’ve participated in Toronto’s G20 protest, and also have members currently protesting with Occupy Toronto.
If there’s anyone familiar with how Toronto’s poorest have been living it’s OCAP. The office is situated in an old, white building in Regent Park, Canada’s oldest and largest social housing project, where 68 per cent of private households live on low income, according to toronto.ca’s neighbourhood profiles. The average income for residents here is approximately half the average for other Torontonians.
Walking through the neighbourhood, with its rundown houses, aging buildings and lonely streets, it’s not surprising to know 71 per cent of residents live on an annual salary of less than $20,000.
“These people [the top one per cent] are throwing the world into a crisis, they’re poisoning the planet, it’s a complete disaster and it can’t be tolerated any longer,” Clarke said sitting behind his desk at the OCAP’s office. “That’s what people are beginning to move towards in something like Occupy Toronto.”
You might have seen 57-year-old Clarke on the TV news, in interviews or participating in various protests. He’s the guy who speaks with a charming British accent, with full grey hair and a bit of a thinner build. But, protesting for the underprivileged over the years has often brought about many arrests for OCAP’s leading members.
Inside the building where OCAP is located, the aging floor squeaks and shakes lightly while walking. OCAP’s room is small and plain, with bare white walls, ordinary desks and old computers. Light streams into the room from the windows lined up on the wall. Two women work with piles of paperwork in the centre of the room, another man works at a computer in the corner, while Clarke explains how Occupy Toronto is the result of a political awakening.
“It represents grievances that are being felt much deeper in the population,” Clarke said. “It’s an indication that people are being shaken up by this crisis.”
OCAP has been particularly disappointed by the major social service cuts done by the Liberal government such as the Special Diet Allowance, which used to allocate $250 per month for families to cover extra food costs who have health problems such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
Tens of thousands have lost that benefit since March 2010.
On a Saturday afternoon last August, in a protest organized by OCAP, dozens of people met up at the Loblaws store at Jarvis and Queen’s Quay. Each one of them loaded their carts with $250 worth of food, and presented the cashiers vouchers written on them “I.O.U. $250 Dalton Dollars,” featuring a picture of McGuinty. “*To be used in place of special diet fund,” it read below.
Of course they didn’t expect Loblaws to accept the vouchers, but it was still a way to raise awareness about the issue.
Amina Ali, an OCAP organizer in Etobicoke, stated on their website, the Special Diet Allowance was a way for families to pay for their rents and still afford to feed their family- but even this has been taken away.
Poverty in Toronto is getting worse with every passing month, Clarke explained. Statistics from the Ontario Association of Food Banks show a 28 per cent increase in use of food banks in Ontario, since the recession struck in 2008. Each month, 400,000 people in Ontario rely on food banks.
Clarke says, there are currently 70,000 people on OCAP’s waiting list for social housing while Ford plans to sell off a further 700 units of social housing.
According to Clarke, massive cuts are going to be imposed “in attempts to smash trade unions” and “transfer the wealth to the wealthiest on an unheard of scale.”
It’s the socially unjust system of capitalism, which is the root cause of the growing gap, he explained. It’s producing poverty, violence, and pollution on a massive scale; an absurd system that has to be replaced.
The people who control the financial institutions on Wall and Bay Street are known as “social parasites” by Toronto’s International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT). As their article published in their 1917 newspaper explains, these “parasites” are the creation of capitalism- an “irrational social system that has plunged humanity into economic crises and imperialist wars for over a century.”
Like OCAP, they also believe the Occupy Movement is the result of discontent felt by the working class who now have to pay the costs of a crisis they didn’t create.
At the Bolsheviks’ public forum held downtown at University of Toronto’s OISE building, a huge red banner hangs on the front wall with their group name written in yellow and features the Bolshevik symbol of the overlapping hammer and sickle. At the back of the room, copies of their newspaper 1917 covered the two tables, selling for a dollar each.
Their topic of discussion that late September evening was called “Economic Crisis and Neocolonial Wars- Pathologies of Global Capitalism.” About forty people filled the classroom. Most of them were middle-aged men, with a group of young, university students in attendance as well.
IBT has been trying to educate people on problems in the world economy with public forums and by writing articles for their own publication, 1917. They also engage in peaceful protests downtown with other groups for various causes, such as against the war in Afghanistan.
Tom Riley, one of IBT’s founders, a tall man with grey hair and glasses, says he’s noticed an increase in attendance for his forums on problems in the capitalist economy, since the economic collapse in 2008, which has certainly changed from ten years ago.
Riley’s lecture was filled with Marxist theories and historical references as he explained why capitalism is a broken system with dead ends.
In the end, each person in the audience was given a chance to participate in the discussion.
“I’ve read so much, and I was only able to understand parts of what you said,” a girl in her early twenties said, referring to the historical references.
“It’s scary just how horribly educated this generation is,” she commented. “The majority of the population is completely asleep to this issue, and I have no idea how you’re going to wake them up.”
A middle aged man confidently stood up, and from his notebook read out loud the statistics he found on the Internet. Among them he mentioned, 80 per cent of all economic development has gone to the top ten per cent, and the average American man makes the same amount of money as he did forty years ago.
Riley later explained at another Bolshevik meeting at University of Toronto’s Sidney Smith Hall, he believes as like-minded people get together in large numbers, it’s possible to create a movement capable of overthrowing capitalist repressive states, referring to an example of the Russian Revolution in 1917.
In the Canadian context, Riley said, there are about five to ten million people who would like to see this change.
“This isn’t a small conspiracy we’re talking about,” Riley said. “This is a broad movement in the population to seek change. As the entire society begins to move in a certain direction, it becomes much easier to go in that direction and it becomes much more difficult to resist that kind of change.”
Riley explained the biggest obstacle to moving in this direction is people’s conviction that nothing else is possible, that it can’t be done in any other way. But, it can, he insisted.
But, CBC Radio’s business commentator in Toronto, Michael Hlinka doesn’t believe capitalism to be the root cause for the economic crisis. He says it’s the government.
Occupy protesters have been raising questions why the governments have been bailing out bankrupt banks. Just down the street from their St. James Park campsite, Hlinka gave a simple answer to this question from his classroom at George Brown College where he teaches.
Banks give politicians a lot of money.
“Anybody who believes that after a politician takes out hundreds of thousands of dollars from various special interest groups, and honestly believe that they [politicians] aren’t going to represent the interest of those groups, then they’re delusional,” Hlinka said.
Hlinka gave an example of President Barak Obama’s 2008 election. Banks were by far the biggest contributor for Obama, and he willingly took that money from them.
This is no secret. Many articles are available online, exposing Obama’s top contributors. According to CNN’s online article from April 2010, Goldman Sachs was Obama’s top donour during the 2008 elections.
“In the third world, when there’s a leader who takes money from a private interest, we call it bribery. In the developed world, when leaders take money from private interest, we call it democracy,” Hlinka said.
That’s exactly what Occupy protesters and other groups in Toronto say they’re trying to do- bring back real democracy. They’re convinced there’s corruption occurring at the top of the pyramid and want an end to it. Black Leaf is a firm believer that this change is possible if everyone unites together.
“The top one per cent through these actions, have become so powerful that they can now do this brazenly… the cops, the enforcers of rules have all been corrupted, so now there’s nobody left to resist but the people and that’s where it comes to,” Black Leaf said ardently back at the campsite.
“History has shown repeatedly that when people come together, no matter how massively powerful the minority at the top appear, they do topple because they are standing on the backs of the people.”
CBC’s business commentator Michael Hlinka explains the economic crisis.
Alessio Rastani, a trader, interviewed on BBC in late September said “Governments don’t rule the world- Goldman Sachs rules the world,” which garnered a lot of attention. What did he mean by that?
How did the economic crisis happen?
Hlinka explains how the process of money creation (creating money out of thin air) is one of the root problems which lead the economy to collapse.
Published in Eject Magazine