Organizers from the ontario coalition Against Poverty couldn't have arranged for better symbolism for their free feast last Saturday (August 23) even if the little tycoon from the Monopoly board had been here to polish his monocle in disgust. On one side of Cumberland, 200 OCAP supporters gather in a Yorkville park for a free meal including venison (donated by Tyendinaga Mohawks), heaps of fresh bread (baked in the Dufferin Grove oven) and chocolate-covered strawberries.
On the other side, dozens of Gucci supporters gawk over meals that look much more expensive but only marginally more appetizing. In between is a line of bored-looking cops. Through that blue filter, it may have been harder to see the poor as fellow diners, but no one could miss al those piles of free food.
Free digestibles are more dangerous than many believe. Our society throws away nearly as much as it consumes, and then puts locks on the dumpsters. Owners say this is to discourage vagrancy, but from the vantage point of Cumberland Street last Saturday, "vagrancy" looks a lot like a party.
More than one Yorkville shopper expresses both an interest in joining the feast and a fear of the police, who are doing their part to protect us from inertia. "If you're one of them," an officer says to passersby standing still long enough to think, talk or get a good look, "get in there. If you're not, get moving." Predictably, people bristle at the idea of being "one of them," and move along.
Fraternizing between classes is thus kept to a minimum.
This seems not to bother too many OCAPers, who directed most of their rhetoric at the assembled shoppers. "Wherever you go, we will be in your face!" an OCAP leader shouts through the megaphone. The theme of the action, after all is "they are rich because we are poor," which is not so hard to believe in a province with a minimum wage buried in permafrost.
The speeches take place in a lengthly block and exemplify OCAP's support. Speakers include activist Murphy Browne from St. James Town, Mughir Al-Hindi from Al Awda (a Palestine right-of-return group), reps from a native youth group and a pastor from a Portuguese church. But many onlookers and some participants have already left.
With the party interrupted and the rhetoric alight, there is really nothing left to do but march. We set off along Cumberland surrounded by cops, catching glimpses of the Emergency Task Force on adjoining streets.
We leave the square without incident, though officers stand between poor and not-so-poor all the way. When I stop to get the opinion of a group of diners on a patio, a large officer appears beside me and glares with impressive contempt. Fearing that he's just warming up his eyeball lasers, I move on.
I could describe the thrill of standing in the street at Avenue Road and Bloor with flags waving, but to be honest, I kind of wish we'd stuck around to eat and talk. There's no conversation to be had on a march. It's a one-way medium, and this one features poverty activists using a megaphone to tell other poverty activists how bad poverty is.
In the end, four are arrested, one for mischief and other charges and the rest for obstructing police. Maybe everyone's calm demeanour has obstructed the cops from justifying the obscene number of them mobilized to watch people eat. Or did a mix of street theatre and peaceful direct action obstruct the tortured logic of an earlier press release from Chief Fantino? That document insisted that it was "unfortunate that OCAP has chosen to demonstrate during this difficult time [when] the city of Toronto has been recovering [from] the effects of SARS, West Nile Virus and the current power outage emergency." Police deciding on when anti-police groups can gather? What's next - cops investigating cops?
Still, I take satisfaction from the fact that on some Yorkville patio someone is looking down at the exorbitant bill for their meal, thinking back to the sight of plates piled high with free food, and, though they can't quite tell why, feeling just a bit foolish.