Night They Forgot the Poor

Rating: NNNNNsnaking their way throughthe downtown core and banging rhythmically on pots and pans, the marchers are festive despite the.

Rating: NNNNN

snaking their way throughthe downtown core and banging rhythmically on pots and pans, the marchers are festive despite the gnawing cold. Finally the procession comes to a stop in front of the Mission Press building at 53 Dundas East. I smile at the small, innocuous structure, realizing we’ve arrived at the secret squat location. The group huddles around the doorway while the plywood entrance is kicked in. About 40 people rush inside. The rest of us remain outside. The lights come on and the third- floor window opens to deafening cheers from below. Someone unfurls a banner from the window, and the crowd falls silent as we all squint to read the message painted on the fabric: “Build Housing Now: Stop the War on the Poor.”

I’m overcome by a sense of elation at being part of an action so simple and so pointed: taking over an empty building for one night in a poor neighbourhood slated for commercial development while a few blocks away a new leader assumes control of the Tory mandate.

But my giddiness is cut short. I hear a warning cry and look up to see rows of riot police advancing, seemingly out of thin air. Another contingent comes at us from the other direction. Within a couple of minutes, the group outside the building, which has dwindled to fewer than 100, is surrounded by at least 200 helmeted police.

Two 14-year-old boys from Etobicoke School of the Arts, high on adrenaline or something else, dance before a row of unflinching cops. One of the pair, a self-declared enemy of the Tories, explains to me that they’re trying to “deregulate.” I ask him if he means “de-escalate.”

I wonder who’s going to get these kids out of here when the police start charging. Who’s going to get me out? I walk up to a cop and ask what he wants us to do. Can we leave? Should we stay? He stares right at me but ignores my questions. I try to penetrate the silent stare behind his visor. Then I get my answer. The police charge, forcing us into an even tighter huddle. A not-so-unanimous decision is made by demonstrators outside to leave, and we are efficiently herded away by police.

It’s the second day of spring but the temperature is well below freezing. I haven’t felt my toes for hours, and my quickened heartbeat is my only guarantee my blood hasn’t frozen to a complete stop. While the blistering wind and cold might have been bad for protestor turnout, it seems appropriate considering what we are here for. And though by this point it feels trite, I can’t help wondering what it must be like for people seeking shelter on a night like this.

Later, some of us return to the squat to witness the eviction of the remaining squatters. Police presence has swelled, and that section of Dundas is completely blocked to traffic. From inside the besieged building, a squatter shouts into a megaphone that they want “peace, affordable housing and a living wage.”

Suddenly, the frigid air is pierced by the sounds of shots and broken glass. Police are firing tear gas into the building through the windows. One by one the squatters come out. Pointing laser sights and taser guns, police push them to the ground, cuff them and throw them into paddy wagons. Thus ends a massive show of force to protect a vacant building occupied for three hours by a handful of activists blocks from the Tories’ orgy of complacency. From behind me, a voice breaks through the din of competing chants: “We’re not criminals! Doing nothing is criminal!” On a night this cold, I’ve got to admit the guy’s got a point.

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