Ironically, sometimes one of the best ways to stay safe at a protest march is to not think too hard.
I mean that with so many people in such close proximity swimming around within a membrane of police escorts, you can't predict every possible cause and effect. It's best to be acutely aware of the body language of those immediately around you, but experience the overall crowd as an organism, actions and reactions moving across it like ripples.
If you're lucky, you'll get a few seconds of advance warning before something potentially injurious happens.
So it is on this mercifully mild Saturday afternoon, November 13, the day of the latest Ontario Coalition Against Poverty protest. OCAP has made something of an annual winter event of theatrical squatting actions, breaking into an empty city-owned building with the demand that it be made into housing and daring the police to bust it up. The police have consistently proven that they like dares.
Many of the chants have also become perennials, and to be honest, I've come to find them a bit grating. "What do we want?" Well, I'd like some warmer gloves. Oh, you're referring to housing. Right. Housing. "When do we want it?" When low-priced housing impossibly becomes profitable for greedy developers? No? Sorry. I have a cold.
But as the march draws near to the corner of Bloor and Church, there's a perceptible change in the crowd. Suddenly the chants sound more energetic, as if those doing the calls in the call-and-answers are no longer just going through the motions.
Could we be nearing the squat?
I start making my way toward the front of the march. A friend grabs my arm. "You want to be near the middle," she tells me. I believe her.
I start to become discouraged at my mob-reading skills when we turn east on Bloor without incident. But at Jarvis we turn back south, and soon after, once again I get the distinct feeling of the crowd coming sharply into focus. For better or worse, it's about to happen.
It does. A handful or two of people to my right run suddenly away from the crowd toward a huge grey building, 590 Jarvis - former police headquarters. Cute. I follow, as does everyone around.
A bottleneck quickly forms at the glass doors. I look up for the obligatory squat banner. It's there now, draped out of a window on the fourth floor by people who had already occupied the place at an earlier time. They probably could have kept it, too.
No chance for that now. Police don't rush in as expected. Rather, five or six bicycle officers line up single file, then walk toward the door casually, keeping against the wall. The crowd isn't fighting them, but not giving them real room to move either. "Close the doors," people shout into the lobby of the building.
The officers continue their achingly slow approach, and the crowd continues its urgent shouts.
Shortly after the line reaches the door, urgent becomes panicked. I backpedal instinctively, happy with my choice when I see an electric-red cloud forming where I just was. Pepper spray. I would later hear that the spray came out after someone punched a cop in the face. I and all the pepper spray victims would like to extend our heartfelt thanks for that.
My nostrils and tongue are burning, but I spit a few times and it passes. Others are not so lucky: four or five people are clutching at air and shoulders, eyes swollen shut, faces red, as if they've been cold-cocked by a chili pepper.
The people in the lobby are tossed out, the doors are closed. But at least a dozen had already gone in to the elevators. Oh, did I mention the vacant building has power and heat? The emergency task force goes to the back of the building. Shortly after, a dozen or so activists come back around to the front. Police give them the choice to leave or be arrested. For police, that's downright neighbourly. But word is there's another dozen who have holed themselves up.
The rally moves to the back of the building for the traditional Ritual of the Systematic Arrest. Nearly 60 police mill about, many in tactical gear. A bus of a paddy wagon waits. Six tactical officers head into the building, emerging shortly after with their arrestee carried aloft by hands and feet like a deer carcass.
Half of the crowd cheers the squatter, the other jeers the balaclava'd police. Someone is shouting with the affected fear of a science fiction movie extra, "Robots! Robots!"
Perhaps the most disturbing is the officer closest to me whose eyes seem to betray a deeply felt ennui. Not only bored, he seems to feel the whole thing is absurd. It is, officer. It is. Why do you do it?
For that matter, why do any of us do it? As each new arrestee emerges in varying states of immobilization to be frogmarched through the phalanx, the crowd erupts into cheers.
It reminds me of football players being greeted by a stadium full of fans as they jog out onto the field.
What are we congratulating them for? For liking jail?
Don't misunderstand. It's horrific that in a city where homeless people freeze to death each winter, a building this size should not only be left empty, but be heated and lit - and, judging from a recent hydro bill that was absurdly delivered, at a cost of thousands of dollars a month. But isn't it clear by now that police are neither willing or able to negotiate on these issues?
Another question is the truth of speakers' insistence that "David Miller sent in his goons." I'm personally disgusted at Miller's lack of noise on the issue of homelessness, but he's the mayor, not the police chief. With only one vote on council, bolstered somewhat by the position of his influence, he can't change property laws in Toronto.
But it's interesting to note that when OCAP liberated the Pope Squat two summers ago, it took the police four months to bust it, because the issue of who owned it had to be resolved. Whenever OCAP has taken buildings that are clearly owned by the city, police have not hesitated. This seems to indicate a possible standing order to immediately shut down all attempts to draw attention to the cornucopia of unused property the city holds.
As it grows dark, the last of the arrestees are in the van, which exits discreetly by some hidden route to the north. Police are calm now and meander about. After a march back to All Saints Church for a hot meal, I head home for a hot bath.
One more thing to know about pepper spray: you might get some on you without knowing it.
This, combined with steam's ability to open your pores, is not a fun combination. Some cursing and frantic grappling for Castile soap later, I emerge from the bathroom looking as though I'd managed to get a sunburn in November.
Pepper spray and evicting the homeless in winter share a particular obscenity, that of punishing someone long after the supposed offence took place.