It's a Monday evening in Toronto at the end of July. The weather is surprisingly cool, which means only one thing: rain. But the dozen or so people lounging on a patchwork of found couches in the backyard of 1510 King West aren't too alarmed when the lightning starts out over the waterfront and threatens to blow in. Rather, they matter-of-factly move the furniture under a tarp covering a corner of the yard. Sure enough, the rain comes, and when the tarp starts sagging, the loungers closest to both the problem and a hammer go about rigging up extra support.
The most remarkable thing about the process, though, is its organic nature. No one tells anyone what to do (unless someone asks), and not everyone dealing with the tarp has a real stake in what happens to the grungy couches.
That's the kind of spirit with which this place is infused. It's a place where people work because they want to work and live how they want to live, and the work doesn't feel like work and the life feels more like life than usual. It's a place where you'll find delicious free food, inspired impromptu performances, maybe even a generous masseuse or two. It sometimes has upwards of 50 residents, but fewer arguments in a day than you'd hear coming from a typical suburban house in an hour.
It's also illegal. Well, maybe not yet, but give it time.
This is the Pope Squat, a former abandoned rooming house in Parkdale that, in the process of being occupied to demand social housing, has also turned into a living experiment.
It's here that we hope to reclaim the word "power" from those who have abused it. That's what makes this space so crucial -- for everyone, even those who don't know about it, or don't care. This also makes it a threat, and is why many of the squatters assume that, despite its unclear status (there is technically no owner, making the occupation technically legal, or at least not illegal), the squat will soon come under pressure from the powers that be.
On Friday, July 26, the day after the building was liberated, the Emergency Task Force went in with submachine guns under the pretense of looking for a weapon. Since there was a clear ban on anything like that by organizers, most supporters take it as given that the police just wanted to get a look at the inside of the building.
The media, entranced by their function as PBC (the Papal Broadcasting Conglomerate), largely ignored the squat. This place is a threat, to be sure. Not to the community around it (which has largely welcomed it, with locals coming by to drop off food) and certainly not to you or your neighbours. Rather, it's a potential threat to the credibility of the Toronto police. How can Fantino continue his war against OCAP if people are reading about how those nutty terrorists are carrying on their unholy jihad by planting flower gardens and bickering over what to put in wall murals?
And never before have people bickered so considerately. The details aren't important; the discussions could have been about murals, housing permits or puppies. The point is, many deemed the issues frivolous, while others felt they were the point entirely. It was really about precedents -- about finding ways to settle disagreements. If we can agree that art (or any other supposedly esoteric thing) can be as important as a political campaign, then not only do we set a dangerous precedent for the status quo, but a remarkable precedent for ourselves, too.
The squat hasn't merely thrown a wrench (after making all necessary house repairs involving a wrench, of course) into the plans of the authorities; it's also a welcome kink in the perpetual-circular-motion machine of current activist endeavours.
It's hard to ignore the fact that one of the most inspiring political actions in recent memory was organized primarily by the "bad" protestors, OCAP, who take almost as much flak from their supposed comrades as they do from police and thought police alike.
Yet here it is, a community being built. Out in the backyard, pacifists, unionists, Catholic Workers and class-war anarchists share bagels and roti and grin at the beautiful artwork that now graces the building's exterior.
But more importantly, the Pope Squat is a call to justiceniks to start living up to our own rhetoric. Dozens of protests have done little to carve out any sort of free space at all, but one single direct action has created a small but thriving autonomous zone.
We truly can do things ourselves, without coercion or the market, and without waiting for the revolution like WYD pilgrims wait for the Rapture. Revolution is a daily choice.
Ever since protest became a four-letter word ("r-i-o-t"), pundits have been tripping over their thesauruses to point out how activists have no alternative, no model with which to lead people away from the consumer death culture. Now the proof is in the pudding, or maybe the painting. The way we organize to make our point is the real point. But now that paradigm has been applied to the creation of a community. We're calling the media's bluff, and the bluff of any activists spouting empty grandeur or self-righteous condemnation. Sure, they can sling mud, but will they get dirty and do a little gardening?