The message has gone out - police will be clearing the property in 15 minutes. I'm here at the OCAP squat opposite the Don Jail on Gerrard East, spending a Saturday (November 8) milling around an empty building in the cold, joking and passing the time until someone throws a switch and the bored-looking armoured cavalry charge down to trample people. I stopped finding these situations surreal long ago. But it is a bit funny that the riding's MP, Dennis Mills, has shown up and keeps calling everyone "gang" and "team." He says he happened to be in the neighbourhood putting up campaign signs, and - "Oh, look, a standoff" - came by to see what he could do. He's talking with some clearly annoyed police brass. I float nearby.
A sergeant steps in my way. "That's a private conversation, sir." I love that they feel they have to call me sir. Fair enough - I talk with him instead. Has he put any thought into why he's here, guarding 558 Gerrard from a peaceful squat started by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty? Does he really think people don't deserve homes? "There are plenty of jobs and apartments in Toronto," he states. He doesn't live in Toronto.
In a way, he's right about the jobs: the homelessness racket is booming. That morning, DC Security - also hired to guard the site of the former Pope Squat - set up shop outside homeless village Street City, near Cherry Street, cleared out for impending demolition. Squats always make the officers involved look childish; they don't want something until someone else shows an interest. They need to be told they can't have another empty building until they use all the others they've got.
"We never wanted our actions to be a policing matter," OCAP organizer Steph tells me later, "because they're not. It's a social matter, and unfortunately, over the years, the degree to which they have become policing matters for OCAP has increased." ***
The neglected building is at Gerrard and Broadview, a squatter's palace technically owned by the Don Jail: plenty of room, ample lighting, clean carpets, running water. Upon our arrival, squatters who stayed overnight released a banner. Activists and police ran for the building, but police won out due to superior shoving skills. But the cops don't shine in verbal matches. One officer, well away from the entrance, chose to win her argument with an OCAP member by grabbing a child from the activist's shoulders. The mood of the crowd distinctly changed to anger. Horses swept in, and the child's mother was arrested. It was madness - not the crowd, but the way it fed into every parent's nightmare that their children won't go to the police if they're lost.
Held above a gaggle of officers on the hilly lawn, the child looked with remarkable calm at the half-circle of people shouting, "Give him back!" A friend shook her head and said exasperatedly, "We should all be singing a lullaby."
Ultimately, the child's father negotiated his return, though both, unbeknownst to us, were locked in the police car where the handoff was to take place and whisked to Child Services. (He ultimately kept his child, but says he took a few bruises in the process.) Officers were ordered away from the building - many smirking, some looking genuinely embarrassed - leaving us to conduct a squat-warming, and bringing us to Dennis Mills's arrival. ***
Munching on donated carrots, I watch as Mills argues with police after inspecting the building. Police Superintendent Kim Derry is sticking to his rhetorical guns as he talks to media and organizers. "That building is unsafe," he states emphatically. He must be in a hurry, having had neither the time to tie his tie properly before arriving nor to see the building before declaiming on its condition. It strikes me that he would be willing to say the place is also under an ancient and mysterious curse. I remark that the building is in better shape than my place. "It's safer than mine," responds a woman, "and I live in subsidized housing."
Even as negotiations are going on, an armoured officer reads a final warning through a megaphone, and police horses are lined up. Mills is less than impressed by the strong-arm tactics, but comes down the road with arms wide, enunciating, "Blessed are the peacemakers."
Media surround him, and on the condition that squatters leave, he declares, "I will resign my seat within one month if I cannot get the government to turn this into adequate social housing."
I hadn't really bought into the whole Harmonic Concordance thing, but the prevention of a small bloodbath by the random arrival of a parliamentary bigwig has me believing. Of course, Mills is being more shrewd than idealistic. He's coming up against Jack Layton in the federal election, and a photo op with housing activists can't hurt.
OCAP plans to hold him to his word. "I think he'd be hard pressed to renege," says Steph. "We're taking him at his word. His office even put in a call (to us) half an hour after the building was cleared. So a month from now, either there'll be a victory party or he'll be held accountable."
OCAPers also attended mayor-elect David Miller's victory party to feel out the rhetoric. While OCAP is hardly gushing, Miller's victory is a new wrinkle. "He has directly addressed refurbishing abandoned buildings, and we're interested in seeing what that's going to look like.'
I ask if Mills's involvement means OCAP will also apply more pressure directly on federal or provincial politicians. After all, there's not much point in negotiating housing issues with police. Steph sees Saturday as neither a harbinger nor a cosmic event, but a political necessity. "With all the election shenanigans, you only have a certain amount of public time to move in," she says.
Regardless of what brought the irrepressible MP there, I'd still rather thank my lucky stars than the federal government.