I'm down at the waterfront, watching the all-too-efficient destruction of Tent City by a private security firm hired by the official landowner, Home Depot, and backed by a mess of police. And I'm reflecting on how stories of encounters with police officers touch on so many sorts of essential fear that they're better related in metaphor. Play-by-plays don't do them, er, justice."I was on the toilet when they came in," says a former resident of Tent City. "I asked if I could get my things. They said no, and two of them grabbed me by the arms." I shivered at the parallel to the first time I got mugged (except I wasn't on the toilet). Certainly, many police approach people with the same swagger as thieves, and "Get back now" may as well be "Empty your pockets."
Surrounded by fences, dust and demolished homes, I'm painfully aware of how I could just as easily be talking to a war or disaster refugee and hearing these same words.
As if on cue, someone calls out to the crowd, "Is there anyone from relief organizations that can bring some food? Some water?" There is no response from those gathered, most of whom are in tears or shock. "I'm surprised they didn't do it at 3 in the morning," the "lucky" man confides.
For that small grace of timing he can thank the mayor, who was probably informed by his handlers that press conference audience numbers tend to drop when the big ball of fire in the sky goes away. His Tweedness, who hosted a press conference just as the bulldozers were going in, informed us that there was no need to worry since there are 200 beds available in the shelter system.
The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee checked with shelter workers. There are only 14 beds.
Ever since Metro police went into Tent City, ostensibly to remove an illegal hydro hookup, in late August, there has been more or less constant police harassment of the homesteaders, with cruisers coming and going and spotlights aimed at the place.
After TDRC wrote a letter to the landowners, surveillance died down and there were hopes an agreement could be salvaged.
Less than twelve hours after my conversation with the relief organization, it's clear that Home Depot has other ideas. When one police supervisor was questioned on the proceedings, he replied, "That's up to Home Depot. This is their operation." It certainly was. Much of the security in the invasion was ensured by Shadow Security International, a private firm contracted by the company (and you thought normal police were unaccountable).
When supporters went to City Hall for a rousing game of Where's Mel?, they found instead ironically public deputations on the city's Official Plan. Many councillors who were present were informed of the eviction for the first time. Even Tent City ward councillor Pam McConnell claims that the entire process went over her head. "Was I aware of the eviction? The answer is no. I've heard rumours that in fact some people may have known. But I certainly didn't, and I'm the ward councillor, so I was taken completely by surprise."
According to Home Depot spokesperson Kate Lyons, "Home Depot has had growing safety concerns about the people on the site. I think that this is a care and compassion issue." My suggestion that living on the streets is less safe than living in a community was met with a few seconds of silence.
For the public side of the corporate coin, I went to councillor Frances Nunziata of the police services board, who believes the police were "absolutely" justified in evicting the tenants for safety concerns. "I think there would be different safety concerns on the site than there would be on the street. You've got traffic and other things happening on the street, but I would say it would be similar, yes. In different ways, but not the same." Right. Note to the councillor: "living on the streets" is a figure of speech. People don't actually sleep in traffic.
Hanging up the phone, I reflect on the seeming hastiness of the whole operation. Maybe corporate HQ thought the word "Home" in the company's title would confuse the public. ("Home is the opposite of homeless, right?")
Councillor Nunziata was the first, perhaps in spite of herself, to utter the word no one else would: liability. "When you have people on private property like that, there is a certain liability, and you wouldn't want anything to happen to any people that are there." Someone might, for instance, trip and fall on the self-reliance scattered about.
As the company began to put up fencing around the site, a few residents and supporters started to remove the fence posts just as quickly. Slowly, more gathered to help, until a deconstruction procession was moving along the path, physically symbolizing the spirit of resistance, a spirit that no one will ever be able to evict.