"Theatre takes place all the time, wherever one is,” said composer John Cage. “Art simply facilitates persuading one this is the case.”
In this sense, political protest is arguably art. Commonly bad art at that. But now and then it achieves a sort of sublimity through simplicity.
And say what you will about the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, when they get it right, they get it really right.
Under a banner reading, “They are rich because we are poor,” some 60 OCAP activists gathered December 12 at the King and Bay entrance to the PATH underground mall for a “mass panhandle.”
Part political, part pragmatic. To quote Bread and Puppet’s Cheap Art Manifesto: You can’t eat [art], but it feeds you.
“We know that since 1995, over 1,000 people have died on these streets,” OCAP’s Gaetan Heroux said earlier in the day. “The response, once people are on the streets, is to get the cops to give tickets. This woman here got $2,000 worth of tickets – 27 tickets, for littering and encumbering a sidewalk. This is cruel and inhumane.”
When poverty is given the stage, it’s often with pathos, deserving sympathy and eliciting charitable donations. Catharsis. Theatre of the Oppressed dramaturge Augusto Boal believes theatre only works when the audience is moved to become involved. And involvement was hardly optional when the panhandlers took the PATH.
Officially, of course, we’re all welcome in the PATH. The doors are open. And yet somehow the space isn’t. The sight of poor folks coming down the stairs, palms out, cans rattling, immediately incongruous, makes this immediately clear.Visibility can have its drawbacks, too: it’s hard to panhandle with seven TV cameras surrounding you. (“This guy doesn’t have the money he needs – and, oh my god, that guy has money he doesn’t need at all! Are you rolling?”)
This wasn’t news yesterday and it won’t be tomorrow. But today it is.
The very fact of a congregation down here is instructive in its oddity, so different from the comfortable click along the tiled floors as people walk separately, quickly. Alone.
The real drama happens when panhandling folks disperse to do their business. It’s easy for passersby to erect psychic shields against a mob, more difficult to turn a corner during lunch hour to find an unexpected beggar occupying space created for those with paycheques.
All anyone’s doing is hanging out being poor; they do this all day. But now three cops are filming them, sporting the creepy half-grin that seems to be standard issue for the video services unit.
Being poor in the PATH appends question marks to concepts of equality and public space. The underlying, half-acknowledged systems of stratification are made apparent. Like rubbing a pencil over a coin beneath a sheet of paper, the friction of the event takes the merely obvious and makes it visible.
“Ignoring poverty won’t make it go away,” says one organizer to passersby, who seem most thrown by seeing people simply standing still.
Coins rattle in aluminum cans, at odds with the holiday-season stereotype of the cash-register ring.
The snaking, bristling line for the Soup Market begins to resemble the line for an actual soup kitchen. But rather than begging from people who treat them with contempt, these folks on their lunch break in the underground mall get to work for people who treat them with contempt.
This is progress. You may now squander less of your potential in better-fitting clothes. Congratulations. I guess.
The profusion of rent-a-cops makes another reality clear: despite the illusion of one contiguous common of commercial bliss, the PATH is divided into fiefdoms. Each time we pass an invisible border, the guards are wearing new feudal colours: Intelligarde, Group 4, Commerce Court Safety, Intercon.
They seem unclear about whether they’re here to defend the mall as property or as a supposed public space – so they spend most of their time filming. Malls have always been spaces in conceptual conflict – they’re the hub of many social scenes, but try spending any amount of time in stillness, visibly not shopping.
Still, activist lawyer Mac Scott tells me a precedent was set, oddly enough, by Jack Layton, who was arrested years back for leafletting in the Eaton Centre. The judge decided that public space is “determined by use, not ownership.”
Tell that to the shop staff who want to watch the penny parade but only crane their necks out the doors. We pass more than a few young women waiting patiently for customers at shoeshine stations. Looks downright Dickensian, actually. Is it progress because now the shoeshiners dress nice? Or maybe because now even nicely dressed people have to shine shoes. Congratulations... I guess.
The mass eventually filters up to the street. Seventy people asking for change in the PATH, it turns out, does not disrupt a thing. Did that make anyone wonder if the laws against panhandling are for the convenience of passersby or to protect their ignorance?
The poor folk and their friends disperse to find whatever warmth they can claim, most likely keenly aware of the missing 300 additional beds and five closed shelters that were there last year and now aren’t.
Police horses clip-clop a jagged backbeat as the Salvation Army band across the street strikes a tune.Happy holidays. I guess.