Haphazard brickwork juts out like broken teeth from the grey gums of the wasted North York plains. The detritus of construction still half-completed could just as well be the rubble of a military assault. A confluence of creation and destruction.
Such themes saturate the ride from Downsview station to York University and, in many ways, the school's latest conflict between student activists and administrators. The bus unloads close to York's panoptic central space, Vari Hall, where students are already gathering for a hybrid rally and art project. This must be the exact opposite of what the administration hoped for when they called in Toronto police on January 20 to underline their ban on all gatherings in the great hall.
Five students were arrested out of a group of 20 protesting the Bush inauguration. Two were beaten. The day after that, a thousand people filled the hall to condemn the assault. Three hundred thirty-three faculty members have signed a petition backing the activists. At least 500 student supporters have gathered today.
As the milling begins, casual arguments break out on the standard topics - Mideast politics, the ethics of disruptive rallies. "Go back to class!" chants a small but loud group. That's the problem with free speech: someone always abuses it.
The most fascinating event of the day is the Megaphone Choir. Huge yellow megaphones made from poster board are handed out along with a sheet of quotes from various radical intellectuals. A professor blasts a single clear note through a saxophone, and students are asked to read any quote through their faux mikes at the same pitch.
Before long, walking through the crowd is like listening to a CD recording of university life on shuffle, a surreal outpouring of strained harmony.
Back on January 20, it was the Grassroots Anti-Imperialist Network that hosted the small speak-out in Vari: a handful of people, a banner and a megaphone. There was literature alleging connections between York funders, war tech producer Lockheed Martin and oil barony Exxon. Activists believe those allegations were the cause of what happened next, while administrators maintain it was all about use of a megaphone interrupting classes.
In student video footage, six 31 Division officers, at the behest of York security, approach the group and tackle one or two students, seemingly at random. What follows is blur and shouting, becoming clear only for the moment that a retractable baton is silhouetted against the glass doors on its way down for a beating. "It's ironic that the public police force was used to quash our voices," says Greg Bird, shown bleeding on the video.
Before the end of the day, the university had issued a statement headlined "York U says no to violent protest" alleging that officers had been assailed with a flying megaphone and burned with coffee before a student "attempted to seize the firearm" of an officer.
These things might have happened, but I didn't see them on the security footage screened at an unofficial gathering following a York senate meeting. But that camera - it can rotate, it can zoom. And the resolution is so high that the large type in pamphlets is legible when focused on.
The camera is a recent addition - like the ban on the longstanding tradition of setting up information tables in the Vari link, a student thoroughfare with no classroom frontage. Shockingly, leafleting on campus must now be authorized in advance. Locked glass cases were set up outside the Student Centre in 2002 to restrict postering to approved areas (a restriction that's been widely ignored).
Students say they believe they're being monitored by intelligence-gathering York security. Sociology grad student Mike Christensen says he's sure a plainclothes member of York's force was taking notes at a November colloquium on activist research.
These anxieties have culminated in rumours of a university blacklist. Jeff Shantz says he received one of the "security letters" that are being mailed out by Student Community and Leadership Development to students who participate in "unauthorized" gatherings. He says the letter referred to a "security report" on his participation in an October 26 vigil for Palestinians under attack by Israeli Defence Forces.
Curious because he did not attend the event, Shantz visited the department's office. He was advised that "there is a list of people on campus who are known to York security."
Administration spokespersons could not be reached for comment, but President Lorna Marsden told a senate meeting that she has "no knowledge of such a list." If that's so, security is going through a lot of paper to throw it out later. At the rally, security head Mike Markicevic is present, looking ever so CSIS with his trench coat and notepad.
From the second floor, I catch strains of my favourite quote, a statement taken from Vari's architects: "In Vari Hall, learning is not confined to lecture halls. It spills out into stairways, corridors, under stairs, wherever students can gather informally and spontaneously to discuss and debate."
I finally understand Vari. And it is finally being used as it was intended. As the harmonies resonate warmly off the stone walls, part celebration and part mournful dirge, tears come inexplicably to my eyes.
A woman asks what's going on. I relate the events of January 20 to her. She laughs, saying she was in class in Vari when the arrests happened. "I can't believe I didn't hear anything," she says.
I can. At the beginning of the rally, I decide to enter the lecture hall closest to the speaker system to test the acoustics.
A class has recently ended, leaving only a professor down at the front conversing privately with a couple of students. While I can hear applause outside, I can also make out every word the professor is saying from the back of the room.
The book on Vari Hall is not closed, but it has been brought down from the lectern so that students can read it and add chapters of their own. Tentanda via - so goes York's motto. The way must be tried.