Police move in to St. James Park at dawn to remove protesters
The dismantling of Occupy Toronto has begun.
Just before 7 am on Wednesday, as a cold rain fell on St. James Park, police and city bylaw officers entered the site where protesters have been camped out for the past five weeks, and began the work of taking down their makeshift community.
The police say they’re only in the park to facilitate the removal of the tents by city staff.
A showdown with the police has been brewing ever since Occupy Toronto set up camp in St. James last month, but while some protesters had feared a police crackdown on the scale of last year’s G20 summit, the initial stages of the police foray into the park were largely without incident.
“It’s been going really peacefully so far,” said Leila, a 23-year-old activist who came to St. James Park to bear witness to the eviction. “The police are leaving the people who are just watching and filming them alone, which means they don’t have anything to hide.”
In fact the police were paying more attention to structures in the park than to the occupiers themselves. Roughly 60 officers walked slowly over the muddy lawn inspecting tents and tarps, telling anyone inside it was time to leave. Bylaw officers taped numbers to tents and photographed them so that their owners could retrieve them once they’ve been dismantled.
At 8:30 am at least four people remained barricaded inside one of the camp’s yurts, while more protesters stood in lines in front of the structure waiting to confront the police. The protesters inside the barricades had chained themselves in and said they would have to be carried out by the authorities.
“We’re going to do our best to peacefully hold them off,” said Brandon Gray, one of the men chained inside the barricades. “We’re not going to resist arrest at all.”
Gray explained he wanted to protect Occupy Toronto’s library, which is housed inside the yurt, from being destroyed by police.
Meanwhile a small group of protesters were inside the park’s gazebo, which had been lightly fortified with wooden panels, and several more were inside an open-sided tent near St. James Cathedral. Inside the tent a fire was burning while protesters banged a gong and chanted slogans at the police.
The total number of protesters who appeared determined to stay in the park until they are removed by force was less than 30. Others stood watch and milled around the tents, and some followed the police as they moved through the park.
Occupy Toronto’s eviction from the park has been expected for days. The city first posted eviction notices on the tents last Tuesday, but protesters won a temporary court injunction. The injunction was overturned by on Monday morning, when a judge ruled the city would not be violating protesters’ Charter rights by forcing them to pack up their tents. The same day, Mayor Rob Ford held a press conference advising occupiers to leave immediately, and the leaders of St. James Cathedral announced they supported the eviction.
Many thought the police would move on the park within hours, but no action was taken until Wednesday, eight days after the initial eviction order and 48 hours after the injunction was lifted. The week of delays took its toll on protesters, and before police arrived Wednesday morning many said they just wanted to get the whole thing over with.
“I think (the police delaying) is a potentially intelligent tactic,” admitted Occupy facilitator Taylor Chelsea as she waited for cops to arrive. “It’s about wearing down morale, making people wait it out.”
“We’ve got our music, we’ve got our dance card, but we’ve got no one to dance with,” joked Stefonknee Wolscht early Wednesday morning. She said she was willing to be arrested rather than leave.
Finally at 6 am, after many false alarms, police vehicles began arriving and blocking off the streets surrounding St. James Park. Within 20 minutes dozens of vans and patrol cars were on the periphery of the park, and three busloads of officers were on the scene. The police were all in regular uniforms or yellow jackets worn by bicycle officers, and no riot police were present.
Even before police showed up, Occupy Toronto’s camp had been shrinking from its peak population last week. After the initial eviction order a small number of protesters folded up their tents rather than wait to be officially kicked out, and the camp’s busy kitchen tent was dismantled Monday night.
The question for protesters now becomes how to keep their movement going without the physical community that many believe was the embodiment of their message of equality and economic justice. Some have suggested setting up camp elsewhere, possibly outside Queen’s Park, but it’s unlikely the city will allow a protest to take root anywhere else after the controversy surrounding St. James Park.
Others say protesters should keep returning to St. James during daylight hours, but not sleep overnight.
Organizers of New York City’s Occupy Wall Street protests have called for a second phase of the movement, to be characterized by shocking surprise actions rather than docile campsites.
What is clear is that St. James Park will take time to recover from the occupation. The turf has been severely damaged and much of the area has become a muddy quagmire. City staff have estimated restoring the park will cost $30,000. Some protesters have volunteered their labour to help with repairs.
The damage to the park and the infringement on the rights of local residents and businesses were the main reasons the city cited for finally taking action against Occupy Toronto.