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Occupy Toronto: A miracle at a time

It’s getting impossible to keep up with the minor miracles as week four approaches in the “land of possibilities,” as the welcome sign at Occupy’s info tent calls St. James Park.

by By Ellie Kirzner

Occupy Toronto: A miracle at a time City plays it coy while occupiers fight mood changes and challenges By Ellie Kirzner

It’s getting impossible to keep up with the minor miracles as week four approaches in the “land of possibilities,” as the welcome sign at Occupy’s info tent calls St. James Park. How many times can you say “Wow!” as a local resto sends in tinfoil pans of food or well-?wishers drop off pots of soup, bags of apples, knitted gloves, flashlights, building supplies or blankets? Last week I watched with astonishment as a woman on my street who walks with a cane in small, uncomfortable steps loaded up a knapsack with edibles and took the 504 to the park. The magic of share the abundance. “We expect the food to come, and it comes,” the camp kitchen’s Alvaro tells me with a raw faith in the generosity of the commons. And where would we all be without that? Amidst King’s old-?city charm, the landscape of St. James gets ever more visually discrepant with its increasing number of patched-?together dwellings of tent, tarp, cardboard, skids and board. There’s a life force that presses forward despite the funk that sometimes descends on the rebel village courtesy of the internal struggle to maintain security, rumblings by the mayor and a raging campaign for removal by columnists of a particular political persuasion. Let’s just say the city is awaiting further developments, which puts protesters on a kind of strange probation. On Sunday, November 6, Councillor Gord Perks came to St. James and thanked the occupiers. Many of us, he said, “look at the inequities and wonder how we’re going to deal with the deficit of democracy. You give us hope.” But he confessed he didn’t have a clue how the mayor’s office was going to respond. Councillor Norm Kelly, head of the Parks Committee and the mayor’s Occupy point man, recently mused about the complications arising from the church’s ownership of part of the park, something occupiers are well aware of. (The kitchen, for example, has been strategically located near the church wall.) On Monday, when I spoke to Kelly, his words were diligently balanced. “One of my colleagues who wanted to aggressively end the occupation said, ‘Nip it in the bud.’ And my response was, ‘The bud was in the first one or two days,’” he said. It’s imperative, he went on, “that the city monitor the situation as closely as possible – not be intrusive, but be aware. We have an obligation to maintain health and safety for all our residents no matter where they are. If safety standards begin to deteriorate dramatically, if use of the park by the public is obstructed, then you start to create conditions under which the city would have to seriously consider the options.” Kelly even tossed a compliment: he said he watched passersby using the park, and “there was no interference by the occupiers.” But, of course, things could turn on a dime, and participants know it, which is why they valiantly struggle to avoid precipitating events. Alas, they don’t control all the variables in this public space now collecting the city’s most oppressed. Which opportunity will the city seize? At the same time, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has issued a warning on the constitutional rights of protesters to use public locations for long periods of time to make their point – provided other uses are accommodated and health and safety concerns met. “We’re concerned about the idea that city officials are somehow landlords of this property,” the CCLA’s Cara Zwibel tells me, and can just decide the protest has gone on too long and order it closed. “The onus is on the city to say what the compelling reason is to displace these constitutional rights.” Meanwhile, like an eternal Groundhog Day rerun, discussions about how to handle physical threats from the alcohol-? and drug-?afflicted drawn to the congenial gathering continue. Repetition, it appears, is the precursor for consensus. Participants have now spent two weeks examining the dilemma from every angle. The short of it is, even if they could all agree evictions were ethical, they don’t have legal authority to enact them, and doing so could trigger police reaction. Still, as one person among many who made the same point said, “If daughters and mothers and sisters can’t be safe here, we can’t have this movement.” With a degree of desperation, the GA consensed Sunday to send tobacco to a team of Mohawk peacekeepers to ask for a consultation. The search for compassionate law enforcement continues, but later that night marshals were faced with an alleged knife threat and an expulsion was carried out. There was little dissent Monday when one of them reported that they had “acted in accordance with their mandate: commitment to non-?violence and to public safety. There was cooperation with police: we cooperated with them and they cooperated with us, and I feel safer. Done.” Despite the collective mood changes and challenges, the place is bubbling over with positive energy. The camp may have no leaders, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t animating spirits, and one of the most respected is Michael Vessey, the strategic brains behind logistics, a self-?described “gypsy, hippy” and fixer of all things who learned the fine points of group living at Rainbow Gatherings. Vessey is a mentor of the collective ethos and generates the camp’s supersized aspirations. “With lithium ion batteries and a different charging system,” he tells me, pointing to the bicycle beside the solar panels, “we can deliver light to the medical tent, library, all around the camp. And I’d like a small wind generator so we can trickle a charge.” He heads into his grey-water recycling idea next as I scribble to keep up with his racing vision. This is a “giant make-?work project,” he tells me. “We’re like kids building forts and fires, and it’s critical that everyone stays alive and learns to live together. We’re all learning and teaching, but not at the same speed.” Son of an OPP officer and nurse-?teacher mother, Vessey would much rather be occupying a forest than downtown Toronto, but, he says, “I’m inspired by youth. It’s their energy flowing through here. I stay up three days and nights in a row, then sleep for a few hours and I’m fine. This is not my energy. The only thing you get to choose in this life is what you’re serving. I was born in a small town to loving parents; I’ve had my share, and there are so many people who have nothing. I’ve had my piece, and now I’m sharing.” And, holy smokes, call it exhaustion or what you will, but, no kidding, there are tears rolling down his face. ellie@nowtoronto.com

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