Security at Occupy Toronto has been an issue, mainly because the park is located in downtown Toronto and doesn't occupy in a vacuum. I spoke with Taylor Chelsea (for this story) about how active occupiers are creating structures to deal with safety in the park. Taylor is an environmental justice organizer who has stepped up and is participating on many committees at Occupy Toronto, and has been very active regarding women's safety and de-escalation of issues.
Megan: What kind of security things are in place right now?
Taylor: So right now we have people acting as marshals, and its interesting because as we realize that we’re not only doing an action but an occupation. Very few people have experience with that- marshalling, which is typically just for parades to make sure people stay together in a group, turned into kind of a night watchman/marshal type role. I was saying from the beginning that I would like the marshals to be called mediators, because we didn’t need to recreate the systems of security and enforcement that we already have.
Megan: Also, we don’t have the backing for that -nobody has guns, we don’t have the state behind us, so we can’t act like police because we’re not.
Taylor: Our tools are de-escalation and attempting to help people be civil and hear each other. If we can mediate a conflict by asking them to not yell and explain what’s bothering them and trying to understand that we need to disagree sometimes we need to agree to disagree. Even what Harsha (Walia) was saying about consensus, its not being on the same page - its about knowing that we disagree on certain things but being able to move forward.
The security issues are very real and I think one of the reasons that we’re afraid to bring them up is that its really unrealistic and very impatient of our kind of sesame street generation in society that we need to have that solution in place already. It’s a process of learning what works and what doesn’t work. So, starting out there were trainings given to the marshals on des-escalation, on facilitation and mediating.
Megan: There was a critique of the word ‘marshal’ that got a bit out of hand at one point.
Taylor: My feeling is the word marshal actually continued to work against the concepts of mediation and de-escalation. Because the kinds of people who were like ‘ya I want to marshal all night’ drew people that they themselves needed to be de-escalated at times. Also, having so few people taking on the responsibility of safety for the entire camp created a lot of stress for those few people. So on the third day or the fifth day or the second week, we had very tired people trying to perform the same action, getting yelled at a lot, trying to mediate conflict; And those people are becoming now at their wits end and their nerves end, so they are actually quick to go off themselves. And that’s not something to be criticized, that’s just something to observe as indicative when you ask a small group of people to mediate and be responsible for the safety of a very large group of people.
There was a discussion at one of the general assemblies; it got misinterpreted by the marshals who were feeling unappreciated at the time, in my opinion, that there were no marshals. That was not what was said [at the GA], I was there, and there was this concept of ‘we are all marshals’, we should all be considering ways of helping assist the marshals in the tasks of de-escalation . So if you see a conflict try to resolve it yourself, or if you can’t resolve it try and get a few friends and resolve it, or if you and your few friends cant resolve it, get a marshal. I wish we would call them mediators, because then you get a mediator to mediate between the two people who have conflict. try and sit them down, try and hash it out, instead of having a few people yelling over each other trying to tell each other to be quiet, louder and louder.
Megan: Right . But there was a misinterpretation that ‘we are all marshals’ meant that no one specifically was a marshal and that everyone was responsible for their own personal safety which is obviously really individualistic and doesn’t work..
Taylor: It’s the fact that very few people, and maybe not even always the right people, want to stay up all night and because there is a population that’s missing in this movement, maybe older people that have tent city experience that have ongoing long term occupation and safety issues, that is why the idea that everyone needs to step it up and regulate themselves. I thought the idea that we had marshals meant that people were interpreting as ‘oh I can go off and drink in my tent and have a good time because I know that someone else is keeping watch for everybody and I thought that that was giving people a false sense of security. Because it was just a bunch of people who were willing to volunteer, brave individuals who were trying to be this piece that’s missing in our greater society. The police have, depending on your experience, failed at the ability to mediate conflict, they actually help escalate conflict.
Megan: that touches on the whole thing with the lack of experienced leftists. I’ve been in the movement for a couple years and I just haven’t seen the same faces at occupy Toronto at all. its great that there’s new people but the old people have to step up. And so you have a lot of new people just floundering around and you don’t’ have the experienced people taking these kind of responsible positions.
Taylor: It’s attempting to let people discover for themselves but I just feel that through the process of allowing people self-discovery we’ve actually gotten to a potentially very dangerous place where not all women feel safe there. We’re seeing minorities and other less represented and potentially more at risk populations coming out less and less, while the kinds of people that want to shout all night in a park coming more and more, because they hear that this I a place where you can battle your shit out
Megan: What specific security measures are available for women who are occupying?
Taylor: At the beginning it was very good we had the logistics tent which is a 24 hour tent monitored and operated by more than one person, we had a women’s only sleeping tent and we actually had a really awesome woman come by with a donation from her union for all these yoga mats and brand new blankets and pillows and when it was first set up there was two rows of 6 places to sleep and there was quite a few women sleeping there when it was warmer. But now the issue has come that its such a large tent that its hard to keep warm so I think that pretty much one of the yurts – I think its going to be the library yurt, the smaller yurt, that will become a safe space for women to sleep at night and during the day I think it will open back to a library and for anyone to come in use as a library.
Megan: Can you think of anything else about safety that comes to mind?
Taylor: Mostly what I want to impress upon the concepts of safety at an occupation or in the public or that, the reason I’m really stressing for mediation before the concepts of marshalling is that marshalling is a military term, so we are trying to break down the systems, not recreate them. And I think that’s what the people who are acting as marshals have the intention to do but when we see how the language we’re using affects , key pieces of this ‘occupation’ or occupy movement or de-occupy movement as some people call it, is that security should be something, that word itself is also an issue, this idea that we’re not secure, breeds a mistrust in society. People that are your own neighbors you’re worried they are going to do something to you. Instead of what we’re trying to create is community. It’s like assumed trust until you have that trust broken and then address that issue and have a restorative justice process and place for holding people accountable . Accountability is I think one of the keys to helping dissolve concepts of security and move forward to concepts of trust. Because we don’t have accountability with the police which is why we don’t feel secure.
Megan: I think that part of the reason they were called ‘marshals’ was that when we were setting up the camp we thought that police violence was going to be a much bigger problem than it has been yet. And so we thought marshals would be to monitor the police and keep better track of what they were doing and keep us safe from police violence, which hasn’t really been a problem yet in this occupation and weren’t set up to deescalate conflict within ourselves.
Taylor: the first couple of days the police were circling the perimeter, there was a much more visible police presence keeping that presence from coming into the park where we had some people who are potentially more vulnerable to police brutality form coming into the park because they didn’t feel safe. so it is about safety, but even then its like, we’re at what we would - I wouldn’t say to assume trust with the police force. Its about assuming trust within ourselves but recognizing that there’s still this looming presence.
Megan: I have seen some people really step up and really help, and you’ve been able to see personal development and more skills come up in people and I’ve actually been pretty impressed by that.
Taylor: I totally agree with the two things you just said, you’re absolutely right. I think what we have to ask ourselves is when we’re looking at ideology and practice we have to make sure that that doesn’t come at a cost of new traumas on people because no one wants to tell someone they cant punch someone in the face. that learning process needs to be tempered by making sure sexual assault and violence are not perpetrated and unfortunately they have been to a certain degree.
Megan: and that’s where working with the police has to happen unfortunately, because we don’t have the control over society and we can’t handle sexual offenders or rehabilitation of violence offenders. I know some people have been turned over to the police.
Taylor: I think that what really needs to be named is we don’t have elders or first nations people or anyone with a restorative justice process to actually play that out and show what healing is like what atoning for your actions is like in a community.
Megan: I think that again speaks to the lack of elders in general, because I’m 30 and I feel kind of old on the occupation site. Its been such a movement of new people and older people just haven’t stepped up and been involved much.
Taylor: I think part of the security thing is the fact that this is a really visceral, peoples minds are popping , consciousnesses are blowing, people had old frames and are totally learning new things as a result of things being so condensed and having new ideas. There is such a diversity of thought and background and people are meeting each other and listening to each other and that’s creating an unfamiliar environment where people are in an enclosed space. The volatility then unfortunately falls back into these systems, aspects our previous authoritarian ‘police take care of stuff’ kind of society, so we fall back into shouting at each other when really what’s happened is we’ve just had something happen quite monumental and its very frightening and its very new so people react and lash out, sometimes to the people close to them.
Megan: I also think that there is a problem with a lapse into authoritarianism, but there’s also a problem with a lapse into a very utopian kind of liberalism where it’s like ‘everything will just be fine, we need anybody to be in charge of security we’ll just all love each other’
Taylor: And those kind of people are people who haven’t done a marshal shift yet. they’re like ‘oh I don’t do those kinds of things ‘cause we don’t need them’ and I think that’s a classic system of a north American society who maybe spends too much time in school and not enough in ‘real life’
Megan: I think this kind of white middle class thing is dependent on the cops to actually take care of your problems for you, but then you don’t acknowledge that violence as actually taking place on your behalf.
Taylor: Exactly. There’ s a large body of people in occupy movements- at least in Occupy Toronto I can only speak to that- who disregard everything more experienced organizers say. When they [experienced organizers] say that we’re not friends with the cops, that they [the cops] are behaving a certain way which is very irregular and should be contextualized in a greater, longer examination of police and activist movements. This current situation is very unique, and who knows why.
Megan: Its been good that the police have been somewhat dealing with sexual assaults and that kind of unacceptable behavior. Its kind of bizarre but while it is happening I think we should take advantage of it.
Taylor: One of he first weeks I spoke up about someone being arrested off the site for sexual assault and that this kind of action will not be tolerated or will still be prosecuted by the laws that exist around us, if not here at occupy, because those things are still unacceptable. There was a lot of talk about it and basically there has been a kind of mandate or some kind of protocol that says that violence and sexual assault cannot be tolerated because it isn’t inclusive. If we are having an inclusive movement things that exclude people by perpetrating violence upon them will exclude so that can’t be part o fit.
The function of a lot of this liberal ideology- the whole ‘you can’t tell anyone to do anything, man’ its like ‘I can tell someone to not sexually assault another person or there will be consequences. I can absolutely do that just as you can absolutely stand there and not take action.’ And we’re now, going into our third week…or ending our third week- we are at a point when I mention that that a sexual assault has happened again and that we liaised with the police and had them assist in the apprehension of the perpetrator, people clapped. It was very bizarre. So, we’re seeing that people are getting it. I hope that people are getting it fast enough to mitigate any further trauma upon an individual while people suss out their ideologies of how to deal with things.
Megan: Its really interesting, this is kind of an intense political action. the only thing it reminds me of is when we were on strike for three months, just because you’re doing it every single day and dealing with the same people, and that’s true even more at occupy, and also because people are connected to other ‘occupies’ and can see what’s happening there as well, and so its making for a very quick learning process.
Taylor: I think that this is maybe a little off topic, but its going into issues that I’m still dealing with understanding ableism. Because basically it is an ableist concept of like, ‘catchup, move quick or get left behind’. Its no ones fault that this has been happening so quickly -although in some ways I think that the media is thrusting these expectations of ‘have you figured out your demands yet’ which is forcing us to feel panic to hurry up to rush some processes to leave some people behind who aren’t processing this information as fast. I’ve been grappling with that. how can we come to value patience and slowness to help people see. Because whenever I’ve taken 5 more breaths before I’ve acted it’s been a lot smarter.