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How can we try to promote emotional / mental well-being in the context of activist communities and political actions?

In a context of G20/Anti-Globalization and Occupy Toronto. More questions than answers.

by Graeme Bacque


“Ideas are bulletproof.” ~ ~ ‘V’ For Vendetta

Over the course of my own city’s manifestation of the global Occupy Movement that was born on NYC’s Wall Street in September (and which found its original inspiration in the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings that began in Tunisia and Egypt in January and February this year) many of my own ideas of how to respond to certain... aspects of the human condition have been put to the test to a degree I’ve never experienced before.

The experience has been in turn frustrating, fascinating, has posed serious ethical dilemmas and has left me on at least two occasions severely triggered as certain aspects of my own experiences with life suddenly lunged to the fore.

It has generally been the state’s practice to respond to extreme mental or emotional states by simply removing the person from public view to a locked place as rapidly as possible, utilizing coercive and at times outright violent measures to accomplish this. The end result is generally an already angry, frightened, traumatized human being being made even more so.

One would think that progressive individuals and communities would have devoted much thought as to how to better respond to and support people in our midst who are experiencing these painful, frightening extremes of emotion or mental perception, or the ravages of drug use.

Sad to say, the tendency even among many activists has been to rely on conventional means that generally involve leaving it to the ‘professionals’ to address such issues, despite their complete, abject failure to do so in the past with any real compassion or respect for the individual. In my experience there is little real care or healing to be found through such measures. And I have to wonder at times how many of my peers truly understand just how oppressive this system can be.

Another matter of concern for activists is the involvement of law enforcement in this whole quandary, and how even some people who have openly condemned police brutality in the past (especially toward vulnerable or marginalized persons) will sometimes leap to this recourse when faced with someone who is too visibly manifesting some inner turmoil or speaking too passionately of some personal vision that is not shared by their peers, and thus appearing disruptive.

I admit that I too am uncomfortable with some of these manifestations, in part born of my own uncertainty of how to respond to specific situations without potentially making matters worse. But does this sentiment warrant steering someone into the arms of those who offer only the likelihood of further traumatization or even outright violence? To my mind, absolutely not.

The G-20 in Toronto, and the broader anti-globalization movement

There have been opportunities to explore some of these issues, many of them in the context of psychiatric survivor activism or in the aftermath of large anti-globalization demonstrations where exposure (directly or indirectly) to state violence has become virtually a given for many participants. The predominantly youthful organizers whose passion initially fueled the anti-globalization movement have offered some incredibly heads-up, innovative thinking on these issues.

At times in the aftermath of Quebec City (where intense actions against the Free Trade Area of the Americas occurred in April of 2001) what I was hearing sounded almost too good to be true, with the suggestions for creating safe, quiet spaces away from the danger areas where people could regroup emotionally, or seek supports and resources of their own choosing. Along with this came the idea for creating local and regional peer networks where individuals and communities could support one another directly in healing from the emotional wounds associated with exposure to violence.

The June 2010 meeting of the G-20 was an environment where protesters were exposed to a degree of state force that few of us had previously experienced, or for that matter truly expected to encounter in the streets of Toronto, although I’d had my own forebodings as the official propaganda machine revved itself into a frenzy during May and June last year.

Fortunately the organizers had thought ahead by organizing non-coercive trauma support. The need for this became more and more apparent as the weekend progressed, peoples’ homes were raided at gunpoint in the dead of night and still others were viciously beaten, rounded up en masse then detained under deplorable conditions for extended periods frequently without ever being criminally charged (including one occasion where several hundred people were forced to stand in the street for hours in a cold, torrential thunderstorm before most were released).

My own first contact with the folks offering emotional support came after a scary incident in the small hours of Sunday, June 27 when a group of about 100 people (myself among them) was ‘kettled’ by hundreds of riot cops while doing jail solidarity outside the detention facility on Eastern Ave.

Shortly after this I spoke by cellphone with one of the people who was volunteering their time as a trauma counselor - a kindly young woman whose chief initial concern was ensuring that I be able to get somewhere safe where our conversation might continue. We had a second, longer talk after I biked home, after which I felt relaxed enough to sleep.

It was simply hearing that gentle voice of reassurance after being frightened out of my wits just moments earlier that made an immediate difference. I never actually met this young woman or even knew where she was, but this is of little importance.

Would the professional system of ‘care’ that our society is so reliant on offer this kind of no-strings-attached support as a matter of course for those who wish for it in a moment of crisis? Sad to say that with the exception of a small number of individuals who work within the system, I would have to say this is unlikely unless one has the means to explore options not covered by OHIP or other public health schemes.

June 29, 2010, Christie Pits Park, Toronto: A call-out for healers from all disciplines had been made by the network that had organized the protests, to which about thirty people of various trainings and backgrounds responded. Most of these people were experienced with various approaches to counseling, some came from religious or spiritual backgrounds. None were medical professionals. That evening these folks joined about 200 protesters who had gathered in the park.

This meeting was my first exposure to the art of Reiki – a gentle healing practice that involves working with subtle physical and emotional energies, generally through the laying on of hands. I found the experience to be wonderfully soothing and reassuring. The person who worked with me expressed amazement at how readily I took to it despite it being a first-time experience.

It was, in truth, the approach made out of kindness and genuine caring that made all the difference. Subsequent to this experience, a number of other people (some being folks I had known for some time, others were complete strangers) quietly approached to offer their own words of reassurance and guidance.

Never was there so much as a hint of coercion or the ‘my way or the highway (or locked ward)’ attitude that is typical of our society’s more conventional approaches to mental or emotional turmoil.

June 30, 2010, Friends House, Toronto: The second gathering in as many nights aimed at supporting the healing process for activists, this one hosted by the Quakers. Aside from a few people who had been present the previous night this was primarily a different group of individuals.

I found myself feeling increased turmoil that evening and was almost unable to remain. A young man wearing a Steelworkers jacket followed me into the corridor as I attempted to leave and we spent about half an hour talking quietly one-to-one before I felt comfortable enough to rejoin the group.

The structure of this meeting (following initial introductions) was a number of small groups where people could speak freely of their feelings to their peers. There were several familiar faces in the group I joined, the environment felt safe and words came easily. No one sat in judgment and folks waited to offer advice until it was specifically requested.

This was the kind of joining together that could be quickly and easily arranged by a peer support network – all it would require is someone with some facilitation experience to structure and kick-start the thing, after which it could become largely self-directing. This is the kind of ‘no experience necessary’ approach that would empower people to control the circumstances and pace of their own healing, without ‘professional’ meddling. The only spirit required here is one of simple friendship and willingness to open one’s self to personal and other peoples’ experiences rather than relying on hierarchical control.

Mid-July 2010, 519 Church St. Community Centre, Toronto: Someone I know had a friend visiting from Vermont, a hypnotherapist who had offered to do a free workshop for G-20 protesters. Using a mix of soft music and relaxation-inducing techniques, this man spent two hours gently walking participants through a series of exercises intended to increase peoples’ ability to cope by teaching approaches that would defuse potentially triggering emotional and mental processes before they could take hold. Following the workshop many of us went to a nearby park to continue talking after buying food and beer to share among ourselves.

The main drawback here is that such empowering, voluntary, non-invasive approaches are prohibitively expensive to access ordinarily and are not covered by health insurance. It is a sad statement about our society that only conventional, medically-based, often coercive and potentially damaging ‘mental health’ resources receive such coverage.

I’ve spoken here primarily of the positive aspects (and there were many) of the coming-together of individuals and communities in the aftermath of the G-20.

Most of the shortfalls involved the disorganized nature of the resources offered (it was mainly individuals or communities based primarily in Toronto operating autonomously without any co-ordination) and the whole effort basically fizzled after several weeks. It would have been good to see gatherings or workshops like I’ve described happen at weekly intervals for at least two or three months, along with the establishment of a strong, reliable peer support network that people could tap into essentially as needed.

These are potential ideas that folks could consider for similar circumstances in the future. For myself, I felt the process was incomplete and that sustaining it for a longer period would have made a world of difference to many people. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to completely recover from what I experienced during the G-20, which I might have if the resources available in that early summer had continued for a longer time.

Occupy Toronto

There are a whole slew of new dynamics at play here, and unlike with the G-20 the police were among the least of most people’s worries as they acted with an unprecedented degree of restraint throughout.

The global Occupy Movement started on September 17 this year as a protest against increasing economic disparity and injustice, and was originally based near New York City’s infamous Wall Street which functions as the heart of that city’s (and essentially the entire USA’s) financial infrastructure.

As the fall progressed, Occupy encampments and actions began in literally thousands of communities large and small as the phenomena swept around the globe.

Unlike the large but generally short-lived convergences of the anti-globalization movement, these were in a sense experimental longer-term gatherings of a whole new generation of politically engaged (but largely inexperienced) organizers and supporters. It seemed inevitable that problems would arise.

In Toronto the camp was established on October 15, when upward of 5,000 people marched from the heart of the financial district to the grounds of St. James Cathedral, where we would remain for the next thirty-eight days.

This park is literally home to some of the most impoverished people in the city, who must daily struggle to exist within a few minutes’ walk of Canada’s main financial hub. The related issues of addiction, poor health and emotional/mental turmoils are rife in this part of town – as, we were to quickly learn, were many of the prejudices and misconceptions surrounding such issues.

The first sign of what was to come was when one of the legal observers intercepted me as I was leaving the park on the second evening with an urgent request to assist in a situation where a sizable group of campers was trying to coerce a local homeless man into the arms of the cops with the intent of having him detained under the Mental Health Act. (The guy eventually left the park safely following a brief conversation with a police officer).

Over the next few days several similar requests were made by people who knew me (and the kind of activism that I’m passionate about). Needless to say I was soon getting quite frustrated and angry over this kind of behavior. To put it bluntly, this was no way to wage a revolution!

The third day in, one of the organizers approached me with a request that I participate in a committee that would try to respond to some of these issues. Not long after one of the ‘breakout’ groups from the noon general assembly put forward the proposal to create a ‘health and wellness’ committee that would try to offer support to troubled community members without involving the police, along with addressing other broader health-related issues in camp.

There had been some positive steps taken almost immediately upon our arrival when a women’s safe space was established, and a second one for people trying to recover from addictions similar to the ‘free zone’ space that has been available at Pride celebrations in recent years. This spot was also home to twice-weekly Twelve Step meetings facilitated by someone in camp. An area was also designated in the southeast corner of the park where folks could go to quietly meditate.

Around the same time I met an activist nurse who would quickly prove to be one of my strongest allies in that park as well as a trusted friend and confidant. She had also been working on addressing the same dilemmas in her own way almost since our arrival. The team that eventually came together was a pretty decent group of people overall, but still predominantly heath professionals including nurses, social workers, some students and two people with ‘MD’s attached to their names (although one isn’t actually practicing medicine at this time).

The first couple of meetings I attended went well and I felt generally accepted by the rest of the group despite feeling way out of my league. I began getting the sense that my role with the team (and this was by my own choosing) would be as more of an advocate/political rabble-rouser. A number of workshop ideas related to these issues and others were floated around in the group.

I felt things begin to turn sour on the afternoon of November 12. A joint committee meeting I sat in on that afternoon proved to be profoundly upsetting. Listening to the discussion and the kind of decisions being contemplated involving specific individuals (none of whom were present while they were being discussed) made me feel uneasy to the point where after a half hour or so I could no longer remain in the meeting. For me it was like getting into a time machine and rocketing back thirty-five years smack into the middle of one of the... harsher periods in my own life.

I explained my unease to one of the other team members who followed me out of the meeting and he promised to relay my concerns. Fortunately I also had the opportunity to properly debrief a bit later that day.

Meanwhile, the dilemma of police entering the park to remove troubled or merely disruptive people (sometimes at the request of other ‘protesters’ - there has been a number of persons unknown who keep calling the cops at almost any pretext, with no accountability possible) continued.

For me this came to a head later in the week when I found myself participating in a discussion with two others that was so troubling I could literally hardly believe the reality of the situation I’d found myself in. I did at one point say that I could no longer participate in the discussion and walked away briefly. While we did between us arrive at a compromise proposal to make to the individual in question, the situation unfortunately did end with the arrival of the police.

Aside from the very clear risk of violence emotionally or mentally vulnerable people face at the hands of law enforcement, that park is an extremely public environment with hundreds of people milling around on any given day, and the media was almost constantly present. Confidentiality was virtually impossible in this environment especially once the cops became involved. Aside from the traumatizing factor, such public takedowns represented an incredibly shaming experience for the person affected.

To be honest, I was becoming seriously disenchanted with the whole thing by this time. A set of notes forwarded from a second inter-committee meeting (which I did not attend) almost seemed to suggest the camp might even evolve into some kind of gigantic public entry point to the mainstream ‘mental health’ system. I figured by this time that I had outlived my usefulness.

The analysis around these issues had proved to be much less developed in the nascent Occupy Movement than what had been explored and accomplished by anti-globalization activists during the previous decade. This movement could yet prove to be the unlikeliest but strongest allies to the psychiatric survivor community in terms of their ballsy, innovative ideas around the development of supportive peer networks and communities and non-oppressive approaches to crisis intervention.

On the other hand, Occupy has a long way yet to go. Many of the inexperienced people who become involved (and I can’t deny that I love their passion for life and justice) brought their own personal baggage and prejudices with them and there appeared a certain... defensiveness when any effort was made to resolve some of these attitudes.

Some people even felt they had a right to take it upon themselves to arbitrarily ‘evict’ people from the park who were suspected of involvement with street drugs. In one case a situation almost turned into a brawl when a man objected strenuously to being treated this way and a bunch of others immediately leaped into the altercation. A couple of nights later a gentle soul was traumatized when the makeshift tent she dwelt in was similarly ripped down and the contents removed.

While the issue of drugs was admittedly a heat-score that could have provided the cops with the perfect opportunity to raid us, this is hardly the approach to use. The vigilante attitudes shown by some ‘occupiers’ was simply unacceptable. What was wrong with simply trying to talk with people and find out what was going on in their lives that induced them to use? Or try to quietly direct them to one of the Twelve Step groups that was happening in camp? Or to simply suggest that if someone really felt the need, to simply be discreet about it by either remaining in their tents or leaving the site to ‘fix’?

The reality was that we were preciously short of resources outside conventional parameters that could be drawn on. While a basically decent support team had been created, it operated primarily along mainstream lines based on the Mental Health Act and similar oppressive laws.

This is a time where it is vital that the work of truly re-inventing the wheel be stepped up. The wisdom of allies in the psychiatric survivor and anti-globalization communities who have already been exploring these ideas needs to be drawn upon and incorporated.

The people involved are among the most terribly exploited and damaged members of the ‘99%’ and abandonment or continued oppression of these folks (in this case by many of the very people attempting to struggle for change in this and related areas) is unconscionable.

These individuals and their personal situations lie directly at the root of why this movement formed in the first place. We need to remember this always and think seriously about what we are doing when any such person is being steered into the state’s hands.

~ ~ ~ Footnote: The camp in St. James Cathedral park was cleared on November 23 in a large but unusually passive police operation that began before daylight and continued throughout much of the day. There was no overt violence from the cops. A total of eleven people were briefly arrested on minor charges such as trespass. A tentative deal had been struck a week earlier to accommodate homeless people from outside Toronto who had come to join the occupation, but the city later reneged on it. St James Cathedral itself withdrew its tenuous support for the occupation once the court had ruled against our application for an injunction to block the eviction. An evening General Assembly did take place on November 23 but the numbers in attendance and any decisions made are unknown to me (I’ve been off-site nursing a severe cold). The whereabouts and well-being of the homeless folks who joined us (including those who essentially lived in the park before our arrival) is also unknown to me at this time.

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nail on the Fn head

I can't tell you how much these issues troubled me during the Occupation. Seeing, again and again, well-meaning people who want radical social change  asking, "can't we DO something with this guy?"

Answer: Yes we can. We can lock this person up somewhere where they'll be drugged without consent so you don't have to look at them.

(In a sense, the same demand made by the owner of the Starfish at the sight of tents.)

The conventional wisdom I'm hearing so often is that we *don't* want to re-invent the wheel.  Here's one area where we do.

But I still don't know how you impose sensitivity to this stuff on people who really just don't want to be part of a community that has "crazy people" who "make us look bad" in it. 

"Getting Them The Help They Need"

Unfortunately, in dealing with people with severe and disabling emotional and mental health problems, "getting them the help they need" is most often merely a euphemism for calling the cops so they can be locked up and forcibly drugged in a psychiatric "hospital"/psycho-prison.

Recently, Vancouver police issued a statement bemoaning the lack of "mental health services" which was supposedly making their jobs more difficult.  As examples, they cited the lack of security (rent-a-cops) in the hospitals, as well as the fact that some psych patients were smoking marijuana outside the wards during their cigarette breaks.

Of course, we can dismiss such expressions of "concern" as cynical posturing from an organization whose only interest in "mental health" is ensuring those with serious mental health disabilities are managed and controlled.

However, when generally well-meaning people in our own communities, along with the so-called "professionals" (Psychiatrists and other Medical Doctors, Clinical Psychologists, Social Workers, etc.) and most of society (including in many cases the families of those with disabling emotional/mental health problems) are all reading from the same script, the adoption of alternatives to the oppressive (and often cruel) "mental health" system becomes a challenging task.


A friend of mine, after experiencing a series of traumatic events over which he had no control, took himself to the local hospital after (unsuccessfully) trying to find alternatives in the community.  Hoping to speak to a counselor or social worker, he was instead committed to the psych ward, after an interview with a smarmy ER Doctor who couldn't have cared less about his real-life problems and instead just asked him the standard "psych. eval." questions ("Ever hear voices?", "Ever think your TV is talking to you?", etc.).  Upon seeing his injured hand, the MD just assumed he was a "violent psych patient" and asked "Did that happen when you were out in the streets looking for a fight?"

After being locked up in the psych ward, my friend was subject to further abuse and humiliation, first by his psychiatrist who ridiculed him while minimizing his recent traumatic experiences ("Any normal person would have easily been able to handle all that!").  He was immediately put on an anti-psychotic drug which made him agitated.  When he complained, the psychiatric "nurses" (many of whom act more like jailers than mental health "professionals") ignored and ridiculed him.

Once inside, his psychiatrist threatened him with long-term committal in the provincial psych hospital, a typical tactic of psychiatrists working in the acute care wards, especially for "non-compliant" or otherwise "difficult" patients.  However, when he expressed his fears to his family, they said "Well, maybe that's the best place for you; at least there you'll get the help you need." [!!!]


While one might be tempted to dismiss this account as a "one-off" experience atypical of our "mental health" (sic) system, many who have experienced the humiliation and trauma of involuntary and coercive treatment (as well as others familiar with the system such as advocates for those with mental health disabilities) will recognize at least some aspects.  Psychiatric "treatment" consists of electroshock, solitary confinement (called "seclusion" or the "time-out room"), physical and mechanical restraints and heavy doses of toxic, potentially-lethal psychiatric drugs (which are conveniently available in liquid and injectable forms for "non-compliant" patients).  Any sign of resistance or rebellion is most often met with a call to hospital rent-a-cops who come charging into the psych ward to hold the patient down while a nurse jabs a needle into his ass, before he's hauled off to the "time-out room."

In the final analysis empathy and compassion, not drugs and coercion, are the foundations of any truly healing and helpful relationship.  To illustrate this, the author has written a timely and important article and I commend him for it.

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