“Grange Park by the kiddie slides at noon,” the text message said. Arriving in drizzling rain for the clandestine meeting, we saw the familiar figure of Antonin Smith. The controversial occupier, formerly of the OccupyTO Food Team, was dressed in a trademark yellow hoodie and carrying a radio as he scanned the park. The 'Foodsquat' was going public on Monday, and the Toronto Media Co-op was getting a tour of the basement of the iconic structure at 238 Queen St. W. But we weren’t the only journalists interested - a man conspicuously eavesdropped on our conversation as we waited for our videographer. When confronted, he turned out to be a reporter for the Toronto Sun and claimed to be simply “enjoying the park”. We detoured through colourfully spray-painted alleyways trying to lose him, finally arriving at 238 Queen St. West.
During our tour of the building's basement, Food Team squatters tensely prepared for the possibility of a siege. “You can take a picture of me, but only from behind,” said one man, who was installing a series of deadbolts on the door. Other squatters napped in a room next to the kitchen, preparing for the sleepless nights ahead. “This isn’t a place to move into,” said Smith. “You bring your sleeping bag, one bag of clothes and another bag of equipment (to) store in a safe-house nearby.”
The Foodsquat managed to obtain some impressive PR, including a front page article in The Star. However, its rapid eviction the next day by police, and a subsequent storm of controversy within Occupy, meant that the Foodsquat never lived up to its potential. Several General Assembly’s since that Monday have focused on criticism, and defence, of Smith’s actions and behaviour during both the St. James occupation and the Foodsquat. Understandably lost are the actions of police in defending City property, from being used as a soup kitchen, in favour of a landlord who has violated almost every condition of the lease.
The City-owned Foodsquat building, which fronts a busy section of prime real estate along Queen West, is well known to Torontonians; home to several fast food booths with a high turnover, much of the upstairs is vacant. The City rents it out to a private landlord for a minimal cost; the basement, specially designated in the lease for use by non-profit organizations, is leased for 1$ per year for 57 years by the leaseholder, who is then free to charge rent to non-profit sub-leasers. Although the building was used for this purpose, the leaseholder recently evicted all of the non-profits from this basement.
The day the Foodsquat was announced, Ford unveiled his budget cuts and privatizations which included 1200 pink slips, the loss of recreational facilities in the city, serious service cuts to the TTC, and cutbacks to library hours. As demonstrated by Ford’s garbage privatization, private contractors have often promised impossible service, without being held to account by the City for failing to deliver. In the case of 238 Queen St. W. the private landlord promised to “create an atmosphere similar to St. Lawrence market” and according to the terms of the lease: “Market Building is to used for a bakery, meat and seafood store, fruit and vegetable stand, and the sale of prepared foods (cooked or uncooked), among other things. Anyone who has visited the rather spiritless businesses located in the building might question this characterization.
Ironically, police forces quickly gathered in force to evict the Food Team from its basement location in order to defend a landlord the City is actually suing.
The Foodsquatters tried to demonstrate how occupations can be used not just to camp in public parks but also to take back indoor public spaces. Instead, they scratched a veneer of congeniality concealing major resentments which had been building since the beginning of the St. James Park occupation.
Squatting is, of course, an illegal act, and Occupy Toronto’s other recent attempt to take over an indoor space was thwarted after the attempt was announced (and live streamed) at a General Assembly; by the time occupiers marched to the location, the building was closed. We asked Smith how a squat could be planned secretly while still being democratic. He stated that, as with the Food Team during the St. James occupation, he held up clipboard in the General Assembly with a title and email on it, in this case “Squat Squad”, and collected names of experienced squatters. Once the committee was formed, the organizational details were held secret until Monday. Nevertheless, by 3pm police had arrived on-scene in force, evicting the squat within a half hour (no arrests were made).
At the General Assembly late on Monday evening, there was vocal disagreement with Antonin’s description of how the squat group had been formed, and of how Occupy money had been used to fund it. The Occupy Toronto twitter account declared that the action had not been approved by the general assembly. GA's on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were largely taken up by heated discussion of the Foodsquat action, and of Antonin’s conduct in general. The Assembly has since been hampered by unclear decision making rules, and a lack of process for dealing with polarizing issues on which 90% consensus can’t be reached either way.
The squat project was one of several projects that have been worked on by members of Occupy Toronto as it regroups from the eviction from St. James Park. Mischa Saunders, from the Occupy Toronto Facilitation Committee, called the Foodsquat “only one manifestation of people having woken up to the idea that ‘another world is possible.’ The occupy movement will continue to manifest in many different forms as the people who were in St. James park now carry their experiences from the park back with them to their communities.” Future actions in the works include a plan to hold assemblies on the TTC and ‘Occupy Gardens”. Homeless ‘occupiers’ are also rumored to have set up an encampment in a low profile-area.
Occupy has continued to hold general assemblies every night at 7:00 PM in Nathan Phillips Square.
with files from Justin Saunders