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Safety and Community in St. James Park

by Megan Kinch

Jordon and Brooks are on the marshal team, de-escalating problems as they occur. They are also part of the info team. (photo: Kristyna Balaban)
Jordon and Brooks are on the marshal team, de-escalating problems as they occur. They are also part of the info team. (photo: Kristyna Balaban)

 

How does a non-hierarchical movement deal with the safety of its participants?  “Occupy’ encampments in many countries have been struggling with this question, and Toronto’s ‘occupy’ is no exception.  Located in the Downtown East side, St. James Park has been a refuge to many homeless people, and drinking and drug use have always been present. Dick Johnson, who has been helping de-escalate problems, told me that it was important to be sensitive to the needs of long-term park residents:  “We have to remember that they were here first and a lot of the problems are with people who were here before us.  The longest resident has been living here for 10 years.”

I interviewed a member of the marshal team  who stated “The issue is that we are dealing with the acts that go on in the park whether we are here or not. “ He said. “We have had to evict several people from the park in a non-violent way.  There have been a few instances of extremely disruptive people who we were able to deal with in a non-violent and loving way and who were than able to be extremely productive members of this community. We need to publicize the idea about crisis prevention and de-escalation. What we are doing here is very different from the way society at large deals with conflict.  There is a lot to learn for everyone”

For a movement that models itself after the occupation in New York, it has sometimes been difficult to adapt to local conditions.  Tristan was involved in occupy Toronto and visited occupy Wall Street, writing in his photoessay: “The first thing I noticed was that the park where the protestors are located is very small - significantly smaller than St. James park in Toronto where the occupy movement is centered here.” St. James park also has many hills which impede vision across the park and is fairly dispersed. This means that the security needs in Toronto are significantly different.

General Assemblies (GAs) in particular have been a site of significant disruption. In the most serious incident a man showed his penis to the crowd during the meeting itself.  But occupiers are taking steps to deal with these problems in a more significant way. A policy on drugs and alcohol (they are banned) has been passed through the GA.

A team of marshals is trained and on call to de-escalate problems.  “Marshals never quit” said Dick, a member of the team. “There have been a lot of proactive solutions happening”.  When one night there was confusion in the marshal team based on an erroneous rumour that the general assembly had disbanded the team (in reality they had called for ‘everyone to be marshals’ and step up) Dick immediately got some walkie-talkies and friends together to continue to help deal with problems in the park.

“Security in the park should be all of our responsibility” Dick said. “We should not let either paranoia or apathy get to us—we also should not be vigilantes. Sometimes the best thing to do is the ask someone one else to help deal with the situation”

There has also been an education in dealing with mental illnesses and police; people are realizing that its not appropriate to call the police for mental illness or intoxication and that the paramedics and crisis intervention teams are better for situations that have become too out of hand for the park community to deal with. Mental health and nursing professionals have started volunteering for the medic committee to help deal with these sorts of issues.  There has been a general agreement only to involve the police in serious incidents of assault, and only when the survivor wants to go that route. 

Taylor Flook is an experienced environmental activist who has been a key member of many committees at Occupy Toronto that deal with safety in the park. She says that at first people were reluctant to deal with problems out of a misplaced liberal social-ideology where people didn’t want to interfere with anyone else.   “And we’re now…ending our third week- we are at a point when I mention 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 [to see such a change in attitudes]. 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.” (see full interview)

There have been several incidents in which occupiers reluctantly felt they had to involve the official justice system.  In the first week, a man was stealing from tents and sexually assaulting people by touching their feet- occupiers caught him, took him to the edge of the park, and turned him over to the police. This week, a team of marshals searched for another man who allegedly sexually assaulted someone and also had him turned over to police, as the victim wanted to file charges. There was also a citizen’s arrest made of a Sun TV reporter who was pursuing people so aggressively they were being hit with the TV cameras. While the SUN TV reporter was banned from the park, other reporters from the SUN newspaper respectfully camped out for several days without any incident.

Taylor regrets that the camp still doesn’t have a firm process for restorative justice and as a result still has to deal with police regarding serious incidents: “…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.”

She says that Marshalls are a good first step (she’d rather they were called ‘mediators’)   She told media co-op:  “Marshalls are just a bunch of people who were willing to volunteer, brave individuals who were trying to be the piece that are missing in our greater society. The police have, depending on your experience, failed at the ability to mediate conflict, they actually help escalate conflict…. instead of that, what we’re trying to do is create community.”

 


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Megan Kinch (Megan Kinch)
Toronto Ontario
Member since December 2009

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is a writer and editor with the Toronto Media Co-op.

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Comments

Safety and Community in St. James Park

All sounds good to me, keep up the wonderful love power.

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