One of the first arrivals early this morning at Bay and King, the financial district launch spot for today’s Occupy Toronto demonstration, was a transgendered woman named Stephanie who parked her silver Dodge Dakota SLT pickup truck on the southwest corner, erected a hefty P.A. system, a microphone and stand, and began blasting dated top-40 hits at high volume into the gathering crowd. At one point, Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible”, from 1988, welcomes the arrival of young people in Guy Fawkes masks and skinny jeans.
Her sound equipment, pink Roots sweatshirt and skirt, as well as her wide shoulders and commanding style, evidently persuaded police and at least a few protestors to identify her as a principle organizer. Officers stopped on their bicycles to discuss with her the route the protestors would march. “We’re going to shut down a few streets and make some noise,” Stephanie told someone nearby. “They’re giving us no hassle.”
The corner had over a period of an hour or so become bloated with people—perhaps a thousand, but it was hard to tell. Not far away, a young boy, maybe 10 or 11, stood with his brother as the backdrop for a television reporter’s standup. The boy wore a black baseball cap perched backwards on his head; a tuft of blond hair popped out from the front. He looked healthy and middle class. “We are the 99 per cent,” his sign read.
“What time is it,” Stephanie asked someone. “Ten-thirty? I think we should start moving.” Another organizer with red hair said the idea was to wait a little longer. A young woman with dark hair strode up. “I just came back from Wall Street,” she told Stephanie, referring to the Occupy mobilization that for the past month has been headquartered in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, near New York’s financial district, protesting greed and inspiring echo movements across North America, including this one.
Stephanie approached her microphone and, her voice booming, greeted the crowd. “We’re going to share this mike today,” she told them. Suddenly, a stranger commandeered the P.A. system—an older man in a straw cowboy hat and grey mustache who began describing people eating garbage from the bins below a window at his home.
“Sir, sir, we’re using the people’s mike,” pleaded a younger man wearing a green top hat affixed with a luxurious red feather—the well-known environmental activist Dave Vasey. The man at the mike—Eddie Tilley, a 59-year-old unemployed carpenter—continued nevertheless. The younger activists standing behind him nervously began tapping Tilley’s shoulder. Someone cut the mike.
“Mike check!” one activist cried. “Mike check,” the crowd, now spread out across Bay Street, responded, in a strong and stentorian unison. This was the “people’s mike,” perhaps the Occupy movement’s most central custom. Someone takes the floor by crying “Mike check” and begins speaking in short bursts that are then repeated by the crowd in one voice, allowing others to hear from afar.
It was in this way—now that the floor had been taken by a core group of organizers—that it was announced the crowd would march three blocks away from the headquarters of the big banks on Bay Street to St. James Park, a piece of municipal greenery next to a church. St. James wasn’t perfect, as even Vasey admitted. “I mean, it’s close to the financial district,” he said in an interview, “which is where we want to be. But unfortunately, there aren’t many commons left. And you just can’t, in a strategic sense, go on private property, because you’ll get evicted right away.”
The mob crawled without incident north to Adelaide and turned east. This is a maniacally self-documenting movement: every second protester had a camera, many of them high-end shooters. Others carted tents and camping gear. Unions were well represented, the multi-coloured banners of big labour fluttering in the strong, cold winds and turning the crowd surprisingly grey. Meanwhile, Occupy Toronto marshals wearing orange arm bands directed the protestors, a display of good planning. “Arrest the 1%,” one sign read. “The only gay I hate is politicians sucking corporate cock,” read another.
In a departure from last summer’s G20 demonstrations, not one police cruiser was visible; instead, officers on low-key cycles monitored the scene. The occupiers set up in St. James. A logistics committee chose the location beforehand and signs of organization, including caution tape demarcating spaces like a clinic and media centre, were already visible by the time the crowd arrived. Within a couple of hours, the place had been transformed into a marketplace of left-leaning ideas, an accumulation of soapboxes, an activists’ trade fair.
Many of the participants here are veterans of earlier fights. Vasey is best known as the first person arrested at last year’s G20 demonstrations; he spoke of fighting against Canadian mining practices oversees and the environmental toll of Alberta’s oilsands. Other organizers have popped up in the periodic fights against Mayor Rob Ford. (“Save Transit City,” read the button on one of their backpacks. “Atwood For Mayor,” another proclaimed.) Anti-war demonstrators chanted near one banner. Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents flight attendants locked in a battle with Air Canada, were particularly vocal, chanting and reading speeches near the street corner for hours.
In the park itself, many looked set up for a long stay. More than a dozen tents and tarps were erected and volunteers were handing already out food. Vasey says Saturday night will give organizers a better sense of how many plan to actually occupy the space. “But this is also about building the infrastructure to resist,” he says. “Don’t underestimate the power of the 1,000 plus cities that are doing this.”