February 19, 2000
It was another day in Court L, a place where people must go when they are charged with selling tobacco to a minor, letting their dogs do out without a leash, and similar offences. On this day, Justice of the Peace D. Europa was not particularly prepared when he faced a group of four protesters there to be tried for trespassing at Mayor Mel Lastman's office over the issue of homeless people freezing to death on the streets of Toronto..
From the beginning, Europa must have known it would not be an easy day. When asked how we would plead to the charges, all answered, "We plead for an end to poverty and homelessness." When asked whether we pleaded guilty or not guilty, the answer remained the same: "We plead for an end to poverty and homelessness." Following a third attempt, Europa finally entered pleas of not-guilty on our behalf.
Recognizing that we were representing ourselves, the JP at first took a very patronizing tone, concerned that we knew about how the law worked and the rights which were guaranteed to us. We assured him we knew how the game worked, and that we were hoping that justice, not just the letter of the law, would prevail in the day's trial.
Following the de reiguer testimony of the City Hall security officer about how we refused to leave when asked to do so, we cross-examined, asking if as a security officer he often came into contact homeless people while working. His reply was yes, they are often found sleeping underneath walkways and against the building.
At this point, the Crown prepared to call two police witnesses. A defendant rose to express concern about court time and money being wasted having officers testify in a case where the defendants were only too pleased to concede issues of identity and other relevant facts of the case.
"In fact, we are proud of not leaving, so there is no need to have the officers say that we refused to leave," one of them explained.
"You do not understand," the JP replied. "A case is like a house, built brick by brick, and the Crown is simply trying to build his case."
At the conclusion of a morning recess, Sandra Lang refused to stand while at the defendants' table, despite the protestations of the Crown, who acted as if Lang's failure to stand was the beginning of the end of civil society. Defendant Matthew Behrens also refused to stand, but he was conferring with a witness further back and was not noticed.
The first police witness went through the facts and, when the crown was through, pointed out on his own that the defendants had been nonviolent and respectful, almost as if he were a defence witness. He was asked by the defendants if he saw a lot of homeless people in the course of his duties, to which he also replied yes.
The second officer was asked how long he had been an officer. 25 years.
"So you must have begun in 1975," a defendant stated. "This was, for the record, the era of disco. Pardon me if I bring back bad memories of bad music and bad pants." Both the Crown and JP were too stunned by the comment to interceded, allowing the defence to ask whether, from the officer's perspective, homelessness had increased significantly from the days when he started out. He responded, affirming that he was seeing things on the streets he never saw when he first started policing.
The defence case was simple. Expert witness Kira Heineck of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, the group which had brought the issue of declaring homelessness a national disaster to the public light, spoke first. She eloquently described the nature of the crisis, the difficulties of working with bureaucrats and politicians, and how many people -- upwards of 150 -- died on the streets of Toronto each year. When the JP interceded that he had heard enough about homelessness, a defendant noted, "We are trying to build a case, and it must be built like a house, brick by brick." Heineck pointed out that following the sit-in, things seemed to move faster in terms of action on opening shelters at the municipal level.
When it appeared that the JP would no longer listen to further testimony, Heineck added the names of a dozen people who had died homeless into the record, despite the protestations of the JP and Crown.
The testimony which followed was a typical effort of attempting to overcome the frustration caused by constant interruption from the bench and the crown. Behrens testified about the necessity for action, the obligations of citizens to take action when people's lives are at risk.
"But you refused to leave, did you not?" The Crown demanded.
"Just as Rosa Parks did not move from the bus seat to protest the evil of racism, we refused to move to protest the evil of poverty," Behrens responded. "Today we name highways and libraries after Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., but in their time, they were tried in courts just like this one."
Behrens then attempted to read the names of 20 homeless individuals who had died on the streets, with each name read out bringing on a strong objection from the Crown and the JP, although the defendants and supporters rose in silence to honour their memory. At one point. in a discussion on the 1% solution to homelessness, Behrens offered a 1% button to the JP and the Crown, the latter treating it as if it were infected with botulism or some horrid communicable disease. Copies of the Declaration of Homelessness as a National disaster were also provided.
Defendant Brent Patterson spoke to the desperation of the situation, recalling the death of a homeless man on a heating grate outside of Queen's Park, the death which sparked a strong call for opening the armouries to the homeless.
Lang spoke movingly of knowing people who had died on the streets, of having been homeless herself when she first arrived in Toronto. Don Johnston also addressed homelessness in his own life, and spoke of the need for a radical change in the country's priorities
During cross examination, the Crown attacked Lang for not standing when the JP walked into the room. Lang explained she meant no disrespect to Europa as a person, that she was trying to make a statement about the violence of a system which regularly warehouses the poor behind bars. When this explanation did not suffice for the Crown, he continued to attack her , at which point Behrens rose and objected that if the Crown, as he had insisted before, really believed that the crime here was trespassing, then he should stick to his case and stop harassing Lang. Besides, Behrens pointed out, he had not stood either, and wanted the court record to reflect that point.
In wrapping up, the crown, by this point quite peeved, said these individuals had no respect for the crown, the court, the queen, the police, or anyone for that matter, and that we just thought we could do whatever we wanted to do.
In defence summation, numerous precedents were read into the record which justified the sit-in, but the JP became increasingly upset. Knowing that the defendants were right but not having the courage himself to engage in what he deemed "judicial activism," Europa scolded the defendants, whom it was clear he was prepared to acquit on technical grounds given the sloppy Crown case, "but you just had to say that you refused to move, and then that you were proud of this!" he thundered. Tears in his eyes, he rambled on about the rule of law versus the rule of man, and gave all a suspended sentence upon pronouncement of guilt, running from the room the long way around to his quarters.
The police came up, almost apologetic, explaining their situation--hey, we realize there's got to be something done, etc. The court clerk congratulated the defendants and thanked them for using the civil rights movement as an inspiration, while the court reporter asked that we give her the list of names of the homeless so she could get their correct spelling--she wanted this to appear correctly in the court record, a tribute to the fact that she got what the trial was about.
Courts are an odd place, a theatrical forum which places value on obedience over truth, compromise over justice, and ritual over reason. They represent a particular form of violence which is easily covered up by nice officers or a liberal JP, but nonetheless the violence is there. The question for us as activists is how we can continue to break down the tremendous power these courts have over our daily lives and, especially, the daily lives of those without the power and privilege we have when we go into these hallowed halls.
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