Reflections on the Planting of Gardens, the Pouring of Blood, and the Creation of Alternative Skylines in the Belly of the Beast
By Matthew Behrens, Toronto Action for Social Change, May, 1996
If I were charged for what I was about to do, I suppose I could tell the court that what got me into trouble was the Bank of Montreal ad preaching "No More Business as Usual," the old anti-war slogan now in the service of no-load mutual funds.
More likely, though, it was Premier Mike Harris's challenge that not a single blade of Queen's Park grass would remain untrampled by the end of his term.
Either way, it was timing that was foremost in our minds as we sat nervously in the idling car on Queen's Park Crescent, within a stone's throw of Harris's office.
All the goods for our intended criminal act were in the back. I'd bought the requisite amount of manure -- even with the recent arrest of that crazy Unabomber suspect, no one at the nursery thought twice when I muttered that it was for a political act.
The driveway to the legislature was fairly clear, and police were scarce. As long as we could cross four northbound lanes, pull a quick left, avoid the suspecting eyes of Queen's Park security, and gun it to the steps of the historic building, we'd meet our contacts on foot and be able to proceed.
I was a shaking cliché, my palms sweaty and my heart pounding. Like a lot of people, I had been part of the letter writing, the protests, the vigils against the cuts. I had tasted the disorientation of pepper spray, stood frozen in the middle of January holding a banner at the legislative steps, and debated with fellow members of a school parents committee whether adding Frosty the Snowman to a press conference with Santa and Scrooge would dilute our message about education cuts.
I was tired of conventional protest. It didn't seem to be getting through. Today, we hoped to send a message which the government simply could not ignore.
The lights at College turned from yellow to red, and the last of the northbound traffic passed us. I put the Toyota in drive.
Damn! A number of police on bicycles came our way. I thought for sure we'd be stopped, our cargo inspected and destroyed before we had a chance to put it to good use. After all, we were well-known at Queen's Park. In addition to our regular Monday and Wednesday interfaith vigils, we had already been arrested a number of times for civil disobedience actions.
My accomplice smiled faintly, we pretended to be lost tourists, and were thankfully ignored.
With no small relief, we were at the lip of the long sidewalk which splits the grounds in two. I flipped the hatch open, ran to the back of the car, and started handing my cohorts large bags of topsoil. We then hurried to a grassy spot outside the window of Harris's third-floor office.
A crowd of police and security surrounded us as we tore open the bags, poured the soil, and placed zucchini, pea and tomato seeds in the ground along with a Victory Garden sign.
A security man who could double for Al Waxman in his Cagney and Lacey days approached us and asked what was going on.
"In World War II, Victory Gardens were planted to offset the shortage of food, and as a morale booster," explained Brian, one of the co-conspirators. "There is now a war on against the poor of Ontario, so we are reclaiming public land and putting it to good use, to grow food for the hungry people of Ontario. Perhaps Premier Harris, when he sees the crisis is so severe that even the grounds of Queen's Park must be used to grow food, will end his hunger-creating policies."
"Well, when you gonna clean this up?" demanded a security officer.
I looked at my seed package. "Fifty-two days," I replied.
"Why then?" he replied incredulously.
"That's when harvest time is."
I felt like an incomplete Robin Hood, planting near the rich to feed the poor, but busted before our seedlings had a chance to take root. I guess this is what happens when you try to feed the hungry under Harris, whose numbers had increased 50% since the social assistance cutbacks.
Sitting in the hot police van, our hands cuffed behind our backs, we could make out some figures through the barred windows being threatened with arrest for watering the impromptu garden.
Down at 52 division, the police joked that our phone call to retain counsel might be used to contact a nursery and bring in more topsoil. Most were in a strange mood. This was, after all, National Police Week, and the boys in blue had just completed clearing Queen's Park of some vegetable gardener wannabes. I believe some felt downright embarrassed that things had come to this. They could understand scooping us two weeks earlier for trying to blockade the intersection of King and Bay, creating a Greed Free Zone to protest runaway corporate profits in the face of increasing poverty. But a bunch of Gandhi disciples singing Give Peas a Chance?
Waiting for a bail hearing in the bowels of Old City Hall can be unnerving. Some guys are bouncing off the walls in a variety of comedown phases from drug highs. Some have been waiting weeks, months, one even more than a year simply to get to pre-trial release stage. Most are black or aboriginal people, none are bankers or politicians. There's a real tension and frustration as each awaits his chance at temporary freedom.
But this morning is slightly different.
"You got arrested for what?" was the incredulous response after the initial "what'reyainherefa?"
"You were protesting Harris? I hate that guy."
They were no fans of Harris, especially since the jails, no picnic before the Tories came to power, were also feeling the effects of cutbacks.
"Man, I'd love to be pissing in the urinal next to his, and when he doesn't see, I'd aim it right at his pant leg," another offered. I smiled and offered him my uneatable breakfast: a mayonnaise sandwich with bits of cheese in it, accompanied by a copper-coloured liquid alleged to be coffee, though I don't think that claim would stand up in the court of public opinion -- or taste.
One man dreamily asked if he could join our group when he got out. "But maybe you should do it at night. I know where we could get a tractor, and you could rip up the whole thing and plant watermelons!" he exclaimed.
A middle-aged white man was brought in. He went to sit in the far corner. We speculated he may be a Tory cabinet minister caught soliciting a hooker: what else would he be here for? Planting gardens?
After the usual meaningless meanderings of a group of people who are suspiciously eyeing everyone in the room -- wondering who the murderer in the group is -- the truth came out.
"I got busted for growing hemp," he said, to a baleful of uproarious laughter as all concerned pointed out the bench occupied by the vegetable planters. No matter what you did with the soil these days, it wound you up in the Big House. His stay at Her Majesty's B&B was, however, far shorter than ours, so we concluded that pot had, in the scheme of things, taken on a lesser legal significance than zucchinis. Go figure.
Everyone from our eventual lawyer to the cops and the prisoners was incredulous, a) that we had been arrested, b) that we had been held overnight, and c) that the courts would want to spend time with a case such as ours. It had become clear to us by this time that the circumstances behind our incarceration were pretty much political. After all, we had been arrested two weeks earlier for tying up traffic at King and Bay, declaring the area a Greed Free Zone and setting up an alternative skyline featuring child-friendly stuffed animals and greed-free credit unions and daycares. We'd been much larger in number but were released within five hours with a promise to appear in court.
At Queen's Park, however, we had become something like that mosquito that keeps buzzing away, making the odd withdrawal of blood and taking off before being swatted. This time we were being swatted. Students who had been charged after the ruckus at the legislature the previous February had been charged with mischief under $2,000; ours was mischief under $5,000.
We'd gotten off relatively easier the other times.
At first, we borrowed a page from the civil rights movement and attempted to pray on the steps of Queen's Park. We were not arrested, but our small presence caused a lot of commotion among QP security. That was the first time we met the stand-in for Waxman, who, between snapping polaroids of us, cried out: "Do you know you could get charged with trespass if you don't leave? Why not save yourself all that trouble and leave now?"
"The Harris government has called on all of us to make small sacrifices, and that would be one of ours," replied a woman from the Buddhist community.
Our first arrest at the legislature was the protest over the deaths of homeless who had frozen on the streets of Toronto, and two others who had committed suicide in response to the cuts.
The idea was to mark Martin Luther King's birthday with an act of non-violent resistance: pouring a blood-like substance on the steps of the legislature, a symbol of assigning responsibility to those complicit in death.
As we walked up the Bay Street corridor that frigid January morning, we discussed the viscosity of the liquid: would it freeze up, so instead of a blood pouring we'd have a blood clunking?
Seven of us climbed the barricades and made it to the second level of steps, where we unfurled a large banner reading "The Harris Government Has Blood on it Hands." After reading an agreed upon statement from Martin Luther King about the necessity of directly challenging injustice and raising the level of creative tension in the community, we poured "blood" to represent blood already and yet to be spilled by the policies of slash and burn. That's when security started to get upset.
"Hey," was the most common response, "You can't do that!" It's funny how often we stop when hearing those words. Yet civil disobedience trains us to reject an arbitrary order.
The blood flowed, thankfully, from the baby bottles, onto the steps of the legislature, and we continued to stand, reading from King, until we were arrested and led inside.
"You guys are in big trouble," Al Waxman fumed. "Do you know how expensive those steps are? You could be looking at $20,000 in damage."
"That's still worth it if it prevents one more person from losing their life because of this government's policies," said Sandra. After a brief stay waiting for our trespass tickets, we were released in time to witness the incredible symbol of the water and red substance being washed away, a small river of what appeared to be blood emanating from the legislature. Exactly the image we had hoped to impart.
"Have you tried every other possible legal means?" was the question a crown attorney continually asked us at our blood-pouring trial.
The answer, obviously, is yes. Acts of civil disobedience are well-thought out expressions of conscience which become necessary to dramatize a point and awaken, through our own willingness to risk, the conscience of those otherwise asleep. And it's not simply a last act of desperation. It's an awakening, a beginning of piecing together an absurd world in a far more clarified manner and liberating ourselves from the constraints constantly placed upon our imagination.
When we engage in these acts, we are experimenting, as Gandhi said, with the truth, refusing to do harm to those who would harm us. The response is not always gracious, or predictable.
When we interrupted the Trillium Book Awards to present Marilyn Mushinski with the Golden Scissors award for her role in cutting back the arts, we at first received praise from those assembled. But we chose to stay on stage through the complete ceremony when she ignored us, with our hastily made Arts Cuts Kill Culture banner. Many were angered by our insistence at staying.
Although I was disappointed that none of the winners chose to speak out against the Ontario cuts, I was more taken aback at the complete lack of compassion in the eyes of the minister. Having challenged her to respond to our complaint, she ignored us and carried on as if we weren't there. In the same manner the rest of the government carries on: as if we aren't there, as if the homeless lining Yonge Street begging quarters aren't there, as though the man who died with his hands frozen to his face wasn't there, as if the 70,000 hungry kids in Metro Toronto aren't there, as if the people who use WheelTrans don't exist.
Behind the smiles is nothing one can sense. Those who commit such acts as the Tories must be severely divided from themselves. They can continue on only if they divorce themselves from true compassion and empathy. We may not change one Tory's mind, or even plant a seed of doubt within that caucus. Yet it doesn't matter. There are millions of people in this province who did not vote this government and its policies into power, who poll after poll shows wants policies which care for people, not hurt them. We have seen many of them courageously speak and act up, but not nearly enough. We need to go beyond those souls being hurt and fighting back to those on the sidelines, who continue to watch as if Harris's Ontario is simply another depressing channel on their satellite feed. They are all divided from themselves. They can remain like that only so long before they become completely automatized or go mad. Perhaps the latter would not be such a bad option given that it would mean something is still alive in there. In an increasingly polarized society, as King and others have shown, non-violent action often brings to the surface tension which has been there all along. We don't create it, we're just the catalyst for bringing it forward.
And while most of us face little or no discomfort--more inconvenience, really--we see what a good chunk of our society who do not have our resources, our access to assistance, experience in the prison system on a daily basis due to racism, poverty, and violence.
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