Posts Tagged ‘neoliberalism’

Poverty, Protest and Power from Below

Friday, December 28th, 2012

A friend recently sent me a cartoon depicting two workers in conversation: One says to the other, “Remember when nurses, teachers, municipal workers and poor people crashed the economy and took billions in bonuses and bailouts?” “No”, his buddy responds; “Me neither” nods the first.

If we’ve learnt anything from the economic crisis and Great Recession it’s that big business and their friends in government are brilliantly adept at blaming the victim. And through their control of the corporate media and power to shape and influence public debate, elites have been successful at convincing many of our fellow citizens that public sector workers, unions, and the poor are indeed to blame for the economic mess created by Wall Street and Bay Street, the big banks and high flying financiers.

With cuts to social programs and the assault on unions, ordinary people are being made to pay for a crisis that is not of their making. In the meantime, cor­porations continue to benefit from large tax cuts and sit on piles of cash. The rich escape tax in­creases and park their wealth in offshore accounts while public libraries close, teachers’ wages are frozen, and the poor struggle to put food on the table, avoid eviction, and cope with the daily grind of life on a low income.

Employers have used the crisis to restructure workplaces, increasing in­security for the majority of working people. Keeping workers in fear of being replaced is one method by which bosses maintain a quiescent and com­pliant workforce. Creating precarious jobs—such as temp work that is difficult to unionize under our ar­chaic labour laws—is another. The post-recession jobs recovery has seen pre-recession full-time work replaced with part-time, temporary, and other precarious forms of employment. Quiet workers make for big profits and happy employers.

Governments have used the crisis and resulting budget deficits as an excuse to roll back the hard fought gains of the labour movement. Both Harper and McGuinty have passed or threatened to pass back-to-work legislation to stop workers from exercising their rights to bargain collectively or to go on strike to defend their wages and working conditions. Weakened unions hamper the labour movement’s traditional role as a counterweight to the influence of big business on government.

Workers on welfare or disability have also been under attack. The Ontario government’s poverty re­duction plan has been put on hold. While McGuinty has raised welfare rates, these increases have not even kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris Conservatives levels, the govern­ment would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. In addition, anti-poverty measures such as the Ontario Child Benefit have been cut.

So the next few years, and likely the next decade, look tough for all working class Ontarians, but especially for those already living near or below the poverty line; those who were vulnerable prior to the Great Recession are made even more vulnerable since. Low-income Ontarians are confronting fewer child-care subsidies, extended waiting lists for social housing, and persistent unemployment and underemployment. More people than ever are caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employ­ment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, are derided as “unfriendly to business”.

How then do we make gains in a climate of auster­ity? Confronted with the resources of the rich and pow­erful, how do we mobilize power from below to defend our past victories and fight for social justice?

We should look to history for guidance. In the 1930s and 40s, Canadian workers went on strike for union recognition and better wages and working conditions. In 1943 alone, one in three workers engaged in strike action. Unemployed workers set out to march on Ottawa to demand they be treated with dignity and respect. Those struggles led to the legiti­mization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to ordinary folks.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened in­equality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition government. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that our silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.”

We may not control great riches or other sources of power like the police and the military, but we do have the power to refuse to go along with agendas of the elites. Society’s ability to function requires that stu­dents go to classes, tenants pay their rent, workers do their jobs, and the poor remain quiet and polite. If we decide not to cooperate, not to go to classes, to with­hold our rent, to occupy welfare offices, or withhold our labour, we can exercise power from below. But we can’t do these things without organization. That’s why it’s more important than ever to join organizations like Peel Poverty Action Group and collectively defend our past victories and work toward building a better, more just world.


Published as “How the Powerless Can Win” in the Fall 2012 edition of the Tough Times community newspaper

Why people on welfare are poor (and why the rich like it that way)

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Who benefits from a miserly welfare system in which social assistance rates are set below the poverty line? Ontario’s Social Assistance Review Commission has heard from hundreds of social assistance recipients and anti-poverty activists and they have all said the same thing: welfare is broken and needs to be fixed. Rates are too low, rules are too punitive, and the system does more to punish than to help the poor. Yet for government and their rich friends, the welfare system is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

Poor relief, as welfare was originally called, was never designed to be a benevolent handout to the poor. From its roots in England’s Poor Laws through to the Harris Conservative’s social assistance reforms of the mid-90s, welfare has operated on the principle of “less eligibility.” The historic 1834 report on Britain’s Poor Laws, issued at the behest of King William IV, stated: “The first and most essential of all conditions, a principle which we find universally ad mitted, even by those whose practice is at variance with it, is, that his (the relief recipient’s) situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible (i.e., desirable) as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class.”

Over 150 years later, the logic remains: The recipient of social assistance should never be better off than the lowest paid wage worker in the labour market. This is exactly what Mike Harris had in mind when his government introduced workfare and cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent, and why the McGuinty government has done so little to reverse these changes. Since the early 1990s, Ontario’s labour market has been characterized by the growth and persistence of low wage and insecure jobs, or “precarious employment.” One in six workers in the province is making a poverty wage. Whether employed part-time in the fast-food industry or working as a security guard through a temp agency, the growing ranks of the working poor live in a world of labour market insecurity. Many workers cycle between low-wage employment and periods on social assistance, as they don’t often have the hours required to qualify for employment insurance.

Business needs these workers to maintain the low-wage-big-profits model of the “Wal-Mart economy” in which the rich get richer and the poor get dead end jobs. And governments across the country are in no mood to provide decent jobs through an expansion of public sector employment, or reverse the deregulation of labour markets that they’ve so vigorously pursued. With these shifting trends in employment, welfare functions to ensure a cheap and flexible workforce to populate the lower reaches of the province’s labour market. To paraphrase University of British Columbia professor Jamie Peck, welfare today is not about creating jobs for people who don’t have them but about creating workers for jobs nobody wants.

Miserly benefit levels, restrictive eligibility criteria and the ritualized stigmatization of those who must navigate the administrative maze that is welfare, are all in keeping with the government’s desire to ensure a job at any wage, under any conditions, remains prefer able to the receipt of social assistance. The province’s tooth-and-nail fight to keep social assistance recipients from having greater access to the special diet program (which they may do away with altogether) is only the latest manifestation of maintaining the principle of less eligibility.

So the rich benefit from a system that pushes the poor into low-wage jobs. Low wages mean bigger profits for those who own and control the majority of wealth. And employed workers who see the treatment doled out to those on social assistance think twice about leaving a bad job for welfare. So what are poor people and their allies to do when faced with a welfare system designed to do more damage than good? Well, the first thing we can do is join organizations like Peel Poverty Action Group (PPAG) and fight like hell to better the system and our lives. Our collective strength is greater than that of any one individual. Second, we need to work with our partners in the labour movement to ensure that all jobs are good jobs with living wages. Together we can ensure that both the welfare system and the labour market provide economic security and dignity. Only then will we have a system that benefits the rest of us and not the rich.


Published in Tough Times Summer 2012


Unsung Heroes of the Third City

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

2011 will be remembered as the year when inequality moved from the margins to the mainstream of public discourse. No longer just the purview of anti-poverty activists, progressive economists and the political left, this year figures as unlikely as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney felt pushed to publicly acknowledge the widening gap between the rich and the rest, or as the Occupy movement has put it: the 1 per cent and the 99.

In Ontario, the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, the growth of precarious employment, the dismantling of the social safety net, and the weakening of a trade union movement that once was a strong force for a more egalitarian society have allowed inequality and poverty to grow relatively unchecked for close to three decades. The idea that free markets and globalization deliver prosperity for all has been thoroughly debunked by the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Prosperity has been concentrated in the hands of too few at the expense of too many.

And as report after report has concluded, our city has not been immune from these socio-economic trends. As researchers at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre have documented, over the last 30 years Toronto has become a greatly unequal place, segregated by income into three distinct cities:

City #1 consists of the richer and whiter downtown core and the well-heeled neighbourhoods that abut the city’s subway lines.

Toronto’s middle-income neighbourhoods make up City #2, shrinking in size as we become a more socially and economically polarized metropolis. The number of high-poverty neighbourhoods in Toronto has more than quadrupled since 1980.

City #3 — or the Third City — is made up of Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, with their high concentrations of racialized poverty. Generally found in the northeastern and northwestern parts of Toronto, incomes in these “inner” suburbs have declined 20 per cent or more since 1970.

While we have become accustomed to thinking of Toronto’s Third City geographically, as particular areas and neighbourhoods, the Third City can also be understood as an urban condition: a set of experiences that together amount to exclusion from the full political, economic and cultural life of our city. For instance, living in the Third City means not having enough money to take your children to the zoo or museum; it is having to choose between feeding the kids and paying the rent; it is commuting two hours to work on inadequate public transit; it is being denied a job because of your accent, the colour of your skin, or your postal code; it is being charged exorbitant interest rates by payday lenders; it is being denied access to channels of political influence for lack of resources and excluded from civic debates.

Cuts to public transit, child care, recreation centres, libraries and community grants stand to exacerbate this exclusion. People living on low incomes cannot afford to purchase equivalent goods and services on the market — things like private child care or nursery school, owning and operating a car, fitness club memberships or summer camps for kids.

No Toronto neighbourhood has become more associated with the Third City than Jane-Finch. But behind the negative media headlines and dire poverty statistics, there are people working hard to stitch together a social fabric torn by decades of rising poverty and inequality. They are the unsung heroes of the Third City, the people and organizations we hear little about.

Women like Stephanie Payne, the indefatigable matriarch of Jane-Finch who heads up the San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA). The association’s work has led to the renewal of an apartment complex long stigmatized for its association with crime and poor living conditions. Payne and the staff at the SRRA provide programs for isolated seniors, recreation for community youth, and gang-prevention initiatives.

While she is haunted by the deaths of too many of the community’s young men, Payne carries on her work emboldened by positive results as reports find crime in the complex has declined and residents’ quality of life has improved. “This is a dynamic community and people come together when good things are happening,” Payne reflects. “But when I look at the budgets and see this program and that program have to be discontinued, I think what am I going to do with the youngsters out there, are they going to be back on the corner? If they don’t have our supports, they will be back out there. That’s what I worry about.”

Organizations such as Lost Lyrics face the same uncertainty. Lost Lyrics is an alternative education program that uses hip hop culture to reach students who struggle in the mainstream education system and are often labelled as having behavioural issues. Working out of a Jane-Finch community centre, the organization has successfully bridged the streets and the classroom, empowering young people to change their lives and critically engage the world around them. But as Lost Lyrics co-founder Amanda Parris puts it: “under this mayor, our access to resources is steadily shrinking. Our programs are in a precarious position and our capacity to sustain them is riddled with question marks.”

Christopher Penrose runs another highly successful Jane-Finch program, Success Beyond Limits, which provides summer programs, peer tutoring, and co-op opportunities for local youth. He has seen the city’s budget plans and warns: “As things are right now, pre-cuts, there’s not enough. Not enough for programming, to address all the issues our youth face. . . .

“We’ve been to funerals, we deal with youth who have lost people, we deal with young people who come to school hungry. We see the effects of poverty on a daily basis. It’s traumatic. Now we are being re-traumatized by politicians who negate our experiences, making decisions that are going to lead to more poverty, more hardship. It is more than just frustrating; it is hurtful to see the direction this city is going.”

Jade Lee Hoy, an outreach coordinator with community arts organization Manifesto, another Jane-Finch mainstay, echoes Penrose’s frustrations, “When you cut these programs, we are losing talent, opportunity and energies that could be vital to our city.” Lee Hoy notes that neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch are vibrant and resilient places with a strong sense of community despite the many challenges they face.

The likes of Payne, Parris, Lee Hoy and Penrose are people whose intelligence, drive and ingenuity could earn them the big bucks on Bay Street. But they don’t migrate to corporate Canada. Instead, they work daily to cobble together grant applications, counsel the vulnerable and uplift a community. They work to mitigate the effects of poverty and marginalization. And they do so with meagre budgets, little compensation, and an abiding frustration with governments’ lack of commitment to social justice and progressive change.

Of course they reap rewards as well: the joy experienced when a troubled youth turns their life around, the deep sense of fulfillment gained when mentees grow to become mentors, the satisfaction earned watching the transformation of those deemed “at-risk” into those understood by community, peers and parents alike to be empowered. They do this work out of love; love for their community and ultimately love for our city.

As philosopher Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” With cuts to city services and social programs looming on the political horizon, we are about to see just how much love our city has for neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch.

Published in The Toronto Star Dec 23 2011

Discussing the UK riots on DisRespect Radio

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Thanks to host Geoff Langhorne for inviting me on DisRespect Radio to discuss the UK riots. We had a great conversation that covered the sources of urban unrest and the prospects for future riots in the UK and beyond. Here’s a link to the podcast. 


Cornel West calls Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats”

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Throughout the Obama presidency, Cornel West has provided some of the most trenchant criticism of the administration. Along with less well-known public intellectuals, such as Paul Street and Adolph Reed Jr., West has taken Obama to task on what Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the three evils’ of modern America: racism, imperialism, and economic exploitation. But unlike Street and Reed, West supported the Obama campaign, making numerous public appearences and speeches on Obama’s behalf. His public criticism of Obama is thus all the more revealing and relevant. In a recent interview with Chris Hedges, West blasts Obama, calling him “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” Read the interview here:

And below I’ve reproduced the brief column I wrote for POUND magazine just a month after Obama was elected:

The Perils and Promise of Barack Obama

Four months after Jesse Jackson whispered “Barack’s been talking down to black people… I want to cut his nuts off…” on Fox Television, he provided one of the most emotional moments of election night. As the screens flashed the news of Obama’s election, tears streamed down Jackson’s cheeks, his face strained and twisted by the duelling emotionsof pain and joy.

Cynical observers saw Jackson’s tears as an acknowledgment of his obsolescence in Obama’s America, claiming civil rights ideals anachronistic. How could racialized politics be relevant in a country with a black president? But unemployment, prison, education and health statistics tell a different story—one where race still matters.  Like other cautious supporters of Obama, Jackson emerged from an earlier era of black politics inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle against what he called the “triple evils” of America, “racism, war and economic exploitation”. As his critics point out, on the “triple evils” Obama is found wanting.

ON WAR, the President-elect has openly stated his willingness to bomb targets in sovereign nations without their permission, has committed to extending the war in Afghanistan and intensifying the troop presence there, has continuously softened his Iraq anti-war stance, and says nothing about dismantling the military empire which includes 700-odd U.S. bases beyond its own border. His steadfast support for Israel leaves the long suffering Palestinians with few hopes of progress toward national liberation and statehood. As Condi Rice and Colin Powell demonstrated, African-Americans can bomb third-world countries with the best of them.

ON RACISM, Obama has walked the post-racial tightrope: Attempting to build a broad coalition of voters, his supporters claim Obama must talk beyond race while still appealing to the African-American community to which he owes a great deal of his success. The always on-point Tavis Smiley recently asked “Is it worth winning the White House for an African American candidate if the suffering of black people must be rendered invisible during that campaign by said candidate?”

ON ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION, frequent contributor to the Black Commentator, Paul Street observed, “Obama has placated establishment circles on virtually every front imaginable, the candidate of ‘change we can believe in’ has visited interest group after interest group to promise them that they needn’t fear any change in the way they’re familiar with doing business.” His support for the $700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street may have been necessary, but his failure to articulate a vision of economic justice that goes beyond corporate capitalism-as-usual belies his mantra of real and substantial ‘Change’. One only has to look at his presidential transition team, filled with CEOs and Clinton-era hacks (including those who pushed for the devastating welfare reforms of the mid-90s which devastated many Black communities and played into racist stereotypes of the Black poor), to know that ‘change’ may mean little more than a change in personnel in the top echelons of power, not a the type of change that would empower the poor and working class.

These are the perils of Obama. The promise lies in the fact the first Black president was elected through a massive mobilization and empowerment of Black, Latino and young voters, particularly the hip hop generation. Obama owes them and on issues of social justice he must ante-up. As Cornel West said on the eve of the election, “I’ll break-dance tonight if Obama wins, but I’ll wake up the next day his critic”. In other words, celebrate the achievement of all that is Obama, but keep him accountable to his message of ‘Hope’, ‘Change’ and ‘Progress’.  In this, the hip hop generation has a massive role to play.

The Case for Equality

Friday, April 1st, 2011

In my lastest contribution to Canadian Dimension, I review Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level.

A review of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Penguin, 2010

The Spirit Level’s argument is simple: In rich countries, a smaller gap between rich and poor means a happier, healthier, and more successful population. Along a range of social indicators, including teenage pregnancy, mortality, reported happiness, obesity, drug use, and the incidence of violence, more equal countries perform better. Overall quality of life – for all citizens – is thus deeply related to levels of economic inequality.

Wilkinson and Pickett produce data from 23 rich countries and 50 states to make their case. Using plenty of scatter graphs, regression analysis, and short, punchy chapters organized around the various social indicators, The Spirit Level shows that increases in social inequality are the source of many contemporary social problems. More equal Scandinavia and Japan consistently score better than the highly unequal US and the UK. Canada typically sits somewhere in the middle, flanked by the likes of France and Switzerland.

With socialists searching for new answers to old questions in the wake of the global economic crisis, The Spirit Level marks one contribution to something of a social democratic redux. With Third Way social democracy utterly disgraced by its affiliation with neoliberalism, social democratic soul searching has produced some lively polemics of late, from Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land to Will Hutton’s Them and Us. Ed Miliband – who keeps a copy of The Spirit Level close at hand – may be the first leader of a major European social democratic party to openly question the nostrums of the Third Way project and commit to closing the gap between the rich and poor.

This rethinking of social democracy is important. Third Way social democrats weren’t overly troubled by economic inequality; they committed to reducing absolute poverty but left widening disparities untouched. Their focus on targeted social investments in human capital development (through policies like early childhood education and job training) was grounded in predilections about the inevitability of globalized capitalism and the need for workers to adapt to the new competitive environment.

And Third Way disciples such as Tony Blair praised financial deregulation and innovation for the role it could play in ‘growing the economy’. A bigger economic pie, they argued, meant a bigger slice for workers, just a disproportionately smaller one than was dished out to them under the post-war compromise, with CEO salaries and investment banker bonuses reaching grotesque levels under neo-liberalism.

The beauty of The Spirit Level is that it puts economic equality back at the center of social democratic politics. The book’s drawbacks are in failing to adequately address the political limits to economic equality under capitalism. Policies that will affect the distribution and redistribution of wealth, from increasing trade union bargaining power to more progressive income taxes, are recommended by Wilkinson and Pickett. But their argument that policies that create equality should receive broad support across class lines, as it stands to benefit all, is naively optimistic; class struggle still matters. The rich may fear the type of violence that characterizes highly unequal societies, but they are more likely to build bigger walls around their gated communities than raise the red flag of egalitarianism in response. It is the hard work of everyday politics – from community organizing to political education – that will bring about more equal societies. While The Spirit Level doesn’t pretend to be a ‘how to’ guide for political action, it does confirm with hard science what we on the left have known intuitively for years: equality is not only morally right, but good for the mind, body and soul as well.

Published in Canadian Dimension March/April 2011

Debt, Riots, and the Great Recession: Making sense of the Greek debt crisis

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

I made a recent appearence on DisRespect radio to discuss the Greek debt crisis and the mass mobilization of Greeks opposed to the government and European Union’s plan to deal with it. Follow the link below to listen:

A bad week in In-Between City

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Last week was not a good one to be living in the “in-between city,” the term urbanists use to describe areas wedged between the outer suburbs — with their sprawling residential neighbourhoods — and the downtown core of office towers, condos and cultural institutions.

In Toronto, the in-between city roughly corresponds to the postwar suburbs, or inner suburbs, that grew with the booming economy of the 1950s and ’60s. As urban researchers at York University’s City Institute have observed, their highrises, diverse immigrant populations and lower-than-average incomes are the stuff of the inner city; but their bungalows, strip malls and wide roads are quintessentially suburban.

It is in the in-between city that “one finds some of the most pronounced urban contradictions” — think of resource-wealthy places like the University of Toronto Scarborough campus shoulder to shoulder with one of the city’s troubled priority neighbourhoods, Kingston-Galloway.

Socio-economically, the in-between city overlaps with what researchers at the U of T’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies have called Toronto’s “third city,” which consists of areas with high concentrations of racialized poverty, where incomes have decreased 20 per cent or more over the past 30 years. City Number 1, which has seen phenomenal income growth, is the richer and whiter downtown core and swanky neighbourhoods clustered around the city’s two subway lines. Toronto’s demographically mixed middle-income neighbourhoods — or City Number 2 — are diminishing in number as we become a more socially, economically and geographically polarized metropolis.

As a confluence of events last week demonstrates, life in the in-between city is not easy.

Take Jane and Finch, a typical neighbourhood of the in-between city. First we had the ongoing wrangling between the provincial government and Mayor David Miller over the future of Transit City. The last Liberal budget deferred $4 billion in funding for light rail lines on Sheppard, Finch and Eglinton, as well as the Scarborough rapid transit route. For Jane-Finch residents, the Finch West LRT promised to better integrate the neighbourhood into Toronto’s urban fabric, cutting down frustratingly long commute times, providing better access to the social, economic and cultural resources of the rest of the city, and ending years of institutionalized exclusion caused by inadequate public transit.

Residents of the in-between city have the furthest distances to travel for employment but suffer the poorest access to TTC subway lines. According to the U of T’s Three Cities study, only 16 of the TTC’s 68 stations are within or near the city’s poor neighbourhoods.

Next we saw the Toronto District School Board unveil money-saving plans to close one of Jane-Finch’s public schools. While the board sees this action as rationalizing the use of its resources, Jane-Finch residents see it as an attack on their already precarious social infrastructure. They said as much in a meeting at Brookview Middle School with more than 250 parents packing the gymnasium to register their opposition to the TDSB’s plans.

With much of the city’s social and community services located below the Bloor/Danforth line, in-between neighbourhoods such as Jane-Finch have been underserviced for years, especially given the community’s pressing needs. For residents, school closures do little to address the deficit of educational resources, child care, parks and recreation, and health services that detrimentally impact the neighbourhood’s population.

If school closures and transit cuts weren’t enough, we had the latest Toronto Police Services raid targeting street gangs operating in the city’s northwest. As many of the neighbourhood’s youth and community leaders have repeatedly argued, such raids effectively prune the branches of violence, while leaving the social and economic root intact. New recruits take the place of incarcerated members as gangs quickly reorganize to protect their turf in a drug economy fuelled by demand that is largely external to impoverished neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch.

The week also saw the tragic death of well-known neighbourhood teenager Junior Alexander Manon near York University. According to initial news reports, Manon and an acquaintance were pulled over by police on Steeles Ave. Manon fled on foot and the officers gave chase. Police claim that the teen then collapsed. Manon was pronounced dead at York-Finch Hospital.

After viewing Manon’s body at the morgue, his family’s lawyer Selwyn Peters spoke with the press. As the Star reported, Peters said: “There was blood all over. He had a neck brace on. His eyes were black and blue. The issue of a heart attack is a fiction. It seems he died from physical force. He was a healthy young person.” Witnesses claim Manon was beaten by the police.

While we mourn the loss of this well-liked teen, Manon’s death has serious ramifications for police-community relations. The incident only adds to the tension and mutual suspicion that has existed for years between police and Jane-Finch residents.

Accusations of police brutality threaten any bonds of trust police may have built with residents in past years. Furthermore, the use of force undermines the city’s “soft” approach to youth violence, which focuses on education, intervention and diversion. Youth will not engage a police force that subjects them to routine intimidation and harassment.

But all is not despair: the in-between city is a city of activists, concerned parents, urban entrepreneurs and young leaders. Independent media outlets like cover community issues and give young people a voice that they don’t have in the mainstream media.

Groups such as the Black Action Defence Committee are engaged in gang exit, youth employment and leadership development programs. Jane-Finch Action Against Poverty, the St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club, and youth drop-in The SPOT are all working around issues of social justice, effectively mitigating the marginalization experienced by their community.

Across Toronto, in neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch, hundreds of community organizations work tirelessly on issues of transit justice, tenant rights and food security, sometimes with the help of the city through initiatives like the Neighbourhood Action Plan and Youth Challenge Fund, and often on shoestring budgets.

Such efforts give residents of the in-between city hope. Hope that one day their lives will not include the drama of police raids, struggling schools, low wages and long commutes. Hope that governments at all levels will recognize the need for a comprehensive urban agenda that combats social exclusion and addresses the needs of the in-between city.

And when you’ve lived through a week like the one just passed, hope may well be the one thing needed most.

Published in The Toronto Star, May 14 2010

Sports, spectacle, and … socialism? A conversation with Roger Keil

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

Roger Keil is director of the City Institute at York University and member of the International Network for Urban Research and Action. He is the author of Los Angeles: Globalization, Urbanization, and Social Struggles (John Wiley & Sons Ltd) and co-author with Julie-Anne Boudreau and Douglas Young of Changing Toronto: Governing Urban Neoliberalism (University of Toronto Press). I spoke with him at the City Institute in Toronto.

Simon Black: Cities worldwide, often with the support of higher levels of governments, are competing intensely to host sporting spectacles like the Olympics or Pan-Am Games. Such events can leave cities with significant amounts of debt in addition to other social and ecological costs. What’s the logic driving this competition? What does this tell us about the nature of global capitalism today and the role of cities within it?

Roger Keil: This is not really a new development but I think the composition of the capital outlays and the purpose of the investment has changed. The great nationalist or Fordist Olympics that came to an end in Munich 1972 and couldn’t be resuscitated in Montreal (after the global crisis of 1973) actually did have a return on public investment. In Munich, the infrastructure advanced for 1972 is still a visible part of everyday life in that city today. We know what happened in Montreal and that disaster set off the new neoliberal Olympics of Los Angeles where the public paid and private corporations have the benefits.

As is typical for the differentiations of post-Fordist, neoliberal capitalism, every Olympics has a specific genius loci. What might be beneficial in Barcelona or Lillehammer where social democratic redistribution worked to a degree, may be catastrophic in places like Seoul, Athens or Atlanta. Where does Vancouver sit in this mosaic of global possibilities? Where would Toronto sit vis-à-vis the Pan-Am Games? This will still depend on what the regional compromise will allow the public to claw back in terms of housing, infrastructure and other amenities brought in for the Games. What we do know is that the Los Angeles model (where private entrepreneurship under Peter Ueberroth organized the Games but general corporate sponsorship was still rather underdeveloped) was in total overdrive in Vancouver where RBC, Coke and a few others didn’t just manage the Games themselves but started to reorganize and rebrand the entire urban fabric, public space and even the narratives which were constructed about the games.

SB: How successful have activists been in resisting this logic? What type of urban coalitions have activists formed and with what strength?

RK: Again, this is quite different in different places. Toronto has had a very successful history of resistance but this also has to be measured against the incompetence of the regional elites to sell their brand. But after former Mayor Mel Lastman made his comments about cannibals in Africa in a Barcelona hotel room, there was not too much left activists had to do to derail the project. Berlin is another good example for successful resistance. In London, things are slightly different as resistance has turned into other forms of engagement with the process of urban restructuring that the Olympics have set into train.

SB: What can activists do to turn these events to progressive ends?

RK: There are probably two things that can be done. First, one can use the Olympics as a platform for internationally recognized street action. This was done very successfully at the Olympics in Vancouver. The foreign press was full of stories about anti-poverty activism in the Downtown Eastside. Second, you can use the sports event to produce leverage for social and environmental gains. At a time when governments are sensitive to international scrutiny over their behaviour, it may be possible to collect some progressive rent from the mega-event as the organizers don’t want to look as if they were just out to make a profit. Whether such a strategy can offset the displacement and gentrification created by the event in the first place, is debatable, of course.

SB: Thanks for sharing these insights with Canadian Dimension Roger.

Published in Canadian Dimension Vol 44 (3), May/June 2010

From the Archives: Simon Black discusses urban riots on disRespect Radio

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

I make the occasional appearence on disRespect Radio, a great program hosted by Geoff Langhorne and broadcast on CFMU 93.3 fm Hamilton, Ontario. In this episode, Langhorne and I discuss last year’s Montreal riot, its causes and concomitant circumstances. Follow the link for the podcast: