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Ontario NDP losing its voice on minimum wage

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

“When it came to issues affecting the most marginalized in our society, including the working poor, the NDP was once a prophetic voice in Ontario politics. Sadly, that voice now speaks in whispers.”

Read my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star here

The way forward for Ontario’s anti-poverty movement

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

A version of this article was published in The Toronto Star as “Ontario Anti-Poverty Movement Needs a Dose of Street Heat”.

Last week, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, heads of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, released their final report, Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario. It contains some good ideas but anti-poverty activists will have to ask themselves whether more aggressive action is necessary.

The commission called on the government to implement some of its 108 recommendations immediately, including a $100-a-month rate increase for single adults on Ontario Works (they currently receive $599 a month, 66 per cent below the poverty line); changing the rules to allow all recipients to earn $200 a month without having their benefits reduced, and raising OW asset limits to Ontario Disability Support Program levels of $6,000 for a single person and $7,500 for a couple. Adopting these recommendations would make small, but concrete material differences in the lives of social assistance recipients.

We’ve been here before. The 1988 review of social assistance, entitled Transitions, was a 500-page tome documenting all that was wrong with the system and put forward progressive measures for change. While some of these measures were adopted under the Peterson and Rae governments, in 1995 the Harris Conservatives came to power, cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent and turned the province’s social assistance system into one of the cruellest and most punitive in the country.

Despite a few tweaks since forming government in 2003, the provincial Liberals have left this system largely intact. With a dismal record on poverty reduction and an apparent willingness to balance the books on the backs of everyday people, it is doubtful whether a new Liberal leader would move us in the right direction.

In fact, just months prior to the release of the commission’s report, the McGuinty Liberals announced plans to eliminate a benefit program that gave up to $1,500 every two years to families on social assistance that were facing eviction, in danger of having their utilities cut off, fleeing domestic violence, moving from shelters or unsafe housing, or unable to replace bedbug-infested furniture or broken appliances. This followed their cut to the Special Diet program which many social assistance recipients relied on to meet their dietary needs.

The government’s formal response to Lankin and Sheikh’s report has been to announce that it will work with its “partners, both inside and outside of government, to discuss the implications of transformation, and begin creating a road map for success.” More discussions, more timetables, more debate, consultation and “stakeholder dialogue.” The government has said that welfare rates and benefit structures will remain unchanged in the interim. In the meantime, Ontario’s poor continue to face the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement — the thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations committed to ending poverty in this province — is now at a crossroads. A cynic might argue that the greatest achievement of the social assistance review process, and indeed the broader poverty reduction strategy, has been to neutralize the anti-poverty movement, channelling its resources and energies away from organizing and activism and into advocacy, away from challenging government to having dialogue with it.

History tells us that successful movements for social change play both “insider” and “outsider” politics. Social movements need advocates on the inside to push their agenda, put forward progressive policies and develop relationships with decision makers. But these insiders are powerless without the threat of disruption and mobilization on the outside, what American civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson famously called “street heat.” Organizing tenants, occupying welfare offices, knocking on MPPs’ doors, showing up unannounced at political party fundraisers, marches and demonstrations, mass political education, consciousness-raising, appealing to the moral sensibilities of the general public — these are the sometimes messy but always powerful stuff of social movement politics.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement has a surplus of insiders, but has thus far failed to bring the street heat. Faced with an intransigent government, the question now is whether the scarce resources of the movement can be turned from consultation and dialogue — the polite politics of the inside — to organizing, activism and agitation, the street-fighting politics of the outside.

Does this shift make sense with a prorogued legislature and lame duck premier? Poor people and their allies are tired of timelines, consultations and “stakeholder” meetings. The movement’s focus on insider politics has appeared to play into the government’s agenda of delay, defer and deflect.

At a meeting of the Region of Peel’s roundtable on social assistance, a woman with lived experience of poverty turned to the group and said, “We’re tired of waiting. We want justice and we want it now.” If the anti-poverty movement can’t find justice via commissions and consultations, it’s time we look for it in the streets, constituency and welfare offices across this province.

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

Published in The Toronto Star, Oct 30 2012

A People’s History of the Yonge Street ‘Riot’

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

May 4th 1992. Los Angeles was burning and Public Enemy’s Shut ‘Em Down sat atop the rap singles chart, its opening lyrics delivered in Chuck D’s booming baritone:  “I testified/my mama cried/Black people died/When the other man lied”. This sentiment underscored a sense of injustice when Los Angeles police were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Closer to home, two Toronto cops implicated in the shooting death of Black teenager Michael Wade Lawson walked from the courtroom free men on April 7th. A year prior to the Lawson shooting, Lester Donaldson had been shot as he stood unarmed in his rooming house, leading to the formation of the Black Action Defense Committee. A year later cops shot and paralyzed 23 year-old Sophia Cook, the third Black person shot by Toronto Police in the space of 15 months.

Just days after the uprising began in LA, 22-year -old Raymond Lawrence was shot and killed by Toronto police. And so on May 4th  the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) and its supporters amassed on Yonge Street, just south of Bloor,  to protest the killing of Lawrence, the Lawson verdict, the intense and ongoing police harassment of Toronto’s Black communities, and to stand in solidarity with Rodney King and the LA uprising.  The demonstration was initially small, numbering 50 to 60 people, primarily young Black men and women. But as they began to march, the numbers grew. Aboriginal youth, homeless youth, white youth, youth from other racialized communities joined the demonstration following BADC’s lead, chanting “No justice, no peace!” as they moved through the streets to the US Embassy—in solidarity with King—and on to Nathan Phillips Square. After speeches decrying the police and their allies at City Hall, the march doubled back on Yonge, heading northwards. BADC leadership drew the formal demonstration to a close, concluding with a rousing version of the Black anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. The crowd, however, remained; young, angry and insistent that the demonstration continue.

As the protesters moved up Yonge Street, windows were smashed and the cops were pelted with bottles and stones by an increasingly militant crowd. The police attempted to block the march at Bloor, parking two buses across the road. But the crowd was not for turning, gathering pace as young people strode towards the roadblock with intent. The cops moved the buses and backed up, beating a retreat westward down Bloor.

Lennox Farrell, a co-founder of BADC and veteran organizer, recounts the growing anger of the young demonstrators: “A youth came up to me and said “Mr. Farrell this is our time. We have to get back at them for how they hurt us, they hurt us; we have to get back at them”.

The demonstration turned left on Bay Street from Bloor, heading towards police headquarters. According to Farrell, “Every single window pane on Bay St. was broken. The police knew where the youth were going and must have thought, ‘Nah this can’t take place.’ Anything could have happened.” Police horses and the riot squad met the march, batons lashing out at the protestors. After a long standoff — police headquarters under siege by the young and militant –the crowd dissipated, some protestors moving back down Yonge.

The media called it a ‘riot,’ but in the words of Farrell it was “a rebellion more than a riot.” A mass demonstration, a mobilization, an uprising against police brutality and the fashionable indifference to injustice displayed by the city’s political elite.

“The moment was surreal but necessary,” says hip hop intellectual and march participant Dalton Higgins. “You read the history of social movements, about moments of resistance like the Brixton or Watts Riots, moments driven by oppressed peoples,” says Higgins. “It was like a scene out of a movie, out of a documentary on the civil rights movement. This was the feeling; the same kind of rage and anger.” And hip hop was central to the political awakening: Higgins remembers, “That generation was weaned on Public Enemy, X Clan, Brand Nubian, KRS One, and Queen Latifah. It was cool to be versed on one’s culture, one’s history; you know, to be conscious. We rocked t-shirts and medallions with messages of Black pride.”

“The powers that be were shocked”, recalls Farrell. “We had had long demonstrations before, long speeches and so. And the police would harass you on the way home; give you a parking ticket and that sort of nonsense. But this time, the police had to move their buses, shifted out of the way of these youth; youth totally incensed, angry. The event was a political catharsis. A cathartic moment, even for the city, because what happened was a log jam broke; a log jam of denial of the authorities, a logjam of delusion by the political establishment. That riot broke that logjam.”

In the wake of the rebellion, the Ontario government appointed Stephen Lewis to report on the state of race relations in the province. In his findings, Lewis stated “what we are dealing with, at root, and fundamentally, is anti-Black racism…It is Blacks who are being shot, it is Black youth that are unemployed in excessive numbers, it is Black students who are being inappropriately streamed in schools, it is Black kids who are disproportionately dropping-out, it is housing communities with large concentrations of Black residents where the sense of vulnerability and disadvantage is most acute, it is Black employees, professional and non-professional, on whom the doors of upward equity slam shut. Just as the soothing balm of ‘multiculturalism` cannot mask racism, so racism cannot mask its primary target.” The province’s anti-racism secretariat was expanded, employment equity legislation introduced, and funding for existing programs like the now legendary Fresh Arts was forthcoming from both the municipal and provincial government. The JobsOntario Youth program enabled programs like Fresh Arts, as well as private businesses, to hire youth. “The sad reality of the Yonge St. Riot,” according to human rights lawyer and community elder Julian Falconer “is that the only time government attention is focused on racial problems is when they reach crisis point.”

At a BADC press conference the morning after, as broken glass still glittered on the sidewalks of Yonge and Bay streets, the late, great Dudley Laws summarized events this way: “What we saw yesterday was the frustration and the anger of the people coming out. We have waited for the justice system to deal justly with our community and it has failed.”

American historian Howard Zinn once wrote, “There is an underside to every age about which history does not often speak, because history is written from records left by the privileged.” The privileged have called the events of May 4th 1992 a ‘riot’. It is a ‘riot’ in police records and in the pages of the city’s newspapers. It is a ‘riot’ in the minds of those politicians whose rule was, and remains premised upon the marginalization of the city’s urban ‘others’ and whose power depends upon the suppression of the historical memories of the rebellious, the resistant, and the resilient, upon the active containment of their struggles, their stories and narratives.

But a people’s history cannot be contained, hidden, or erased. While the ‘official’ history of the Yonge Street Rebellion gathers dust in the dead spaces of government office buildings and newspaper archives, a people’s history of anti-racist organizing is being preserved and honoured. This is happening in bookstores on Bathurst and the Eglinton strip, in the minds and teachings of elders, in grassroots newsletters committed to truth-telling. It is in blogs, which realize the power of insurgent knowledges, in the scribblings of playwrights and poets, and on stages and community radio. And it is also in the actions and radical dispositions of new generations, committed to honouring their past, to dreaming freedom dreams, and to making histories of their own.

 

Sources:

Interviews with Lennox Farrell and Dalton Higgins

Toronto Missing Plaque Project

Wasun. 2008. A Short History of Community Organizing Against Police Brutality in Toronto: The History of B.A.D.C. and Beyond<http://basicsnews.ca/2008/03/a-short-history-of-community-organizing-against-police-brutality-in-toronto-the-history-of-b-a-d-c-and-beyond/>

Wright, Lisa. 1993. “A Year after the Yonge St. riot frustrations still simmering.” Toronto Star, May 3: A1.

*Acknowledgements: Thanks to Verle Thompson for sharing her knowledge of Fresh Arts and JobsOntario Youth. Thank you to Lennox Farrell and Dalton Higgins for sharing their memories of the rebellion. And much respect to Wasun for documenting the history of police brutality and BADC organizing in Basics Community Newsletter.

 

A version of this article was published in Manifesto Festival of Community and Culture 2012

9 must reads for the 99 percent

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement has gone global. POUND’s Simon Black recommends nine must reads for the ninety-nine percent. Don’t sleep on the books behind the revolution.

Follow the link here.

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. 

1763-1-disRSept1LondonRiotsVol1to58m50.mp3

Beyond Hip-Hop’s Malcolm

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Here’s the first post for my Politics-As-Usual blog at POUND magazine (www.poundmag.com):

Set as my desktop’s wallpaper is one of the most illuminating documents of the black freedom struggle. It’s a telegram from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr., dated June 30th 1964 12:07pm, just less than a year before Malcolm’s assassination. Sent from the Organization of Afro-American Unity headquarters in Harlem’s Hotel Theresa to King’s Florida base in St. Augustine, the telegram reads: 

“We have been witnessing with great concern the vicious attacks by the white races against our poor defenceless people there in St. Augustine. If the federal government will not send troops to your aid, say the word and we will immediately dispatch some of our brothers there to organize self-defence units among our people and the Ku Klux Klan will then receive a taste of its own medicine.  The day of turning the other cheek to those brute beasts is over.” 

At first it seems inconsequential, a brief six line note from one civil rights leader to another. Hundreds if not thousands like it discussing strategy and tactics must have been sent between the likes of King, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, Stokely Carmiachel and so on. But this one was between Martin and Malcolm. While the two men had had little formal contact, the telegram reveals the centrality of their dynamic symbiosis to the black freedom struggle. 

What lay behind the effectiveness of non-violence as a political strategy was not solely King’s appeal to the morals, empathy and sense of fairness of white America – of which there was too short supply – but the real threat of violent reaction, of armed militancy, that was represented in the philosophy and prophecies of Malcolm X, who so effectively channelled Black rage in his oratory and politics. Malcolm was fully aware that such a telegram would be intercepted and read by the FBI. His emergent politics after breaking with the Nation of Islam saw him thinking and acting more carefully and strategically in relation to the mainstream civil rights movement of which King was leader, an evolution  which Elijah Muhammad (head of the NOI) had actively discouraged. By ’64 Malcolm was a free radical, no longer under the censure of the NOI and its narrow, cultish and ultimately self-serving philosophy. Breaking the Nation’s organizational chains, and positioning himself as the potentially violent alternative to King’s non-violent crusade, would result in his death, the product of collusion between the NOI and the American state. But without the nascent threat of violent insurrection, would the American state have moved to recognize the civil rights of African Americans? Would the War on Poverty have been waged had the ghetto rebellions of the late 60s not set alight American cities? 

I’ve yet to arrive at this moment of the telegram as I read the new biography of Malcom, entitled Malcolm X: A Life Reinvention (authored by the late Manning Marable). It’s a truly magisterial work and I’ve been encouraging everyone and anyone I speak with to go out and cop it. 

There are things in the book which might trouble peeps who came to Malcolm as I did, through hip hop and the superficial representation of Malcolm in the culture in the early 1990s (a representation reinforced in part by Spike Lee’s biopic). The Malcolm X adopted by Public Enemy, X-Clan, BDP and other afro-centric artists, was  a caricature of the man: the hyper- masculine black activist and saviour whose “by any means necessary” philosophy stood in sharp contrast to the effete MLK, also represented one-dimensionally (As Chuck D bellows in front of a backdrop of Malcolm at the beginning of the video for Fight the Power  “That march in 1963, that’s a bit of nonsense; we ain’t rolling like that no more”; deriding King, elevating Malcolm). Marable reveals the complexity of Malcolm’s life, at times assaulting hip hop’s Malcolm X with revelations that he could not sexually satisfy his wife Betty and once played the black stud to a rich, white, homosexual socialite in Boston. In hip hop’s world of male braggadocio, this shit will not go down well. Reading the book, you realize these are mere asides which have been overplayed by the media and are minor to the long arch of Malcolm’s life. The Malcolm who emerges from the biography is a man whose complexity, intellect and courage makes him a far more compelling  figure than the commodified and reified Malcolm of early 90s hip hop. We can thank Marable for rescuing Malcolm X from mere imagery, now to be fully appreciated and understood by the hip hop generation.

Published at Poundmag.com, July 1st 2011

Toronto Bathhouse Raids 30yrs On

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Interesting piece by Alan Sears on the 30th anniversary of the Toronto bathhouse raids and the relationship between sexual and gender liberation and anti-capitalist politics: http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/471.php#continue

Appearence on DisRespect Radio

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Geoff Langhorne hosts a great little radio program on CFMU 93.3 in Hamilton. It’s been going for 8 years now and I’m honoured to be an occasional guest. On this week’s show we discussed the anti-poverty movement in Ontario. In particular, I spoke about the development of the Special Diet campaign, a campaign whose tactics and objectives harken back to the great welfare rights struggles of the 1960s. Here’s a link to the podcast:

http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/49501

See DisRespect’s homepage at: http://cfmu.msumcmaster.ca/

Glenn Beck targets Frances Fox Piven

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

For the past year or so, my friend and mentor Frances Fox Piven has been subject to a rather bizarre but nevertheless dangerous campaign launched by Fox News blowhard Glenn Beck.  Beck, whose weekly rants attract 2 million-plus viewers in the U.S., has targetted Piven as one of the conspiratorial leaders of a movement to bring down the United States’ “economic system” and replace it with authoritarian socialism. According to Beck, everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama and community group ACORN are indicted in this movement (I only wish Obama had some left-wing convictions!). 

Frances has dedicated her life to the cause of social justice and she was a central figure in both the welfare rights movement and the passing of Clinton-era legislation, the National Voter Registration Act, which sought to ensure low-income Americans could excercise their democratic right to vote.  She’s always believed that it is the mobilization of everyday people that can change politics for the better and bring about a more just society. Her activism and scholarship have advanced the struggle against what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “three evils”: militarism, racial injustice, and poverty.

It’s both sad and disturbing that someone like Glenn Beck, whose ideology and actions are geared toward reinforcing the massive inequalities in power and wealth that characterize American society, is a household name. The Center for Constitutional Rights (http://ccrjustice.org/) has written a letter to Fox demanding Beck end his attacks. We will have to see what comes of this. In the meantime, check out some of the links below:

Here’s Piven’s latest article in The Nation magazine: http://www.thenation.com/article/157292/mobilizing-jobless

And some coverage of Beck’s idiocy in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/22/business/media/22beck.html

Finally, here’s a link to an interview Frances gave on Democracy Now, giving her take on the whole affair: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/1/14/why_is_glenn_beck_obsessively_targeting

G20 Protests and the Criminalization of Dissent

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Last week I made another appearence on DisRespect Radio to discuss the G20 protests in Toronto and the criminalization of dissent. DisRespect host Geoff Langhorne and I touch on how media failed the alternative voices at the G20; how alternative media air a fuller view; and how implications for civil liberties hinge on demands for an inquiry into G20 policing.

Follow the link below to listen to the podcast or download the show:

www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/44014