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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

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

Youth violence in Toronto and our hierarchy of victimhood

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Last year in the city of Chicago, nearly 700 young people were hit by gunfire; 66 of them died. The vast majority of victims were African-American and Latino youth living in the city’s racialized low-income neighbourhoods. A recent analysis found that 8.5 per cent of Chicago (in terms of geography) contained almost all of the city’s shootings and homicides.

The mayor of Chicago insists that his city is safe. After all, around 90 per cent of neighbourhoods are not affected by youth gang and gun violence. This year, programs designed to reduce violence are being cut along with Chicago’s education budget.

While not as extreme in its geographic concentration, youth violence in Toronto is more likely to occur in our low-income postwar suburbs and pockets of racialized poverty in the downtown core than in white, middle-class neighbourhoods or shared spaces such as Yonge St.

As the 2008 report “The Roots of Youth Violence” found, while crime rates are stable “severe violence is apparently becoming more and more concentrated among socially disadvantaged minority youth.” The report concluded that the roots of youth violence are often found in poor, socially deprived neighbourhoods: the immediate risk factors of impulsivity, low self-esteem, alienation, hopelessness and lack of voice are compounded by longer-term issues of racism, poverty, community design, barriers to education and a lack of economic opportunity. The social exclusion of racialized youth and the alienation and denial of full citizenship they experience must be addressed.

When violence migrates from Toronto’s racialized low-income neighbourhoods into the spaces of commerce and tourism central to our city’s sense of collective safety, identity and international reputation, our public discourse shifts, government officials react and respond, and we reveal a hierarchy of victimhood and trauma that contravenes principles of equality.

On Dec. 26, 2005, 15-year-old Jane Creba was tragically killed while shopping on Yonge St. Between December 2005 and last Saturday’s Eaton Centre shooting, our city has lost 20-year-old Allen Benn, 24-year-old Amin Aafi, 19-year-old Yonathan Musse, 23-year-old Ricardo Francis, 25-year-old Michael George, 19-year-old Richard Gyamfi, 23-year-old David Latchana, 25-year-old Fitawrari Lunan, 21-year-old Kimel Foster, 19-year-old Kevon Hall, 18-year-old Keegan Allen, 19-year-old Ryan Hyde, 18-year-old Delane Daley, and 16-year-old Keyon Campbell.

This is a partial list of young people, racialized men in particular, lost to violence in only one of those intervening years, 2007.

These names, along with those such as Andrew Naidoo, Sealand White, Jermaine Derby, Lorenzo Martinez and Okene Thompson, are not as well-known as that of Jane Creba. Their deaths did not invoke statements from the mayor, they were not the topic of talk radio, and they did not occupy the front page of the newspapers.

When shots were fired in the Eaton Centre last Saturday, leaving 24-year old Ahmed Hassan dead and six people injured, it was not the names of these young men that tripped off the tongue of police officers, news broadcasters and elected officials.

Nor was it the name of Chantal Dunn, a 19-year-old black student at York University, who was murdered in 2006 in the Keele and Sheppard area, another victim of gun violence. Nor mother of three Rachel Alleyne, also a young black woman, shot to death in 2007 while socializing with friends in a backyard at Jane and Driftwood .

After the 2005 Boxing Day shooting, politicians of all stripes talked tough on crime, adopting a law-and-order rhetoric thought to match the mood of an outraged public. Premier Dalton McGuinty met with Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair and told him to come up with a strategy to deal with “gang and gun” violence. Talk to front-line agencies that work in the city’s “priority neighbourhoods” and they will tell you that in the wake of the Boxing Day shooting, funds became more readily available for “at-risk youth” intervention and crime reduction programs.

Following the Eaton Centre shooting a well-known Toronto journalist wrote: “Frankly, I don’t much care if hoods want to bump each other off . . . Saves the rest of us a lot of trouble . . . Hell, I’d even jail the targeted ‘victims’ of gang hits, should they survive the attempted rub-out. Usually, they asked for it.”

Racism can be understood in part as the collective denial of the humanity of “the other.” Unlike those deemed “innocent,” poor, racialized young men impacted by youth violence are our “urban other.” Victims and perpetrators alike are spoken of as “hoods,” “gang-affiliated” or “known to police,” never as “citizens,” full members of our community. They are criminalized in life and in death. This “othering” is a form of violence in and of itself.

In our city it is the trauma and victimhood of those seldom exposed to gun violence that is prioritized. In response to last Saturday’s events, a headline on a Toronto Star column said, “It could have been any of us; it wounds all of us.” Yet the reality remains that the primary victims of gun violence in our city are poor, racialized youth. And the primary sites of this violence are those neighbourhoods these youth call home.

All our young people’s lives are precious. We have at our disposal the resources and policy know-how to address youth violence. We have countless studies that show what works in reducing violence and victimization. We know how to build safer and healthier communities.

What we are missing is the political will. The main barrier to generating that will is the hierarchy of victimhood and trauma that governs our approach to youth violence. Only when poor, racialized youth are no longer seen as urban “others” will we realize our collective responsibility to address youth violence.

 

Published in The Toronto Star, June 6 2012

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

 

Ontario’s Poor Can’t Wait

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

In my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star, I discuss how quiet acceptance of austerity is not a realistic option for those living on the economic edge.

During the last two weeks in Ontario politics, we have seen a tale of two reports. The Drummond report has received a great deal of attention and rightly so: as the Star’s own Martin Regg Cohn put it, “Cutbacks are back and bigger than ever. And this time, they’re here to stay.” Millions of Ontarians, but especially the poor and middle class, stand to be impacted should the government act on Drummond’s recommendations.

Yet another report, that of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance, slipped under the media’s radar and was greeted with little fanfare by the government and general public alike. This report discusses different approaches to improving some of the key areas of the province’s welfare system and is an important step in the broader review process headed by ex-StatsCan chief Munir Sheik and former United Way of Greater Toronto CEO Frances Lankin.

The review of social assistance plays a key role in the provincial government’s poverty reduction strategy, announced by the premier and welcomed by anti-poverty advocates back in 2008. Sheik and Lankin have embarked on an extensive consultation process, speaking with social workers, policy experts, business leaders, people with lived experience of poverty, and anti-poverty advocates. Their final report, which will make recommendations that will enable government to “remove barriers and increase opportunities for people to work,” is to be released this summer.

While the Drummond report takes a largely hands-off approach to social assistance, deferring to the work of the commission, much in it runs counter to the spirit and stated goals of both the review of social assistance and the broader strategy of poverty reduction. For one, Drummond recommends rolling back the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB), a subsidy that helps low-income families provide for their children. The OCB has been partially credited with the small but nevertheless important reduction in child poverty Ontario has seen over the past few years.

But more generally the report is silent on the concerns of the poor, from much-needed increases in child-care funding to the construction of more affordable housing. Drummond was, after all, primarily tasked with discerning where to make cuts, not how to expand social programs.

If acted upon, Drummond’s austerity package could well push Ontario’s unemployment rate into double-digits. With the federal government’s continued reticence to expand eligibility for employment insurance, thousands more Ontarians could turn to a welfare system that currently does more to punish than help the poor, who have yet to recover from the 22 per cent cut to welfare imposed by the Harris Tories back in 1995. McGuinty has raised rates slightly, but these increases have not kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris levels, the government would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. You can be sure that such an increase is not in the cards in the current political climate.

So the next few years, likely the next decade, look tough for low-income Ontarians. Lower child-care subsidies, larger waiting lists for social housing, persistent unemployment and more people 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, will be derided as “unfriendly to business.”

How then do the poor make gains in a climate of austerity? Before we mine history for answers we must first ask: “Who are the poor?” The obvious answer is, “those living at or below the poverty line,” but many of us live one paycheque away from poverty. What happens to social assistance and other social supports should be a concern for us all.

And as a recent Metcalf Foundation report concluded, between 2000 and 2005 the number of working poor increased by 42 per cent, numbering 113,000 people in the Toronto region alone. Those numbers have certainly risen since the Great Recession began in 2008. And an even larger number of people are near-poor. The poor are not only those living on social assistance.

Before the great labour struggles of the 1930s and ’40s, the poor were, like today, both working people and those out of work. Those struggles led to the legitimization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to labour.

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’s social assistance review. 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 poor people’s 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.” The Drummond report tells poor people they must wait. Now it is up to the poor to reply: “We will not.”

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, March 3 2012 IN6

Cities on High Alert

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Here’s my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star. They have a habit of changing my titles; this one was originally “The Age of Urban Unrest?”

Last week, New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg rang alarm bells when he said that high unemployment could lead to mass social unrest in cities across the United States.  “You have a lot of kids graduating college who can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here,” Bloomberg explained. The mayor was not alone in this assessment. Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said as much back in 2008; “unemployment,” he declared, “represents a risk to the stability of existing democracies.”

Bloomberg’s warning came with his endorsement of President Obama’s new jobs creation bill. As a big city mayor, Bloomberg knows too well that the social problems associated with high unemployment, widening inequality, and economic stagnation are most acute in urban centres. Whereas Strauss-Kahn’s words proved prophetic, Bloomberg was learning from recent history.

Since the onset of the global economic crisis back in 2007-2008, cities have seen rising levels of violence and social unrest: riots and looting in the UK, intensified gang violence in major US cities, street clashes in Athens, flash robs in Philadelphia, mass protests in Madrid, ghetto dwellers and security forces facing off in Kingston, Jamaica, rival drug cartels engaged in shootouts in Juarez, Mexico; the list goes on. As many political observers have remarked, a driving force behind the Arab Spring – apart from an unquenched thirst for democracy – is unemployment, and in particular, extremely high levels of youth unemployment.

Non-governmental organizations have started making the connections as well. A recent report from the International Red Cross, entitled Urban Violence: War By Any Other Name observes, “Around the world, cities are experiencing an alarming increase in violence and its resulting misery…Chronic conflict makes daily life in some places almost like living in a war zone.”

And images of urban unrest not only flash nightly across our TV screens and occupy the pages of our newspapers, they also permeate our popular culture as never before: just watch recent science fiction films like Attack the Block, District 9, and Battle: Los Angeles. The city as a place of conflict and civil disorder is part of our cultural zeitgeist.

We have then, it appears, entered an age of urban unrest.

But London is not Philadelphia and Cairo not Kingston. From riots and looting, to mass protest, flash robs, and gang warfare, there are very different types of urban violence and social unrest with seemingly disparate causes. But while poverty, inequality, and unemployment do not tell the full story in all places, they do tell much of the story in many places.

In the case of the UK’s recent disorder, we have learned from The Guardian newspaper that the vast majority of rioters brought before the courts are young, poor, and unemployed. In the Tottenham neighbourhood, where the riots began, 54 people chase every one available job.

Where austerity and cutbacks to government services deepen poverty and unemployment, unrest soon follows.  Two Barcelona-based economists have published research which clearly shows a link between the variables. Empirical data on close to forty European and Latin American countries demonstrates a positive statistical association between government spending cuts, unemployment and levels of unrest, including anti-government demonstrations, riots, strikes and attempted revolutions.

In addition, path-breaking research by social epidemiologists has found that among advanced democracies, more equal societies (and by extension, cities) are also more socially stable and less violent.

In the absence of work and of hope, different ways of organizing human activity fill the social void. The anomie brought on by unemployment and other forms of social exclusion can be addressed through participation in other social groupings, sometimes a gang, sometimes a mob, sometimes a radical political or religious organization. When channelled into movements seeking to address legitimate grievances, as in the Arab Spring, urban unrest, disruption and disorder can be welcomed. History tells us that rough means can sometimes bring about progressive ends, especially when democratic channels are closed to those suffering injustice. Yet few urban denizens welcome the type of violence and disruption that causes misery, damage, and distress in their lives and in the life of their city.

We live in an urban age.  In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population were city dwellers. Now, for the first time in human history, the world’s urban population outnumbers its rural. As never before, the fate of humanity is tightly intertwined with the fate of the city. And whether we live in Toronto or Tokyo, Lagos or Los Angeles, safety and security are necessary conditions for a flourishing urbanity and a decent quality of life. As even the conservative-leaning Mayor of New York City has realized, addressing inequality, deprivation and unemployment with meaningful government action is central to maintaining social cohesion in an era of economic uncertainty.

Published Oct 11 2011 in The Toronto Star, pg. A19

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

Resisting Prisons, Rebuilding Communities

Friday, July 8th, 2011

The hunger strike staged by thousands of California prison inmates (check July 8’s Babylon Bite) has brought the hidden world of incarceration back to the front-pages of the news and hopefully back into public consciousness. In Canada, the Harper Conservatives will be pushing their ‘tough on crime’ agenda which will lead to a dramatic expansion of Canada’s prison population in the near future. It’s time we seriously rethink the roll prisons play in our society.

Prison statistics from the U.S. make for depressing reading. After 30 years of a failed ‘War on Drugs’ and consecutive ‘tough on crime’ bills passed at the state and federal levels (by morally challenged Republicans and spineless Democrats alike), the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. prison system has reached 2.2 million. This represents 20% of the world’s total prison population. In the past two decades, the US prison population has risen by 400%.  68% of the prison population are people of colour, primarily Blacks and Latinos. 4 million ex-inmates face barriers to jobs, housing, public assistance, and parental rights. In total, the US government spends $50 billion per year on the prison system (for more stats check Critical Resistance).

Before you get too comfortably righteous in your Canadian skin, consider this:  In Canada, less than 10% of the population live below the poverty line but close to 100% of our prison inmates come from that 10%. Aboriginals are 4% of Canada’s population but 20% of the population of federal prisons. More than 70% of prison inmates have not completed high school and 70% have unstable job histories.

Apart from the social and psychological damage of incarceration to communities, individuals, and families, Canadians spend more than $147,000 per prisoner in federal custody each year. It would take between $12,000 to $20,000 per year to bring a person in Canada above the poverty line (depending on where they live).  We could save $127,000 per year by providing social and economic security to poor people, rather than using prison as method of social control. According to Hugh Segal “If governments become tough on poverty, safer communities and declining prison populations will follow.” Segal is no left-wing pinko anti-prison activist, he’s a Conservative Senator. The quote and statistics above are from a report he issued last year on the relationship between prisons, poverty and crime. Segal concluded that the practice of mass incarceration, through tough on crime measures, has little to no effect on crime rates. Poverty reduction, on the other hand, does (Because the rich get richer, and the poor get prison, very few white-collar criminals find themselves behind bars. In fact much of the anti-social activities of the rich, from speculating on Third World food prices on the stock market to avoiding paying decent wages and accounting for the costs of environmental degradation, are postively encouraged by our economic system in the name of growth and prosperity).Prisons in modern societies have become nothing but warehouses for the socially excluded and marginalized who don’t fit the requirements of a globalized capitalist economy.

What we’ve seen in the US and Canada over the past 30 years is a shift from a welfare state to a penal state. The welfare state are those programs we all rely on to keep us healthy and economically secure, things like public health care, public pensions for security in old age, social housing for those who cannot afford housing on the market, and social assistance for those who experience long-term unemployment, and so on. Governments at all levels have cut back on these programs, making life more insecure for many, not just the poor. The rise of precarious employment (temporary jobs, low-wage part-time, and self-employment) has meant that more and more of us are not able to secure a decent standard of living through work, hence the rise of the working poor and the persistence of poverty.  The US government has rolled back the welfare state and rolled out the penal state, as prisons become the place to house those who are poor, jobless, stigmatized and marginalized. This agenda will intensify with Stephen Harper’s plan to emulate the American model of mass incarceration. We will need to resist this agenda in our communities (if the hunger-strike in California is anything to go by, resistance could start on the inside).

In her book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” long-time anti-prison activist Angela Davis asks “How can we imagine a society in which race and class are not primary determinants of punishment? Or one in which punishment is no longer the central concern in the making of justice?” If we are to resist prisons and rebuild communities, we must be prepared to pose alternatives to incarceration. And as Davis urges, this is not about replacing prisons with prisonlike substitutes like electronic monitoring but rather envisioning an “alternative to imprisonment –  the demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.” In other words, building an alternative to prisons involves transforming institutions and attitudes at the very core of our society.

In Canada, aboriginal peoples are leading the way with new models of restorative justice, an alternative to the ‘justice’ administered by the Canadian state; a state which has locked up so many of their brothers and sisters after years of colonialism has torn the social fabric of their communities. If we are to build an anti-prison movement that can combat the Harper agenda, building solidarity with aboriginal communities, while listening and learning, would be a good place to start.

Published July 8th 2011 on POUND (http://www.poundmag.com/blogs/resisting-prisons-rebuilding-communities/)

Precarious life for young men in Third City

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Note: This piece appears in the opinion section of today’s Toronto Star under a different title: Life in ‘Third City’: Nasty, brutish, and short. I will post a longer version shortly, along with a list of young men who have lost their lives to violence on Toronto’s streets.

Last week, Andrew Naidoo was shot dead outside his Rexdale home. He was 15 years old.

To his parents, peers and community he was a fun-loving teenage boy whose smile lit up the hallways of Monsignor Percy Johnson High School, who cheered on his classmates competing in school sports, who liked to do the things most boys his age like to do: listen to music, chill with friends, talk to girls.

Naidoo’s death is part of a tragic trend of young men from the city’s racialized low-income neighbourhoods losing their lives to violence: Aeon Grant, Sealand White, Jermaine Derby, Abdikadir Khan, Lorenzo Martinez, Okene Thompson, Keyon Campbell…sadly the list goes on.

More often than not, they have died at the hands of those whose social and economic circumstances they share: poor, young men from racialized communities. They lived on Fallstaff, Chalkfarm, and in Jane and Finch; neighbourhoods like Malvern, Kingston-Galloway, and Rexdale.

Their names must not to be forgotten; they should be said out loud on our city’s streets, repeated and remembered. And their deaths continue to beg the question: How many more young people from the city’s low-income, racialized communities must lose their lives to violence before our governments declare a crisis?

As researchers at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre have documented, over the last 30 years Toronto has become segregated by income into three distinct cities. City #1 consists of the richer and whiter downtown core and well-heeled neighbourhoods close to the subway lines. City #3—or the Third City—are Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, with high concentrations of racialized poverty. Generally found in the in the northeastern and northwestern parts of Toronto, incomes in these neighbourhoods have declined 20 per cent or more since 1970. City #2 are middle-income neighbourhoods that fall in between and are shrinking in size as Toronto becomes a more socioeconomically polarized metropolis.

Those who inhabit the Third City live lives characterized by precariousness. High rents and dilapidated social housing make shelter precarious. Temporary and part-time jobs at low wages make for precarious employment. And a lack of regulated childcare compounds the insecurity of everyday life. 

Moreover, the Third City has become home to a drug market with street entrepreneurs perversely mirroring the pursuit of profits at all costs that marks Bay Street success stories. As young people in the Third City testify, you don’t have to be involved in gangs to get caught up in the violence, just be in the wrong place at the wrong time or a cocksure teen in a neighbourhood where a sideways glance or the friends you keep can translate into trouble.

Consequently, for many of the Third City’s youth, especially its young men, life itself has become precarious. Since 1998, the average age of homicide victims under the age of 25 has grown to 40% from 25% in the 1970s and a majority of those have been racialized youth from the Third City.

For years Toronto avoided the street violence which plagued U.S. cities. Yet since the late 1980s we’ve embarked on a path which would make manifest in our urban fabric the social problems of inner-city America. We cut the social safety net; we’ve neglected the built environment of poor neighbourhoods; we’ve failed to regulate precarious employment and create ‘good jobs’; we’ve yet to solve high dropout rates and youth unemployment, disproportionately impacting racialized youth; and we’ve rolled back equity initiatives which acknowledged the ways socioeconomic outcomes continue to be shaped by race.

Thus, the Third City was manufactured. And as it was made, it can be unmade, with policies to make more economically and socially secure the lives of its inhabitants.

We appeared to turn a corner with the tragic murder of Jane Creba: the problems of the Third City had made a violent appearance on the streets of the First, the spaces of commerce so central to Toronto’s competitiveness and standing as a ‘world class’ city. Commitments were made—however limited—to deal with urban social exclusion and the problems, including community violence, which it breeds.

Alas, with shifting political winds, support for such initiatives appears to be drying up.

It is time that we, as a city, confront some hard questions: Are we going to accept 15 year olds being gunned down outside their homes as our modern urban condition? Is this to be the fate of more of our city’s youth? Has Toronto become so divided, so polarized, that many of us think ‘our city’ is not ‘their city’ and ‘we’ therefore have nothing to worry about?

Published in The Toronto Star, June 8 2011

The Shock Doctrine, Toronto Style

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

The Shock Doctrine is coming to Toronto! In my latest contribution to Canadian Dimension, I argue that Mayor Rob Ford’s strategy has much in common with the right-wing machinations   documented in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

I doubt Rob Ford reads Naomi Klein. Between studying committee reports and football playbooks, the new Mayor likely doesn’t have the time or the inclination to keep up with Canada’s most prolific left-wing journalist. Nevertheless, Ford’s approach to urban governance cannily resembles the political strategies of right-wing politicians laid bare in Klein’s international bestseller The Shock Doctrine.

The book traces how, beginning in the 1970s, neo-liberals and neo-conservatives have exploited crises (economic and otherwise) to advance an agenda of deep cuts to social spending, government deregulation and privatization. Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman calls the shock doctrine an “agenda that has nothing to do with resolving crises, and everything to do with imposing their (the right’s) vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society.”

Take the case of post-Katrina New Orleans. In the wake of the disaster, think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (Canada’s equivalent to the Fraser Institute) and Republican politicians descended on the city, pushing the privatization of public housing and public education, dismantling what little of a welfare state New Orleans had. This served the ‘free market’ ideology, most clearly articulated by American conservative Grover Norquist, who once said “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag in into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” But privatization also served the corporate interests close to the Bush administration who cashed in on the fire sale of public assets. New Orleanians, displaced and distraught, had little say in the matter.

Canadian neoconservatives have long casted an envious eye at their American cousins, and Toronto’s new Mayor has surrounded himself with strategists and backroom players whose membership in the Conservative Party, the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation, and think tanks like the Fraser Institute neatly overlap. The Common Sense revolutionaries, many of whom cut their political teeth in the downloading and amalgamation years of the Mike Harris Tories (from which the city has yet to financially recover), have reappeared in urban guise, finally having won control over a much sought after prize: the left-leaning City of Toronto, with its myriad social programs and ‘big government.’

Yet according to the logic of the shock doctrine, Ford’s team needs a crisis to push through its agenda. Since only 25% of eligible Torontonians voted for Ford, a full-scale assault on the City’s social services would not be popular. Fortunately for Ford, he rose to office during a world economic crisis that left many Torontonians more economically insecure, wary of tax increases and ‘misspent’ tax dollars. From Europe to North America, governments are calling for ‘austerity’ in the name of debt reduction and fiscal balance. Ford won the election by articulating a simple narrative of what was wrong with the city: too much wasteful spending; City Hall’s so-called gravy train. Ford named lavish retirement parties and councillors’ penchants for taking taxis, cleverly avoiding labelling the City’s social services ‘gravy.’

Most Torontonians do not regard nutritional programs for low-income children or green energy initiatives as wasteful spending. Many agree that such programs are the markers of a world-class city. While people are rightly concerned when councillors casually spend tax-payer dollars on superfluous expenses or when a public agency is careless with its budget, actual instances of this are few and far between. Ford’s strategy has hinged on reframing most, if not all, government spending as inherently wasteful. To his chagrin, potential allies on Council, like Mary-Margaret McMahon, have discovered that “the gravy’s not flowing through city hall like originally expected.”

The second crisis that has opened the door for Ford’s agenda is the crisis of confidence in public institutions. The outdoor workers’ strike, the media hammering of errant TTC employees and the events at Toronto Community Housing have all played nicely into the Mayor’s hands.

Union-busting is at the centre of the shock doctrine, as public-sector unions are the first line of defence against cuts, deregulation and privatization. As Klein notes, in post-Katrina New Orleans, the introduction of charter schools (effectively privatizing public education) broke the back of the teachers’ union. More recently, the Republican governor facing a fiscal crisis in Wisconsin has wiped out the collective bargaining rights of almost all public sector employees.

With a complicit provincial government, Ford has succeeded in designating the TTC an ‘essential service’ and plans to privatize garbage collection, effectively firing the city’s unionized employees. The Toronto Community Housing ‘scandal’ has provided the Mayor with the necessary excuse to review the City’s role in public housing, again with an eye to privatization. We can expect Ford to shed the City’s unionized public child care centres in the next round of budget cuts, contracting care to non-union, for-profit providers. Freezing property taxes and eliminating the vehicle registration tax ensure the need for increased user fees and higher TTC fares; creeping, less obvious, forms of privatization.

The Ford agenda has very little to do with resolving a ‘crisis,’ real or perceived, and everything to do with remaking Toronto in a right-wing image: a leaner, meaner city, where the market is free and the public sector and its unions disciplined.

Published on CanadianDimension.com