What Do Police Have Against Clean Air?

By Tooker Gomberg, Toronto, Canada.

Toronto Activists Fight For Clean Air.

There was some unusual traffic in the streets this past week. On Friday, August 17, and then again on Monday, August 20, I joined hundreds of citizens who took to the streets to talk about streets, cars and air pollution from tailpipes and power plants. Perhaps it takes a season of unprecedented, sickening air to prompt action on smog.

Friday night, 300 or so gathered in Grange Park and then ambled a block south to Queen and John. And right then and there, without warning, Toronto’s fourth annual Reclaim The Streets party took off, with loud drumming on scrounged vegetable-oil pails, chalk graffiti, sheets of bubble plastic for gift-wrapping parked cars, corn on the barbecue and street performers.

While dozens of stunned police assessed the situation, turntables and speakers were hoisted onto the roof of a camping trailer, and within minutes loud music pumped up the atmosphere to a party scene. Passersby joined in the revelry. The sea of partiers kept cars from coming through but parted to allow slithering Red Rockets (streetcars) to pass.

The fun fizzled after an hour, when the police moved in, shut down the DJ and brought in the horses. As we were slowly herded back to Grange Park, three people were arrested: one for chalking slogans on a police vehicle, including chalking out the “po” on a police vehicle, showing that “lice” have no sense of humour. Several others were pepper-sprayed.

We ended the party with a vigil at 52 Division, waiting for our friends’ release. Monday morning we were up bright and early to march to the headquarters of Canada’s number-one toxic polluter — Ontario Power Generation (OPG), formerly Ontario Hydro. OPG continues to blithely burn enormous mountains of coal to generate electricity while 1,900 Ontarians choke to death annually from polluted air.

When vanguard utilities around the world are making strides into the renewable age of wind farms and solar roofs, OPG boasts one wind turbine, with one more promised.

By 8:30 am, a few hundred people had gathered at OPG’s front stairs at College and University for a Gas Mask Fashion Show to illustrate how one can be stylish and lung-smart at the same time. A little farther down the sidewalk we were treated to a performance of The Lorax, a Dr. Suess fable adapted to feature smog and OPG. And then our barricades appeared. We had hoped to block motor vehicle traffic moving south on University, but the dozens of cops, complete with horses and bikes, foiled our plans.

As we spilled into the nearest lane, TASC (Toronto Action for Social Change) organizer Matthew Behrens sat down in the street, an instance of non-violent civil disobedience. As he was cuffed, hauled off and thrown into a waiting paddy wagon, five others followed suit, each sitting and singing in dignity and strength. A seventh protestor was scooped up as she sang into the megaphone an updated version of Union Maid: “There once was an OPG,/ it polluted you and me/ with smog and poisons in the air,/ they really didn’t show much care.” (My partner was one of the arrestees.)

Strange, isn’t it? A group of well-trained, peaceful, disciplined and thoughtful protestors concerned about a critical public health issue are treated like criminals and stripped of their rights. If the smog hasn’t taken your breath away, such justice will.