NOW Magazine: Artistry in Activism, by Loic Jounot

By Loic Jounot: NOW magazine, MAR 11-17, 2004, Vol. 23 No. 28

He was the grain of sand that stopped the machine.

Tooker Gomberg was a man who set the bar high. Unlike many of us who are prepared to hand in our conscience from 9 to 5 for a steady wage and peace of mind, Tooker wasn’t a slave to money. He preferred spending his last dollars on a box full of Toronto for Peace stickers to paying his rent – that’s part of the reason he ended up at my place last spring. Some would say he was plain irresponsible. But that was not Tooker’s sense of responsibility. His responsibility was of a higher order. He flew the Earth flag.

A green activist, politician, writer, photographer, filmmaker, radio host, public speaker, organizer and educator, Tooker made a lasting impact everywhere he lived. His first foray was in the late 70s with the Montreal-based cyclist advocacy group Le Monde a Bicyclette. He and others were trying to win the right to take bikes on the subway. One day they carried bulky furniture, including an ironing board, on board – all of which was permitted, of course, except for the bikes. The authorities caved when they realized the ban was absurd.

Tooker pioneered the art of symbolic actions and street theatre and became an expert at reaching out to people on a shoestring. He foresaw the power of the Internet as an activist tool long before it became our lifeblood, and launched TOTV, a one-man television network streamed over the Net that covered Toronto politics from a radical angle. In hindsight, it’s remarkable how clearly he was seeing.

On a gorgeous day in the spring of 1999 in Montreal, he and his partner, Angela Bischoff, invented urban couch squatting as a protest against car culture. They took an old couch destined for the dump and reclaimed a free parking spot on Rue St. Denis. There they sat reading the newspaper in the sun. The pedestrians burst out laughing. The cops were confused. Eventually, Tooker was handcuffed and taken to the police station, where he was held – you wouldn’t have guessed – with a car thief and a drunk driver. The ticket read: “Couch on the street.”

Later that year, on a rainy autumn day in Toronto, he buried a car in a friend’s front yard to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first pedestrian to be killed by a car in North America. His bicycle – which always had lots of character, laden with side bags, decorated with conspicuous stickers and funny-sounding horns – wasn’t just a means of transport, but a lifelong political statement. His most important, perhaps.

Tooker was shocked by the global warming crisis. He couldn’t accept that Canadians were sprawling in comfort, paying zero attention to their wasteful lifestyle, while others were going to hell. He refused to call it climate change: he’d rather call it climate crime. At the climate conference in The Hague in 2000, he burnt his passport, his hands trembling, dismayed by the cynicism of the Canadian negotiators. For a time he considered renouncing his Canadian citizenship and opting instead for Tuvalu, a republic of low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean soon to be washed away by the rising waters.

Tooker was also an uncompromising pacifist. While the rest of us were content to show up once a month for the Saturday peace march against the war on Iraq, he endured bitter cold temperatures, freezing rain and cop harassment under a makeshift shelter in the peace camp he established in front of Toronto City Hall. He simply never gave up.

Tooker was bold, daring and defiant. He had spunk and chutzpah. He put his body on the line. Many times, he crossed that line. His mottoes were: From the ground up. Word to mouth. Small scale. Grassroots. Guerrilla gardening-style. He was the grain of sand that stopped the machine. Every day of his life was a renewed chance to change the world.