Toronto’s Tiananmen Square

By Rick Daniels, Toronto, Canada.

The campers at the Toronto Peace Camp are treated like criminals but keep the peace flame alive.

It looked like an April Fools Day joke as Toronto City Hall security guards sidled up to the Peace Campers on Tuesday. The campers were commemorating their two week anniversary. The guards were once again in attack mode:”The picnic tables have to go, Get your stuff off the tables. We’re taking them away.”

Less than a dozen campers stood there stunned: what was going on? The tables in question were useful to the camp — a place to put some candles; a spot for the stove to cook supper. A place to sit and talk in Nathan Philips Square, in the shadow of the two towers of Toronto’s oyster-shaped City Hall.

“Move your stuff now’ a guard barked, and one table was quickly cleared and carted away before campers knew it.. “Clear off the table now, or we’ll call the police and we’ll shut down the camp” security threatened.

The campers decided to stand their ground. Tooker Gomberg, one of the founders of the camp, climbed up on the picnic table and began waving the Earth flag. A few days earlier security had insisted that the flag be taken down: “it’s a banner” they claimed, and they said a bylaw prohibited banners in the square. Unless of course they were corporate banners, properly permitted.

Campers asked to speak with the head of security. One was dispatched to a sympathetic City Councillor’s office, and a little while later word arrived that Councillor Chow was on her way with an assistant.

After a short wait, the assistant arrived and to the campers astonishment she sided with security: the picnic tables were structures, and structures were prohibited.

“A tent is a structure: a picnic table is not” one camper argued. “This is ridiculous.”

The Toronto Peace Camp was established two weeks prior when George W. had threatened Saddam giving him 48 hours to leave his country. The camp has kept the flame of peace alive 24/7 even in the face of incessant harassment by security guards who have prohibited tents, tarps, signs, flags, and even leafletting. “The security guards are trying to make the camp disappear bit by bit by bit” quipped Greg, communications co-ordinator who showed up near the beginning with 2 cellphones and 4 two way radios.

The peace campers lived next to the Peace Garden which had been blessed by Pope John Paul II with water brought from the Hiroshima Peace Garden. Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had also partaken in official ceremonies to mark Toronto’s everlasting commitment to peace.

The camp, though ignored by the media, slowly grows stronger as more people find out about it, and the resolve of the campers deepens. Nightly about 15 people, mostly young and streetwise, share a slab of concrete for the night, sometimes shivering from the sleet or the howling winds.

The lofty words of the Pope, the Queen, and the Prime Minister stand in sharp contrast to the arbitrary edicts security kept dreaming up. The restrictions made it more difficult for the camp to survive in the harsh, windswept, concrete square reminiscent of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. And like in China, if you protest or question authority in the square, you are arrested.

Yet even with temperatures dipping to 10 degrees below zero celsius, and with rain, snow, and sleet and hail, nothing seems to stop the Peace Campers from continuing with their self-appointed duty.

“I am here in hopes to help give the next generation a chance of a world of love and peace with no more wars” is the way Officer Bob put it.

As the picnic table incident escalated, Gomberg powered up his megaphone. “This is what democracy looks like in Toronto” he said. “You are prohibited from sitting at a picnic table in our public square and talking with people about peace.”

One of the guards said: “Stop using that megaphone. You are breaking a bylaw. If you don’t stop now I will arrest you. ” Gomberg’s amplified response was: “which bylaw?”. At that point two guards grabbed him by the arms and escorted him into City Hall and called the police.

It was not the first time that Peace Campers had been arrested. Over its 14 day life numerous arrests had taken place. On Sunday, March 24 at 9 am while campers slept soundly 6 police officers arrived and pulled Zachary Lathrop out of the camp. During his 24 hour incarceration they took him upstairs and beat him. Upon his release he had bruises and a puffy eye from the police assault.

But the arrests and harassment only seemed to add to the resolve of the Peace Campers to continue talking with people and spreading the message of peace.

Gomberg had three prior peace camp arrests for holding signs and camping. “It’s wacky that they say I am breaking the law. In fact I am exercising my duty as a citizen in time of war. My conscience tells me to exercise my right of protest and assembly as Canada joins the slaughter of innocent people in Baghdad.”

Two weeks earlier Gomberg had been arrested at the Peace Camp, and warned not to return until after midnight. He then walked over to the United States Consulate, and began distributing bumper stickers he had printed up that said:

As motorists waited for a green light Gomberg handed stickers to eager motorists. A police officer came to order him off the road, and he complied.

Gomberg then crossed the street on a green light, showing the bumper stickers to waiting motorists. One motioned him to get a sticker, and he complied, at which point a cop grabbed him. “You are under arrest” Gomberg was told, at which point he went limp, and three police officers dragged him across the road and handcuffed him. They put on leg shackles. “Relax. I am trained in the art of non-violent civil disobedience.”

The next day, after 28 hours in custody, Gomberg was released with a restriction to come no closer to the US Consulate than 500 meters.

On April Fools Day Toronto police arrived in Toronto’s public square to ensure that no picnic tables would be in use. They gave Gomberg a ticket and then realized that Gomberg was within the 500m restricted zone. They arrested him again and locked him up for another 28 hours.

“In Canada the ultimate law is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It guarantees me the right to speak, to assemble, and to protest. Security guards and police cannot take away those fundamental rights. I intend to sue them for taking away my fundamental rights, and for harassment” Gomberg concludes.

Utah Phillips, the great U.S. folk singer says: “We all know that the state can’t give you free speech and the state can’t take it away. You are all born with it, like your eyes and your ears… Freedom is something that you assume, then you wait for somebody to try to take it away from you. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free.”