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John Clarke, straight up

BY CARLYN ZWARENSTEIN

"You have a collect call from John Clarke at the Whitby Jail. Press 1 to accept the charges."

Clarke, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), was in jail from June 15 to July 9 in connection with the June 12 "eviction" of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty from his Whitby office. Clarke was released from jail on a number of conditions, including that he not attend any demonstrations until his trial sometime in 2002.

Despite clangings, bangings and general chaos in the background, Clarke is unfailingly polite, energetic and articulate. The full-time OCAP employee, who earns about $20,000 a year for his work with Ontario's poor, was described as a "terrorist" at his bail hearing June 28-29. While in the clink, Clarke tells me, OCAP organizers have formed valuable links with members of the prison population. Another organizer, Sean Lee-Popham, remains in jail on charges stemming from the same incident.

 

What was the purpose of the Flaherty office action?

It was an immediate act of symbolism in the context of mass evictions and consequent mass homelessness. It was also designed to set the stage for the province-wide mass assembly. The old rituals of state protest no longer have any effectiveness. We have to be serious in how we conduct ourselves.

 

If OCAP were somehow shut down, would this affect the fall plan of economic disruption?

If for some reason OCAP were taken out of the picture tomorrow, I think something has been initiated that would continue regardless. OCAP is not so easy to get rid of.

 

Do you see this as class warfare?

OCAP sees this as class warfare with the same clarity as Mike Harris sees this as class war, because that's what it is. We just happen to be on different sides.

 

Who devised OCAP's planned program of economic disruption?

It was articulated as a result of discussions at OCAP meetings. We've been able to learn from the struggles of others, especially the anti-globalization struggles, in which activists down into affinity groups. We saw that there was no point in setting up an OCAP command HQ for economic disruption. There has been this unhealthy obsession with control.

 

What do you think of the media portrayal of OCAP as violent troublemakers?

There's been a fixation on respectability and an attendant preoccupation with good press. We're enormously confident that there's a huge and growing body of people in our favour.

 

What's it like in prison?

Like all prisons, it's enormously overcrowded. Access to medication and basic facilities is a huge problem. There is no representational system in place where people can put forward their concerns. [Organization of such a system is underway since OCAP members joined the crowd.]

 

Have you had much contact with your fellow prisoners?

There's enormous support for OCAP within this prison. We have been shown considerable support by the prisoners and even by prison guards -- this place is literally a warehouse for poor people.

 

Do you see yourself as leader of the militant anti-poverty movement in Ontario?

No, I see myself as one of the organizers for OCAP. There are five of us, and beyond that we don't have anything like a president or an executive director in our organization.

 

To what extent does OCAP's membership actually consist of the poor?

OCAP is made up overwhelmingly of poor people.

 

Why is your "Fight to Win" campaign so focused on Mike Harris?

I think our campaign is by extension directed against the agenda of globalization. Mike Harris is the virulent local manifestation of this agenda.

 

Does OCAP expect that a change of government would get rid of the objectionable measures Harris imposed?

We wouldn't anticipate that the milk of human kindness will cascade down from a Liberal government, but we do hope to make the Harris agenda unenforceable.

 

Under what circumstances would you consider trying to cancel OCAP's plans for the fall?

I don't anticipate those circumstances are likely to arise. Probably an escalating conflict with the Harris government is just a political inevitability.


THE HARRIS/OCAP CHRONOLOGY

* March 1995: After announcing a 21.6 per cent cut to welfare, Community and Social Services Minister David Tsibouchi tells the legislature people should "haggle with their grocer" for lower prices. Five OCAP members take his advice and are arrested for trespassing at a Loblaws store. Charges are eventually dropped.

* July 1995: OCAP marches on the Ontario legislature to protest welfare cuts. John Clarke books the use of the steps and a sound system in advance with an MPP, but when demonstrators arrive, a mass of police greet them and deny them the use of either.

* March 5, 1997: Police arrest 21 dissidents in an abandoned building on Carlton Street. The protesters were drawing attention to vacant buildings in Toronto that could be used for public housing. Charges are eventually dropped.

* Aug. 10, 1999: Police arrest over 40 people after 300 OCAP supporters gather in Allan Gardens for three days to create a "safe park" for the homeless.

* June 15, 2000: Thirty-two people are arrested in conjunction with a Queen's Park riot, including Clarke. Bail conditions bar him from communicating or demonstrating with OCAP or going near Allan Gardens or Queen's Park.

* Aug. 10, 2000: A detective testifies at a bail hearing for Queen's Park protesters that OCAP is considered an "organized crime" group.

* Sept.14, 2000: A judge overturns the bail conditions set for those arrested after the Queen's Park riot because they restrict "peaceful and lawful protest."

* Oct. 21, 2000: After spending a night in Allan Gardens in solidarity with the safe-park effort, U of T student Elan Ohayon awakens surrounded by police officers. His camera is smashed, he is charged with assaulting police and he spends 20 nights in jail.

* June 15, 2001: Paid OCAP organizer John Clarke is arrested in connection with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's "symbolic eviction."

* June 15, 2001: A group of 600 OCAP members gathers in Christie Pits. Police arrest three people, including paid organizer Sue Collis, who is charged with violating bail conditions. She is held for eight days.

* July 5, 2001: During Clarke's bail hearing, Durham police admit they had no warrant or evidence against him at the time of his arrest.

KEVIN RITCHIE

Torstar Corporation Torstar Digital