Many Torontonians will agree with Mayor Rob Ford that it is time for the Occupy Toronto protesters to move on. Police in London, Ont., cleared out the protesters early on Wednesday morning, and authorities in Vancouver, Victoria and Calgary are preparing to take action. “They’ve had a peaceful protest but I think it’s time that we ask them to leave,” says Mr. Ford.
But leaping to clear the protesters from St. James Park would be a mistake. So far at least, they have been a nuisance and little more.
Their encampment of around 100 tents seems reasonably well run by its idealistic organizers. Apart from some dead grass, no serious property damage has been reported. The protesters have a daily cleanup brigade that keeps litter under control. Portable toilets provide sanitation. Organizers say they will make way if the city needs to drain the sprinkler system, which might otherwise freeze in the cold.
City officials say they visit daily and have found no health and safety issues. Police seems equally unfussed. They have answered a few noise complaints and made a smattering of arrests for public intoxication and fighting, but they say they have a good relationship with the protesters and are working with them to keep order.
Of course, many people find the very existence of the camp an affront. The protesters are, after all, occupying a public park, taking up space that the general public might enjoy. Local merchants complain business is suffering because people are steering clear of the area.
But life around the camp goes on. When I visited on Wednesday, the sidewalks teemed with people and the surrounding restaurants and sandwich shops were full of patrons enjoying a weekday lunch.
This is not Vancouver. There, the protesters are occupying a public square in the heart of the city outside the Vancouver Art Gallery. St. James Park is not as central and the protest is much less disruptive. Toronto has not seen any clash between police and protesters like the one in Vancouver that left two police officers injured and led the city’s police chief to warn the occupiers to leave.
“The function of the police is primarily to keep the peace and to ensure the laws are being obeyed,” Toronto’s chief, Bill Blair, said this week, striking an appropriately cautious note. “We’ll be working very closely with the city and we hope to maintain good communication with the people in the park so all of that can be done safely and with minimal disruption to both the neighbourhood and the people involved.”
It is not even clear what authority police would employ to clear out Occupy Toronto. If the protesters are not involved in criminal acts, the responsibility would seem to fall on city bylaw officers instead.
Were police to move on St. James Park, it would be a bonanza for the protesters, who would like nothing better than to demonstrate the “violence inherent in the system.” At the first hint of police action, they would call in hundreds of comrades to join their resistance.
It could turn ugly. The expense of rounding up and processing resisters could easily exceed the cost of replacing trampled grass. Once it was over, the protesters, re-energized by their confrontation with The Man, could quickly re-form in another park or square.
Far better to let Occupy simply peter out. The movement, which began with considerable support, is running out of steam as the public wearies of the occupiers and their confused message. Inevitably, divisions within the movement are emerging about how to run their encampments and how to proceed with the protest.
It is fun to camp out in pleasant fall weather, but the cold is coming. As pleasing as it would be to many talk-radio callers to see the protesters blasted out of the park with water cannon, the city would be smarter to hang back and let General Winter do their work for them.