Zero Tolerance for Dissent

Anti-Poverty Activists Rack up $1,500 in Fines, Which They Will Refuse to Pay

In a clear signal that it is easier to get away with dangerous driving than with protesting poverty in Ontario, five activists from Hamilton and Toronto were sentenced today to $300 fines apiece following their conviction for trespassing at the office of Stoney Creek MPP Brad Clark last spring. The five refused to pay the fines, insisting they would rather go to jail than pay money to a government which regularly makes life more brutal for the poor and homeless.

By comparison, in the first four prior cases of the day, drivers who pleaded guilty to drving at speeds of 120 km in 80 km zones were let off with standard $80-$100 fines.

The April 3 protest, which lasted approximately 45 minutes and caused little or no interruption to the daily business of the constituency office, was to protest the Harris government's poor-bashing "zero tolerance" policy, which institutes lifetime welfare bans against anyone convicted of "fraud."

The protest also called for cancellation of the government's massive $180 million contract with Andersen Consulting to throw people off social assistance, raising of the minimum wage and restoration welfare rates to pre-1995 levels.

Charged with trespassing were Wendell Fields, Randy Kay, Andrew Loucks and Scott Neigh of Hamilton and Matthew Behrens of Toronto. The five presented a wealth of evidence about the Ontario government's failure to live up to international obligations&endash;specifically the Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights&endash;and argued that international law does apply in domestic situations, citing recent Supreme Court decisions.

They also argued that the case should be viewed within the realm of the increasing criminalization of dissent, citing four recent mischief acquittals which showed the weight of the law should not be bluntly imposed to criminalize dissent or assign criminal sanctions to peaceful, nonviolent protesters.

However, such subtleties were completely lost on Justice of the "peace" Steveley, who insisted the mischief cases did not apply because this case was about trespass. He completely ignored recent Supreme Court decisions (especially the Baker case) which affirm the incorporation of international law into Canadian law, and he complained that the protest likely prevented Clark's office from dealing with the very poor people we sought to help. (Steveley was unaware of the fact that most poor people in Ontario would not even think of setting foot in a Tory office unless to set up a protest. Besides, most low-income visitors to the strip mall where Clark's office is located have likely returned from the food bank across the street to await a bus.)

Steveley also questioned why a constituency office was the focus of the protest when Queen's Park is so "accessible" (The five reminded him that one of their number has been banned from the legislature for over two years).

"You guys weren't organized, you were just hanging in the wind," Steveley complained.

In speaking to sentence, Randy Kay pointed out that the omnipresent courthouse bible contained this passage, relevant to the zero tolerance notion of forcing people in need away: "For I was hungry and ye gave me no meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me no drink. I was a stranger, and ye took me not in, naked, and ye clothed me not; sick and in prison, and ye visited me not."

"Whatever positive moral force the bible may contain, in court it becomes just another empty accoutrement of authority devoid of meaning. It is immoral and cruel to uphold politically motivated laws like zero tolerance," Kay said.

Scott Neigh echoed those sentiments when he declared, "At most, our actions caused a minor inconvenience to a very small number of people. The acts of this government, which we were there to protest, have caused extensive human suffering and even, in extreme cases, death. Yet it was our actions that resulted in intervention by the agents of the state. This is, of course, ridiculous."

Behrens told the JP that before sentencing he should think of the hundreds of people who have died as a result of poverty during the past five years of Tory rule. He pointed out that the "law is the law" approach of the Crown and JP were no different than the approaches employed by segregationist judges or those enforcing slavery statutes or finding Rosa Parks guilty.

Steveley, showing no emotion, automatically entered the $300 fines and moved on to the next case.