Action Description:

Hundreds Occupy Mackenzie Bridge, 55 Arrested and Criminally Charged

For most of 1999, Homes not Bombs organized throughout the province of Ontario to draw the links between poverty and militarism in Canada. The group worked to expose the myths of Canada as peacemaker and Canada as the "best place to live in the world," a status that doesn't make a lot of sense to the over 5 million Canadians forced to live in poverty while the War Dept. sucks up the largest discretionary use of Ottawa's national budget at some $10 billion annually.

After organizing meetings throughout the spring and summer, local coalitions formed to organize folks onto buses and on to Ottawa. The month of October was spent holding nonviolence training sessions in London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, Hamilton, Peterborough, and Ottawa, along with numerous public events around the issues of militarism and poverty.

Hundreds arrived in Ottawa the afternoon of November 11, Remembrance Day, and after settling in for dinner and a scenario meeting, activists worked on props that would be used in the civil society part of the next morning's action, and then headed out at 9 pm for a candlelight procession to the War Dept.

About 100 people attended this moving candlelight vigil and memorial service for victims of Canada's war economy under the overhang at the entrance to the War Dept. They read out over 150 names of the names of the homeless who had died because our economy spends more on war than housing, more on war than women's shelters and anti-male-violence initiatives, more on subsidizing the arms trade than on real community-building.

Candles reflecting in the windows of the Rideau Centre across the street and in the surveillance ball (like a disco ball) under the overhang of the War Dept. created a surreal experience as name after name was read out, victims of a war economy that builds bombs, not homes. Homeless people, women for whom there was no room at the battered women's shelters, people who had been killed by our military arms and personnel in Yugoslavia, Iraq, East Timor, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere.

Following a night's sleep on a church floor, about 200 folks gathered at 6:30 am and prepared to head out for a nonviolent civil resistance action in front of the War Department which would, in the end, close down for three hours a significant area of downtown Ottawa.

Fifty-four nonviolent resisters were arrested and hauled off by Ottawa riot police, fifty of them charged with mischief and obstruction of police for attempting to call for a massive affordable housing strategy and an end to the spending of untold billions on the military. The action occurred almost a year after homelessness had been declared a national disaster, a year in which the federal government failed to commit a single dime to construction of new affordable housing. The graffiti which read "Tired of writing letter to politicians" seemed to sum up the tone of the day.

The action had two aims: to convert the War Dept. to the Housing Dept., thereby bringing it in line with international law and Canada's United Nations obligations, and to construct a civil society on the adjoining Mackenzie Bridge representing all those parts of our communities which have been devastated by budget cuts while the War Dept. continues to receive almost $10 billion annually. The group demanded a 1% solution (increasing overall budget spending by an additional 1% on construction of affordable housing) and a commitment from Canada not to take part in the newly revived U.S.-led Star Wars nuclear war first strike program.

It was not like a traditional demonstration, as there were no speeches, no chanting, no fist waving and chest pounding. Rather, it was a gathering marked by a wondrous calm as people set up: a home replete with couches, easy chairs, a fridge and stove, a TV console, lamps, and other fixtures to represent the crucial need for affordable housing in Canada; a greed-free daycare with cribs, stuffed animals, games, and chalk for redecorating; a rainbow web made of various materials, including ties, which ran from the various light poles through the bridge railing and across the street to other light poles; a community organic garden, complete with farm animals and gardening tools; a free school for discussion and thought about what constitutes a civil society; a Food not Bombs free serving of warm and nutritious food; and a renovation crew which prepared to convert the War Dept. to the Housing Dept.

Participants ranged in age from young children to seniors, from high school students and university students to bank employees and market research office managers, retired school teachers, and numerous priests and ministers.

From the beginning, Ottawa police were not pleased by the demonstrators' refusal to follow a set route. (Police had arrived at the church asking that we follow a route that would lead us away from our intended focus; after we asked them to leave the church, because their guns violated action guidelines against possession of weapons, we explained that we would travel the route that we had chosen.)

Startled officers did not know what to do when our group split in two, as planned, and approached the War Dept. from both sides of the Mackenzie Bridge. Officers attempted to keep demonstrators as far away from the War Dept. as possible, but when the group split in two their strategy was in pieces.

Demonstrators immediately set up shop on both sides of the bridge in front of the War Dept., and officers said they would allow the demonstration to continue for a while, but then would move in and charge those who refused to move. Passersby had perhaps not recently seen a demo in which fridges, couches and cribs were major props, and were taken aback at what they saw.

Having occupied the bridge at around 7:30 am, the demonstrators continued to work in their various areas, periodically making announcements such as "Discussion on the need for a national daycare program, meet in the daycare area," "Meeting of the home renovators in the house, food over here," etc. The Raging Grannies were the first to walk up directly to the line of riot police, who were "guarding" the entrance to the War Dept., and began singing to them.

An hour into the action, citizen's inspectors prepared to move toward the War Dept. entrance with inspection certificates outlining Canada's (and specifically the War Dept.'s) violations of international laws, principles and agreements which Canada has said it adheres to (covenants on the rights of women, the child, to a safe environment, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Nuremberg Principles).

Before doing so, an announcement was read out over the bullhorn in English and French explaining to the officers our intentions, and asking them to comply with international law and allow us into the building.

The officers did not move, and as the citizens' inspectors moved forward in small, calm groupings, they were met by a solid wall of baton-wielding riot police. The "citizens' inspectors" explained their intention to enter and the rationale behind it, pointing out the crisis in homelessness in Canada, the use of the Canadian military to murder people overseas, etc.

Following football-like chants of MOVE MOVE from the police, the citizens inspectors were poked hard in the chest by the police batons. After the group retreated, it came forward and tried again, calmly stating their case and emphasizing both their nonviolence and the fact that the police should not be afraid.

This time, one of the officers in riot gear, who seemed to intently listen to the resisters' pleas to get in and stop the crimes being committed by the War Dept., broke down in tears, while another started moving rhythmically to the singing on the bridge (catching himself a little too late). Other officers smiled in appreciation at the nonviolence of the demonstrators, with one commenting that he "liked the scene."

Other police were not so open to the message of nonviolence and tended to behave in a more brutal fashion, especially as arrests began to occur.

In response to officers' plans to make arrests, there were no chants of "shame" or "pig," but instead the singing of civil rights and anti-war songs, with a new ditty sung to the tune of Frere Jacques:

Homes not Bombs, Homes not Bombs,

Build Homes Now, Build Homes Now,

Housing is a Human Right, Housing is a Human Right,

Homes not Bombs

We Shall Overcome, Down by the Riverside and other tunes were repeatedly sung in a joyous spirit of resistance to the impending violence.

About 90 minutes into the action, employees of the massive War Dept. were still glued to their windows, observing the scene below. Many smiled and returned the peace signs which were sent their way. (For three days before the action, employees had been leafletted to let them know the demonstration proved no threat to them or their jobs, and that Homes not Bombs would be offering them some job retraining on the bridge for when their employer changed to the Ministry of Housing. Despite repeated letters to War Minister Art Eggleton requesting discussion on this vital issue, no response was received).

Shortly after 9 am, a police wagon showed up, and police dogs were brought out of vans to threaten the demonstrators. The screeching and barking of two German Shepherds, visibly nervous, resonated with many in the action who had watched scenes of police dogs used against civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham on videos on the bus ride up, and who had been trained to deal with dogs in nonviolence trainings throughout the month of October). One poor dog was abused by his handler; the creature obviously needed to go to the bathroom, and every time he raised his leg, it was slapped down again by the handler. Demonstrators will be reporting this abuse to the OSPCA.

Meanwhile, homeless people who lived under the Mackenzie Bridge came up to join the action, glad to see people calling for housing,. One of them joined the circle sitting on the bridge, explaining it was no big deal to him to risk arrest, as it happened to him constantly as a homeless man, the only difference here being that he would at least go to jail with supportive friends. "Where else am I gonna go on a cold day and get three square meals but jail?" he asked.

Once the police wagon had pulled up, ready to be filled, riot police in front of the War Dept. pushed and shoved the nonviolent citizens inspectors up against concrete barricades, at which point all of them sat down and patiently waited for an opportunity to enter the War Dept. That opportunity never came because police obstructed justice, and instead picked up the resisters one by one, wound tight plastic handcuffs around their wrists, and bundled them off to the awaiting police wagons. Many were targeted for rough treatment, including painful compliance holds, with one demonstrator reportedly punched twice in the stomach, dropped three times on the concrete, and smashed against the outside of the wagon, all because he pointed out there was no need to be rough. He suffered bruises and lacerations on his back.

Despite the intimidating posture of riot police, police dogs, and ongoing threats, resisters held their ground, singing, clapping, and never showing enmity towards the police. It became obvious that the Ottawa authorities would prefer to keep the War Dept. operating than to allow the symbols of civil society -- housing, education, food, free schools, daycares -- to remain on the bridge.

After the first group were bundled off to jail, a second RCMP vehicle drove up, but as soon as it hit the curb, it popped a tire, and could not take people to jail with a flat, so an embarrassed driver got back in and drove away.

Once it became clear that the police were more interested in arresting nonviolent resisters than in complying with international law, a group of 30-35 people sat down on the bridge to protect the civil society they had built that morning. They were surrounded by other participants observing ongoing arrests, singing, and providing updates about news coverage. The last person was arrested at about 10 am

An immediate order to clear both sides of the bridge was issued on pain of arrest. Police moved quickly, going over the metal railings and walking menacingly toward Raging Grannies and others who remained unarrested at this time.

By 10:30 the police were finally able to open the bridge again to traffic, and 54 people who thought Canada should build homes, not blow them up, sat in the Ottawa jail, some not to be released until Saturday around noon with criminal charges and a trial to come in the year 2000.

After a walk back to the church for the non-arrestees, a food crew was set up to bring chili and pita bread out to the homeless people we had met earlier in the day. Jail support systems were set up, and the long process of waiting for our friends to be released commenced. Police stonewalled all attempts of resisters to make a phone call, and the first were not released until after midnight. About half of those released missed out on their constitutional right to see a justice of the peace for a bail hearing within 24 hours of arrest.

Treatment of resisters in the cells was standoffish at best, with many denigrating comments aimed at the women prisoners and vegetarians, many of whom could not eat for hours while in custody because of dietary restrictions not accommodated by the police.

Singing continued and spirits remained high, though, as resisters refused to allow the violence of the jail system to wear them down.

Those in the cells saw the daily violence of the injustice system; one homeless man who was brought in was stripped naked because he had tried to sneak in a cigarette; he was left naked in a cell, refused his clothes.

Meanwhile, a group of drunken lawyers who'd been picked up from being drunk and disorderly made vicious, sexist remarks to the women prisoners.

A group of exhausted jail support team members spent the night in the police lobby, checking off names as folks got out of the cells and prepared for the next step: finger printing, and a set date on December 6.

Reaction among participants was very positive; we felt that we had developed in a short time a cohesive community that looked after one another, fed and housed each other, and watched out for one another under often trying conditions.

One resister, a high school student, wrote shortly afterwards:

"Even still what I experienced in 27 hours pales in comparison to what is experienced by human beings living (and dying) every day and every night on the streets of this "the best country in the world in which to live". One decade ago Canada had the distinction of being the most peaceful and environmentally friendly country in the world. Today we continue to step backwards, communities no longer exist in most cases and money is valued over all save for immediate family.

"I felt great joy and a feeling of family with the 150 other people who came from all over Ontario and Quebec. And I, a middle class suburbanite still attending high school (having only heard of this gathering of peace by chance), will pray, wish and hope that Canada will once again truly take a leading role in peace. And begin disarming itself and concentrating on bringing the communities together in peace throughout the country and world. Yes I would with great pride go through what I went through again if it meant that even one other human being could feel what I felt this Remembrance Day weekend."

Media coverage of the event was extensive, and the federal government, after a year of stonewalling, was finally forced to come up with some figures that it claimed would go toward alleviating the crisis of homelessness. Even Prime Minister Jean Chretien was questioned about the action while on tour in Africa. It was clear the positive media generated by the action sent the government into a maelstrom of media-spinning to deflect attention from the arrests of 54 people protesting war and homelessness. Both Homelessness minister Claudette Bradshaw and War Minister Art Eggleton were questioned about the action too.

Despite a high number of first time arrestees, many of those released commented that their experience was nothing compared to the daily violence faced by the homeless, by those without a supportive community, and that their exposure to this violence only made them more determined to engage in nonviolent resistance to the institutions and policies which perpetuate war and poverty.

Trial for the arrestees will occur sometime in 2000. In the meantime, the energy generated by the largest anti-war civil disobedience action in almost a decade in Canada has been considerable, and is leading towards some exciting local initiatives in participating cities.

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