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Occupy Toronto: Who Are These People?

"It is a speaking out, coming out, dancing out." says playwright Eve Ensler. "It" being Occupy Wall Street, of course.

In Toronto, to where the protests have spread since Saturday, the movement is certainly "speaking out," although it's rather difficult at times to hear what they're saying. "Dancing out"? Well, if this is a dance, as Ensler calls it, then the performers are tripping all over each other.

St. James Park -- Toronto's Zuccotti -- is playing host to the Occupy Toronto protesters. Porta-potties have been installed, tents are being erected, and people from all walks of life are coming to see what exactly it's like to protest in the 21st century. I imagine this was much to the chagrin to the young couple who were being married that day in St. James Cathedral (a favourite spot of the Queen when visiting the city), which would explain the bridesmaids' black dresses.

When I first get there, I count more cameras than signs, and suddenly remember the G20 when every Ryerson student and his blogosphere kin thought if he just got that one picture, he'd be the next Marinovich. But as the day wore on, more and more painted signs crowned the crowds, the majority of them announcing the end of capitalism, that "revolution is the only solution," and that "if you can't beat 'em, eat 'em." Pictures of Marx and Mao were common features, as well as the crossed out images of former president Reagan.

The crowd is a hodgepodge of the things headlines are made of, and stereotypes wrought. Between these two extremes are more everyday folk, from parents with young children, to the veterans of protests gone by, happy to see the return of emotion on the street. A great deal of the protesters wear Guy Fawkes masks of (sadly) V For Vendetta fame. These masks, whose rights are owned by Time Warner, are meant to express the anonymity of various protesters, members of Anonymous amongst them. Robin Hood costumes are abundant, as well as the type of clothes one would expect to find at a rave (I imagine these to be the stragglers from the World Electronic Music Festival unable to let go of their glow-sticks).

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However, while the latter are the types of people that would make good fodder for the media, it would be a mistake to characterize them all as such. Upon the muddy, squishy ground are protesters with meaningful messages to convey, although I find these voices of reason are smothered by the sensationalist songs of "craving harmony" and megaphone-wielding anarchists.

Mark, a man from Toronto, and owner of a factory in Vaughan, is one of the more articulate voices.

"I'm discontented with what we call democracy," he tells me. "Representative democracy has clearly failed us; direct democracy is better. For example, if you took the situation in Libya, and asked Canadian citizens if they were in favour of our involvement, they would have said no. I believe foreign and corporate interests have influenced our politicians," he continues, "while in fact they should be acting on our behalf. And especially today, with all of our technological advancements, there is no reason why the people shouldn't be more directly involved with Canadian policy, both domestic and abroad. We need a system in which democracy can exercise as it should, that is, that will allow people to vote on issues more directly. We shouldn't be giving the power to someone who will bankrupt us."

Mark's voice is but one the hundreds here at St. James Park, and his reasons for being here are not akin to everyone else.

"I'm protesting the monetary system," a young man named Nick tells me. Working in retail at a downtown clothing store, he is dressed, ironically, in shirt and tie, brandishing a sign that reads: "There is no economy."

"'Economy,'" he explains, "is defined as the conservative use of resources. But now, the economy doesn't do this, and works more for the corporations and the rich. It should be working for the human race, with a focus on individuals. I'm against fractional reserve banking and the debt-based economic model. It's not nice. The monetary system should be abolished."

But Nick doesn't believe the Bank of Canada is one of the big guys; rather, the Big Five (RBC, BMO, CIBC, TD, and Scotiabank) are, as they are "private and foreign-owned banks." He claims that while these institutions are partly to blame for our nation's woes, it's society at large, and the current monetary system, who are at the heart of the problem.

"Do you know Jacque Fresco?" he asks me. "He's the founder of the Venus Project, and talks about how we should move to a resource-based economy. Now, we create a false sense of scarcity, but we have an abundance of resources, such as technological, and we should share these with the rest of the world. Fresco says we should focus on the human race, and I believe this is the solution." And his opinion of Canada's comparative economic strength? Nick says, "It only looks good because of the housing bubble; Canada is a mess behind the scenes."

Like at OWS, Occupy Toronto has its own 'tent town,' and its own library. Fitzgerald's The Love of the Last Tycoon is nowhere to be found, nor any other gilded work of fiction, though I do find a great deal of leftist papers and self-help books for humanity at large. The man in charge is kind and helpful, like so many who have taken on an "official" capacity at Occupy Toronto, and explains to me the library works just like any other lending library, and is stocked solely via donations.

Walking through the park, one is always suspect, or victim, to an outspoken individual using the protests as a soapbox. Pamphlets are given away willy-nilly. These vary from the coloured papers of "2B1," a group that believes as a race, we must act as one and "declare our interdependence," which, while banal, is comparatively ingenious to the other extreme in which one finds leaflets quoting the Bible and the Rothschilds ad infinitum to propel some conspiracy theory about a "One World Power."

I spoke to a man with such a pamphlet, Gordon Chamberlain, who claimed to founded the organization to put an end to 'ecocide' a month ago. This was his reason for occupying Toronto.

"Ecocide," he tells me, "is the large-scale destruction of the environment; it's a war action. It must be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. There's a group of like-minded bodies that are in favor of the destruction of the environment."

He lists the "crimes" of corporations in Alberta's tar sands, the 50 years of petroleum dumping into the Niger Delta, and the "negligent conduct of the CEOs and Board of Directors of GM who fooled consumers that Hummers were a responsible response to deaths from smog and the environmental and economic impact of global climate destabilization." The word "Destabilization" is spelt as "Destabilisation" the pamphlet he handed me.

"I've written to Harper over a year and a half ago about this issue to get him to help mandate the International Criminal Court to get them going on prosecution for these crimes. But he hasn't responded. I'm trying to get the University of Toronto and York University to make fighting ecocide a part of their curriculum."

It's getting colder out, and there have been calls for blankets. A lot of blankets. What will happen when the snow comes down? I wonder. I walk through tent town, and there's a look of resolve on everyone's faces, as if winter will never come. But 9 a.m. Monday will: "I'm staying here, but I have job," I hear the librarian say, "so I'll have to leave for work on weekdays, 9 to 5."

I find two of the Guy Fawkes that are sprinkled about the protests. They agree to speak with me, but only if their names are fake, and they can keep the masks on. One of them is holding a sign reading, "Rich Y U No Share?"

"I'm fighting against capitalism, corporatocracy, and injustices against the masses," the young man tells me. He a student (in debt, he stresses), and lives in Toronto. "When money comes before people, that's when you have a problem; you can't have peace."

I ask him what he thinks the Canadian banks have done to justify what is currently happening at St. James. He says, "Basically, the bailout. But that's for the American system. I can't speak too much about the Canadian banks. Except that we should nationalize them. But I believe that we should tax the elite more, and limit CEO salaries." He goes on, "It doesn't make a difference to them if they make $2 million a year, or 10. I mean, if we taxed the CEOs one per cent more, imagine how many jobs would be generated?"

These muddled messages seem to be du jour at Occupy Toronto. Later in the day, I come across a group of students brandishing a cloth banner with the headline "How to Go Further." Scribbled onto it are originalities such as "Make Love, Not War," specificities like "No More A-Holes," "They got the guns but we got the numbers," and so on and so forth. I speak to a young woman named Sam who appears to be their ringleader and ask her what her reasons are for being here are.

"I'm protesting greed," she says. "The greed of credit card companies, banks, and Big Pharma." Sam says she works in Toronto at a marijuana cafe. She's got "a really big problem with Big Pharma because, you know, marijuana is such a healing thing. But Big Pharma is making it impossible for the government to legalize it. It's medicinal, that's why it's illegal." She claims that OWS and OBS are part of the solution to our current crisis: "Once we delve away from reality, it's dangerous." And how does one return to reality? "Through a lot of discussion," she says, smiling.

In terms of Canada, Sam claims that "Harper hasn't done enough for the country. The money he got from the bailout went into convincing people the bailout worked." A man comes by with a headband of hers, and we end our conversation before I have the time to tell her it was in the United States, not Canada that the banks got a bailout.

What is there to say about Occupy Toronto? Well, that it still has yet to take any true form. The so-called "day of action" has been more noise than action. Walking through St. James, you get the impression that a good chunk of the crowd are here more for the sake of it than anything else; this is evidenced through faulty logic or reasoning. Everyone I spoke to seemed to have a different reason for being here. And when reasons were similar, it was only because of the use of broad-stroke language. There is no unity, regardless of what their supporters and organizers say.

If there is a common bond between these protesters, it's disenchantment, anger. But at what exactly? Too many things to count, as I found out. We are left with nothing but a mere emotion to link these protesters. And mere emotion is not enough to propel a movement to successful heights. Should the Occupy Movement sit down and draw out a specific map of what must be done, things might go differently.

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," says W.B. Yeats when speaking of the Second Coming. But here in the park named after James, son of Zebedee, there is no centre. The protesters say, "Surely some revelation is at hand," but they refuse to start at the beginning, to have a centre. Without a centre, things cannot fall apart, and when things cannot fall apart, they cannot be rebuilt and be the Second Coming. What I've seen at St. James is nothing more than a group of people at a standstill. They can camp out all they want, they can march in the streets all they want, but without specificity, they will not move forward.

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