Over the past few weeks, Toronto has seen several incidents of police brutality as the city has moved to evict homeless workers from the many encampments across the city. This has resulted in sharp, violent confrontations between police and community members, who bravely mobilized across the city to defend the encampments and peacefully protest against these evictions. The violence has been instigated by the Toronto Police Service, as was seen at Alexandra Park and Lamport Stadium last week, where nearly 30 people were arrested.
Mayor John Tory was questioned about the horrifying displays of violence against peaceful community members, and unsurprisingly doubled down on defending the actions of the police, stating: “I think they [the police] are doing their best to show restraint.”
Tory then went on to blame the protestors, pointing to the fact that some protestors showed up wearing goggles. Nevermind the fact that the police showed up to Lamport Stadium with overwhelming force, brandishing batons, and were actively pepper spraying the crowds. Despite Tory’s blatant attempts to evade responsibility, it is clear to anyone and everyone that the police blatantly attacked the homeless and community members. They came to Lamport Stadium with a clear goal to disperse the homeless population with no regard for providing safe permanent housing.
Toronto’s homelessness crisis
These raids by the police are not isolated incidents, but a part of a far larger program of evictions being carried out across the city, targeting the homeless encampments. This is the city’s response to the growing homelessness epidemic in Toronto.
This widespread problem has only been exacerbated by COVID-19, with hundreds of new homeless encampments popping up across the city since the beginning of the pandemic. On any given day in Toronto, over 10,000 people will be homeless. With rent continuously rising, and housing increasingly unaffordable, it should shock no one that the homeless population is increasing in the city. To make matters worse, the shelter system is operating at capacity nearly every day. This means that there is no way the underfunded shelters that exist can handle the influx of homeless that are now being harassed and raided by the police. Subsidized housing is facing a similar crisis with over 80,000 households currently on the waitlist.
Unsurprisingly, police raids do not actually fix homelessness. John Tory knows that, as do the wealthy Toronto condo developers who make millions in profits from building luxury condos in the city. These condos are usually bought up by wealthy capitalists that either flip them on the market or use them as short-term rentals for maximum profit. This has resulted in 66,000 empty condos in Toronto, which could more than house the current homeless population. Of course, Tory and his wealthy friends would prefer to ignore these facts and instead sweep the homeless population away from the eyes of the public through the use of police batons.
The labour movement must lead this struggle
So far, opposition to these police raids have been conducted by small community organizations. These activists have shown an amazing level of courage, facing risk of injury and arrest to try and stop the brutality of the Toronto Police. However, this is not enough. It is clear that a serious organized effort must be made to stop these evictions, and it must be led by the organized labour movement.
It is important to understand that the homeless are unhoused workers, who are often but not always unemployed. Capitalism is a brutal system which seeks greater and greater profits by impoverishing workers. Declining wages, rising unemployment, and the economic crisis sparked by COVID-19 has resulted in widespread poverty. Over half of all Canadians live paycheque to paycheque. That means that many Toronto workers are just one bad month away from homelessness. Any worker can be driven to homelessness due to the precarious nature of capitalism. It is therefore the duty of the labour movement to not abandon these workers, but to treat them like fellow workers and defend them against poverty and police crackdowns.
At the forefront of helping the police with these evictions are the city workers, organized in CUPE 416. These workers actually face the same enemy as those they are being told to evict. The same city that attempts to cut their wages and conditions is also the city attempting to clear out the homeless. This shows the potential unity that exists within all members of the working class, and highlights the need for solidarity between these city workers and the homeless. We must appeal to these union workers to refuse to carry out this work, as it pits different members of the working class against one another for the benefit of John Tory and his wealthy capitalist friends. The union leadership must promote this organic solidarity and call on union members to stand down, and protect them from any reprisals the city may try to place on them for refusing to participate in these evictions. All workers have the right to refuse unsafe work, and nothing can be more unsafe than continued police violence. In this way, the trade union movement can lead this struggle. John Tory might think he can ignore a few hundred activists, but he would back down in the face of the organized working class which is the backbone of what makes this city run.
This defense must be coupled with political explanations for homelessness and the nature of the capitalist system. John Tory and the wealthy elite of Toronto attempt to paint the homeless as an alien group of people who are separate from the working class, when this cannot be further from the truth. Homelessness, like low wages or unemployment, are a product of the capitalist system and impacts all workers. What will end homelessness is not police batons, but the end of for-profit housing. There must be a mass program of social housing built by unionized labour. This would create new well-paying jobs for the working class, while also tackling the problem of homelessness. Of course, Tory and his Bay Street friends would object to such a program, but it is clear that there is more than enough money for it in the bloated Toronto Police budget, which receives over a billion dollars annually. Such a program could easily be paid for from the pockets of the wealthy condo speculators who have made billions off the unaffordable housing market. Moreover, the big landlords and speculators—who often own hundreds of empty condos—should be expropriated and their property nationalized and used to combat the homelessness crisis. If such a program were put in place, then the homeless crisis would be resolved, and no one would ever have to sleep in a park again.
Mobilize to defend Moss Park!
The obvious next target for the crackdown on the homeless in Toronto is Moss Park. The park is known for being a centre for the homeless community in Toronto, and the police have already begun to put up fences in preparation for their raid. Community members are well aware of the coming attack, and are anxiously standing their ground in the face of the coming brutality. They need our help.
The labour movement must take up the well-known labour slogan: An injury to one is an injury to all! We must mobilize to defend the homeless workers of Moss Park from evictions and brutality in the face of the police. If the trade union movement leads this struggle, it is entirely possible to stop these evictions in their tracks and force the ruling class in Toronto to fund affordable housing for all.
For a labour-led movement to defend Moss Park against police evictions!
An injury to one is an injury to all!
For affordable housing for all built by unionized labour!