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How to Radicalize a Generation

Toronto ravers are trying to be so reasonable.

They have worked with City Council to draft the Protocol for the Operation of Safe Dance Events. The Toronto Dance Safety Committee has tried to make sure paramedic teams are at all the big parties.

And this week, at the inquiry into the death of 20-year-old Allan Ho, ravers are explaining that the primary cause of ecstasy-related death is dehydration. Therefore, they say, most of the risk from the drug can be eliminated at raves simply by making sure there is unlimited access to water and proper ventilation. What the ravers are only just beginning to understand is that none of this matters. The rave uproar, like all drug wars, isn't about safety, it's about politics. It's about the fact that a lot of parents don't understand their own kids: the way they dress, the music they listen to, the thing with the pacifier lollipops.

Which provides a great political opportunity for Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino to step up for National Daddy Duty—to claim he knows exactly what those sinister lollipops and teddy-bear backpacks are all about. Drugs and violence, that's what. The only solution is to shut them down.

Kim Stanford, a registered nurse and chair of the Toronto Dance Safety Committee, has tried to counter this fear-mongering with reasoned statistics: Of Ontario's nine ecstasy-related deaths last year, only three were clearly associated with raves. Others point out that there were 6,503 alcohol-related deaths in Canada in 1995 (a stat overlooked by Heritage Minister Sheila Copps when she held up a Molson commercial as an example of our proud national identity).

Although Chief Fantino has done his best to toss shootings at after-hours clubs into his anti-rave crusade, Ms. Stanford and others have countered that these incidents did not take place at raves, but at private clubs. Ecstasy, as anyone who has seen its effects in action can attest, is a love drug. Its users are more likely to be guilty of cloying hugging than handgun offences.

The ravers have also patiently explained that, if you ban a scene of 50,000 people, it won't go away, it will go underground, back to the bad old days of no running water and suffocating ventilation. Since none of these arguments have had any effect, perhaps it's time for a new tactic. A similar scenario unfolded in Britain when the Tory government passed the Criminal Justice Act in 1994. The act became known as the anti-rave law because, by giving police new powers to break up parties and arrest those in attendance, it effectively made raves illegal.

But it also did something else: It took an apolitical party scene and turned it into a political movement.

When the Criminal Justice Act was introduced, British ravers got organized. They formed key alliances with other political constituencies who were facing fierce crackdowns by the state: anarchists getting thrown out of their squats, homeless people barred from panhandling, the radical eco-warriors who were trying to prevent forests from being paved over by new highways.

Together, they began to develop an overarching analysis about the loss of non-commercial, public space—to live, plant gardens, go to school, have parties. Out of this oddball coalition of hedonists, artists, environmentalists and students, a vibrant new political movement emerged: Reclaim the Streets.

Since 1995, RTS has been throwing impromptu street parties in the middle of busy intersections all over London, some of them 20,000 strong. The more traditional activists brought an analysis about the need for public space for purely public purposes; the ravers brought club-quality sound systems and a sense of abandon.

The RTS phenomenon has spread around the world, including to several cities in Canada, most recently on May Day. The parties have been enormously controversial in Europe because they often turn into full-scale anti-capitalism riots, a fact that might be of interest to Chief Fantino and his get-tough plans.

Already, you can see it happening in Ontario. Just to defend itself from attacks, the ad-hoc, splintered rave scene has been forced to organize itself into a unified political lobby. Suddenly, the event promoters, independent record labels and trendy clothing companies that make up the scene aren't just party hedonists: They are employers of Canada's youth, part of Ontario's tourism industry, world-class artists.

Sometimes, it takes an organized attack to find out who you really are—and who your allies are. As in Britain, Toronto's ravers are quickly discovering that they have lots of company of the wrong side of the law-and-order divide. There are squeegee kids, homeless people and, most recently, high-school students with no allegiance to the Queen.

Is Chief Fantino inadvertently running a recruitment drive for the young anarchists of Toronto? Maybe. After all, the reason Reclaim the Streets hasn't taken off in Canada like it has in Britain is that Canada's youth didn't wake up one morning to learn they had been reclassified as dangerous criminals. Until now, that is.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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