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Would You Invite John Clarke to Your Riot?

How do you organize a riot?

That is an important question right now for John Clarke, the most visible member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. After OCAP's demonstration at Queen's Park turned into a pitched battle between protesters and police last week, Mr. Clarke was instantly singled out as a Machiavellian puppeteer, pulling the strings of a limp, witless rent-a-mob.

But what started as retro red-baiting quickly became more serious. Several unions have threatened to pull their funding from the anti-poverty group, and now Mr. Clarke himself may face police charges for allegedly inciting a riot.

Most commentators took it as a given that the demonstrators could never have decided all on their own to fight back when the police stormed the crowd with clubs and horses. After all, they came armed with swimming goggles and vinegar-soaked bandanas, so clearly they were ready for battle (never mind that they were meant to ward off the inevitable pepper spray). Someone must have orchestrated the violence, told them to pick up bricks, held Molotov cocktail-making workshops.

Why would someone do this? Apparently, to seek fame and fortune.

In half a dozen newspaper articles, it has been pointed out that John Clarke is not homeless himself, that he—gasp!—lives in a rented bungalow in Scarborough. Even more scandalous: There were other people at the protest who weren't homeless, either.

The assumption is that activists are always self-interested, out to protect their property values, lower their tuition fees, or get themselves raises. In this context, putting one's body on the line for a set of beliefs about how society should function is seen as somehow fraudulent, even sinister. The young and radical are told to shut up and get a job.

I have known several of OCAP's "professional activists" for years. Some of them first became involved in anti-poverty work in their late teens, through Food Not Bombs, a group that believes that food is a basic human right and that you shouldn't need a municipal permit to cook some and share it with people who are hungry.

Some of these young activists could, indeed, get lucrative jobs and move out of their cramped, shared apartments if they wanted to. They are staggeringly resourceful and well educated, and some of them are so wily with a Linux operating system that they could easily be one of those dot-com millionaires retiring at 30.

But they have chosen a different route, one that flatly rejects a value system in which the only acceptable use of our skills and talents is to trade them for money and power. Instead, they are using those highly marketable skills to work for power dispersal, to convince the least empowered members of Ontario society that they have powers—to organize collectively, to defend themselves against brutality and abuse—that are going unused.

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty exists for the sole purpose of empowering the poor and the homeless, which is why it is so very unjust that last week's protest was presented as the scheming handiwork of a single man who uses the poor as props and pawns.

The Coalition is one of the very few anti-poverty groups that emphasizes organizing, as opposed to mere charity or advocacy. Within OCAP, poor people are not statistics in a new study, and neither are they simply mouths to feed or bodies that need sleeping bags. They are something else entirely: a political constituency that has a right to be heard. Finding a way for the homeless to take on their political opponents is an extraordinarily difficult task, which is why OCAP is frequently held up as a success story by activists around the world.

How do you organize the homeless, the transient, the poor? We know that workers are organized in factories, homeowners in their neighbourhoods, students in their schools. But OCAP's constituency is, by definition, dispersed and constantly on the move. And while workers and students can become political lobbies by forming unions and going on strike, the homeless have already been discarded by every institution they could possibly disrupt.

It's obstacles such as these that have led most anti-poverty groups to conclude that the poor and the homeless need to be spoken for and acted upon. Except for OCAP, which is trying to create a space for the poor to speak, and to act, for themselves. And this is where things gets complicated: Most of us don't really want to see and hear this, the anger in their voices, the rage in their actions.

Which is why so many people are angry at John Clarke. His crime isn't organizing a riot. It is refusing to clean up poverty for the benefit of cameras and politicians. The Coalition doesn't ask its members to abide by the genteel protocols of polite protest. And it doesn't tell angry people they shouldn't be angry, especially when confronted by some of the very same police officers who beat them in back alleys or the politicians who write laws that cost them their homes.

John Clarke didn't organize a riot and neither did OCAP. They just didn't stop it.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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