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The Panhandlers Union


Mayday-Voices from the Street

The forces of change were blowing hard today as those individuals who have been relegated to the streets are taking ownership of those streets in the form of risking arrest in direct action.

The Panhandlers Union of Ottawa organized 2 memorial Mayday street marches. The morning march began with a rally at the Human Rights Monument at City Hall at 11:30 am. About 50 persons congregated at the monument about one quarter of which were street involved. By 12 noon the group set off to confront Rideau Mall security regarding their use of violence against street involved persons.

Protestors shut down traffic on Elgin and Rideau along their path to the Rideau Center where they straddled both lanes in front of the second entrance to the mall. As they proceeded energy was high and chants of “No Justice No Peace”, “Capitalism Kills” and “Whose Streets, Our Streets resonated in the air”.

When the protestors arrived they were joined by another 20 or so street youth. Hundreds of people gather along both sides of the road to hear the complaints belted out in a mega phone provided by the Under Pressure Collective in unrestrained detail about how they are being brutalizes by mall security. And 500 flyers were passed out to the crowd.

There was a slight police presence and they were none obstructive. At one point one officer asked organizer Andrew Nellis (without ultimatum) if a few buses that were trapped unable to take the detour could pass. Nellis deferred the decision to the protest crowd and after careful deliberations we decided by vote to let these buses pass.

Traffic on both sides of Rideau Street where shut down for 45 minutes. The spirit of empowerment and solidarity were high. As the protest voluntarily broke up organizer Andrew Nellis announced if the brutalization did not stop we would be back for longer in bigger numbers. And another spontaneous action was announced for 4:00 pm commencing again at the Human Rights Monument.

At 4:00 pm about 40 street youth congregated at the monument as with a few supporters many with covered faces. There was a strong police presence this time, which created some fear and anxiety amongst the protestors.

Some protestors on bicycles scouted the surrounding area for police and reported back that along Elgin north of the monument and Rideau Street were full of bike cops but no police appeared to be anywhere south of us.

A group decision was made by a show of hands as to which route we would take. The original route planned for Elgin, Rideau, the Market, Bank and then to the Elgin Police Station was abandoned in favour of a direct route south on Elgin to the Police Station. Police where not ready for this choice and they had to scrambled to catch up with us as we headed out stopping traffic on both sides of Elgin.

As we approached the Police Station we stopped in front forming a line across both lanes of traffic. A line of about ten police officers stood across the front entrance to the building.

The first spontaneous chant that was shouted as we arrived was “ Hay Hoo Hay Hoo Barakat has got to go”.

The protestors decided again with a show of hands that two volunteers would approach the police and request a spokesperson come out on the street and register our complaints.

To young protestors with a black flag waving stepped out and approached the police line. The crowed agreed that the volunteers would be de-arrested if the police apprehended them. One officer came forward and offered to act as spokesperson and approached the crowd on the street.

The officer wrote down the complaints, which were mostly about Constable Barakat. The protestors reported that Barakat was a terror of the streets. They also complained that they were being ticketed for aggressive panhandling when they were being very polite and respectful.

The police spokesperson recommended that a police complaints be filed. Everyone said they were too afraid to file a complaint by themselves.

Nellis negotiated for an opportunity to make a group complaint. This was agreed to by the police spokesperson. And on this note the crowd decided to return to the monument and disperse pending the outcome of the group complaint, which will be followed up by Nellis.

This writer was very moved by the level of bravery showed by this very young very vulnerable group of people. I felt the energy of the collective action at least to some degree transform their sense of abandonment and powerlessness into a sense of hope that in collective action they can effect change.

Nellis asked that protestors return on June 1 at 1:00 to the monument to evaluate the results of the complaint process.

Protest organizers are pleased that the police did not use force to repress our action and they hope that this long awaited change is not transient.