On a sunny May 23, 2020, in the city of Toronto, thousands of people decided to go to the park. Can you blame them?
COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns have persisted since mid-March and perhaps understandably, the urban precariat is getting restless.
Not everybody has a yard. Not everybody has a balcony. Many Toronto renters live in single-unit residential ‘rooming house’ style basements. Since they aren’t all ‘to code’ some are built without windows. It’s not exactly a shock that hundreds and thousands flocked to the parks on a lovely Saturday afternoon, just as the Province of Ontario announced it was preparing to ease lockdown restrictions.
It’s not hard to empathize with a group of urbanites who have watched businesses and jobs evaporate in a Great Depression style economic meltdown. Many of those in the park undoubtedly have been forced by unscrupulous and greedy landlords to grapple with illegal evictions and unlawful harassment. Their finances are in jeopardy, their housing is in jeopardy and for the most part, many of them have nowhere to go—it’s a pressure cooker. A day in the park might just take the steam off.
It is increasingly apparent that gatherings of people risk facilitating the community transmission of the novel Coronavirus. These are material facts which have been proclaimed loudly by public health officials. Gatherings of more than 5 people are still prohibited in the province of Ontario, even as restrictions ease. So, how did anybody think that a day in the park was a good idea?
Out with mass culture, out with civil society, in with social distancing, in with the petri dish.
We are told by the state, by officials and by experts, that the old world that we knew, the world only a few short months behind us, will never be made whole again. The slogan we use to describe this phenomenon is the “new normal”.
Our identities are, in many ways, lost as citizens, as societies and as a global community. Out with mass culture, out with civil society, in with social distancing, in with the petri dish. We are living the cognitive dissonance of late stage capitalism and the ensuing crisis of shared identity is quite probably terminal.
It’s a kind of nervous-breakdown for our system, a system failure presently inducing members of our society to gather when and where they can and seek what community they can find. Is it ignorance? Is it malice? It’s neither. We’re in a wartime economy, being called on to make wartime sacrifices and the social contract we all relied on has been indelibly rewritten in a way which defines us all simultaneously as victims and murderers. The collapse of the last century’s mass culture, and the neoliberal insistence that capitalism must remain on life support has similarly brought millions to the same precipice of unconscious collective self-harm, but we aren’t quite as outraged about that, are we?
Let us lay the blame for this horror where it belongs.
The pandemic has forced us to confront an uncomfortable question about the value of human life, the true cost of our lifestyles and the inherent dichotomy between the pursuit of profit and concern for the welfare of others. Let us lay the blame for this horror where it belongs. As graffiti which has appeared across the city of Toronto proclaims: corona is the virus, capitalism is the pandemic.
We are witnessing a struggle to the death between everything we know is right and everything we have been told is expedient. The only truth now? Everything is political.
The new normal isn’t lockdowns or quarantines, growing reactionary sentiments or the oft-sympathetic and even justifiable pushbacks against draconian, unconstitutional “patchwork” emergency measures aimed at reducing community transmission of COVID-19.
The new normal is biological warfare: the weaponization of Coronavirus for political purposes and profit motives. The disease will be invoked a thousand ways: to distract us, to outrage us, to make us afraid and above all– compliant. Divide and conquer. All of us are equal before the disease except in the ways we were already unequal.
Biological war is here.
There have been escalating weekly protests demanding immediate reopening of the economy. These protests have been focused on the lawn of Ontario’s provincial legislature, Queen’s Park, in the city of Toronto. The Toronto demonstrations aren’t an isolated trend. The month of May saw anti-lockdown protests across the United States. These protests were fomented by far-right interests including firearms lobby groups, conspiracy theorists and their business community benefactors. Many of these demonstrations are attended by armed militia groups, and openly affiliated with accelerationist neo-Nazi gangs.
In the state of Michigan, the state government was shuttered after armed protesters lynched the state’s pro-lockdown governor in effigy on the steps of her own Statehouse. The demonstrations have intensified as the president of the United States, Donald Trump, used Twitter to exhort his followers to ‘liberate’ statehouses. Trump, by reputation and self-definition is perhaps the single greatest figurehead for that great perversity: the union of capital and state. That Trump vociferously opposes public health measures which negatively impact the economy, is perhaps, unsurprising. Something about foxes and hen-houses.
Do businesses and business leaders have a vested interest in rapidly ending lockdowns, despite the science? Why are real estate developers supporting the protests in Toronto? Do political outcomes that result in more deaths also service their profits? These are questions that need to be answered. What is certain though, is that the call to ‘reopen’ without thought or consideration for the human cost comes dangerously close to meeting the definition of advocacy to genocide.
People at the far-right demonstrations in Michigan and Toronto have shared messaging. They are against what they call “overreaching” gun control measures (This is true of many leftists as well, though they are not attending these protests). The far-right protesters in Toronto promote 5G conspiracy theories and promote racist arguments against immigration. Both of these talking points, aside from being shared with the Michigan legislature demonstrators, are directly linked by public policy, journalism and fake news experts to Russia-backed disinformation campaigns. Could international intrigues and state-agendas be dictating the priorities for a wholly inorganic civil society response to the pandemic? Well, it’s happened before.
A deliberate conspiracy towards bioterrorism.
On March 22, 2020 the FBI warned US federal officials that white supremacist groups “are encouraging one another to spread the virus, if contracted, through bodily fluids and personal interactions.” Given the ease of obtaining and transporting biological materials during a global pandemic, we shouldn’t put it out of our minds that it is a facile matter now for states, terror groups, individuals and yes, corporations—to obtain samples of the disease and spread it deliberately.
One person at the legislature in Toronto was even filmed licking a statue to prove just how unafraid they were of transmitting COVID-19 to another person. Aside from being callous, tone-deaf and unsanitary, I would go so far as to suggest that these aren’t the acts of ‘protesters’ at all. By openly promoting harmful misinformation, willfully violating social-distancing measures and actually spreading biological matter around to make a political statement: by act and gesture it appears much more likely to be a deliberate conspiracy towards bio-terrorism.
So there were two distinct groups gathering in Toronto parks: desperate, impoverished urbanites we could organize instead of alienating, and deliberate “malicious spreaders” drawn from the most racist, sexist and conspiracy minded segments of the population, who are openly advocating bio-terrorism, genocide and the immediate and unconditional reopening of the economy.
The corporate press and upper crust of Canadian politics and media felt it important only one of these groups be included in a national conversation about what happened this weekend. It’s always easier to hit the people we can reach. It’s always easiest to push our fellow workers into the machine.
It’s always easiest to push our fellow workers into the machine.
Of course, it behooves us to ask hard questions about who is benefiting from inadvisable gatherings, protests and which malefactors are organizing and calling on people to not socially distance.
Some leading questions: Were some outrageous photos from Toronto parks staged or edited? Was there some hidden hand which drew people to congregate with some offer or promotion, a hidden hand which has gone as yet unnamed? Did landlord groups, developers or other monied lobbyists furnish the mayor’s office or members of the mainstream press with ‘tips’ regarding this gathering of the blighted and unwashed? Because, beyond the joy and gratification of our shared outrage, it’s certainly politically expedient that use of public space is increasingly the focus for politicians, not the squalid conditions, unemployment, low wages, evictions, structural racism or homelessness which force people into public space to begin with.
It has been reported that as much as 50% of the anti-lockdown sentiment expressed on Twitter right now is coming from bots or ‘coordinated inauthentic posters’ who are openly spreading fake news and misinformation in service of a myriad of state and private interests. While there appear to be a large number of authentic postings about the subject of people using Toronto parks, there are undoubtedly groups hidden in the wings, which benefit from the proliferation of the divisive narrative.
Is it easier to justify paying a menial wage to front line workers after publicly shaming an entire generation for using public space?
Is it easier to bulldoze tent encampments belonging to the homeless who have gathered in parks elsewhere in the city, now that the mayor has announced a new regime of park-specific bylaw enforcement?
I’m certainly begging the question, but these are questions that beg to be asked.
Were people to occupy a public park and demand lasting post-pandemic concessions from the state and businesses, you can rest assured that a battalion of bylaw officers and cops would (and likely will) be the carceral system’s first line of defence. This is ‘control’, but it doesn’t stop at ticketing.
If human history is any indication, ‘weaponization’ of the disease is something we should anticipate as well.
If the Arab Spring of 2011 were to occur today, are we confident that Egypt’s military government wouldn’t send people infected with COVID-19 into the Tahrir square camp to justify enacting ‘necessary’ social controls aimed at ending the protests?
Are we confident that North American police wouldn’t have done this with Occupy-style protest encampments if the opportunity availed itself?
Anecdotally, Toronto police joked with the occupiers of 2011 about the probable spread of Typhoid in their community after deliberately dropping ill people in the vicinity of the protest. Toronto police have also previously been recorded using the threat of another virus, to try to discourage a citizen critic. Threatening that someone may be infected by a virus for simply being in proximity to, or recording an event, is by definition, the weaponization of the disease.
I’m certainly begging the question, but these are questions that beg to be asked and we haven’t heard any of this nuance or concern coming from the supposed flower of Canada’s political intelligentsia.
These are new ideas for the realities facing public dissent and they must be considered in their historical context. COVID-19 is a disaster. It is our enemy. We are in a war. It is a class war and it is biological in nature.
The crisis has also empowered our true enemies, the elites and their foot soldiers, with a whole arsenal of new proactive and reactive tools for social control. It has made the richest richer, and the poorest poorer, but as long as COVID-19 is in the shelters and parks and not the yacht clubs, it’ll be business as usual. *cough*
And please don’t think for a moment that as the dissatisfaction builds and as revolutionary stakes are raised, the elites will stop short of an opportunity to ‘win now, whatever the cost’. An Alberta minister praised COVID-19 for putting an end to Indigenous pipeline protests. As Indigenous people will be quick to tell you, biological warfare has happened in Canada. We would be remiss not to consider the implications.
“Apolitical” people are increasingly non-compliant. This is good and bad, but must be accounted for.
Of course, people are protesting all over, and many don’t realize it. Many people are asserting themselves now, by refusing to participate, by deliberately pushing the boundaries of social distancing measures as quarantine and lockdown induced exhaustion begins to take its own emotional, economic and political toll. This is inadvisable, and sometimes inexcusable, but it is not unexpected.
In the reality of the 2020 pandemic, you don’t have to make a placard to be a protester. Non-compliance is in many ways the most obvious and “safest” form of popular protest. This other class of protesters aren’t gathering on the lawns of provincial legislatures to have their say, they’re just “apolitical” residents, increasingly disenfranchised, doing their best in a complex system they can neither fully comprehend or even partially control. Apolitical people are increasingly non-compliant. This is both good and bad, but must be accounted for.
What is sure, is that the Mayor, the city’s monied elites and the mainstream press turned some young people enjoying a sunny day into sacrificial animals, while statue licking and overt denial only a few blocks away provoked only a flicker of the same outrage. It has never been more apparent that outrage over ‘covidiocy’ serves the interests of the owning class, and that at all costs, they want to prevent us from getting together to discuss our options. I’ll mention in passing, that advertisers and government spies have been greedily hoovering up all the content that’s fit to gather as everyone from criminal enterprises, to protest groups, to mom and pop businesses have been forced into the ‘extremely online’ communications environments by the pandemic. How many Zoom calls have you had in the last month? All that digital surveillance data certainly served somebody. Facebook, Amazon, Google and Twitter all posted profits.
A relatively small gathering of persons in a park is an obvious red-herring. “Look over there at those people” the businesses and politicians demand in unison, while workers continue to be sacrificed on the altar of almighty profits. They will say and do anything they can, to gaslight us, to make us feel foolish and incompetent, while they continue to perpetuate the crisis.
Condemning free association in parks while simultaneously demanding front-line workers crowd back into workplaces, warehouses and onto public transit in order to service the demands of industrial capitalism doesn’t just look like hypocrisy, it’s an obvious double standard. The Mayor, the Premier, the Prime Minister and Bay Street are causing the crisis, not some poor downtown renters getting sun in a park. If you don’t understand this point, you will eventually, even if it is too late.
What does this mean for “people power”?
In the new normal, and until COVID-19 community transmission rates can be justified by health officials or handled by overtaxed hospitals– any gathering of people for any purpose can (and will) be considered a protest against scientific realities.
No matter how just your cause, or how great your need, (tenant strike, labour protest, occupy-style tent camp etc.) if some shrill voice in the mainstream press calls you out for failing to socially distance, there will be an impact.
Is this necessary? Well, the science says so. The social science says we have to unite at all costs or we will be individually worn down and destroyed. Would I typify the response as “divide and conquer”? Undoubtedly. We are condemning people for standing too close to others at a time we should all be standing together. Who benefits?
Of course, if you’ve ever had a conversation about climate change, you’ll be familiar with the way in which political necessity, pragmatism and profit-motives can corrupt and twist scientific facts into inconvenient truths.
Such inconvenient truths can be selectively ignored, or weaponized in the service of profits.
The elites will do what it takes to find people to “other”, to blame and to bully publicly.
“It’s not America’s addiction to oil that is the problem, have you seen China’s coal plants?”
“It’s not workers forced to expose themselves so we can make profits, it’s young people in a park on a Saturday who are spreading the disease.”
Outsourcing blame for a problem to the people, or rather, to other people, is the first step towards ignoring it. We’re not on the road towards business as usual but rather, business at whatever cost.
John Tory, mayor of Toronto was in Trinity Bellwoods Park Saturday, engaging with the crowds, wearing his own ‘recommended’ mask improperly. He has since apologized for his own behavior. Police stood by glad-handing with the citizenry.
In a statement on social media, Mayor Tory stopped short of condemning people for being in the park, but warned of potential consequences, enforced by Bylaw officers and Toronto Police. The mayor does point out that the park users who “flaunt(sic) advice of public health professionals” “could contribute to the kind of setback we are trying hard to avoid.” Based on tracking of second wave COVID-19 cases, this would appear to be valid.
The mayor also engages in a certain amount of predictable doublespeak. He says that going to the park and keeping your distance is the “right and responsible thing to do”, while simultaneously cautioning that he is sending in the jackboots of the municipality to discourage the behaviour.
It’s hard not to be cynical about the level of political integrity in this country when reading a message from the Mayor. John Tory encourages “responsible” use of public space as is desired by the City’s foundering businesses, while promoting ongoing distancing and isolation measures as have been recommended by top public health officials.
The Mayor seems to be of the opinion that a desired behaviour can be controlled by small nudges, such as the imposition of fines (see: “legal for rich people.”) Other communities have attempted to shape this relationship by directly modifying access and availability of and to public space, such as by using access-control measures or by utilizing technologized solutions such as contact-tracing or geo-fencing to limit the number of people who can use a public space at once.
Somewhere between the number of people ‘allowed’ to enjoy a sunny day in Toronto and the number of cases which will trigger a second wave of lockdowns, you can find the ‘acceptable’ balance between dead residents and corporate revenues.
We’re in a war
The continuance of social distancing measures and enforcement of quarantines forces a direct conflict between reality and the ethos of industrial capitalism, which has spent centuries treating little people as grist in its mill, as grease for its wheels, as exploitable, menial labour in its highly disposable workforce.
One of the toothiest problems of the pandemic economy is something which historians studying past pandemics will generally agree on: The worst effects in a pandemic reveal where the ‘bottom’ of a society is. It’s a trickle-down crisis.
While the affluent have, can and will fall ill and die, systemic and structural advantages give them far better outcomes than persons who are poor, live in underserved or isolated communities, are institutionalized or otherwise incarcerated.
It is undeniable that nation-states the world over are reorganizing their economies in a ‘wartime’ response to a global pandemic. This new war economy, as with all war economies, will serve those who “have” first, while keeping those who “have not”, well below the heel of its boot.
The “frontline” of this war is in the crowded grocery stores, warehouses and public transit platforms of the urban landscape. Those most exposed, work in positions of constant public-facing contact. Many of them are young. Many of them are poor. All of them are tied to a service economy which is trying to effectively enslave them.
Predictably, in a capitalist society which purports to reward individual effort with just compensation, those most exposed will receive the least.
It’s not just a war, it’s biological class war, and that’s the best summary of the ‘new normal’ that I can offer.
You’re being distracted.
How do we defend a system which revokes the means for a person to earn money and then demands money from them for rent and food (at full cost) during a global crisis with no set end date? If you do not see the inherent problem with the very literal buck-passing, I suggest you reconsider any claim you have ever made to having a soul.
A crisis of crowded shelters, demolitions of temporary housing, forced (and illegal) evictions and job losses has gripped this country. This has happened while politicians and the corporate press castigated members of the precariat on social media, shaming them, but not the looters. At the height of the first wave of the crisis, the Provincial Premier tweeted about his cheesecake recipe. You are being distracted. These are undeniably the ingredients from which history has birthed its greatest and most renowned revolutions.
Could people sitting in a park be a convenient red herring? Does the widespread outrage create a permissive attitude toward stronger enforcement? For everything they tell you to notice, there is something they are hoping you ignore. The pandemic has and will continue to brutalize people at the margins. Pictures of Millennial and Gen Z urbanites gathering in a park on a hot day may twig at our sense of justice, but the narrative serves the establishment, the banks, the landlords and the politicians and police who they own. “The people can’t take care of themselves.” say the paternalists “Clearly we need more and not less, social control.”
Do those critical of crowded parks harbour the same outrage on behalf of the class of people that the Mayor and Bay Street might prefer to slip through the cracks? This ‘hidden’ class of people includes those who are transiting the justice system, racialized people confined to urban wastelands, persons who are dependent on institutions for survival such as long term care homes for the elderly, shelters for the unhoused or food banks and soup kitchens for the poor. The Toronto police escorting a bulldozer through a homeless tent camp elicited less outrage than some young people in a park. Where is your soul, Toronto?
If there is one thing the pandemic shows us, it is that politics, the prickly matter of ‘who gets what, when, how, where and why’ is in desperate need of separation from profit motives. We separated church and state. If we don’t want to preside over a biological class war, we must reject the idea that there is a balance to be struck between ‘people who will die and profits that may be earned’.
We must not allow profit to use our own behavior as its excuse to kill our poorest and most vulnerable first. And we must not allow ourselves to be distracted by the spectacle which is publicly shaming our fellow workers when we all know that “standing together, apart” is the only way to prevail in our shared struggle. As a final question, if there is a spike of cases in Toronto over the coming weeks as businesses reopen, will we blame the politicians who rushed to reopen, or the young park goers of the precariat who have been set up by politicians and the press to take the fall?
Profit motives and the demands of the economy are at odds with the best science we have available to us, and, as it always was with the “old normal”, the political calculus behind the profit motive is cold, impersonal and cruel.
If you want to avoid a biological class war– it’s time to unite. Stop bullying your fellow workers: end the relationship between profit and state.