John Clarke is one of Ontario’s most well-known anti-poverty activists. As an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Clarke has been on the frontlines of poor peoples’ struggles for over twenty years. Tough Times contributor Simon Black recently sat down with Clarke to discuss organizing, the social assistance review process, and what the future holds for low-income Ontarians.
Simon Black: You’ve been organizing in low-income communities for over twenty years now. Can you reflect on what works and what doesn’t in poor people’s organizing?
John Clarke: Twenty years of OCAP organizing has probably raised more questions than it has provided answers. Still, there are some sides to the issue that seem to me to stand out. The first point really is the basis on which you organize. In OCAP we have rejected the idea that poor people can win anything by ‘educating’ governments or by trying to be polite and respectable. Workers in unions won what they have by going on strike. The poor are not likely to have that power so they have to ask themselves what they can use instead. If you are unemployed or homeless, the system has decided to exclude you and, at best, provide with a pittance to survive on. In that situation, what they want from you is to be as quiet and invisible as possible. The key to your power, then, lies with your ability to get together with others in the same situation as yourself and do the very opposite of what they expect of you.
The great unemployed movements of the 1930s organized resistance to the poverty of that time by taking large scale disruptive actions. Masses of unemployed took over relief offices to press demands for income. Hundreds blocked attempts to evict poor families from their housing. These kinds of actions took place on a scale that forced governments to meet peoples’ needs. OCAP tries to take a similar approach. Those in power don’t like us and nor should they. We are working to create a rebellion against the conditions of poverty and those conditions continue to worsen and increase the need for strong and determined resistance.
I would also say that this approach may be the right one but no form of organizing in poor communities is easy. You have to overcome peoples’ hesitation and belief that little can be done. You have to root yourself in a community and prove your worth as an organization over a long period of time. We have, of course, taken up many broad campaigns but we have also put a premium on actions that deal with the problems of individual people and families. Delegations to welfare offices to win benefits, and other such actions, have always been a big part of what we do. We really do believe that it is possible to build an organization of the poor that is not a kind of therapy session but that really does fight to win.
SB: How does OCAP differ from other poor peoples’ organizations such as ACORN?
JC: I think the fundamental difference we have with most anti poverty initiatives that operate today is around the notion I just put forward. The opposite idea to mobilizing disruptive collective action is to try and show those in power that you are a well behaved and responsible voice of the poor. The emphasis is placed, with this approach, on lobbying politicians and getting supportive media coverage. The problem with it is you don’t have anything those in power need. They are happy to let you stay in poverty and see no reason to do otherwise as long as you are working to keep the poor passive and following the rules. You may organize some demonstrations but they will be run as moral appeals to those in power to ‘do the right thing’.
We don’t think that this respectable approach to anti poverty organizing has ever been the right way to go but, in today’s situation, where they are cutting back on social programs and ramming austerity down our throats, it is a hopeless approach. In Toronto, we deal with Mayor Rob Ford. What could poor people say to him to convince him to be kinder and gentler? At the provincial level, we are now dealing with the report from Don Drummond that advocates measures that are many times worse than anything Mike Harris ever did. That is the direction those in power intend to go. The have to understand that poor people will fight back or they will see no reason to hold back on what they are doing. Those who want to issue appeals and hold polite meetings with politicians are not just wasting their time. Whatever their intentions, they are diverting people from what needs to be done.
SB: What do you think of the McGuinty government’s poverty reduction strategy and the social assistance review process? What are the benefits and pitfalls of poor peoples’ organizations participating in such a review?
JC: The McGuinty government came to power in order to consolidate and deepen the social cutbacks and giveaways to the rich that the Harris Tories established. However, they didn’t choose to be as up front and confrontational as Harris had been. They choose to create the impression that they were going to put things back in place. Welfare and ODSP rates are actually much lower, in terms of their spending power, than they were when the Tories left office. However, McGuinty has covered his tracks with a sham display of ‘poverty reduction’. At at time when we should have been filling the streets to demand decent income from this Government, people were wasting their time going through an endless process of consultation with the Liberals.
Looking back, it is truly breathtaking to realize how long this Government was able to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes. Reviews, studies, committees, hearings on poverty reduction went on for years while the poor became poorer. It was, from their point of view, a highly successful strategy. Apart from the campaign to win the Special Diet for people on assistance and the mobilizing to confront the Liberals that OCAP and allies engaged in during this time, ‘anti poverty activism’ moved into the corridors of Queen’s Park and the theory of ‘constructive engagement’ was all the rage. This came down to the notion that the Liberals would really reduce poverty if we could only make clear enough arguments. Of course, they were sly enough to play along and created the impression that they were seriously interested in these ideas. The only factor that could have forced concessions from the Government would have been a challenge to them on poverty but the friendly lobby that they kept around them took things in the exactly opposite direction. The poor got less than nothing as a result.
Since 2008, the crisis that has broken in the world economy has swept all this away. McGuinty no longer has the luxury of appearing nice and caring. His Government is getting ready to cut programs and slash spending as is every level of government. The choices for poor and working people are to accept this and retreat before the austerity agenda of to organize and fight back. This is going to be a very hard time but it is going to be a time when the ideas and approaches of OCAP are going to more relevant than they have ever been.
Published in Tough Times 1 (1) 2012