Friday, 29 July 2011

The Citizen's Filibuster: Backlash to Ford Nation

Sometimes it's just a matter of physics. What goes up (Rob Ford's poll numbers) must come down, and for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In politics, reactions might not always be equal, but last night's was sure forceful.

Everything was set up to fulfill the most cynical of expectations about the city hall administration and politics in general. Earlier Denzil Minnan-Wong had dismissed people who responded to the public consultation as statistically invalid (that is, not Ford Nation) and Doug Ford chalked up the backlash at standing committees to organized union theatre. Even Margaret Atwood's opinion didn't count because she didn't run for office
By the end of the night, there were many Red Bulls on the table. National Post.
The meeting took place in Committee Room number one which holds slightly more than 100 people. On Wednesday, Kristyn Wong-Tam asked multiple people for the meeting to be held in council chambers to better hold the 344 deputants and spectators but her suggestion was rebuffed. And unsurprisingly, the executive immediately voted to reduce speakers' time from five to three minutes. Later on the executive committee would vote twice (in clear violation of committee rules) to limit councillors' question time to one minute (previously two).

Rob Ford left for an hour to participate in a TSN podcast where he made his weekly CFL picks (page two). And Giorgio Mammoliti, that Pericles of Ward 7, asked the city clerk to check the disabilities of deputants who spoke early on.
Toronto the Good, Respect for Taxpayers and other slogans weren't embodied on this executive committee. Everyone knew the meeting was just a formal exercise and that no number of deputations would change the Executive Committee's mind.

But rather than becoming dispirited or letting the default posture of apathy consume the proceedings, the opposite occurred. In the face of Fordian bullying, arrogance and condescension the committee room-- and the two packed overflow rooms-- were filled with what Jonathan Goldsbie referred to on Twitter as the energy of a TIFF Midnight Madness screening. 
Toronto Star photo of deputants waiting.
And past Midnight it went, for 22 and a half hours in fact. It was the longest continuous meeting in Toronto's history (an early motion said the committee would not break it up into several days-- some councillors had flights the next morning), but it wasn't a death march. In the face of the absurdity and manipulation of Ford, people responded with whimsy and earnestness.
Dave Meslin organized a lunchtime city hall picnic that sadly had a damper put on it by the weather. Later on, the #cityhallslumberparty hashtag took flight with Meslin (and myself, natch) wearing pajamas and carrying around stuffed animals.

There were memorable deputations, such as 67-year-old Mary Hynes who trolled the executive committee with steaming sarcasm, "As you can see from thousands of petitions and emails complaining about proposed service cuts, far too many people use the library to improve literacy and to learn about government and politics. You would save millions." She even generated her own hashtag, #yellygranny, something she most likely would not have anticipated in her lifetime.

There was 14-year-old Anika Tabovaradan who finally got the chance to speak at 2AM and through her tears and fear of public speaking asserted the importance of public libraries to her suburban ward.

There were devoted crossing guards, one of whom wouldn't mind an RPG to better marshall cars, and a humorous allegory 'about a house called Toronto', suitable for city hall slumber party storytime.
Punchline: Councillors, don't be a puppet for the mayor.
 Artist and writer Brian Cauley gave a rhyming spoken word deputation, Susan Wesson gave people a boost with a singing deputation at 4AM and former candidate for council Desmond Cole gave one through his sockpuppet Roy.

Laura Heslin Piper eloquently spoke about the need for animal shelter subsidies and as Ford was off to the side chatting with Giorgio Mammoliti she scolded him for not listening. When challenged by the committee on the Toronto Animal Service's high euthanasia rate she gave a knowledgable, nuanced and impassioned answer detailing how the TAS policies differ from other organizations to make the number deceptively high.

Kevin Clarke, above. 
Toronto Star food critic Corey Mintz, dressed in a dapper suit, brought in a tasty chili to Committee Room 2 where supporters yelled barbs and support at the two streaming screens. And Kevin Clarke, dressed in something of his own, gave the proceedings a different spice and flavour as he interrupted to yell that Ford stole the mayoralty from him.

Maureen O'Reilly, head of the Toronto Public Library Union, spoke about the public support and need for their services capping it off with a Miracle on 34th Street-style procession of 39,000 petition signatures. The standing applause lasted more than a minute and Ford ruled that the audience had used Joe Mihevc's questioning time in the process.  

Team Ford will spin the events as much as they can, saying that they stayed up all night listening to the public, that it is a proud civic moment for them. Simultaneously, they'll dismiss the 168 speakers as a vocal minority unrepresentative of the strength of Ford Nation and make up numbers to go along with it, like Mammoliti saying he doesn't want a 30% tax increase like some people do (no one said this). 

But on a bleary-eyed Friday for many, none of that really matters.
Corey Mintz offers chili with Goldsbie on left. Photo by Torontoist.
From Thursday to Friday morning, all the way to 7:57AM, citizens turned Ford's obstacle of democracy into an affirmation in the strength, spirit and dignity of Toronto. With creativity, passion and resolve an unprecedented number of individuals spoke to their vision of the city in contrast to the scorched-earth proposals the executive committee prefers.

For one day, it's OK to step back. After all, these events don't happen often. Ford Nation will spin their wheels and the media, but it's enough to admire the 'citizen's filibuster' from both the usual suspects and completely new individuals.

There will be more pitched battles down the road, and with people energized by the electricity in the rooms last night there will be all the more strength to push against the backwards thinking motions from Team Ford. It's that strength and energy that represents Toronto the Good, not the institution of city hall itself, and, just for a moment, things feel alright.

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