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John's kids

How John Thibeau bridged the gap between political protesters and street kids at Occupy Nova Scotia.


Real Progress/John's Kids by Bill McEwen

November 11, 2pm, Victoria Park--- John Thibeau looked up from the knotted clump of arms and wet clothes and saw cops pointing at Michael Anthony. Michael sat directly across from John, their faces only inches apart. He, Michael and three others---Del, Miles and Sarah---had planted themselves, cross-legged on a maroon-coloured tent, linking arms to protect the tent from the swarm of cops preparing to take it.

“Mike,” John said, “get ready. They're coming for you now, they're pointing at you, they're coming to get you.”

The swollen mass of protesters and orange-coated police officers pulsed back and forth all around them, wailing and chanting in the gusting sheets of rain.

“Just hold on as long as you can,” John urged.

Mike nodded, “OK, but if I yell 'Mother-Mother,' let me go because my arm is gonna be in the wrong place and you're gonna break my shoulders if you don't let go. So if I yell 'Mother-Mother' that's the word, let me go, let me be arrested.”

John knew he would be arrested too---the cops had already said so. But who else was going to defend the rights of the street kids and the people without homes, those too afraid to face the wrath of the state yet again? Hadn't they suffered enough of society's contempt?

Suddenly, the cops dove forward, landing hard on top of John and their small huddle. Sarah screamed. Somebody pounded on John's wrists. A last wrenching pull and the bonds broke. Mike was ripped away, the orange wall of police swallowing him. John was pushed over onto his stomach. He cooperated, struggling to get his hands behind his back. He wanted to make sure the officer knew he was not resisting arrest.

October 15, Grand Parade--- John Thibeau walked alone across the empty expanse of Halifax's Grand Parade wearing the only shirt and tie he owned. A short and skinny 31-year-old with black-rimmed glasses, dark hair, a Guy Fawkes goattee and bad teeth, he was one of only two protesters on site so far.

One of the cops, a heavyset man about John's height, drifted across the empty square towards him.

“Are you the one of the organizers of this thing?” he asked.

John looked at the cop.

“Nope,” he said with a smile.

It was a funny question because John actually had been planning a rally, even drafted letters to the police and Halifax city council, before he stumbled across a Facebook page for Occupy Nova Scotia. Somebody else had beaten him to the punch. He decided to join them instead.

The occupation of Grand Parade would be John's first political protest. He had always considered himself a moral capitalist, better suited to the world of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. He believed that unless the barons of global industry were able to stand by some kind of moral code that protected the people and the resources they exploited to produce goods (and profits) then the human race would always struggle with itself. Global bad guys needed a global protest, and John realized that the Occupy movement fit the bill.

But there wasn't really a formal organization. The worldwide protest, which had sprung up to protest the greed of the world's richest one percent, along with all the monolithic power structures designed to insulate them from the world’s other 99 percent, wanted to do democracy different. They were trying to distribute the power of decision-making to the entire community using a consensus-based framework. Their tent cities were also an experiment in democracy, a frontal assault on the erosion of community---and people, even those who weren’t ready to camp out, were intrigued.

“How many people you think might show up?” the cop asked.

“Anywheres between two and four hundred... probably,” John said over his shoulder.

October 22, Occupy NS medical tent--- The street kid thrashed into the tent. Wide-eyed and squeezing his fists, he was sputtering and swearing angrily, his face covered with blood. It poured down from a deep cut on the bridge of his nose.

John, who’d been in the tent chatting idly with another volunteer first-aider named Kelly Moore, recognized the kid. He'd been around since the start of the protest. John stood up and put his hands on the kid's shoulders.

“Joe, look at me,” he said, “I know you're really upset right now but you gotta calm down. You need to sit down. We need to take care of your face right now, and then we can talk about what happened.”

John had been working in the big blue medical tent since the first General Assembly a week ago. He was one of the few on site who was First Aid and CPR qualified. The tent---the occupation’s version of a Shopper’s, filled with donated bandages, cleaning agents and medicine---housed two cots, a table and a large shelving unit to hold all the supplies. Christmas lights ringed the ceiling and a hanging portrait of Buddha provided calm oversight 24 hours a day.

Outside the tent, the sound of dubstep music pounded above the camp's first Friday night dance party. Though the General Assembly had banned the use of drugs and alcohol on the parade grounds, that didn't stop people from consuming elsewhere and returning to start a fight.

He sat Joe down on a cot and knelt in front of him. As he started cleaning the 20-year-old's face John and Kelly both noticed that Joe was on the verge of hyperventilating.

Kelly stepped in with a pen and paper.

“Here,” she said, “I want you to write the alphabet---backwards.” By the time Joe reached ‘Q’ his breathing had started to slow.

Joe, a reformed heroin addict who panhandled on Spring Garden Road, had been living without a fixed address since his parents kicked him out for being gay. Four years ago, at age 16, he’d watched his heroin dealer beat his boyfriend to death.

John didn't know any of this yet but could sense the fear and despair infecting Joe's psyche. There was a reason for that. John had felt that same anxiety himself before.

When he was in his mid-twenties, John had lied and stolen his way through a two-year crack addiction. It took two attempts at rehab, three months of isolation and the unconditional support of his family back in Yarmouth, but he finally kicked it. He knew the importance of patience---and community support. He patched up Joe's nose with a small band-aid and knelt again at his feet.

“Listen Joe,” he said, “I know where you're at and I've been there---I've been homeless. I know what it's like to feel alone.

“I know what it's like to feel like you can't trust people. But I'm telling you right now that you're in a place where people love you, where people care about you. You don't need the drugs they're selling, you don't need the bad advice they're giving you. You have a choice.”

There was a pause and then Joe began to sob. John reached in and held him, feeling the young man's body slump into him. After 10 minutes, John pulled back, his sleeve soaked in tears.

“You're going to be okay, Joe. We're going to take care of you.”

November 6, Grand Parade Cenotaph--- John shivered as he pulled on his cigarette. It was getting colder, especially at night. Tonight, heavy jungle music played on the opposite side of the square where a group of people were milling about. A skateboarder clattered loudly across the brick pavement.

“Hey John,” somebody yelled, “I think we might be getting shut down!” It was Riley, a pint-sized 16-year-old, running across the parade square towards the cenotaph, where John was standing.

The camp had settled into an odd slump over the past two weeks. Routines had been established, people were being fed, rallies were being held in support of the police or the veteran's or the unions---and against the banks and the government and the corporations. But besides the odd event---like a labour organization donating $5000 to the cause---Occupy Nova Scotia was finding it difficult to gain good publicity.

On top of volunteering in the medical tent, John had started up a night watch that patrolled the grounds to prevent theft, drug use and other so-called “shenanigans.” They'd had to deal with angry, loud drunks pouring out of the Dome (even on Sundays) until three in the morning---cat-calling, starting fights and demanding the protesters get a job.

Easier said than done. John had been the manager at Greco's Pizza in Yarmouth until last Christmas when they were bought out and laid him off. He'd decided to go back to school but the public relations program at Eastern College (formerly CompuCollege) didn't start until September. A few years before, during his first attempt at post-secondary school at Memorial University in Newfoundland, he'd worked a job at Subway. But his meagre pay cheque put him just above the poverty line, disqualifying him from further government funding. To make sure he'd get a student loan this time he decided to simply collect employment insurance.

How else was he supposed to feed his girlfriend (and her five-year-old kid), pay rent and save for school? The easiest way, John realized, was to not have a job, collecting government money to sit on your ass until classes started. He had kept himself busy during those long months surfing and managing a number of online forums, which is how he'd learned about the Occupy movement.

By early October, John had been in school for a few weeks and Occupy Wall Street was in full swing. Cities across the world were planning their own occupations for the 15th to show solidarity with the people in Zucotti Park. John ended up joining with Occupy Nova Scotia and ironically found himself with several jobs---none of which were paid.

On top of his shifts in the medical tent and his work with the night safety patrols he was helping the finance team create a more transparent accounting framework. As someone who didn't mind having a microphone shoved in front of him, he was also struggling to get the group's message out.

“I think we might be getting shut down,” Riley repeated.

“That's all right,” John replied. “If we're getting shut down it means the music's too loud.”

“No, I think we might be actually getting shut down.”

“We are not getting shut down. I told you---”

“But a cop car just pulled up over there!”

A subtle paranoia had begun to creep through the camp ever since the mayor told the protesters to leave for Remembrance Day. Nearly two weeks ago, he suggested the occupation relocate to a baseball diamond on the Commons. After days of discussion in General Assemblies, which culminated in a sit-down on the 28th of October with three veterans and the mayor himself, the occupiers decided to move to Victoria Park on the November 8 out of respect for the veterans, but made it clear they would return on the November 12. Since then, every time a cop car rolled past, or a foot patrol lingered, one of the street kids would invariably cry wolf. The latest rumour: the cops were coming down to flush them out with fire hoses.

Some of the other protesters were getting sick of having to deal with the kids. Although there'd been hundreds of supporters at the first rally, the camp's ongoing population fluctuated between 50 to 100. Halifax's forgotten street youth made up about a third of the 50 or so permanent camp residents. They had been drawn in by the food and shelter and aspirin the occupation freely provided. Many were struggling with addictions. Some were gang members. Some argued the presence affected the credibility of the Occupy movement, and the General Assemblies began hearing proposals on how to expel the more aggressive ones and get the rest to start contributing. The protesters found themselves dealing with the same issues professional social workers still don’t have answers for.

Every time one of these proposals would rear its ugly head, John defended the presence of the kids---they were part of the 99 percent too. It would be hypocritical of the occupiers to turn their backs on them. For the kids to see the value of participation they first needed to learn how to trust again. And only a patient and unconditionally supportive community would break through the shells they had built up over the years to protect themselves. John knew it was exhausting for everyone, including himself, but they had a real opportunity to help people... Wasn't that the reason they were down here?

Riley looked up at the stone banister surrounding the square, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“The cops are allowed to be up there,” John explained patiently. “There's a large group of people down here, some of them doing illegal things, of course they're going to come down and look.”

Riley started running back across the parade square and John yelled after him.

“As long as you're not doing something wrong, you're fine!”

But even John had his doubts about that. Earlier that day someone had seen city workers putting “no camping” signs up at Victoria Park. The mayor had claimed he knew nothing about that and said it was disrespectful of the occupiers to accuse him of playing foul. The signs vanished but the apprehension remained.

November 9, Victoria Park--- John walked to the north end of Victoria Park. With the move completed the occupation had begun a two-day festival of teach-ins and freeskools on everything from capital requirements for Canadian banks to proper hula-hoop techniques. It was almost 7pm and he was returning to camp from class for the General Assembly. Occupiers funnelled into the big green military tent in the small square surrounding the Robbie Burns statue. Shawn, another protester in his mid-twenties jogged over to him.

“John, I'm glad you're here,” he said. “There's some really sick people in the medical tent and I think one of them is overdosing on heroin.” She lay in one of the cots, still conscious, but pale and shivering, trying to stay warm. Her name was Abbey. John had never seen the greasy, dark-haired girl before. She was petite and had piercings in her lips and nose. In the cot next to her, he saw Joe, vomiting so frequently---and painfully---that John could only guess he had some kind of food poisoning. In the tent next door, Eric, another young homeless man with bright eyes, dreadlocks and a big bushy beard, was also sick.

“Do you feel like you're gonna die?” John asked Abbey.

“No,” she replied, “but I'm so cold. I can't get warm.”

“Well, I'm gonna be your asshole tonight,” John said.

He stayed with her all night, checking in every 15 minutes or so, to make sure she didn't pass out. She wasn't overdosing, but she was close. John wanted to keep her heart beating and would get her to squeeze his fingers if he thought she was slipping off. He got her a few more blankets and covered her up, rolling her on her side so she didn't choke on anything that might come up. He did that for another few hours until around 3am when she suddenly bolted out of the cot and went liquid, filling a one-litre compost bucket to the brim.

Meanwhile, Joe and Eric wouldn't stop puking and were eventually sent to the hospital. Joe was diagnosed with acute food poisoning, probably from something he ate that day while pan-handling. Eric had picked up a viral infection. After she'd puked up whatever was inside her, Abbey's skin tone improved; life returned to her eyes. A good puke was often all it took to get through the last part of a bad trip. John had experienced the same thing on mushrooms and again on ecstasy. It was an integral part of the normalization process. He let her sleep after that.

November 10, Vitoria Park---

“How're you doing?” John asked.

“Better,” Abbey said with a smile.

She was sitting in the shadows of the Robbie Burns' monument. The sun was bright and the air warm.

John took a seat and they chatted about her heroin use. She wanted to quit but was scared. She told John she had a prescription for Clonazepam, a drug a doctor had told her would help her through withdrawal symptoms, but she didn't have the money to pay for it. When John found out it was only nine bucks he had Abbey transfer the prescription to the Shopper's on Spring Garden Road so he could get it for her.

“I don't care if you start using again in two weeks,” he said, “but I do wanna know that you at least put some effort into trying.”

She agreed but when they went to the Shopper's a few hours later the prescription still hadn't transferred. And John was exhausted.

“I'm gonna go home for a bit and sleep,” he said to Abbey, “but I'll come back before they close and we'll go grab it.”

When he returned a few hours later she was gone.

November 11, Grand Parade cenotaph--- The stocky veteran standing next to John had close-cropped hair and a round face. John held a wreath the veterans' association had prepared for the occupiers to lay at the cenotaph on Grand Parade. They exchanged small talk. The veteran told John he'd lost four of his best friends during a tour in Afghanistan. When the veteran found out what John had been up to over the past few weeks, he asked if he could accompany him while he laid the wreath.

“It'd be my honour,” John replied.

After the VIPs had cycled through, John and the Afghan vet walked up to the monument together. The vet picked out the location, at the top of the steps on the right hand side, and John steadied the wreath on the thin metal frame. They stepped back and the vet, in civilian clothes, saluted while John bowed his head.

When they turned around and headed into the crowd gathering behind them, John saw mayor Peter Kelly. He decided to approach and shake the mayor's hand.

“I'm looking forward to sitting down with you in the near future,” John said, “to address concerns and issues about upcoming events.”

The mayor looked back at him and smiled.

“Great, great,” he said. “Have a good day, we'll talk to you later.”

November 11, Victoria Park--- John headed home to get out of the rain and stopped into the occupation at Victoria Park to see if he could find Abbey, but the camp was nearly deserted. It was raining hard, the wind was blowing, tents had been knocked over and people were congregating in the food tent. Dishes filled with leftover food were stacked high and everything was dripping. John couldn't find Abbey and was about to head home when a police officer and two city officials arrived to serve a notice of eviction.

The city had decided to enforce bylaw P-600, which prohibited camping in municipal parks.

When John asked for a time-line the officer simply shrugged.

John knew there was no way they'd be able to leave that day; they'd need more people on site, a U-haul and a plan. Where else could they go, he asked the officials?

More shrugs.

Word went out over Twitter, Facebook and email for a rally at 3pm but by 2 o'clock four police vans and several unmarked cube vans had arrived. Cops started filing towards the south end of the park and John rallied the ragtag band of 20 or so protesters to form a line, link arms—try to stop them.

The rain pelted their faces. The wind ripped at their clothes. Cops tore down tents and stuffed them into shopping carts. The occupiers chanted. Some of the street kids and homeless people packed up their tents and started to leave. Others moved medical supplies and instruments into a van owned by one of the campers.

“They're behind you now!” someone yelled.

A line of orange jackets and peak caps had formed behind the protesters. The chanting subsided and John spun around. What now? He grabbed Miles Howe, a freelance journalist and erstwhile occupier, and headed towards one of the tents. They stood on it to try and stop the cops from taking it, but the cops just moved towards another tent.

It was maroon-coloured.

John and Miles ran over to it. They were followed by the throng of protesters, their clothes and hair slick with rain. Adrenaline kept them warm. Del, Michael and Sarah joined John and Miles on top of the flattened tent. They sat down, cross-legged, and linked arms.

November 12, 2:30am, Burnside Correctional Centre--- Ten hours had passed since John had been put in the cell. He was hungry and cold, the guards had only given them an energy bar and a bottle of water. John asked for another, but was flat out told “no.” Anytime he needed to use the open, stand-alone, toilet he would have to ask for toilet paper from the guard. The cell was eight feet by four and, unlike the other protesters, John was kept by himself. On his own, John kept thinking over what had happened that day.

They'd been told they'd be arrested for obstructing justice if they didn't move. What happened to discussion and dialogue? What happened to giving a shit about why people would decide to break petty bylaws? The cops had destroyed a community on the whim of a city council that wouldn't look the people they represented in the eyes.

In his cell, John began to cry. He couldn't shake the feeling he had let down the street kids. They had finally found a place to start calling home, a place where people dealt with them patiently and still cared for them despite their often aggressive behaviour. With the crackdown, many of them would simply return to the alleyways, parking garages and dark corners of the city to be ignored by society once again.

He shouldn't have let them believe they could feel safe at the occupation. He should have known how the city would react when its skeletons were dragged out of the closet and placed under the flood lights for all to see.

Ryan McKenna, a well-respected and confident media spokesperson for OccupyNS, was in the cell next to him. The cement wall between them prevented a line of sight but they could still talk to each other.

“Stay strong, John,” Ryan said, “Don't let them break you. It'll be OK.”

But it wasn't about the cops breaking him---John knew what a cell was like and knew what would happen when he sat down on that tent. He stifled his tears whenever a guard walked past. He didn't want them to think they had won.

Ryan told John it wasn't his fault. It was the system that had brought this down on them---a system that didn't like to look at itself in the mirror.

John knew he was right, but wept anyway.

December 2, Provincial Courthouse--- John's hands trembled holding his prepared statement. Wearing the only shirt and tie he owned, John sat on the wooden, graffiti-ridden pews of Courtroom 4 at the Halifax Provincial Court on Spring Garden Road. Representing himself, he had come to get the conditions of his release changed.

Over the past three weeks he had been barred from entering any municipal, provincial or federal parks. But he was fed up with having to stand on the sidelines for things like the Indigenous Solidarity rally held yesterday at Victoria Park, or the union rally raising awareness about the 2014 Health Accord that took place a few days before that. CTV interviewed him yesterday and they wanted to do it on Grand Parade. John had to politely remind them that they'd have to settle for the sidewalk.

The courtroom was almost empty. A judge set trial dates and heard pleas from his wooden fortress at the front of the room. John's palms were sweaty and his heart was pounding. Even though he was good at it, public speaking still made him nervous.

The clerk finally called his name and John sprang out of his seat, clinging to his paperwork.

The crown attorney and the judge traded legal niceties. They were happy to grant him a new set of release conditions which would make sure John kept the peace and maintained good behaviour. The judge asked him if he understood the requirement to be present for his court date on the 29th of December.

“Absolutely, your honour,” he said. “I intend to fully cooperate with the law at all times.”

This week, Victoria Park--- John smiles as he dances on the muddy grass at Victoria Park. Its cold but sunny.

He's excited to be able to participate in rallies again. He says there's a big one coming up in the next two weeks but will not reveal many details about it.

“It's gonna be big,” he says.

He heard that Joe may have gotten a job at McDonald's but still doesn't know where Abbey is. When he's not in class, John walks Spring Garden Road with a hockey bag full of winter clothing, doling it out to the pan-handling homeless. If he sees them, John asks the street kids if they've got everything they need: a place to sleep, some food. He regularly posts to the OccupyNS Facebook page asking for donations. He's already gone through six pairs of boots and 30 to 40 pairs of socks.

He is one person in a global protest, but knows that a strong community is based on the ideas and efforts of individuals.

“The community can't survive without the individual, and the individual can't survive without the community---it's as simple as that.”

Bill McEwen is a journalism student at King’s College.


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