Interview: The IWW and the Ottawa Panhandlers Union


Dave interviewed Ottawa anarchist Andrew Nellis for Linchpin. Andrew is an organizer with the Ottawa Panhandlers Union.

Q. What is the Ottawa Panhandlers Union and how was it started?

A. The Ottawa Panhandlers Union is a shop of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It’s a real union. What we do is run by the panhandlers themselves. The IWW has one paid member for the entire union. It’s entirely member run. The idea is to empower people on the street to fight for themselves.

Ideally despite coming in as an outside organizer I’ll be able to step out of the picture once the organization is up and running and there’s a structure in place to ensure that the organization continues. I was on the street myself. I’m not on the street now. So I do know something about the milieu in which I’m working.

Ideally it [the Panhandlers Union] should be run by people who are actually on the street but in practice we find that our most valuable members are those who have just come off the street or are in the process of getting off the streets. Their lives are somewhat less chaotic than people who are actually on the street although we do have some [key] people who are hardcore street. It always impresses me. I’m so proud of all of these people. For example, the guy who writes our press releases has to leave the room every 15 minutes or so to take a sip of hand sanitizer As you may be aware people who are heavily addicted to alcohol stand a one in three chance of death if they go through withdrawal so they have to drink alcohol continuously just to survive The fact that someone who is dealing with this many crises in his own life is capable of not only functioning but contributing something to the welfare of others around him. It’s just really humbling for me to work with someone like that considering the many sacrifices that he’s got to be making in his own life are so much larger than anything I’m expected to give.

Q. Could you give some examples of some of the problems that are faced by panhandlers and homeless people in Ottawa that the Panhandlers Union was formed to help resist.

A. I can tell you that although things were bad before the new police chief, they’ve become infinitely worse since. The new police chief has the “broken windows” philosophy. He believes that you can stop big crimes by stopping little crimes. He’s ordered his police officers to stop issuing tickets and begin arresting panhandlers. It costs $185 a day to keep someone in jail and they’re more than willing to pay that to keep panhandlers off the street than providing supported housing is infinitely cheaper they prefer using enforcement for something it was never designed to do.
We were forced to start a Copwatch program because the police are openly and blatantly breaking the law. We have had many cases where its been reported to us that the police have stolen the panhandlers’ money, roughed them up, and told them not to come back or they’d be beaten. One night I had to start guard under the bridge by the Rideau Centre because the street kids there had been informed by a police officer that if they were there when he came back he was going to – and I quote – “boot-fuck” them. So I went there with a recorder and I warned the police that I’d be there all night with my recorder. This is the kind of stuff that we do.

We do a lot of advocacy work. We have one member who is schizophrenic and he was picked up in an ambulance and he was [held] involuntarily at the Montfort Hospital in their psychiatric wing. And he requested our assistance in getting his doctors to agree to let him go to school since he has a law degree from Russia and he’s in the process of updating his credentials here in Canada. His doctors were concerned about letting him go by himself to his classes so we went there to tell them that we’d have a person willing to go with him to the classes if necessary to assure them that he wouldn’t be a danger to himself or others. What was particularly gratifying for me was that while the doctors did not want to talk to us, it took us several hours to buttonhole the doctor, once he heard the name Industrial Workers of the World, he was at great pains to assure us that that they very sensitive to his cultural and religious needs, and that they were not discriminating against him. When I tried to get a word in edgewise to assure him we were not there to complain about his treatment but to make sure that he was able to attend his classes.

This is the kind of work that we do. A lot of it is in the background. A lot of people think that because our most visible efforts revolve around things like marching in the street, or egging the BIA that this is [all of] what we do. In fact 99% of what we do is just quiet support work for the streets that particularly teaches people where to go, how to wend their way through the paperwork of police complaints, to make sure they turn in their tickets [under the Safe Streets Act] to the Ticket Defense Program and see benefits of what standing together can do.

We have one member right now who is an organizer with the IWW. He came to us because he had been beaten up by Rideau Centre security. Immediately after getting out of the hospital, he contacted us. We got our video cameras and documented his injuries, I got him in contact with a lawyer, Yavar Hamid. As a result, we sued the Rideau Centre in superior court for $70,000. The Rideau Centre settled.

Q. How is the Panhandlers Union structured internally?

A. The IWW is not an anarchist organization. Our constitution actually forbids us as members from promoting and political or anti- political party. The organization itself runs in an anarchist manner. We have no hierarchy. At meetings everybody takes turns, everybody is expected to be either ther chair or recording secretary and at every meeting it changes so that everybody gets to see and develop the skills necessary for running a meeting. It’s very important for the continuation of the kinds of traditions that we are trying to build for the organization.
For many people this the first time they’ve ever had any responsibility in a social sense, and its very gratifying to see someone who started out at the beginning of a meeting very nervous and unsure of themselves actually telling someone like me to shut up and let other people talk.

Q. Earlier [before the interview] we were talking about the backlash that has been felt by the Panhandlers Union and yourself. Could tell me a little about that?

A. We’ve experienced some amount of backlash from the police towards the organization. It’s become particularly bad lately since we’ve started the Copwatch program. It started in earnest perhaps a year ago when someone logging in from the Regional Municipality of Ottawa Carleton [IP address] vandalized Panhandlers Union Wikipedia article saying that “Mr. Nellis,” that is myself, “really, really, really needs to get a life” and saying that the members of this union are a “parasitical blight on the city of Ottawa.” These changes were edited back fairly quickly but it was only discovered as a result of the release of the Wiki Scanner tool. The official response from City Hall was “No Comment.” I’ve subsequently discovered that the police use the same system that City Hall do. Whoever made these changes might well have been within the police station as well as inside City Hall.

Since then there have been posters put up on Ottawa city streets saying things like “Don’t feed the human pigeons” This is in response to Mayor Larry O’Brien’s statement in which he compared panhandlers to pigeons stating that if you don’t feed them they’ll go away. During the election campaign he [O’Brien] compared panhandlers to seagulls at the Carp Dump saying that in order to keep the seagulls away, occasionally you have to shoot one.

The second set of posters that went up, we believe by the same people, featured myself with a gun in my mouth in a circle with a line through it saying “Panhandlers follow your leader” with [a picture of] the mayor standing in the background grinning. I can only take this as a death threat.
We’ve recently had the Panhandlers Union [Wikipedia] articles deleted by a false flag campaign launched by someone who also we believe hijacked my internet account. Someone contacted Sympatico, my ISP, identified themselves as me and asked for my password. We know that that the first time this did not work because Sympatico Security contacted me to tell me my password which I informed at the time them that it was not me [requesting the information]. We put a special password on my account which was supposed to prevent anything like this from happening and which would require the person to give a password to identify themselves as me if they called. Apparently this did not work because within a couple of weeks someone had hijacked my e-mail, deleted a week worth of personal e-mail, vandalized my blog, attacked an anarchist IRC channel I founded and helped facilitate, and generally made my life very miserable on the internet. Whoever did this used servers they had hijacked in Pakistan and Hong Kong.

The Wikipedia campaign to delete the Panhandlers Union article – someone identified themselves in the discussion as a member of the Panhandlers Union, gave details of his arrest records, the fact that he was Hepatitis C positive, details that only the police would know about this man. We know it was not the panhandler himself who posted this because he was at the time homeless. And we know that whoever posted this was [also] using servers in Pakistan and Hong Kong. We have reason to believe it was the same person [who hacked Andrew’s internet account] who posted these messages. And in these messages he ranted about fascists and police and said that he had voted numerous times to keep the article. This gave Wikipedia administrators the excuse to delete the article out of hand by ignoring all calls to keep it. The Wikipedia article is currently deleted and no record of it ever having existed remains including the evidence that the City of Ottawa or the police had vandalized it.

Q. Do you think that the Panhandlers Union in Ottawa is a model that could be applied to other cities? Has there been interest in trying to develop Panhandlers Unions in other cities?

A. Yes. In fact I’ve been in a number of presentations on street organizing. It’s a very different milieu from what most organizers are used to. The street has its own rules. It’s stylized and ritualized not all that different than lets say a medieval Chinese court. It’s a very different place.

When you’re dealing with people as oppressed as people on the street are, it’s extremely important not to come across as an authority figure. Often the temptation is there to present yourself as leader and this must be resisted at all costs because the street will try to turn a person into a personality and it will become a cult of personality in which the personality is more important than the movement. While there can be short term results, eventually the organization falls apart when this person leaves.

The street is extremely hierarchical. There is usually a dominant alpha male. It’s very patriarchal. Often it’s racist and homophobic. I should add that it’s probably no more so than any other sector of society but because people live much closer to the bone there’s not as much lying about it. People are very straightforward about their prejudices.
So because of all these things which exist on the street, it’s important that the organizer establish from the very beginning that its about the organizational structure and that its not about the individual. If it’s about the individual, the structure is never going to survive. The reason to have an organizer when one is organizing on the street is to make sure that there is a structure.

The entire reason [many] people are on the street is that they cannot live in a highly structured scenario. There is nothing wrong with this but it is very difficult to keep an organization going when there is no structure to it. In order to ensure that it survives it’s necessary to create a tradition. And this takes many, many years. There is no short way to do this. And the way you do this is by giving people successes, by showing them that what you’re doing works. On the street people don’t have enough resources to take risks so they tend to do what works for them. If its already working they are loathe to change it. In a very real sense they are very conservative. In order to break through this it is necessary to give them successes and show them that working together is better than working by themselves. The only way to do that is by slowly building people’s trust and to show them that if they work together there is an advantage to them personally.

Q. Could you tell me a about your own politics and how you became an anarchist?

A. I identify as an anarcho-syndicalist and I am a member of the IWW. I believe that the union structure provides a very viable means of building resistance to the current system. Anarcho-syndicalism I believe is important because it will not only allow us to build an army within capitalism itself while continuing to function but will allow us to create a structure which will continue to exist when capitalism will have been destroyed.

A lot of the problem we face is that there’s always a sense of immediacy. We’re always looking at the next battle and never at the longer strategic plan. And we see the results of that in what’s happened thus far in anarchist movements. For example in Spain and the Ukraine where people were no careful about who they chose as allies and were crushed as a result. Anarchists have a history of winning on the battlefield and losing in the halls of power. I think its very important that we develop long-term strategic plans for dealing with our success rather than planning for our failures.

Q. What do you see as some of the strengths and weaknesses of anarchist organizing in Ottawa?

A. It’s interesting. I often get the feeling from anarchists that they really don’t believe that anarchism works. It’s a strange thing to say but often people seem to feel that anarchism is something you need to weave life into, that it requires extra effort to put a slather of anarchism across whatever structure it is that they create but it gives me a feeling that people don’t have faith that anarchism itself works. It’s not a chore that you need to apply to whatever it is you’re actually doing. Anarchism works. I’ve seen it in action. I’ve seen people who are oppressed and beaten down and frightened empowered by what anarchism has done for them. I’ve seen people on the street who’ve literally been beaten down. We have a man who was beaten so badly be Rideau Centre security that he nearly lost the use of his eye and yet through solidarity through what he saw anarchism was able to do for him he is now today an anarchist organizer himself. And its gratifying to see that he’s taken control of his life. He has a good paying job. He has a permanent home. And he’s using these advantages now to teach other people the value of anarchist organizing. These techniques don’t need to be grudgingly applied. They need to be lovingly embraced. They work. If you actually use them they work. It is such a thrill the first time you see it actually working, not just in theory but in practice. It’s easy to see why those original anarchists were so passionate why they continued to work into their eighties and nineties why they sang on the gallows, because anarchism is a revolutionary idea in every sense of the word. It gives a person such joy to see that it is capable of empowering people to take control of their own lives.

Abbie Hoffman said that a revolution in consciousness is an empty high without a revolution in the distribution of power and that’s perfectly true and valid but the opposite is also true. A revolution in the distribution of power will be meaningless unless there’s also a revolution in consciousness, it starts inside and continues on into the world outside of us.

A shorter version of this interview appears to Linchpin 2.

Why Panhandlers Need a Union

By Proshanto Smith

The first reaction when most people hear the idea of a “panhandlers union” is laughter. Then the jocular questions start: When a panhandler goes on strike, will anyone notice — or care? What could they possibly want, wider sidewalks?

Given the widespread misunderstanding of what it means to belong to a union, these questions are not altogether unexpected.

Every person must first and foremost have the freedom to exist; history shows us when this freedom is infringed for any, it becomes a threat to all.

For panhandlers, begging is the means for survival. Take this away, and one threatens their existence. The Panhandlers Union of Ottawa has been formed in response to the attempt by police, business interests and government to eradicate panhandling through the criminal justice system by characterizing panhandling as aggressive.

Panhandlers have inadequate or no income and shelter. Most have inadequate education, skills and family support. According to a study prepared for the City of Ottawa, 32 per cent of panhandlers have had some involvement with the foster-care system.

They are burdened with anxiety, depression and low self-esteem and they often develop drug and alcohol addictions, all of which present barriers to integration into the community. Many suffer years of homelessness before they get the help they need to stabilize. And some never make it off the street.

In this city, where street vending is prohibited, panhandlers do not have other legal options to make a living if they are not job-ready.

Yes, individuals can recover by overcoming the psychological trauma and addictions associated with their plight. However, judgment and condemnation are not the cornerstones of recovery. In fact, they present sometimes-insurmountable barriers.

Society must make room for the homeless by graciously extending a hand.

In April 2004 the Ottawa-Outaouais General Members Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World unanimously agreed to extend such a hand when member Jane Scharf requested that panhandlers become part of that union. She said panhandlers were enduring harassment by shopkeepers, the police and social-service agencies.

Panhandlers were unable to pay the $3 monthly dues and therefore did not become full members. IWW members nevertheless provided support such as assistance with police complaints, assistance in getting panhandling tickets registered with the Ticket Defence Program and advocacy with social services and housing authorities. For a time, the union produced an edition of the Dominon newspaper for distribution by the panhandlers for donations. The city shut this successful venture down with a bylaw that prohibits street vending with or without a licence.

In the summer of 2004, hundreds of community and labour activists helped the Panhandlers Union organize a homeless action strike in the form of a tent city at City Hall. This action, which lasted 55 days, drew public attention to many of the problems facing the street person in Ottawa.

The panhandlers demanded that the city stop prosecuting panhandlers who were not aggressive, and find more humane solutions to homelessness. They were able to get the mayor to set up a task force to investigate the way the city and police are treating the homeless.

As found in the many public delegations made to the Task Force on Homelessness and the Safe Streets Act 2005, many of these panhandlers come from backgrounds of tremendous trauma with very little — if any — assistance in learning to cope with the effects of the beatings, rapes and deprivation they have experienced.

The police have made an effort to improve the treatment of homeless persons and are working with community agencies to try and find more humane responses. However, the city continues to abuse and discriminate against the homeless when it tries to move them off the street into housing. For example the homeless cannot access Ontario Works or emergency housing programs because they do not have addresses where they can be contacted.

This year IWW member Andrew Nellis secured funding from local labour groups, businesses and individuals to ensure that union dues were no longer a barrier for panhandlers. To date, the union has signed up 25 members and meets formally once a month at a drop-in centre to plan, network, and organize.

Members of the Panhandlers Union are negotiating with Ottawa City Hall and the various business improvement areas regarding the current ban on street vending so that the homeless can sell their arts, crafts, jewelry, and street newspapers, as well as perform music and street theatre. With the union behind them they can look to the future with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Proshanto Smith is an Ottawa panhandler who negotiated with the mayor on the homeless task force. He wrote this article in collaboration with the Panhandlers’ Union of Ottawa.

First published in the Ottawa Citizen as part of a settlement with the Ontario Press Council for the Citizen’s publication of false information about the Ottawa Panhandlers Union.