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Borderline behavior

Ontario anti-poverty activist interrogated, turned away at Port Huron crossing.

The U.S. government wants John Clarke to stay away.
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Published 3/6/2002

John Clarke, a controversial Toronto social activist who has been raising a ruckus over the plight of Canada’s poor for more than a decade, learned last month that he is now persona non grata in America.

Why?

According to Clarke, the official reason given when he was turned back at the Port Huron border crossing Feb. 19 is that he has criminal charges pending against him in Canada. That’s true. Within the past few years, Clarke, 47, has been arrested twice following political protests involving the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), a group he heads. Clarke faces charges ranging from making mischief and participating in a riot to counseling to commit a criminal offense; he has not yet been tried.

In July 2000, an OCAP-led march on the Ontario Legislature culminated in a violent confrontation with police. In that instance, Clarke was charged with an offense similar to inciting a riot; he claims the violence erupted after police wielding batons waded into the crowd. Last year, in another OCAP protest, there was a mock eviction of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, and the furniture from Flaherty’s office was tossed into the street.

“I didn’t play much of a role in that,” says Clarke, who nonetheless was charged with unlawful assembly, mischief and “causing a disturbance by shouting.”

What makes the border stop noteworthy is Clarke’s claim that he was detained for several hours by U.S. officials and interrogated at length by an investigator for the State Department before he was sent back to Canada. He did not make his speaking engagement.

Clarke’s account of his border encounter is zipping across the Internet. At least three different people e-mailed a copy to Metro Times last week.

When we contacted him to talk about the incident, he reported that one of the most surprising elements of the encounter was the investigator’s focus on groups opposed to economic globalization. Although OCAP concentrates its efforts on local poverty, housing and employment issues, Clarke says some OCAP members are also involved in the anti-globalization movement.

The way Clarke sees it, the policies formulated by such groups as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank have an undeniable effect on the poor and unemployed and homeless people OCAP serves on a daily basis.

“Many people in the anti-globalization movement would agree that the kind of initiatives that get cooked up” at world economic forums “hit the ground” in communities across the globe, says Clarke. Consequently, there is a natural connection between a group that focuses on economic conditions in Ontario neighborhoods and policies formulated by bankers and politicians.

Clarke was detained after telling border agents that he was entering the United States to attend a speaking engagement at Michigan State University. The invitation, which came from a student group interested in hearing him talk about OCAP and its efforts, wasn’t unusual. According to Clarke, he came to the United States “every couple of months” to attend such functions.

When Clarke told customs officials that, as is usually the case, he would receive an honorarium, concern was raised as to whether he should have special paperwork permitting him to work in the U.S. Clarke pointed out that such documentation had never been requested of him previously. Nonetheless, he was asked to step inside while his name was run through the computer. A red flag was apparently attached to his name. His car was searched; he was frisked, then told that he would be detained until a State Department investigator from Detroit could come and interview him.

What Clarke found “striking” about the encounter, he says, was the “voluminous” amount of information State Department special agent Edward Seitz brought with him to Port Huron.

“He had a pile of papers that was three or four inches thick,” says Clarke.

Using the number on a business card Clarke said the agent provided him, Metro Times made several calls to Seitz in an attempt to interview him for this article. As of press time, there was no response to voice mail messages we left.

“There is no question he was particularly fascinated by any links I might have to the anti-globalization movement,” says Clarke.

When asked to define the movement, Clarke says he told the agent that it is opposed to increased power for corporations and trade organizations.

“In terms of the border itself,” Clarke tells Metro Times, “the essence of globalization is to remove barriers so that corporations are allowed to ship goods and services from one country to another with great ease, and to allow those same corporations to move jobs and livelihoods across borders with impunity.”

He says his detention and interrogation ironically served to highlight that, “When it comes to people who want to cross the border to hold discussions about what is occurring — or people who want to try and cross the border to organize protests against what is happening — barriers to prevent them from doing that are being put up.”

“One of the problems we’re facing,” he adds, “is that on both sides of the border people are seeing the criminalization of political activity. Then those charges are used against them, creating pariahs when they attempt to move from one country to another.”

During an interrogation Clarke estimates lasted nearly three hours, agent Seitz showed a particular interest in the anarchist movement.

“Within our organization there are some elements of anarchy,” Clarke tells Metro Times. “But, to my knowledge, to hold anarchist views is not a crime. To advocate bombing something is a crime, but to hold views about arranging society differently is not a crime. But in [Seitz’s] mind, it was.”

The interrogation, says Clarke, revealed just how much of a threat the government thinks the anti-globalization movement poses.

“The level of surveillance is chilling,” says Clarke. According to him, Seitz pulled from the dossier explicit information about a trip Clarke made to Chicago to meet with members of a group there called the Direct Action Network. “He even knew the name of the man I stayed with while I was there.”

Then, according to Clarke, came a question that caught him completely by surprise: “Where is Osama bin Laden?”

Clarke laughs as he recalls how bizarre the question was. “The very notion that we [OCAP] have anything in common with al-Qaida is ridiculous.” Clarke says he doesn’t think Seitz actually believed he had a clue about bin Laden’s whereabouts, but rather the question was a ploy intended to unnerve him.

But the question does illustrate the political circumstances opponents of globalization have found themselves in since Sept. 11.

“There’s no doubt that those terrorist attacks constituted a blow to the movement,” says Clarke. “But they also constituted a testing process. There is a very strong sense that the inevitable period of confusion, and even forced retreat, that comes out of Sept. 11 will not last.

“The agenda that we are opposed to is profoundly anti-democratic. It works to systematically take decisions that profoundly affect peoples’ lives out of their hands and place those decisions in corporate boardrooms. But what’s being done is such a blow to the standards of peoples’ lives, in the long haul you can’t hold back the anger and determination to stop it.”

Read John Clarke's own account of his experience at the Canadian border.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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