Last updated: March 7, 2012 1:10 pm
Never back down
Derek Soberal has had his share of run-ins with police as a documentarian and protestor, but he’s still fighting
TORONTO (CUP) — Derek Soberal stands along a police barrier with a crowd in Nathan Phillips Square. It's a part of a January protest against Toronto budget cuts. Holding a small camera, he films the scene as tension grows between the protestors and police.
The situation erupts as a protestor attempts to break through the line. In the ensuing chaos, a police officer knocks Soberal’s camera down and punches him in the face before stomping on the camera.
However, when Soberal crosses the police barrier attempting to retrieve his camera, he is arrested and charged with unlawful assembly, mischief and two counts of obstructing a police officer.
A photo in the Toronto Sun shows Soberal in handcuffs, bruised and bloody. He quotes Martin Luther King in rationalizing why he went over the police barrier to retrieve his camera, containing potential evidence of the alleged assault: “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
Soberal has gone from being unable to recite his phone number without stuttering to being a prominent voice of the Toronto protest scene, featured on the CBC’s Lang and O’Leary Exchange and credited in a G20 edition of The Fifth Estate. He also created an activist-based YouTube channel, TheSecretStore, with over 5,000 subscribers and 3.5 million upload views, as well as the 35,000-member Occupy Canada Facebook page.
But January’s budget protest was not Soberal’s first run-in with Toronto police. His life as an activist and citizen journalist started with the 2010 G20 protests and Ryerson’s now-defunct CKLN radio station’s Word of Mouth Wednesday program.
“Basically, I got involved because of the G20 summit,” says Soberal. “That was my first protest … and I exercised my rights at that time. I got invited onto the show by [host] Daniel Libby to talk about the experience.”
He would become a regular on Libby’s show, eventually earning the title of CKLN programmer.
“Derek is attracted to media attention,” says Libby. “He’s not afraid to talk to reporters when they’re around.”
His ability to speak on the radio and communicate with the media is a hard-earned skill — from the time he was a toddler until his teens, Soberal underwent speech therapy. Today, he speaks with near-perfect clarity, pausing occasionally if his stutter starts to creep back in.
He says this ability to speak publicly is inspired by Libby.
“[Libby] was confident on the radio, and my voice was cracking the first time,” Soberal says. “I learned from him.”
Through the radio show, the pair promoted Toronto G20 Exposed, a documentary produced by Soberal. The film highlights questionable police actions during the G20 weekend, and premiered at the Student Campus Centre on Gould Street as part of the Ryerson Student Union’s Xpressions Against Oppression week.
One scene in the documentary shows security footage from Soberal’s condominium, a block away from Ryerson, about two months after the G20 protests. As he tells it, Soberal noticed a police car across the street with its lights off, so he approached the officer and asked a few questions.
After saying goodbye, the police officer then drove away and came back, accusing him of loitering and forcefully pushing him. After running from the officer who pushed him, Soberal was detained by as many as 12 officers who seem to come out of nowhere. He also claims that while they searched him, they were calling him a drug addict, an alcoholic and mentally unstable.
“My cell phone and iPad were getting searched,” he recalls. Though he was eventually released without charge, he felt it was a message. “I felt like I was being targeted … I felt like it was a threat; I felt intimidated.”
Toronto G20 Exposed was used as a source for The Fifth Estate’s episode "You Should Have Stayed At Home", with Soberal given special thanks in the credits. When the Occupy Wall Street movement was happening, Soberal created the Facebook page “Occupy Canada.”
That prompted a producer from the CBC to contact him to be interviewed on the Lang and O’Leary Exchange. Soberal appeared on the show on Oct. 14: the eve of mass demonstrations worldwide, including Occupy Toronto. Day three of those protests was also day one of Social Justice Week at Ryerson, and Occupy Toronto was invited to join the campus for a rally. However, some Ryerson students wondered what message that sends.
“Occupy Toronto was an illegal activity — I don’t think Ryerson or the students’ union should get involved in that,” says Mark Single, a fourth-year student in industrial engineering. Single has run for RSU president multiple times against the activism-heavy Students United platform in an attempt to focus Ryerson’s finances on education.
But Ryerson does have institutionalized connections to activism. The university’s Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy is mandated to “create a hub of interaction between social justice activists and academics at Ryerson University.” Current chairholder Winnie Ng acknowledges the divide between the law and the protests, but says social justice is still important.
“I think the message is quite clear that Ryerson as a campus is supportive in increasingly diverse strategies of organizing,” she says. “It was most appropriate for us to kick off Social Justice Week with Occupy Toronto on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.”
Single says he’s against any university promoting activism on campus, because an educational institution shouldn’t have political values. “Ryerson is a university; Ryerson’s role is to teach students,” he says.
“Ryerson has zero interest. It’s not part of the student’s contract with the university to have students engaging [in activism].”
Sandy Hudson, Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, says otherwise. “Our whole purpose is education and innovation, essentially changing our world and making it better — everything that we do is moving forward our society,” says Hudson.
“Why wouldn’t we, as students, use that time to use what we’re learning to practically change our world? I actually think it’s integral to the learning process.”
The divide among students’ views of campus activism is highly visible right now in Montreal, where students staged a sit-in at the McGill University administration building. Another group of students, upset with the demonstration, created an event on Facebook called "The James 6th Floor occupiers do NOT represent me." More than 2,100 students have signed up so far.
The McGill sit-in was the subject of a recent episode of CBC Radio’s The Current, in which Single talks about his distaste for student sit-ins, protests and marches. He says he has a problem with it when it infringes on others’ rights and takes up extra costs in order to accommodate the protest. But Soberal sees it as a necessary cost to incur.
“Everybody has the right to freely think what they want, but at the end of the day we are all individuals, and sometimes traffic is stopped because it’s not business as usual,” says Soberal. “There’s something that needs to be brought to the public attention. It creates spark, awareness … sometimes you have to create attention to make it an issue.”
But Single doesn’t buy into the idea that activism, like Occupy Toronto or the G20 protest, actually gets anything done. “If you want to make a difference in this world, go to school, become successful, become wealthy, and then use your wealth as a philanthropist, like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett,” says Single. “They’re billionaires and making significant change in the world … because they’re successful academically. Marching and protesting isn’t really making a difference.”
Ng says students should look beyond their texts and assignments to bring their educational process into broader political, ecological, and social contexts to become more critical thinkers. “For example, I could just hit my books and be the best that I can be in my field, but how does that relate and transcend to the rest of society?” asks Ng. “How does excelling in what I’m doing having an impact in the larger community?"
She sees the post-secondary community as essential to social change. “To me, that’s the essence of learning, critical reflection, something that’s down deep in your core, there’s some sense of core values,” she says. “So for me building a society that’s more caring and more just, we need more people to act when those core values are violated.”
Though he never actually attended Ryerson, Soberal continues to be involved with many of the same causes as student activists.
“We are all a part of the change that we want to see,” says Soberal. “I think university activism and community activism are all connected. What a great way to start, in university, to stand behind something you believe in, to create networks and communities and make a difference.”
He says he may be taking action against the Toronto police, but not until his trial for the camera incident is over. Soberal’s father Richard found out about the arrest from a friend. “I was pretty disturbed … I turned on the TV and they kept replaying it,” he says. “They showed him in handcuffs and bringing him into city hall. That upset me.” Four people were arrested at the rally, but only Soberal was detained overnight. Richard says he thinks they purposefully kept Soberal because he had been in the public eye as part of protest movements.
Soberal was raised near the intersections of Jane Street and Finch Avenue West, an area with an unsavoury reputation.
“I mean, when we were living there, you had to stick up for yourself,” recalls Richard. “You couldn’t run away from anything because the kids would be on your back. [Derek] got in some fights and that, but you know, it was just normal stuff.”
Soberal says the experience was formative and helped make him who he is. “Growing up in Jane and Finch was a great place — it creates adversity, but it creates character,” he says. “And that’s my home.”
“Moving down here now, down here is just the center of everything, ‘the big city.’ If he was living outside the city, I don’t think he would be involved like he is,” says Soberal’s father. Arguably, he’s more concerned for his son now than when they lived at Jane and Finch.
“Personally, I told him to back off [the activism] for a while and that’s the way I feel now,” he says. "I’m proud of him for what he’s doing, he’s putting in a lot of effort and he knows what he’s talking about, but I’m just scared that something bad is going to happen to him.”
Richard is especially concerned because Derek’s brother Shawn passed away in 2009 at the age of 33. The family has not disclosed the circumstances involved in Shawn’s death. “I lost one son and I don’t want to lose another,” Richard says. “As a father, I’m just worried.”
But Soberal has no plans on stopping. He’s still filming and editing videos, and still strongly believes in activism and citizen journalism. He wears his brother’s jacket when he attends protests, saying he feels protected by it. “I think everyone has to recognize that we have the freedom of assembly and the freedom of speech and we must exercise all of it,” says Soberal.
“We have voices, we gotta speak out; we have bodies, we gotta stand up," he says. “It’s about being there for something that you stand behind. We have a climate in Canada where it’s winter and a lot of people can’t get out. We’re hoping for a Canadian Spring.”