OCCUPY’S BRIEF STAY ON THE LONG ARC

A LOOK AT THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT’S PLACE IN HISTORY

Michael Smith

“The true problem… is to allow the problems to arise,” wrote R.D. Laing in The Politics of Experience. No less true today than when published in 1967 – or underlined in red the next year. 1968 saw the Prague Spring and My Lai massacre, the Chicago riots and Irish “Troubles.” Students were murdered in Mexico’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas; they brought Paris to a halt when university occupations spread to factories. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Three years earlier, the year of Malcolm X’s murder, King delivered one of his now most-quoted sermons. “[T]he arc of the moral universe is long,” he declared from the steps of the Montgomery, Alabama Capitol, “but it bends toward justice.”

New students of social justice still hear stories of ’68 – more than they might about that long arc’s course through their own lifetimes. After all, such stories – activist leaders murdered for their charisma; a world capital nearly taken over by students – seem more fantasy than history, and so don’t implicate Gen X-ers and Millennials, still yet to allow the problems arise in our own time, as more recent events might.

After they arise again, as they must, those who ask how will look to 2011 — the Arab Spring, the Indignados, Occupy’s meta-movement. But, with some distance, 2011 might only make sense in the light of the decade that came before it.

By this point in 2001, hundreds of thousands of “ant-globalization” protesters – who had captured headlines in 1999 by shutting down the World Trade Organization in Seattle – had laid siege to Free Trade Area of the Americas and G8 meetings, in Quebec City and Genoa respectively.

It was an efflorescence interrupted only by terror: the terror of planes flown into Manhattan towers, and the terror of our reaction. The movement staggered on in the North a while longer, but effectively found its end in 2003, when an army of police – refining a domestic version of the “shock and awe” campaign intended for Iraqis – broke the FTAA protests in Miami. 2001’s surviving accomplishment is the World Social Forum, an envisioned counterpoint to the World Economic Forum. The WSF motto is one of the most popular slogans from those days: Another World Is Possible.

A decade later, another world has not only proven possible, but extremely profitable.

In every developed nation, there is an economy of imaginary wealth equivalent in scope to the real one. Canada’s private household debt hovers around 90% of GDP, slightly higher than in the US. In the UK, it’s greater than GDP. When Montreal students first took to the streets this year, they might have seen their future in their US counterparts, now being sent into the working world with more debt than they will ever pay off.

The debt is not supposed to be paid. For such massive streams of interest payments to dry up, for the wells of fictive trading currency to disappear, would mean economic cataclysm.

While occasional epidemics of evictions and unemployment might be awkward for the ruling classes, masses of people with unused capacities and enormous debts are extremely productive: nothing accustoms us to ‘discipline’ and austerity like ten people lining up to do your job for less. “As was openly noted in the 1930s,” writes David Harvey in Rebel Cities, “debt-encumbered homeowners do not go on strike.”

But what if there was a place to gather other than lining up for a race to the bottom? At its height, Occupy Wall Street had graywater recycling, a tech lab, even its own cigarette production. I’m no Marxist, but the man could turn a phrase – and there may be no better description of Occupy’s unrealized potential than “that realm of freedom which begins when the realm of necessity is left behind.”

Of course the camps had to be broken.

* * *

It’s an unseasonably cold October night in east downtown, and I’m standing, chapped and tingling, in the St. James Park gazebo, waiting for a General Assembly.

When Occupy Toronto marched in like a band of fairies deserting Napoleon’s army weeks earlier, GAs were where members of the Toronto public became people of Toronto. The “people’s mic,” concentric circles of human repeaters (which I still most associate with Tom Hayden’s speech outside a prison depicted in This Is What Democracy Looks Like), was a form of broadcast that didn’t separate speech from speaker. The field of politics opened up even to those without avatars or informal degrees in committee procedure and security protocols.

But what began as a political resistance without political agenda has become more of a music festival without music. A facilitator’s been trying to get an agenda going for twenty minutes. Some people help with random speeches, then wander off when they realize it’s not an open mic. Presently, a few folks walk in and sit down purposefully in a quarter-circle. The facilitator welcomes them with a hopeful nod. A young man nods back. “This is the drum circle, right?”

No response. No need. By now the answer is always ‘Yes.’

* * *

“By that point,” Veronica Campbell tells me, “there’d been quite a bit of disdain growing between people who identified more as artists, and the ‘Activistocrats.'” We’re sitting in the grass at St. James Park, which shows no sign of the hundred-some tents from 10 months earlier. Campbell coordinates Occupy-born Art In The Park sessions here.

The GA had decided on a 10pm drumming curfew. She says it was “the wrong decision,” not because it limited drumming, but because it was “imposed without discussion” – a missed chance to demonstrate the value of codified political process to folks who primarily identify as artists. “A lot of them are afraid to speak really strongly about politics because of the culture we live in, and how that would narrow their possibilities.”

What does she think needs to be strongly said?

She tightens her face and breathes deeply before answering, carefully: “I don’t think… the democracy we live in right now… really is a democracy…” She clearly has the words, but isn’t sure whether to give an honest answer to a journalist she doesn’t know from Adam Baldwin. I assure her she doesn’t have to hedge.

“It’s a corporatocracy,” she continues. “People really want to be able to say their piece, and they can’t. At the city, provincial, federal level. Send an email, you get a generated response not from the person you’re writing to. That disconnect creates disdain. That disdain makes us hate our government. And our government is supposed to be us. That’s all I want to see. I want to see us governing ourselves.”

Maybe more than anything, Occupy was asking us to stop and ask when that became so radical.

While repression in “the Seattle era” was often brutal, it was still new – for white kids of the North – and the post-911 chill was a thing that perceptibly happened. To those now coming of political age, it’s simply the way things are. And so, when I first met Campbell, she prefaced an intensely political conversation: “I’m not really political. I’m more of an artist.”

I can think of no more Torontonian a statement. Here, rents are still just low enough, there are just enough jobs, and just enough of them in arts, advocacy, and media, that just enough social capital is spent preserving Toronto’s Babel: a better trickle-down. Freelancers and consultants are still just hopeful enough to interpret precarity as opportunity. And it’s still something less than utterly delusional for a lone citizen of the old city to get it in their head that they, by their lonesome, are going to make it, or make a difference.

Artists haven’t yet had to politicize, political people haven’t had to get creative, and both remain dependent on a manic employability or grant-eligibility that demands non-controversial pliability. It’s in their interest to believe their work is unrelated. And anyone who might remind them otherwise is just a bit too busy just making rent, or still just easily enough dismissed as an outlier.

Of course it was hard for Occupy to make its case.

The free-for-all of General Assemblies were, basically, group therapy. A space open to all voices could only be revelatory to a people chafing under the message – indirect but unceasing – that if you have anything to say, just stick it on a hoodie or throw a hashtag on the end. The long-term effect of so many being able to test their outside voices together will be measured in years, not weeks.

The genius – not easily translated into news stories – is that the GAs were the protest. Without burning out on chasing trade summits, without being able to steer awkward conversations about group dynamics back toward the enemy at the gates, Occupiers were able to begin a crude but earnest sketch of that possible world their predecessors often demanded and rarely built.

But they weren’t, as suggested, unprecedented. Those summit protests were planned through spokescouncils and “consultas” which often dwarfed even the first GAs. They also, at their best, reflected a realization that the total, near-neurotic commitment to pure horizontal openness (favoured by Occupy) just doesn’t scale. Speakers mostly spoke for distinct groups – whether another network, or just an affinity group formed for that event – who were, ideally, consulted on each proposal.

Meetings were slow. When done well, focus on process and procedure made them slower – real democracy is, at its heart, gloriously inefficient. They were also less easily hijacked by those with no stake in anything other than their speech. If someone was speaking, there was some reason to believe they were doing work somewhere else.

There was never consensus on tactics, no agreement on whether to reform or reject capitalism. But at least it was deemed worth discussing; to Occupy, capitalism was an accursed “Scottish Play,” threatening to drop a rafter on a drum circle if named aloud. Ideology got us in to this mess – the thinking seemed to go – so to hell with all ideology.

“One of the big conversations has been whether Occupy-style movements should be a de-facto social service, or an organizing space,” says Kevin Konnyu.

Konnyu was a member of the facilitation team at St. James, where things veered toward the former. “It was less a choice than a fact on the ground. Every time it came up, the answer was obvious. Do we give out blankets to anyone who asks? Well, yup. Do we feed everyone? Uh, yes… You’re there to say, ‘The people should be deciding what’s done with their resources.’ You can’t walk away from that.”

Was that ever frustrating?

“It was hard for smaller groups to meet… Any attempt to create any sort of hierarchy was looked at with anger. I don’t want to sound disparaging. But there was some naivete, expressed as contempt for even reasonable political structures.”

Or reasonable political discussion. One GA debate about speakers lists with gender and racial parity – the undying Marley’s Ghost of activist assemblies – became a procession of agitated bros thinking out loud about white privilege for the first time, echoed by eighty people. It may sound potentially profound. And in another, similar universe, it may have been. In this one – well, if you’ve never heard a choral round of the phrase “reverse racism” peal credulously off the trees at dusk, I don’t recommend it.

“There is no race here,” declaimed one pasty chap in a rasta hat. “We’re all one. We are the 99%.” This was followed by a monologue on overcoming inequality by “radiating love.” People applauded. I pulled my hat lower.

Between 1980 and 2000, the poverty rate of Toronto’s non-racialized population – AKA “white people” – fell 28%. Among racialized people, it rose by an average of 361%. “We” may be “the 99%,” but some are more the 99% than others. Even the most finely-tuned love radiator can’t change that by mind-meld alone.

Through all this, the folks who cut their teeth in earlier uprisings were, with a few notable exceptions, elsewhere. To what extent was Casual Racism Funtime the cause, and to what extent the result?

For the record, such conversations were just as awkward, unskilled, and embarrassing in 2001, and many preferred to avoid them then as well. But at least a culture and language of “anti-oppression” had developed, on the basis of which they could be confronted. “On [the Occupy IRC organizing channel], some language was so homophobic, so sexist, I thought, these are the guys organizing the revolution? Anti-oppression used to be such a big deal. Well, here’s a generation who’s never heard of it. There was a period where all that just ended. Activism ended. Hiphop ended. It was gangsta rap and Jack Bauer.”

But, to look at it another way, despite having every reason not to, people rose up anyway: messily, contradictorily, from where they were, having come by it honestly.

“Conversations I’d have with other activists would put me off so much,” says Konnyu, “I’d be relieved to be back [at Occupy] talking with the guy they were disparaging, about our regular shitty lives. We just needed a critical mass to create the culture – just the numbers, to change things in the ordinary way, through social connections. If [someone] seems cool, they’re not narcs, they’re not elitists or manipulators, and they can say, hey that’s not cool, then you make change.”

* * *

In Toronto, we are officially very proud of our “public space” – in the name of which Occupy was evicted, exposing the contradiction by which the “public” is an agglomeration of individuals and “public spaces” only where they go to avoid each other without feeling quite so alone.

Sharon Howarth spent a lot of time at the camp, and pinpoints why being free to gather intermittently isn’t the same. “If there’s one spot, where I know that any time, I can go down and take part in while I have the time – to have that be public knowledge, that you can always head down to that space and take part, that would be a huge step forward.”

But huge enough? Visitors to St. James from outside Toronto often seemed more numerous on the ground than Torontonians from outside the old city. The awkward truth is that the old city is becoming a walled garden, delineated by (increasingly colour-coded) class lines. Any anti-poverty movement needs to grapple with that first.

Could #OccTO have done so? We never got a chance to see. Nor, says Campbell, did we see the “real story” of people who found solid ground. “People let go of addictions… I know some who haven’t been back to the hospital since, and have started relationships.”

In New York, Occupy has shifted to anti-eviction work. In Oakland, they’ve re-opened a derelict city library. Occupy Hong Kong, the last remaining camp, faces court-ordered eviction. Toronto is still meeting, albeit in small and somewhat scattered fashion, having adopted anti-oppression principles and a decision-making process.

At a meeting I attended, the effect was elusive. But better late than never. The arc is long, after all. “Never” never actually arrives.

Formerly a City Hall reporter, currently a freelance writer and performer, eventually an old man, Michael Smith has reported on politics and social movements since 2002. Find more at linebreaks.com.