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The Occupy Movement's Commitment to Civil Obedience, or, the Perils of White Middle-Class Pacifism

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Since Occupy Toronto arrived in mid-October, activists in the city have participated with cautious hope that the movement would develop in a direction that embraced local histories of organizing and resistance as well as build the capacity to engage in meaningful resistance itself. There have been many upsides to Occupy Toronto, ways in which the challenges of collective living and the trauma of poverty/homelessness have been grappled with in very concrete ways, but downsides and limitations too. I personally have spoken with many radicals and long-term activists who expressed everything from hope to trepidation to frustration; but we hid our concerns and criticisms, worried that we were stuck in our own ways of doing things and worked to open up to the new folks jumping into the fray, into the struggle for justice we think about and live in every day. This article is a brief description of one of those limitations, and is not intended to portray the movement as monolithic, but rather divided by internal contradictions.

November 22’s polite and peaceable eviction, where occupiers chatted amicably with police as the encampment was ripped down around them, have dwindled my own hopes that the occupy movement, or at least its Torontonian manifestation, will build towards tactical creativity and achieve concrete goals beyond reminding “the public” (consumers of mainstream media) that youthful enthusiasm still exists. Despite the slogans, which I’ll give them they have a knack for creating (“you can’t evict an idea”), protesters demonstrated effectively that the City of Toronto could, with little more than hot air, evict protesters who put up barely any resistance worthy of naming as such.

This isn’t to dismiss the day’s actions by the few who remained, who chained themselves to the open library, who marched to the park and shamed city workers for collaborating with the destruction of the camp, or who stayed to witness, negotiate, and reject the City’s authority to dictate the terms of the movement. Rather, this is to call out the many – the hundreds – who packed up and left St. James Park before the first cop arrived. Those who evicted themselves when the easy part (read: unimpeded drum circle) was over. By the night of the 21st, when I passed through the Occupy camp for the last time, the drummers had stopped, the meditation circles were gone, and the tent city had mostly evaporated. It was clear that there would be no confrontation, no push back against eviction by a (municipal) government that does not care one iota about the goals of the movement.

 

The protesters had done the one thing that you usually can’t do it if you want to effect change: they obeyed the authorities.

This wasn’t a slip-up or lack of planning around the eviction, but something that I’ve realized over days of participation at St. James, was a central pillar of the ideology that emerged as dominant from Occupy Toronto’s eclectic soup of beliefs: a dogmatic and unswerving approach to pacifism – not at all the nonviolence of Gandhi – usually cited by North American pacifists as the ideal – who along with other Indian revolutionaries of many persuasions challenged colonial power and faced criminalization, prolonged jail time and repression (and Gandhi’s politics were troubling yet).

Instead, they applied in Occupy Toronto what anarchist writer Peter Gelderloos has described as a strain of pacifism more intent on maintaining the safety and comfort of pacifists themselves than creating change or supporting oppressed peoples’ struggles for liberation. This form of nonviolence suggests not a “peaceful” clogging of the arteries of business as usual but efforts to minimize disruption to the lives of protesters themselves (and by extension, to everyone else): “to the vast majority of its practitioners and advocates, pacifism is about staying safe, not getting hurt, not alienating anyone, not giving anyone a bitter pill to swallow.”

This manifested when, during one of the daily marches early on in the occupation, one man threw himself to the ground to block other demonstrators from heading down the “wrong” street – the one that police told them not to take.

It manifested when occupiers promoting an escalation of conflict and pressure were labeled as provocateurs.

It manifested when anger expressed by occupiers at the racism, sexism, and ableism prevalent in general assemblies was denounced as divisive and aggressive (ie. white people uncomfortable with anger), and dissenters censured.

It manifested when strict statements of nonviolence were posted to the occupyto.org website and broadcast beyond the park, despite no consensus decision on tactical unity (or, for that matter, any consensus decision in any general assembly, as far as I saw).

It manifested in the lack of disruptive “nonviolent” actions that could have provoked a conflict with the economic and political elite of Toronto, or even the lack of any major acts of symbolic civil disobedience leading to symbolic arrests.

It manifested when, during the week of the injunction against eviction, arguments frequented the camp about whether or not occupying the park was legal, or protesters had the right to occupy, as if the legality mattered.

And it manifested in the decision by the crowd most committed to this form of “activism” to vacate the park when told to, failing to heed one of Zach de la Rocha’s most oft-quoted behavioural mantras (repeat after him): “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”

Such a self-interested tactical approach to activism would not surprise critics of the broader occupy movement, some of whom describe a strong undercurrent focused on the reclamation and perpetuation of shrinking middle-class economic privilege masquerading as a struggle for freedom, participatory democracy, and social justice. And indeed, since day one there has been a struggle between the occupy movement as a proto/anarchistic movement calling for the abolishment capitalism and colonialism, and the occupy movement based in the experience of privilege and a commitment to reproducing it. This internal struggle has taken on different forms in different cities, while consistently being swept under the carpet of “99%” unity, and the way the dice landed here left Toronto on the outside of authenticity.

For me, one of the most disheartening aspects of Occupy Toronto has been the insistence of so many occupiers about the inherent goodness of the police (“the individuals if not the institution”) and the extraordinary efforts made by protesters to repair their relationship with Toronto’s police forces by respecting their authority, remaining complacent, and self-policing the movement (and I don’t mean the marshals).  It seems to me that this is a strange psychological response to the unmitigated G20 police violence against nonviolent demonstrators, one which see Torontonians willingly replace the veil of legitimacy and neutrality which hides the creeping police state our city and country are becoming – and already are in marginalized communities. Even shortly after the most brutal police repression white middle-class Torontonians have ever faced in its history, radicals failed to break through this desire to deny uncomfortable truths and effectively instill a strong analysis of the policing apparatus at Occupy Toronto

The result, unfortunately, has been a month not of resistance, or even civil disobedience or even pacifism; most of what we’ve seen at Occupy Toronto amounts to nothing more than passivism, or civil obedience, and no real challenge to the status quo. With Occupy Toronto dispersed into general activity across the city, we can hope that some further potential will emerge; today’s attempted “FoodSquat”, for example; but the question remains, how much energy should activists be putting into the actions and development of “occupy” versus, for instance, drawing people into the existing movements for radical change?


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Kalin (Kalin Stacey)
Kitchener-Waterloo
Member since November 2011

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Solidarity activist based in the Haudenosaunee Grand River Territory. Currently an editor and host for Grand River Radical Radio, which is a new project of the Grand River Media Collective. We provide a daily news show on, for and from the grassroots. You can find our podcasts hosted at www.grandrivermc.ca, and sometimes here at the TMC.

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A counter thought

Although I certainly agree that there was a lack of 'militancy' at St. James, its overly simplistic to lay the problems with (de/un)Occupy (and they were legion to be sure) at the doors of its newly politicized membership. For me, the most disheartening part of Occupy Toronto was the fact that, by and large, the radical left simply didn't show up; instead, statements of support and/or criticism were issued from afar. This means that the burden of political education (including the work of anti-oppression) fell disproportionately on those few experienced organizers who were there. There is no 'instant analysis' button for new activists; it takes years, and a lot of patience and hurt and healing, to develop.

To the extent that Occupy TO lacked analysis (true), chose poor tactics (true), and adopted a pathological form of pacifism (probably true), existing social movements in Toronto also failed to do the work of mentoring it on these and other points. I think this happened for several reasons. A lack of a sense of ownership over the work being done, difficulty engaging with a different constituency (one perceived as largely middle class and liberal), circumstances (g20 organizers facing charges and prison, focus on other struggles)...but the bottom line is, if 'Occupy' had been a made-in-radical-land production, we could bet that none of these things would have precluded a much broader and more sustained involvement from experienced organizers.

Yes, some occupiers did evict themselves. Yes, some (not all) occupiers denied uncomfortable truths. Yes, some occupiers took a 'self-interested' tactical approach to responding to the Occupy crackdown (although I'd like to point out that in some cases, they did so simply to buy time for the encampment, and not because of any attachment to the tactics themselves). Yes, some occupiers were dismissive and derisive in response to concerns raised about privilege. They did all of these things in part because experienced radicals weren't there to offer a different persepective over the long haul. The lack of tangible solidarity, imho, greatly enhanced the prevelance and severity of all of these issues. This lack was also incredibly demobilizing in the hours leading up to the eviction. When I issued a callout early Tuesday evening announcing a precise time frame for the forthcoming raid, I was more than a little disappointed to note almost zero response. When I finally left camp around 10am most of the way through the eviction, the hoped-for mobilization hadn't materialized. I can think of dozens of people who I invited to come to St. James, and who never once visited. Not even at crunch time. I think this lack of solidarity was evident to others as well, people who were much more invested in the camp. Many of those people who had lived at the camp started taking down their tents because they knew that they were going to lose them otherwise. For some, St. James had become their life for better or worse, and losing those possessions was not an option.

I profoundly disagree with your assertion that activists should avoid placing energy in these new movements, and instead entice people into existing movements for radical change, movements which in many cases are much more insular than it. As I've tried to state above, this is precisely the problem vis-a-vis Occupy; this kind of approach has contributed to it's difficulties. It also stands in stark contrast to the culture of acceptance that existed in St. James toward people who would have been excluded almost immediately from more established activist groups. Sometimes that was a weakness (such as when attempting to deal with inappropriate behaviours) but sometimes it was also a strength (as it was in supporting people with substance use or mental health issues). Exile and stigmatization is almost never the answer, but it's a frequent tool of the Left and, tellingly, not of Occupy Toronto. I found this kind of approach (acceptance, forgiveness, attempting to work with and not against/away from) deeply challenging. I'd also hesitate to say that existing movements have been any more effective, in real terms, in the years that I've been a part of them, than Occupy has in the weeks and months that it has been around. Instead of trying to draw people out from Occupy, what would happen if people in existing movements for radical change also joined, en masse, Occupy, bringing their experience, analysis and skills? I think we'd end up with a movement that looks a lot different than the one you described above.

-----

Disclaimer

In no way do I want to disparage specific individuals who couldn't or wouldn't attend Occupy Toronto. I know some folks had bad experiences there, or were triggered by patterns of behaviour of some occupiers, or were busy/had lives to attend to, or had some other reason that kept them away. What I'm talking about here is the organized radical Left as a whole. And many props to those organizers who were there constantly, pouring a lot of themselves into it. Particularly several radical women who held it together. I'm in awe of you.

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I really agree with Justin

I really agree with Justin here and give him the ol' twinkle hands.  Although I suspect we have a similar analysis because we were working together so closely, we also worked together because we had a similar analysis.  The 'existing left' radicals who really made a commitment to work in the park were incredibly effective. I think about Brandon and his almost-daily classes on anarchist theory in the freeskool, which helped produce a critical mass of radicals who were willing to block the police van in solidarity with the comrades arrested at the yurt, producing some of the only (peaceful) resistance to the police during the eviction.  I think of Taylor doing women's safety and making sure sexual assault was taken seriously and dealt with in a way that prioritized the survivors needs.  I think all the work Octavian did on facilitation and outreach, or Brendan on liaising with unions and rank-and-file unionists.  Justin and I did not drop the media co-op but ramped it up to engage with the a new situation, produced the only consistent print media in camp and had the only journalism teams effectively covering the eviction (aside from possibly live-stream). Look at the stuff that Mike Roy did on the media team and setting up Occupy London and connecting it to Occupy Toronto. Look at Kevin and Sakura and Dave and Jessica and Krystaline and the work they did.

As I said on Facebook, its kind of a sad day when anarchists have to show liberals how to passively resist arrest and do Greenpeace style peaceful resistance. But that is where we are at right now. And without the anarchists (and a few other radicals who were in the gazebo as well as some underclass people at the camp fire) there would have been no resistance at all. It's our job to model to people what's possible so that maybe next time they will consider doing it.

But despite these named exceptions (i'm sure I've missed a few and I apologize) there was a real and serious lack of leftists in the park substantively engaging- maybe 5 or 10 beyond the people i've named there.   And much of the engagement amounted to revolutionary tourism.  I couldn't get into the excitement at the G20 march because Occupy was being evicted and I had two comrades chained to a yurt- marching away from them felt like a poor idea. There was barely any overlap between the g20 anniversary march and the occupy people. Of course I don't blame the people who just got off the serious charges, or the people who've burned themselves out supporting them. But the rest? Where were all the people I used to organize with from the TCMN, from Environmental Justice organizing, from CUPE 3903. We fucking needed you there.  If you want 'occupy to have an analysis of settler colonialism you have to be there and tell people what that is, because they've never heard of it before.  (I appreciate Mike's work on this, and we could have done a lot better if we'd had support)

You have to adapt your existing work to meet the changes in the situation.  And while teaching a few classes is useful and more than most of the left bothered to do, what we really need were people on the marshal committee too keep people safe while having a decent analysis of the cops, on the media committee to explain that indie media has to engage with people you are covering and that twitter isn't the be-all and end all, on every committee facilitating meetings, on the living document committee writing a statement that doesn't suck. We needed people to explain about surveillance and organizing, and that if you have a low arrestability than filming the cops on video is not what you want to be doing.  But that wasn't happening.

There were times when I wanted to walk away. There were times when I did walk away. I particularly remember one time when security kind of fell apart and the park felt really unsafe- I was talking to someone i've organized with for a long time about if we should abandon this project. But we couldn't, because if we left there would be people there placed in physical danger from the poor organizing of security and idealist (lets all get along!) practices about dealing with really serious situations.

Leftist friends posted on their facebook about occupy every day, and some of them never showed up at all.  This is a problem.  Like it or not, Occupy Toronto was the biggest thing happening in Toronto this fall.  If we can't adapt our organizations and plans to take into account a major social movement erupting all over North America, than we suck. Its not about dropping existing organizing. It's about doing that organizing in a new context. Media Co-op did this, as did Common Cause (the IS and Sister Sis engaged usefully as well). But we were really along there and without backup from the thousands of other people who identify as 'revolutionaries' in this City. If occupy was fucked up, and it was, we can't blame a bunch of new people who found each other on the internet. I think we have to blame ourselves.

 

---addendum-- 

I'm going to reiteratre Justin's statements about not blaming individuals- its is the radical left as a whole I hold responsible.  As someone who got physically attacked by a 7 ft tall man for holding an anarchist flag and trying to bring some democracy/non-assholeness to organizing (and later intimidated physically over the course of a few weeks), I barely managed to participate in occupy myself, and that only thanks to some comrades who had my back.  But I think if the experienced left had been pariticpating in a meaninfull way we would have been able to set it up so that this kind of extreme unsfae situation wouldn't have occurred.  I also think that its a responsibility espeically of 'white middle class' activists (or those of us like me who can sorta kinda pass as middle class sometimes) to take on these kind of movements and try to make them less problematic.  

The guy the media though Captain'd the Occupy movement...

Oh and Antonin Smith hijacking the movement at the end was brutal and destroyed whatever was gained.  The guy assaulted people in the park, made up crappy business cards that identified him as a 'Police liason', told others he was the chief of the Food team, then squandered all political goodwill from the public when he and a few other yahoos occupied a building on Queen for all of 24 hours, only to totally malign the Occupy movement with his masked attention-seeking.  The dude wore his gottdamn mask for a pre-arranged media interview. WTF?

Who could forget when he outed the Church and labeled them (!) as "backstabbers" or emceed the "FoodSquat" by emphasizing he was ready to die for the cause by taking over a dilapidated basement.  Shut down in less than a day.  I'm just sayin' that allowing this guy to be the defacto spokesperson for Occupy was an unhinged unabashed mistake.  He ran with the ball, into the stands and out of the f***ing stadium.  A reason why Occupy tanked.  

Before OccupyToronto existed

Before OccupyToronto existed as a physical camp, some women brought up past experiences of Antonin "Smith"'s sexism and other fucked-up behaviours. They were told by multiple men within occupy that "he's a bit rough but he's a good guy", "he's doing all this awesome work in food and we really need him", "don't worry, I can out alpha-male him and deal with any problems he produces" or at the most "I'll keep an eye on him". No one took their concerns or safety seriously so they left.

 Just to add to this comment

 Just to add to this comment and yours. You mentioned Common Cause, most of whom overlap the WA. As you know, the Workers' Assembly held weekly solidarity events there and were instrumental in encouraging labour involvement - folks around UTA held educationals, well known radicals spoke there a few times. I think a lot of radicals - and I plead guilty to this - had a lot of other things on the go. The fact is, from the beginning, people were put off that CSIS briefers were not excluded from the event - I think this is a factor as well.

I'm not saying you're wrong. You're right. Absollutely - esp. about the unofficial "leadership" of the Left in Toronto. But I actually think the movement is a success insofar as it built a new mass of people who are post-identitarian, class-identified, and ready to do union support work....I know from CUPE city workers that none of them knew what they were to do until they showed up that day. Shaming them and blaming that local is inappropriate, in my opinion.

TheGTWA didn't have the capacity to go above and beyond - but those CommonCause members as far as I know, now usually publicly identify as WA members and reported back to the WA as WA members on their involvement on behalf of the WA. Also, the GTWA was to hold educationals but there was confusion and overlap, and perhaps inadvertent undermining and nascent territorialism.

 

"...participated with

"...participated with cautious hope that the movement would develop in a direction that embraced local histories of organizing and resistance...."

This is the kind of gate-keeping and turf-defending that discredits the established Left. People don't need your permission to resist. And they don't have to pay their respects to you.

This article just replicates the tired genre of "Everything used to be so great on the activist Left before these occupy people came around; they don't even go to the same parties as me and I haven't been hanging out with them for the past 5 years."

But guess what? Occupy Toronto has actually done a better job of challenging the system than anything that's happened in Toronto in the past 10 or 15 years.

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