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?