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Revolution in the air? Reflections from Occupy Toronto

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
The author at Occupy Toronto.
The author at Occupy Toronto.
Native participation in Saturday's march (photo: Mike Barber)
Native participation in Saturday's march (photo: Mike Barber)
photo: Tristan Laing
photo: Tristan Laing

When said we were heading to the 'occupy' protest, the cab driver turned off the meter. He told us he came here from Iran, that he had three degrees (two from Canada) and that he had to drive a cab every single day to make ends meet. “At least I don’t have a family to support” he said. “Isn’t that sad, that a man is happy he doesn’t have a family…I don’t want you thinking I’m a communist, because I’m not, but this system is not working.” We offered him money for the fare, and he absolutely refused, saying he could never take money from people like us, and that he wished he could be there. I had tears in my eyes as we left the cab and entered the park, which hummed with energy and activity.  An old man arrived to talk to the young people camping there: "There's revolution in the air" he told us. I have a book on my shelf with that title, but I never thought I’d hear that phrase told to me in person. Revolution- it’s suddenly outside of old books, branch meetings, anarchist bookfairs and freeschool discussion groups to become a word that people on the street are actually using. 

I can hardly believe that it hasn't been two weeks yet since Occupy Toronto started. A mini-village has emerged in St. James Park, functional despite growing pains in setting up governance from scratch in a charged environment. It's been a rapid learning curve for everyone- for new people who've thrown themselves into political activity, for experienced activists trying to figure out what is going on. I think about other political actions I've been involved in (like the three-month teaching assistant strike, anti mining campaigns, and the G20 protests), but never have I been part of something that's been a game changer on the political scene, not just in Toronto but across North America, even becoming part of ongoing political uprising in Europe. (Although we certainly had our delusions about the CUPE 3903 strike while it was on. I'm quite aware that being involved in an action creates a kind myopia that makes it impossible to judge its actual importance.)

 Most of the time, politics are slow.  Door-knocking, tabling, innumerable lectures, meetings, meeting, meetings. And then sometimes it happens fast. What are the demands?' people keep asking.  I really don't know how it could be clearer. People are sick of corporate governance, big corporations and finance capitalists telling us who is our leader, and what is possible. How is Bloomberg- super-rich creator of the proprietary software used to track the financial markets- the mayor of New York? Does he somehow represent its people? How is the government supposed to keep corporations in check when the government is run by the same corporations? That's what the 99% slogan is about.  We are done with corporate rule, and not just in America, but here in Canada, where Stephan Harper and his tar-sands cronies replaced Paul Martin, shipping magnate, and ne'er an ordinary person to be seen in the halls of Parliament.   People in Greece have been told clearly that they have no choice, that it doesn’t matter who they elect, austerity is coming.  They say no, and so do we. The movement so far has one no, and one yes.  It is set on creating new forms of participatory democracy.  There are a lot of bugs yet to be worked out in exactly what this looks like (I think it will have to move towards some kind of spokes-council system) but its pretty amazing to see large masses of people believing in, and experimenting with, real participatory decision making.  We don’t want one person, or a party, or a corporation, hijacking the movement, and the only way to prevent that is to be truly open to mass participation.

 

The mini-society at Occupy Toronto has its own media tent, and its own newspaper (that’s mainly what I’ve been working on). It has a food tent that feeds 1000 people a day, a sanitation committee where people volunteer to clean the port-o-potties.  It has a free library. It has a women’s safe space.  There are certainly many problems, most significantly around anti-racism, which is a bit of a nebulous concept to many there.  But I’ve seen indigenous people lead marches and ceremonies and white people listen and learn, probably for the first time, about the history of the land they are on.  I saw a workshop on privilege grow from a half-dozen people to about 50 over the course of two hours.  The people in the park want to learn, and are willing to listen to new ideas and try them out. Now, we don't have a way out yet.  I personally have a particular set of answers drawn from my particular political education- street demonstrations, community organizing, general strikes, workplace take-overs, and community councils setting up decentralized democratic networks. But not everyone has this set of education, and people are going to have to learn by experience.  Some people plan Gandhi- like campaigns of massive peaceful civil disobedience. Others want to start new political parties, or influence existing ones. There’s a lot of utopian socialism/mutualism floating around where we just start growing our own food and stop using money. This is all going have to be hashed out in reality and not in some theoretical journal that you need 5+ years of graduate education to understand. 

 
The ‘existing left’ has as much to learn as it has to teach. We have been hiding from McCarthyism and from red-baiting so long we’ve forgotten to talk about big ideas, and we’ve lost the ability to be radical and realistic at the same time.  We don’t know how to talk to new people who haven’t mastered our specialized vocabularies (be it anti-oppression or Marxist jargon). We are so bound up in particular issues that we forgot to build a movement. That’s why it was so great to see a few thousand people gather last Saturday, many waving flags of red (or black and red) and march to city hall to fight the austerity program in our own city. We ‘the left’ didn’t call this protest, didn’t plan it for months like the G20, but I’m glad to see that we can react, that we can support new people, that we can be part of a spontaneous social movement that isn’t quite ours.
 
At ‘occupy’ I’ve had amazing discussions with people, about big ideas, what society should look like, how we can build it. We also have to deal with ‘small’ issues, the details that construct the whole. How can social movements include people with mental health issues while not being de-railed? What do you do when someone is a danger to others but you have an anti-police stance?  How do you practice anti-oppression with white people who keep talking about division and how they ‘don’t see race’? You can have as many conversations as you want about this, but when you leave the realm of ideas and you have to sit down and actually make it happen its different.  You have to patiently explain, you have to discuss. You have to find workable compromises, or work-arounds. You get pissed off but you keep going, and you find allies in strange places.

I don’t want to have rose-coloured glasses on.  There are lots of bugs to work out, and occupy has in some ways been the most frustrating space I’ve ever tried to work in. But it’s also the most filled with potential, and with hope. Yes, the people camping out are mostly ‘middle class’ youth struggling for their own interests, dealing with lack of democracy, joblessness, student debt. But these are not necessarily the so-called ‘first world problems’, some of these youth are on the brink of homelessness, with trouble buying food, being pushed to the margins of society and told that its their own fault.  The so-called ‘middle class’ has to find itself and its own struggle before it can  remember what solidarity is and not simply offer some kind of misplaced charity.

This is a first step, the first participation here in the ‘belly of the beast’ to a new global awakening that includes the Arab Spring, mass protests in Israel, general strikes in Greece, civil war (and imperialist invasion) in Libya, insurrection in Syria. All these things have been confused and ambiguous but they are signposts to what times will come under ruthless neo-liberalism. Sometimes unrest will erupt in unorganized and possibly counterproductive forms, like with the riots in London, other times it will be well organized with a clear message. There will be major victories and brutal defeats. A real social movement is in its embryo. Its outcome will not be measured in the next few months but in the next years and decades.

 

(first published on my blog)


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Megan Kinch (Megan Kinch)
Toronto Ontario
Member since December 2009

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is a writer and editor with the Toronto Media Co-op.

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