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Occupying the Public Awareness

Why has the Occupy movement been so successful at garnering public support?

by Eric Brauer

Occupying the Public Awareness

On Monday, November 21, I had the tremendous privilege of seeing Occupy Toronto for the last time. The camp was a hive of activity, as some occupiers packed up their belongings while others spent time reinforcing their makeshift barricades. Discussion everywhere, punctuated by a drum circle that improvised the fountain in St. James park as a percussion instrument. How strange and welcoming it was, to walk through a park in Toronto at night, and to see it like this. A public space finally being used as a meeting spot for people from all walks of life, discussing earnestly the things they really believe, and sharing in something important. Every so often we are liberated from the constraints of what is deemed possible; when I come into these spaces it feels like coming home.    

Maybe that's only the perspective of a tourist. I spent no nights at the Occupation, and experienced the occupation's occasional ugliness only third-hand in the form of rumours or 'gotcha' moments on television. But still I feel qualified to say that the night had a celebratory feel, mixed with sadness and trepidation and even some relief. I saw a lot of young people who stood quietly apart, grappling with the conclusion of a watershed moment in their lives. This will no doubt be an event that will shape them forever. That is Occupy Toronto's victory.

     What are the occupation's other victories? The victories that happened on the ground were the modest, meaningful ones that help shape people’s lives on an individual level. They are important, but not that different from what has happened at protests over the past decades. What has distinguished the Occupy movements from those of the past is the tremendous public support. At one point the Occupy movement scored higher approval ratings than the president, congress, and the tea party. Suddenly the media was forced to acknowledge it, and the Occupy movement achieved a staggering victory by altering the public discourse regarding income inequality and financial malfeasance in America. News commentators started talking about corporate greed. Finally, questions of class have entered the public conversation.
    Usually, when people repeat the same actions and expect different outcomes, we call that insanity. There is nothing novel about the tactics of the Occupy movement. Why were they so successful in capturing media attention where others have been ignored? Well, firstly the conditions were right. The bailout of banks, coupled with the record-breaking bonuses handed out to executives, caused a tremendous amount of public anger. So much that when Occupy Wall Street was first reported, there was barely any explanation required. The reasons were self-evident. With a bare minimum of media exposure, Occupy Wall Street was able to generate enormous public sympathy. Secondly, The meme of the 99% was a rousing success, and if I were more cynical I would call it one of the most important marketing moments of the 21st century. Thirdly, the successes of the Arab Spring demonstrated that mass mobilisations still had the power to effect political change, however limited and costly they have proven to be. In 10 seconds of media coverage, Occupy Wall Street could be understood by anyone. That our public discourse is restricted to such a short amount of time is not ideal, to say the least. But we’ve seen that it is effective, that it builds momentum, and that momentum is the lifeblood of the movement. People are hesitant to throw in with a lost cause; the Arab Spring flourished because it was first successful in Tunisia. It is vitally important that the movement be seen as achieving its objectives. 
    What is troubling, however, is that the occupation has become less about its aims, and more about itself. The media is mostly to blame for this. Their frank discussions of corporate greed almost seemed to be a mistake, as if the shock of covering a protest had confused them so much they actually started doing their jobs. But as the weeks have gone by, Occupy Wall Street has become Occupy Iowa, has become Occupy Anything: nothing more than a T-shirt slogan. We are replicating the model, not the message. And so the camps themselves have become the primary issue of contention. The media asks: "Should people be allowed to camp in parks", not, "Should 1% of the population control 42% of the economy."
    Sympathetic journalists have branded the Occupy movement 'the most important movement in a decade.' It must be exhilarating to be on the forefront of a trend. But the occupiers didn't set up tents to suffer the hyperbole of the press, they came to confront the failings of our economy. The failure to generate a concise set of achievable demands, I believe, has been a mistake. The occupation seems to apply a lion's share of its energy into the processes of decision making. I can understand the rationale. Occupiers wanted to demonstrate a better form of governance in the face of all that's wrong with the current system. It seems the Occupation represents nothing but itself, and that its objective is to sustain itself and nothing more.
    Unfortunately, this is a battle that can't possibly be won. There are no victory conditions, and nearly every end result can be painted as a failure. It's similar to the occupation of Afghanistan: if you leave, it can be construed as an embarrassing retreat. If you stay, it's because the situation hasn't improved. By not defining any conditions for success, you create a war that doesn't end until you are exhausted and admit defeat.
    In addition, the lack of a clear and achievable objective has complicated the Occupation's efforts to establish direct democracy. Toronto is an incredibly diverse city, that is its strength. It only follows that its causes should be incredibly diverse as well. On the first day of occupation I saw groups protesting India's occupation of Kashmir, I saw Maoists and Ron Paul libertarians standing together uneasily. Groups with conflicting ideas can work together, as long as their objectives are clear, and mutually beneficial. But I doubt those two groups would be able to reach consensus in forming a new social order. The confusion of goals was dutifully reported by the media, which only deepened the confusion of the public at large. The movement needs the involvement of the public at large, and not merely their passive sympathy. Vagueness of message is a poison, and miles away from the clarity of the 99% meme.
    There is a real sense that Occupy Toronto has merely been following in the footsteps of activists in America. They have suffered a financial crisis, a bank bailout, and a severe recession. The reasons for occupying Wall Street barely need to be mentioned. In Canada, there hasn't been a similar shock. Our problems with inequality and the disintegrating social safety net are equally serious, but they are chronic, not dramatic. Thus they need to be spelled out as accurately and as succinctly as possible. This unfortunately hasn’t happened.
    It seems obvious that the occupations are just the beginning. There seems to be no end to the crippling unemployment in the United States, and there is an upcoming presidential election. For the American occupiers, there is a real opportunity to affect the election and create lasting change in the political sphere. This situation doesn't exist in Canada, and we must be careful not to merely copy their tactics and message. Income inequality in Canada is worse than in the United States. Communicating the need for change here will require more clarity in our objectives, greater discipline, and better public outreach.

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