Occupy Ottawa has, at times, driven me literally insane; years ago I was diagnosed with “Schizoaffective Disorder,” and this movement has certainly, at times, made me symptomatic – which is the medicalized way of saying that it has made me crazy, has made me paranoid, anxious, elated, depressed, and generally wonky.
I often watch, and participate in this small portion of the broader movement, while feeling like I’m watching a movement that has the potential to be a beautiful and powerful and to radicalize large numbers of people, turn into a clusterfuck train wreck.
I’ve seen to many Occupy activists overpersonalize criticisms of the movement, where every statement about oppressive dynamics in the movement, or the limited nature of an analysis that relies exclusively on the distinction between the top 1% of income earners and the bottom 99%, is interpreted as a personal attack, so perhaps it will be helpful if I emphasize that these dynamics are a part of the broader society, and it is no surprise that they are found in the Occupy movement. Similarly, while I continue to try and challenge my privileges and organize in solidarity with oppressed people, I’m not making any claims to be free of oppressive habits or ideas, or to have no responsibility in the culture of Occupy Ottawa and the decisions we have made. Finally, it is not a knock on the good intentions, passion, ideals, or commitment of Occupy Ottawa.
“We Are The 99%!” This slogan, so important to the Occupy Movement, is both vague enough to be widely inclusively, and vague enough to be, in many ways, essentially meaningless.
For example, when, during the Novembre 17 International Day of Action, Occupy Ottawa marched onto Parliament Hill chanting, “We Are The 99%!,” we passed the ever-present anti-abortion protestors and their ever-present signs and displays. They are also, surely, part of the 99% - although they anti-abortion movement is also funded, to a greater or lesser extent, by the 1%. If the Occupy Movement is going to develop into a real force for positive social change, or as some occupiers say, revolutionary change, then it will have to be able to elaborate a politics that, while it continues to be broadly inclusive, is able to recognize that the 99% do not all have the same interests. That despite being part of the 99%, anti-abortion activists are not part of any movement that wants to see gender justice, or that wants to end gender oppression and heteropatriarchy.
A movement that isn’t able to recognize that race[i], gender[ii][iii], sexuality, nationality[iv], etc., as well as class, are oppressive systems that maintain the status quo, and that keep rich, white men in power, will never be able to end capitalism, imperialism and oppression. It is likely to become simply a movement whereby some white folks get a little more for themselves, while everyone else continues to get screwed. Although this would be a betrayal of the vision and the passion of many people in the Occupy Movement, it would certainly be par for the historical course. Movements that fail to fight against the “White Supremacist Capitalist [Hetero]Patriarchy” (to quote bell hooks) are inevitably co-opted, to the extent that they ever had a vision for radical social change to begin with, and end up becoming a reactionary force that helps, at best, to maintain the status quo.
This overly simplistic analysis of the 99% vs. the 1% is, I think, very much rooted in the liberal tradition, and the politics of tolerance. Examples from Occupy Ottawa include the unwillingness of the occupiers here to eject a man who said openly that he was a neo-nazi, and who made any number of racist comments and threats. The fact that many people of colour decided to stop going to the campsite, participating in General Assemblies, or even completely rejected the movement SHOULD have come as no surprise (but for some, somehow, it did). The not-at-all-surprising result is that Occupy Ottawa has become increasingly white dominated. The reason for this complicity with open racist fascism was a combination of ignorance, inexperience, Nonviolence, and, I would argue, the liberal politics of tolerance, as he “is also part of the 99%”. To quote Chairman Mao [v]:
liberalism rejects ideological struggle and stands for unprincipled peace, thus giving rise to a decadent, Philistine attitude and bringing about political degeneration….
To let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship when a person has clearly gone wrong, and refrain from principled argument because he is an old acquaintance, a fellow townsman, a schoolmate, a close friend, a loved one, an old colleague or old subordinate. Or to touch on the matter lightly instead of going into it thoroughly, so as to keep on good terms. The result is that both the organization and the individual are harmed. This is one type of liberalism.
A similar dynamic exists around gender, and sexual violence, where real issues and concerns were often minimized, ignored, covered-up and generally not dealt with. The not-at-all-surprising result was that many women stopped going to the campsite, especially to stay there overnight, participating in General Assemblies, and sometimes even completely rejecting the movement. Aside from the ethical failure of Occupy Ottawa to address particularly obvious and violent forms of oppression, the consequences have been and will continue to be that there will be less men of colour and white women and women of colour engaged in the movement. For everyone involved in Occupy Ottawa who truly wants to change the world for the better, this is one sign that we are going in the wrong direction.
From Occupy Confederation Park to Occupy Ottawa
On Monday, Nov. 21, Occupy Ottawa was served with an eviction notice which stated that, as of 11:59pm of that day, the National Capital Commission and the Police (as always referred to euphemistically as “Peace Officers”) they would be removing any tents, structures or materials from the park. They’re claim was that this did not violate Occupy Ottawa’s right to protest, while, in fact, removing the tents, structures and materials meant that there was no way that the protest camp could continue. As is so often the case, the right to protest exists only when people do not exercise that right, at which point the state either decides that the right does not really exist, or finds a convenient excuse to violate that right.
With the Occupation of Confederation Park at least temporarily over, OO is now focused on trying to (re)define itself. The end of the camp has both positive and negative aspects.
The biggest negatives are the loss of free housing and free food for those who truly needed it, with additional losses including the uprooting of the campsite community, and, more symbolically and psychologically, the loss of the physical space itself, which acted, in many ways, as the hub of the movement in Ottawa.
Positives include the fact that outdoor camping during an Ottawa winter is no easy task, one that most of the occupiers simply wouldn’t have been up for, and it is a task that was draining, and would have continued to drain, large amounts of the limited resources that OO has/had. Many people had also expressed safety concerns, and/or felt unsafe at the campsite, especially at night. If/When another occupation begins, safety issues will be addressed, to a greater extent in any event, prior to the creation of a new campsite, or squat. More generally, all of the time, energy and money that was going into maintaining the campsite can now be directed to envisioning phase 2 of OO, to internal and external (re)organization of the group, to building bridges with other Occupations, and with community organizations in Ottawa, and, hopefully, healing some of the rifts that have been created in the days leading up to the occupation until today.
Occupy Ottawa The Good
It is always important to recognize the positive contributions that individuals, groups and movements are making, and Occupy Ottawa has made several[i], with the potential to make many more.
Politically, the most significant contribution that OO, as part of the broader Occupy movement, has made, is raising awareness around the issue of economic inequality, and the massive, and growing, disparity between the incomes of the top 1% of “job creators” and the incomes of the 99%, or, in the interest of calling things by their right names, in the oppressive and exploitative nature of the capitalist system. To a very limited extent, the Occupy movement has even managed, on occasion, to actual disrupt the smooth functioning of the capitalist system.
The combination of this awareness raising, and the minor disruptions of capitalism has resulted in both the mass media slandering the movement, and in police repression. For those people who were not already well aware that the mass media will misrepresent and even falsify their ideas, statements, political positions and actions, and that the police use violence to maintain an injust system, to oppress people, and to repress political movements, it has also been an important wake up call, and political education about some of the ways in which this system works.
The most tangible positives have been providing free food, and, to a more limited extent, free “housing” (tents). In both cases, for those people who truly needed them, the Occupy campsite was, presumably, preferable in many ways to the social services being provided by the municipal and/or provincial and/or federal governments.
The campsite also helped to create an OO community, to nurture relationships, and to connect people both through day-to-day life together and through the shared experience of political organizing and political struggle. And, for the most part, this was a community of people who were/are new to activism.
This new community of activists formed out the relatively wide support that the Occupy movement has/d, and, although this support, in Ottawa at least, has waned to some extent, it is still, relative to much of the radical community organizing in this city, comparatively popular. And this popular support has meant that Occupy activists have had the opportunity to participate in and organize out of a, if not mass, at least medium-sized movement. The lessons and skills that organizers have been learning are potentially extremely valuable for both OO and for any other future mass organizing.
Finally, and in a point that is connected to both the experience of (small) mass organizing, the directly democratic nature of the movement, with all of the difficulties and failings that this has so far entailed, is an inspiring example and model. The fact that some Occupations have found a way to make directly democratic decisions, with hundreds or thousands of people, is a forceful reminder of how powerful real democracy is, and how much it resonates with people, as well as a solid reminder that “el pueblo no esta tonto” – that people aren’t stupid.
[i] This article lists a number of the positive aspects of the occupations generally: THE PURPOSE OF THE OCCUPATION MOVEMENT AND THE DANGER OF FETISHIZING SPACE, http://pmarcuse.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/the-purpose-of-the-occupation-movement-and-the-danger-of-fetishizing-space/
[i] “Whiteness and the 99%,” http://www.bringtheruckus.org/?q=node/146
[ii] “Occupy Rape Culture,” http://thefeministwire.com/2011/11/occupy-rape-culture/
[iii] "Activists Tie Occupy Movement To Global Gender Rights" http://www.awid.org/News-Analysis/Women-s-Rights-in-the-News2/Activists-...
[iv] ‘OCCUPY WALL STREET: The Game of Colonialism and further nationalism to be decolonized from the “Left”,’ http://www.racialicious.com/2011/09/30/occupy-wall-street-the-game-of-colonialism-and-further-nationalism-to-be-decolonized-from-the-left/
[v] "Combat Liberalism," http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-2/ms...