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Commentary: On Shaky Ground

Occupy Toronto's accountability problem

by Justin SaundersMegan Kinch

Thomas Zaugg, a well-known member of Occupy Toronto
Thomas Zaugg, a well-known member of Occupy Toronto

TORONTO – Dear Occupy Toronto, we need to talk. Since the beginning of the St. James occupation, and in the period since eviction, there have been many instances of overt sexism and racism, harassment, threats, intimidation, belligerence and even violence within the movement. Attempts to deal with, or even point out, these behaviours were often deemed “exclusionary,” or “unsubstantiated personal attacks.” It should be self-evident that such responses often serve to exclude a far greater number of people from social movements in favour of perpetrators. Women, especially, have left Occupy Toronto in droves, as safety and inclusion issues remain a low priority and perpetrators of intolerable behaviours are largely unnamed and unknown outside a small circle.

The Toronto Star's recent coverage of Antonin Mongeau, an infamous member of Occupy Toronto, illustrates this fact. The article focused largely on Mongeau's use of a pseudonym and his class background - Mongeau/Smith, it turns out, comes 'from the 1 percent'. Use of pseudonyms is quite common among activists, and those at Occupy Toronto were no exception. Antonin 'Smith' was an obvious pseudonym, and at no time did Mongeau try to distance himself from his activities at the University of Toronto (where he went by his full name). In delving into Mongeau's past, The Star virtually ignored the relevant issues.

Over the course of our Occupy coverage, we witnessed the internal workings of the local branch of this movement. We also became deeply familiar with Antonin Mongeau; the Toronto Media Co-op broadsheet on Occupy Toronto was sponsored in part by the Food Team for much of the occupation, and the TMC featured extensive coverage of Mongeau's organizing work.

Back in December, a General Assembly (GA) in Nathan Phillips Square dragged on late into the night, as it struggled to make a painful decision to expel Mongeau - who has been accused of physical assaults, verbal threats, sexual harassment and the misappropriation of a large sum of Occupy Toronto funds. A long list of complaints was read aloud at the Assembly, followed by a lengthy discussion on a proposal to create a safe space consistent with the principles of anti-oppression. The following decision was eventually passed with 100% consensus (three abstentions out of roughly 30 individuals present):

“We agree that Antonin Smith is not welcome in our general assemblies, working groups, or committees unless he demonstrates a willingness to address the issues as perceived by the people who have been victimized by him.”

Only 24 hours later, that decision was reversed after Mongeau showed up at a General Assembly, and was allowed to facilitate his own re-admittance. A subsequent Assembly was informed (by members of the facilitation team) that a committee would be struck in order to develop a 'mediation process.' A ban on Mongeau has since been inconsistently applied at officially sanctioned Occupy Toronto events. This pseudo-successful attempt at expelling someone is, to date, the most serious effort by Occupy Toronto to hold one person accountable for their actions. Although 'Occupy' has undoubtedly inspired and challenged people both within and outside of existing movements for social change, the decision-making process of Occupy Toronto was built on some rather shaky common principles - and it shows.

Concerted efforts to create an accountable way to deal with security issues were often thwarted by the General Assembly, which is usually unable to reach decisions if even one person disagrees. The real decision-making fell to various committees; the marshal team, for example, formed a core of dedicated people to help with safety and had its own internal accountability process. Yet they were continually hampered by an inconsistent mandate in creating safe spaces; on the night that one General Assembly temporarily (and apparently, accidentally) disbanded the marshal committee, fights broke out all over St. James park.

The lack of security in the park created a situation in which certain people, including Mongeau, filled a security need by essentially acting as vigilantes. Another key figure from the Logistics team ran his own fiefdom, and has since been accused of financial improprieties amounting to a few thousand dollars. About halfway through the occupation, a member of the Toronto Media Co-op was attacked by a man with a reputation for aggression. It took sustained interventions from the marshal team and action committee to allow the TMC member to remain present in the park during the weeks following. (Mongeau also intervened in this case, actually helping to prevent a further attack immediately after the incident). The assaulter set himself up as vigilante as well, sometimes violently attacking people in the name of non-violence, and declaring those he didn't like to be undercover police officers.

Since the eviction from St. James Park robbed Occupy Toronto of a physical focal point, General Assemblies and various events have been largely responsible for the group's cohesion. However, governance has not improved in the past few months. While the post-occupation assemblies have been able to form some new parameters for meetings, including the implementation of a quorum, successful decision making is a rare, not routine, event. It took several months of debate in outdoor, cold, dark meetings with poor attendance before occupiers could agree to decrease the frequency of assemblies from every night to four times per week.

In other post-eviction cities, Occupy has re-emerged in a variety of different forms. In Toronto, the most productive event since the eviction was a weekend-long Activist Assembly, which brought together occupiers, community organizers and new people wanting to plug in (however, attempts made during one weekend event to talk about racism and inclusivity were actually booed). Although some new tactics have taken root - Occupy the TTC had Assemblies on buses and streetcars, an airport worker/community assembly outside the Pearson airport brought the assembly model to workers, and Occupy was a strong presence along with Stop the Cuts in the battle of the budget outside City Hall on Jan 17th - it remains to be seen whether Occupiers will be able to re-organize themselves in a way which allows for real inclusivity and horizontal organizing.

The unwillingness of Occupy Toronto's membership to develop and enforce standards of behaviour consistent with the values of social justice exemplifies a deeply flawed process. These problems are not unique to the Occupy movement; they have been present in many organizations, including our own. Yet they are particularly egregious in this movement. It is important to note that many people have left, or refused to be a part of, Occupy Toronto because of the ongoing and severe safety issues. Without proper accountability mechanisms, Occupy Toronto is setting itself up for failure. If it is to flourish as a movement, and fulfil the potential it obviously has, it will need to find ways to consistently challenge the inequity that exists within itself.

 


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Topics: Cooperatives
Tags: #occupy
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Comments

Toronto Star

In the Toronto Star piece, the fact that the Yang dragged Antonin through the mud for using a false name, and then in the article quoted several paragraphs of an annoymous commentator on the media co-op shows an inconsistency in standards.  Also, they had agreed to use a pseudonym and a masked photo and then proceeded to do this rather irrelevent backstory investigation.  In the full interview transcript with the reporter, Antonin (http://frie.ca/d/occupyqa.pdf) implores her not to use his name, citing employment and police problems as well as fear of retribution by violent people who had been involved in Occupy.  Given that the article didn't even touch on serious issues involved with occupy, I fail to understand how this family background story neccecitated exposing his name given the serious issues invovled in doing so. 

Race Issues & OccTO as an 'organized structure'

First let me say that my experience as an 'activist' is minimal.

In GAs and meetings prior to October 15th 2011 (Day 1 of Occupy in St. James) I was always perplexed as to why there is so much emphasis on organization. For example there was talk about chains of command, fundraising, media teams. I made the point point in Berczy Park that "we are not running a PR campaign, we are not trying to convince the masses of ideas they don't agree with already, in short we are not trying to win over the 99%, we are the 99%". In my view our role was to resist government and corporate policies that marginalize people. But unlike the vast majority of people present at these GAs and meetings I didn't see the point in modeling ourselves after any kind of organization. Of course it put a smile on my face when there was talk about participatory democracy, and consensus decision making, but on second thought I didn't see the relevance. These are democratic forms that I wish to see in government and in large-scale economic decision-making; I couldn't see the relevance of such forms of 'government' to a political movement fighting for justice and insisting it's not a political party, it's inclusive of the whole 99%, heck even the whole 100%, a political movement that for example doesn't want leaders, in short a movement that has no 'decisions' to make. To me, talks about procedures and decision making processes sounded absurd. These are mechanisms necessary for bodies with authority, the authority of Occupy Toronto was ZERO, and in my opinion should remain ZERO. OccupyToronto's authority over its members is ZERO because it has no members; it's not a club. And OccupyToronto should not fall into the liberal/conservative trap argument "stop protesting against stuff and be positive for a second and tell us what is it is you want to get done". I'm sorry but our main purpose IS to protest against stuff; to be negative. We are a resistance not a citizen committee assigned with finding solutions for issues of economic inequality and institutional racial discrimination. The minute we fall into that trap, we burden ourselves with the idea of "being the change we want to see in the world". This is not necessary. We can be the change, we can display positive behaviour that is favourable to that applied in society at large without making it a point to do so. For example the operation of our camp at large was far from being economically or ecologically sustainable, yet certain aspects of it were much more equitable than their counterparts in Canadian society at large. For example certain aspects of equity in food and accommodation were strikingly egalitarian, in sharp contrast to what we're told about human nature and human greed. Even what you may find the most tragic blunder was in fact not bad at all; the 'justice system' within the camp and whithin the movement is much more 'just' than that of the Courts and Police forces. Biggest of all is the fact that anyone, no matter how marginalized they were outside of St. James Park, had a far better chance at voicing their opinion inside the camp than outside of it. It has to be cautioned though that marginalized groups were/are only relatively better off inside the movement than outside of it; in absolute terms there is a long way to go for Occupy to become truly inclusive.

During one of the GAs in the Gazebo, the subject of Anti-Opression training for facilitators was raised. My reaction on the inside was the same as that of the 'white-male free-speech "down with political correctness" opinion' that was expressed during that very GA, and elsewhere all the time. However my conscious and overt objection to the training was not that it's "anti-opression" (I have barely read anything relating to this subject, and I certainly didn't come at it from Michael's position: mediation is better, and objecting to the word "anti-oppression" none of that concerned me) what concerned me is my consistent plight for us not to be 'organized' not to have spokespersons, rules of conducts etc... But I sat and listened, and learned a lot that night, both from what was being said and from what was happening.

On my way back home, I wrote a statement that I intended to read in the next evening's GA, which unfortunately I ended up co-facilitating (no one from the "facilitation committee" volunteered to facilitate that night) and as a result of being the time-keeper, and of my statement being too long, I didn't get a chance to speak that night. But I think my message is still relevant and here it is:

I have made the point in yesterday's GA, that mandating facilitation training: Making it mandatory, inhibits inclusiveness, but I had a change of heart, on the subway back home. I now think, that mandatory training, can be one of the safeguards, that prevent the openness of our procedures and initiatives, from becoming a hindrance. Let's face it, openness and spontenaeity run counter to organization and structure. It is much easier to be organized under a dictator,than under an open process like ours. So if our goal is that the GA be structured and organized, then a training is welcome, as a safeguard against unexpected or unwelcome behaviour, on the part of the facilitator. All that said, I personally don't think that we should be organized. But if it's the will of everybody, that we keep the GA structured, then I'm now of the opinion, that the anti-oppression, as well as the mediation technique training, are in fact, an inclusive factor. Because it's far more important for participants to be and feel included, than for a potential facilitator, to feel or be excluded, due to minor "barriers", such as training and expected conduct.

I just wanted to share this with Megan and everyone at the media-coop. I totally agree that the occupy movement suffers from the "middle-class white-male syndrome". I myself (even though I never express such views) have thought to myself during the preliminary GAs where's all the Black people I see everyday, in my neighbourhood and in my corporate workplace at least half of us are Black, in occupy meetings not even 1 of us is black! These are people who are statistically proven to be marginalized by the system specifically because of the colour of their skin. Why aren't they fighting for their rights? Well the answer became clear quickly, I didn't have to read any blog posts by black and native bloggers on the issue to see what's happening. Day 1 of the occupation, while we were still on Bay and King, while the GA and the Mic Checks were happening on the south-west corner, there was a number of Native men and women, with a loudspeaker expressing some of the issues facing the native community. I for one, partly because I am a recent immigrant to this country, but probably mostly because I didn't really give a shit before, had a very superficial understanding of aboriginal issues. So I sat there and listened, the loudspeaker was eventually passed on to union-folk, to individuals with personal stories relating to the injustices we are supposedly protesting. A Marshall (with an orange arm-band, this fascist symbolism that I could never understand in our movement) comes to us and says we are somehow interfering with the GA and that we should listen in and participate. The "clash" is on youtube, it's ridiculous. Same day as were nearing St. James Park a young black man reacted to a sign saying "Next time, remember to vote" he didn't bring up race, I didn't see his reaction to be relating to race, I just walked towards him and said: "Hey, blaming ordinary people for their problems is hardly gonna fix anything eh? It's clear they're not causing the problem" His reply was "this whole thing is very patronizing" and I never saw him again. I didn't make anything of it that day, in my head I kept "blaming" black people for not attending. But then I saw that natives were very much present, the acknowledgment of 'occupied Native Land' became a mantra in GAs, how much more presence do you need, but the majority still didn't give a shit about the Native plight. The vast majority of reactions to a native-rights issue were in the form of "Oh here we go again" and I admit to that reaction too. And the reaction to the DJ when she brought up race issues at the party, I saw the video, it's on video for god's sake, the boooing was a clear signal of something that needs to be addressed. The overwhelming reaction to black people speaking up is always, whether expressed or not "here we go again, blame the white man for everything". That sucks I hope we make a progress on this front.

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