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.