A call for activists and intellectuals to engage with the Occupy movement

This post is from: From the Mountains to the Sea: Political commentary and poetry about the part of Turtle Island called British Columbia

For as long as I have been an intellectual and activist I have been involved in conversations with many kinds of people – activists, piece workers, hippies, politicians, punks, farmers, educators, academics, etc, etc, about the problems of society. We have talked about a myriad of systemic problems – from authoritarian political systems to economic injustice to colonization to patriarchy to global warming to dis-embedded and technologically mediated life experiences and thousands of local manifestations of these and other systemic problems.

We who are sensitized to our society know that serious problems exist. However, while holding this discontent, we also know that most people seem to be fine with the systems of social, economic and ecological oppression that are the trademarks of our society: most people watch TV, drive to Wal-Mart, eat factory meat, buy sweatshop clothes, etc.

Now, as we watch and take part in the spread of the Occupy movement across the globe, it seems that we are encountering an amazing opportunity. The exorbitant greed of the wealthy 1% have led to a surge in popular discontent as many people are becoming enraged about the unjust and oppressive characteristics of our societies. The wide purchase of slogans like “We Are the 99%” is unprecedented in the 20 years that I have been politically conscious.

In Victoria a march of over 1,000 people sprang up on October 15th up with minimal local publicity and the Times Colonist shockingly actually reported that there were 1,000 people in the march. The Victoria Police Department bowed to local conviction and the global movement and has so far allowed campers to stay in Centennial without being harassed. People from diverse sections of society are pissed about corporate financial extortion and are rising up.

However, for many of us, the emergence of the Occupy movement and our own personal interactions with it has been a cause of frustration. Many of us have observed people involved in the movement perpetuating colonial mentalities, as the Occupy name itself flagrantly demonstrates (why are we trying to occupy unceeded Indigenous territory for a second time?). Likewise we have witnessed people engaging in poor-bashing and enacting patriarchal behavior. As was pointed out by Indigenous activist Rose Henry during a speech at the British Columbia legislature on October 15th, this behavior within a progressive movement is shameful and will result in the perpetuation of the very values that progressives are working to oppose in society.

Many frustrations arise from the practical difficulties of engaging with people who have a diverse multitude of beliefs. It is uncomfortable to stand next to someone arguing that the problems of society are reducible to a lack of individual freedom. The same can be said of standing next to the people who claim that our behavior is manipulated by chem trails. In addition, it is immensely frustrating to participate in the democratic processes of the General Assemblies. Assemblies in Victoria have been marred by people taking up far too much personal space, speaking out of turn and going on rants rather than addressing specific proposals under discussion.

My own involvement as a member of the Finance Committee the People’s Assembly of Victoria (Occupy Victoria) has been exemplary of these frustrations. We have had a difficult time having any proposals approved by the general assembly. This means that after 5 days we do not yet have a bank account set up, let alone having had any general discussion on concrete proposals for what to do with the $1100 dollars that has been collected so far in largely unsolicited donations. As a Committee we have been queried on many things including our relation to the Federal government, accused of valuing money over love, told to give the money away to other organizations and in general mistrusted by many members of the General Assembly. When the Finance Committee has been able to create and put forward a proposal to the General Assembly, we have been presented with new concerns that require us to re-think our proposals from new perspectives.

However difficult this process of attempting to set up a rigorous and transparent finance structure has been, it has been an important co-operative learning experience. And it has been a cardinal demonstration that re-learning communal democratic process is an uncomfortable, frustrating process of engaging with people who are different from us and have different, often conflictual values from us.

Despite this pain and difficulty, it is imperative for us who have been critical of society to engage with people in the contested space of the Occupy movement rather than retreat to a moral or intellectual high ground of non-participation supported by the knowledge that once again the masses are wrong. Such high grounds are available to educated and culture-rich people but they are not intensively democratic spaces. Instead they are spaces in relation to which those who already occupy them educate those who do not speak these discourses or do not embody certain practices.

As activists and intellectuals, we need to step into the space of the Occupy movement and engage politically to sway others to hold our beliefs and follow democratic practices that we find valuable, uncomfortable as this process is. The movement presents one of the rare social spaces in which people are open to new solutions, new ways of thinking. As such, it is a democratic space, although one that is prefigured in important ways, as activists from anti-colonial and anti-racist perspectives have pointed out forcefully.

If we do not have the courage or resolve to speak in this emerging space of discontent that is the Occupy movement then others will step into this space and speak for us. As movement elder Grace Lee Boggs has said, “The coming struggle is a political struggle to take political power out of the hands of the few and put it into the hands of the many. But in order to get this power into the hands of the many, it will be necessary for the many not only to fight the powerful few but to fight and clash among themselves as well.”

This means that the Occupy movement is a challenge that calls us on the left to share our anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian views and communicate our knowledge that resistance to financial exploitation and the other evils facing society must focus on inter-locking systems of oppression. This is a time that these views will be heard more than any other time in recent memory. Those of us who have knowledge of consensus process, media relations, facilitation, outreach strategies, developing semi-permanent rain-proof structures and all the hundreds of other minute skills that will help build a popular movement based around people’s assemblies, resistance to the financial exploitation by elites and the occupation of public space need to share these skills or they will not be passed on and the movement that emerges will suffer because of it.

This sharing, and the shaping of the movement will be a painful process, especially for people who have already experienced oppression. Yet, if we really want to air our discontent and to change society in a positive way, we have to come down to these emerging public political spaces and think, act and organize in these spaces.

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