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Aalya Ahmad

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Aalya Ahmad likes to blog about feminism, activism, the labour movement and cultural politics. Her sense of social justice is derived from good books and real struggles.

Two dispatches from Occupy Ottawa

| November 14, 2011

One month ago, on a beautiful October day at noon, surrounded by red-gold autumn trees, I stood with my family and 500 people around the huge fountain in Confederation Park, feeling the thrill of history being made. As our first facilitators -- "rogue page" Brigette dePape and Indigenous environmental activist Ben Powless -- jumped onto the fountain and hailed us, I felt as though the sun had come out at last in this cold, grey capital, where people usually hurry by, stern-faced, avoiding your gaze. At last we were going to take the time to talk to each other face-to-face.

Occupy Ottawa is small compared to other places, but determined. One of the most memorable moments so far for me, aside from that first day at the fountain, was to see our banner advancing to join the CUPE flight attendants' rally on Parliament Hill. One frantic Mountie threw himself in front of it. "You aren't invited!" he spluttered. The tension of that moment summed up this local movement in Ottawa. So much depends on "being invited" here.

One month later, my thrill isn't gone but a certain chill has pervaded Occupy Ottawa. It faces similar problems to the local movements in other cities as well as some very specific issues of its own. Ottawa, brimming with NGOs and national HQs, coalitions, campaigners, co-ordinators, groups, networks and lobbyists, is a very small town for activists. News -- especially of our problems -- travels fast. The little group holding down the park has experienced some bizarre and disturbing behaviour, as in other camps, behaviour that has been racist, sexist, aggressive and dismissive of others' concerns. Pervasive problems of misogyny, racism and oppression infest the camps as they do all of our public spaces, including universities and bars. Not everybody camping or supporting Occupy identifies as an ally or even knows what the hell that means. In this sense, Occupy Ottawa is a microcosm of society, embodying some of the very issues it arose to address.

While some at the camp struggled to deal with oppressive behaviours and the concerns these behaviours raise, some established Ottawa activists quickly decamped, taking their experience and skills with them. It looks like many of these in-and-out-ivists have taken a "wait-and-see" approach, withholding their participation until they can somehow be reassured that the issues they called out are fixed. Obviously, this places the camp in a catch-22 situation. Disturbingly -- and this is very much in keeping with the backbiting political culture of Ottawa -- some seem to be actively campaigning against Occupy Ottawa, spreading damaging misinformation that is keeping people away. Despite avoiding the physical camp, some of these people continually appear online, lecturing the movement on its failings. In my view (others are far more forgiving), this attitude bespeaks a lazy, paternalistic and arrogant elitism that imposes all the shitwork of the struggle on the people freezing their asses off at the park, and, moreover, expects the lowly, unenlightened ones to grovel for the grace of "activist" presence: "Will you now enter this movement, sir? We have tidied the foyer and removed those nasty undesirables." It's been an eye-opener for me to see what this movement has brought out in others, and I have to ask myself if we really need such "activistocrats." Will we ever be good enough to earn their benedictions? I suspect not. "Get out of the way if you can't lend a hand," as Dylan said. Or, to paraphrase Yoda: "Do or do not. There is no pontificate."

It's hard and thankless work to struggle in real life (not just on Facebook) to overcome entrenched oppression. In response to the legitimate concerns of sexism and racism that have been raised, anti-oppression training and teach-ins are being organized by those of us who stay committed and the broader community that continues to support us. We want to make safer space for everyone while reaching out as much as possible to those who may not have the privilege of university educations and policy backgrounds. One of the best things about this movement for me has been the possibility of making connections outside of the familiar circles of activism. In fact, one of the women I have met through Occupy Ottawa -- Sharrae Lyon -- joins me now as my "blog-sister" to add her perspective. By making room for all of us if we so wish it -- and did we ever think that would be easy? -- the Occupy movement continues to shrug aside the cynicism that has stolen so much of our political conviction in the last decades.

 

 

Sharrae Lyon

By Sharrae Lyon

The year of 2011 began with the mass mobilization of people against the powers who controlled and continue to control the public and the intimate aspects of ordinary citizens' lives. I, like many others, looked to the Middle East in awe and with hope. I didn't anticipate that the tides would turn here in North America. However, with the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, I immediately thought of the possibilities. Two weeks before the 15th of October, I got word that there was going to be an organizing meeting and I made a vow to myself that I wouldn't miss the opportunity to be a part of history.

Now that a month has gone by, the movement here in Ottawa has seen many brilliant people leave due to frustrations on lack of safe space (both basic and complex), and issues with co-ordination and logistics. I too, have had such frustrations, especially with the problems that have arisen that illustrate the very real realities of racism, sexism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression that are embedded in our society. The failure to address issues that are a result of deep-seated power structures that have been carried through generations is offensive. I've had moments when all I wanted to do is kick and scream! But what has kept me plugged into the movement is the hope and acknowledgement that there are others who have those same frustrations as I do, and who want to work towards establishing a meaningful movement that is capable of forming a critical analysis of the current financial and political system.

Often when the going gets tough, it is easy to throw your hands up and walk away. What is the point? Nothing is going to change. Right? Wrong. The attitude that a difference can't be made is the same predisposition that capitalism has implanted in our psyches. The ideologies of capitalism and neo-liberalism have robbed us of our agency and aspirations to believe that things don't have to be the way they are. I emphatically cry out to the women and people of colour who have left this movement due to the exhaustion of having to explain why they have felt oppressed and silenced to reconsider their decision. We can change the course of this movement into a direction that is cognizant of how the system functions on hierarchal and repressive forms of power and control. We must remember that in past social movements groups were marginalized, despite the main leaders decrying injustice and inequality, because they didn't identify how they themselves oppressed others. However, those that were marginalized didn't walk away, they didn't quit. Instead they used their energies to force themselves into the parameters of demanding their rights. Out of the civil rights movement arose the women's, LGBTQ, and environmental movements. The need to establish a movement of our own isn't necessary in this context, but it is essential to forcefully claim our space, because we sure as hell know it's not going to be given to us on a silver platter.

Yes, it is 2011; our world should be more progressive by now. But we as women and people of colour need to be ready to engage and participate in painful conversations amongst ourselves, to educate with an openness that will result in recruiting more allies, and to refuse to be excluded from the 99 per cent. We also need to realize that Ottawa isn't the only city that is coping with the issues of hostile spaces. Occupy Toronto has experienced cases of sexual assault and rape. On Wall Street, the epicentre of the Occupy movement, we have had to speak up against the denial of the complexities of oppression within the Declaration. If it weren't for a group of strong and vocal women of colour blocking the declaration that was proposed to the General Assembly, the tone of the document that thousands of other occupations look to would be devoid of inclusion.

So to my fellow WOC and POC, I implore you to take a deep breath and, if it's in you to fight against the powers and institutions that constantly attempt to shut us out from the mainstream, (re)join the movement. Our capacity to make holistic changes to our society lies with us. It lies within our histories, our experiences and our perspectives. Although we have been sometimes made to feel otherwise, we are the 99 per cent. Our narratives have the potential to ensure that this movement stays true to itself.

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Comments

Please read what I have written with more care. I think you are putting words into my mouth; again, you simplify it down to something I never actually said. Critique is always important but it needs to be productive. Thanks for the dialogue but I wish you wouldn't keep moving the goalposts.

You are not hurting me, but I know that some people are hurt by the circulation of the idea that it's not ok to criticize or avoid this movement. I don't doubt that you are engaged in some real and important struggles around helping make the movement more liberatory and less oppressive, and I am not trying to diminish that. I am suggesting that you are painting things with a broad brush, with consequences that i think are important.

@yaaaaqov, I am not sure why you choose to keep twisting what I am saying. If I were saying "Everybody HAS to join this movement RIGHT NOW and you are a jerk if you don't and I hate you," I would totally understand your anger. But I'm not. Neither am I "carving up the world." There is a whole world of people out there who haven't joined the movement, who go about their lives and struggle to survive. As a mother of a small child who works full-time and who teaches on the side, I do understand about having very little time to devote to anything, believe me. But what I REALLY have very little time for - let me try to explain it to you again - are the people - many of them "white middle-class," btw - parading around on the sidelines and denouncing the movement for the sexism and racism within its encampments, yet who refuse to contribute anything positive. They can't be bothered to come to meetings or to learn to work within groups, but they want to stoke their egos by assuming some kind of high tone of moral indignation, actively discouraging other people from getting involved. If you're not one of those people, I wasn't talking about you in this blog post.

So, again: if you don't wish to participate, that is one thing. THAT IS YOUR CHOICE. Why so defensive? I am not trying to make you feel guilty. If you feel hurt by what I have said, it was not my intention. Think about why that is and do what you gotta do.

I am not opposed to academic language, btw. But a little learning is a dangerous thing. Don't just hurl around concepts and terms as if they themselves have some kind of moral gravity. They just become jargon. Use the buzzwords judiciously. I worked my way through the digestive tract of the academy and emerged, for the most part, with my vocabulary and sense of self-expression intact. You can too.

 

 

oh and i think it's telling that you find fault with people posing questions but not having ready-made answers to provide.

since i see that you are an academic, i assumed you would tolerate academic language, but i should have known that you would choose instead to mock it. fine. i am not saying you erase the issues around marginalization within the movement. i am not saying that your words hurt those who are spitefully committed to purifying discourses. i am saying that your words hurt those who choose to stay away because they just cannot right now commit to exposing themselves to such dangers, for reasons that are their own, and that nobody has any business questioning. because let's face it, a lot of priviledge as well as willingness to self-sacrifice goes into being able to invest (yes, invest, it's a word beyond its association with finance capital) energy and time in occupy - and that time and energy might be spent elsewhere, and some people might need to spend it elsewhere at the moment, to survive, to feel good, to fulfil something other than make the movement better by being in it. i am not objecting to your passion, i am objecting to you carving up the world into those who are spiteful and those who join, letting your words add to the pain of those (and this may include the previous two 'groups') who are not spreading any vicious campaign but who just can't and won't do what you want them to do at this point in time. bla bla bla, awesome. the word whatever, an index of my privilege. fine. full respect for enduring lots of shit in order to bring some anti-oppression awareness into the movement. but seriously, you're not winning any fans with the moralizing.

@yaaaaqov, firstly, you describe what is happening as driven just for and by "middle-class white people" and that is emphatically not true! Secondly, both Sharrae and I are calling for people of colour to step up and (re)claim the space in this movement, not stay marginalized. I think that's a valid opinion. Speaking for myself, I'm not interested in hunkering down in some infoshop with a handful of surly counterculture heroes who spew big twisted ropes of academic post-theory "or whatever" as you say, with no praxis or interest in how to make the world a better place and no love in their hearts for people who don't think exactly like them. Their bitterness is so rancid in places that I can't help but feeling any revolution these people fomented would be one where large numbers of us would end up getting shot.

Once again, I think you have put words into my mouth. You skipped over the parts where I wrote that concerns about marginalization and oppression were legitimate and important. But what are we going to DO about these concerns other than leave? Sharrae and I both chose to try to stay and do something about it: help plan anti-oppression training, do education and outreach, participate in safety patrols, form a Women of Colour affinity group. Others don't want to bother. I think that says something about their long-term commitment. But, if you're going to leave or "not jump in," fine. Who I targeted in my blog post were the people who have decided to turn around and campaign against the movement based on a politics of smear and sneer and the "spiteful purity of radical discourse" (very well put). If my words hurt those people, too bad. What they are doing is bullshit and deserves critique. If you want to go and "invest revolutionary energy" elsewhere, that is your choice. But don't stand in the way of people who are trying to come together and build a movement with their "revolutionary energy" - don't talk out of both sides of your mouth, as I have seen some "activists" opportunistically doing, alternately participating, then turning around and denouncing. These people have chosen to hurt the rest of us, INCLUDING the women and the racialized people who are choosing to stay and who are getting "erased" by their self-righteous posturings about "middle-class white people" while the reality in Confederation Park is so vastly different from their fantasies. This is not their academic conference and they should either step up or step aside and leave us be.

As for my tone, well, that is a very subjective thing. I try to write with passion and vehemence, from my gut. I find a lot of contemporary progressive political writing to be riddled with the mushy-headed use of buzzwords without following through on what these terms actually mean, to be full of rhetorical questions with no answers, "sound and fury"... if you'll forgive me for saying so, your post is a prime example. "Why," you ask grandly, "is it that precisely (ahhh, the academic precisely) now, suddenly middle-class white people are feeling the... bla bla bla." Why indeed?

PS. To be academic, I find it interesting that you use the term "investment" of activist capital...

aalya, my sense is that your writing obscures more than it reveals. and it hurts people who don't see themselves as holding out of the movement out of some spiteful purity of radical discourse but for any of a million reasons that won't just disappear because you dismiss them as not politically salient. i think your writing is strengthening the fantasy of a liberal public sphere based on equality of voice - a fantasy that dominant discourse repeatedly and forcefully calls up on to dismiss experiences of marginalization as either not political or not admissible within narratives and norms of nation or whatever. and you are perpetuating the idea that this occupy movement is the most important shit right now in the world, like naomi klein said. why is this movement the most important thing in the world? why should ppl who don't feel comfortable with it jump into it and take the risks of being targets of different forms of violence? an analysis of this movement needs to foreground the history. why is it that precisely now, suddenly middle-class white people are feeling the effects of austerity and precarity and camping out and challenging the way capitalist democracy is organized? why does this mobilization become the most important thing happening, erasing from view all the movements that are not being driven by newly-precarious middle-class white people? why does the reluctance or critique or just plain not wanting to invest in something that seems sufficiently crappy to be dangerous, become a basis for you to dismiss the politcal value of other ways of investing revolutionary energies, ways that are not encompassed by the occupy movement? i don't get your tone. i know people who are hurt by the way you write. i have no business appropriating their narratives here, i am borrowing them, and i feel weird doing so. it's not up to me to represent these experiences, but i feel compelled to ask you why your call for investment in this movement has to be framed in an aggresive and dismissive way, compounding the very patterns whose importance you minimize.

Very important article. Thanks!

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