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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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