Occupation is an autonomous tactic that seeks to draw attention to critical social issues. Occupation is just one tactic among many others. It exists because many of us believe that political engagement should not be limited to voting and signing petitions. Many of us believe that Canada's archaic political institutions have become disconnected from reality and corrupted by corporate influence, and that these institutions have intentionally stifled and limited public involvement in the decision making processes that govern our society. Perhaps they were disconnected from the start.
So in many ways, Occupation represents a form of political participation that is not captured by current political institutions. It reflects people's genuine desire to realize their own destinies -- to collectively address the question: what kind of society do we want? Occupation isn't about asking permission. It is about physically taking over a space to forcibly initiate public conversation about important social and environmental issues. Occupation isn't confined to a 9-5 schedule nor does it seek public approval, although public support is necessary in the long run.
Why Occupy? Well, perhaps the question should be: Why Not Occupy? Here in Vancouver, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has conducted excellent research for more than two decades releasing all kinds of reports that use "accepted" economic analysis to illustrate the economic benefits of progressive social policy. For example, the CCPA determined that a comprehensive poverty reduction plan in British Columbia would save taxpayers a minimum of $4 billion a year. There are also many organizations in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) that provide essential social services to Vancouver's poorest and most vulnerable residents and advocate on their behalf. These organizations have been calling for greater social housing, better mental-health and addiction services, more support for the disabled and elderly, and greater resources for Indigenous people for a few decades now. However, despite all of their admirable and laudable efforts, these organizations and policy institutes for the most part go largely ignored by the political establishment and the media. To put it bluntly: no one takes note of an issue unless it's shoved in their face -- until they can no longer ignore it. If a housing march takes place in the DTES, Canada's poorest neighbourhood, it might make a local headline, or it might not. If someone dies of a drug overdose in an alleyway it certainly won't. And if an elderly homeless man freezes to death at a university campus, the majority of the student population will be unaware of it and perhaps not even care.
Occupation's power lies in its ability to shape public consciousness -- to capture the grievances and imagination of the public realm. It has the ability to yank forgotten and neglected issues back into the forefront. It is a reminder that everything is not alright. The mere presence of an Occupation makes people think, listen, share ideas and ask questions. The public and the media are forced to take note of Occupations because a public space, usually smack-dab in the middle of a city, is physically taken over and structures are erected. In the last analysis, the Occupation is never about the structures it erects, but the structures do serve as vehicles of dialogue and shift political discourse.
In Canada, the structures draw attention to the fact that, even though poverty has become normalized in our society, the existence of poverty is NOT normal. That, in fact, if we collectively "willed" it, we could end poverty and extreme social inequality in our cities. Shut down a community house? No one will care except for the people in that community. Occupy it and everyone is forced to care about it because the Occupation itself is considered a problem by the state. No affordable housing? Not an issue even if people freeze to death or are forced in dirty Single-Room Occupancy hotels. Occupy a vacant building or indoor space, or piece of land where a luxury condo is supposed to go up, and politicians and businessmen are forced to listen.
Occupy an empty condo? All hell breaks loose. At least 15 per cent of condos in Vancouver's downtown core are vacant, yet we have people living on the street. I can think of an obvious solution. (If not socialize them immediately, at the very least we could tax empty condos or limit the number of properties an individual can own in one city) In the U.S., millions of people have been evicted from their homes by banks with predatory lending practices. This doesn't make the headlines until someone goes back and Occupies their now-former home. Private property laws have been transgressed. The system can't allow that so it sends in the police. The whole system needs to be rethought.
To add insult to injury, in many American neighbourhoods empty homes are demolished and bulldozed before someone is allowed to live in them for free or for below-market pricing. Bulldozing perfectly good homes is done in the name of maintaining real-estate prices in the neighbourhood. That's right: they'd rather evict families from their homes, which are then demolished, before allowing them to return. If we lived in a true and just society our neighbours would not stand for this, either for the evictions or for the bulldozing. If there was any sense of community, of solidarity, this would not be allowed in our neighbourhoods. The painful reality of our society is that a sense of community, our social fabric, has been broken for a long time by the fabricated individualism that capitalism breeds and the cannibalistic struggle for survival. Instead of allowing community organizations to work out of vacant buildings and provide services, food, etc. to the poor in a very autonomous way, without any input or money from the state, buildings are boarded up to be demolished at a later date.
Occupation is a threat: listen to us or else. People keep asking: but what are the Occupiers demands? We're demanding that you listen to the organizations and think tanks that already exist on the ground and have been compiling research and data and coming up with concrete, substantive solutions for decades. We're demanding to be heard. We're demanding an end to archaic political institutions and outdated modes of political participation. It seems as though, at this historical juncture, Occupation is the only tactic that makes any sense. Occupation, to me, is a kind of spiritual calling. Something powerful is created in the act itself and within ourselves by participating in the process. When we remove our titles, masks, and the theatrics we are left with our bodies, with our ideas, with our actions, with a unique sense of agency. We are left with a genuine ability to form human relations i.e. free from instrumental purposes. Occupation liberates space and allows people to think for themselves. The only thing that limits people at the Occupation site is their imaginations and their own willingness to stand up for genuine change. Occupation is a process, a self-transformative process, that is not necessarily clean or easy. Some people are genuinely outraged and upset about years of systemic oppression and neglect. Occupation allows them to express these emotions in a healthy way, rather than a self-destructive one. One should not underestimate the power of conversation and a sense community in the process of healing.
Occupy Vancouver: Urgent call for support
Right now, an injunction has been passed by the B.C. Supreme Court to remove all the structures from the Occupy ground at the Vancouver Art Gallery by 2 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 21st. People at the Occupy site reacted to this news in different ways. Some feel strongly about packing up and leaving for another site; others feel strongly about staying and standing up for certain principles. Others are waiting to see what happens. Whatever we decide to do, we should decide as a group, as a community.
One important factor to note is that many people involved with the Occupation aren't actually sleeping at the Occupy site overnight. Many of those who do, however, have no where else to go. It is imperative of us to stand in solidarity with these people and physically defend their tents and their right to exist at the Occupation site if they choose to stay. The power of Occupation stems from its ability to create a community of people where none existed before. The people at the Occupation site are my brothers and sisters. If some of us abandon that space and leave others behind, we make them that much more vulnerable to arrest and police brutality come Monday. To not stand up for particularly the street youth that make up a large contingent of the people sleeping over night would betray them and ideas of our movement. If we decide to stay at the art gallery grounds, we can protect the space in different ways, depending on our level of comfort. There will be something for everyone to do and no one act is better than any other. Most other cities, if not all, never complied with any orders and grew stronger because of it. This is about recognizing our power as people to collectively come together and engage in a political, a human, act. To repeat, Occupation is not about seeking permission to exist in a space. It is about physically taking it over and forcing public discussion on pressing social concerns. You can't have one without the other.
We're on a disturbing trajectory: inequalities and injustices are growing, consolidating, solidifying. It doesn't have to be this way. I wish we lived in a world where we could Occupy everything until every issue is dealt with, until there was no reason to Occupy anything at all. I will fight to live in that world. In Vancouver and across the globe this is a call for support. Join us. Occupy Everywhere. To people, organizations and communities in Vancouver and the surrounding areas: please come on Monday. From our community to yours: we need your support.
Jasmine R. Rezaee is a social activist whose work has appeared in rabble.ca and This Magazine. She was involved with Students for a Democratic Society and is currently active in Occupy Vancouver, in unceded Coast Salish territory. She volunteers at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre. She joined Occupy Vancouver at the very beginning, taking part in her first general assembly on Oct. 8.