Occupy Wall Street

Fuelled by the economic crisis and inspired by the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread around the world.

Today marks one week of the movement across Canada and Quebec. Like all movements, there are a series of debates emerging that will determine its direction and success. Is occupation a tactic or a principle? Should the focus be on the internal procedures of those actively occupying, or outreach to broader communities and struggles? How do we build a movement of the 99 per cent?

The movement of the 99 per cent

The Occupy movement marks the re-emergence of the anti-capitalist movement. Building on years of struggle against war, climate chaos and economic crisis, it identifies these and other issues as symptoms of a massively unequal system that benefits the one per cent.

The 99 per cent includes poor and working class people, students, racialized and oppressed groups. The very issues at the heart of this new movement — police brutality, racism and other forms of oppression, the struggle to pay tuition and defend good jobs — creates barriers for most of the 99 per cent to maintain a permanent outdoor occupation with police presence and long meetings during working hours.

That is why the main strategy of the one per cent so far has been to wait for those actively occupying to become isolated. How do we build the occupy movement into a real movement of the 99 per cent?

The Occupy movement has been inspired by the Arab Spring, but the corporate media have perpetuated a distorted view of the Egyptian Revolution: that it was a spontaneous event, organized purely over social media, that drove dictator Hosni Mubarak from power only through the occupation of Tahrir Square, and that is over.

First, the Egyptian Revolution was a product of a decade of struggle in which occupations was one of many tactics. When the Iraq War began thousands occupied Tahrir Square, and then built other movements — from political movements for civil liberties, to economic struggles over wages.

Secondly, while social media played a role at the start of the uprising, the state and corporations turned off all internet and cell phones, yet the revolution grew because people used  more traditional methods — meetings in neighbourhoods, workplaces and faith groups which are more accessible to a broader layer of the population.

Thirdly, while the mainstream media were focusing on Tahrir Square, the revolution was spreading to the factories. It was when workers across Egypt began mass strikes that Mubarak was driven from power.

Finally, while Mubarak is gone and Tahrir is no longer occupied, the Egyptian Revolution is continuing the deepen through mass strikes and protests, and occasional occupations like at series of campus occupations last month.

The ongoing Egyptian Revolution demonstrates that societal change is a process, not an event, in which movements rely on a variety of tactics — including occupations — and where the success depends on the active participation of the working class. Had the Egyptian revolution remained confined to Tahrir Square it would not have succeeded. It needed Tahrir to spread.

The Arab Spring inspired Wisconsin workers and students to occupy their state building for three weeks against budget cuts. Some were disappointed when the occupation ended, but it was part of the process of radicalization that triggered the Occupy movement, which has gone through different phases.

In the summer, people in New York launched “Bloombergville,” a protest camp to oppose mayor Bloomberg’s budget cuts. People camped for weeks, but without outreach to broader community and labour allies the occupation was isolated and disintegrated.

Occupy Wall Street learned the lessons and has been successful because of outreach beyond the park.

As a participant in both occupations told The Real News,

“what the unions and community groups bring along with them is a lot of people who have been organizing in marginalized communities and a lot of people who are hardest hit by economic crisis and also racism and sexism and all the other oppressions that we all face. So they bring those struggles here, and they also bring concrete demands because they fight around those concrete demands all the time. That’s incredibly important for this kind of movement to ground itself in very concrete struggles that are actually taking place all the time.”

As a result of labour solidarity, bus drivers have refused to transport arrested protesters.

Occupy Canada

Despite claims by the Canadian state the Occupy movement is not relevant here, people across Canada and Quebec know better.

Canada is built on occupied Native land, and there has been growing solidarity with First Nations people — and participation from aboriginal activists in the occupations — fighting for self-determination against a government that denies its own colonial history, ignores missing and murdered aboriginal women, and maintains brutal conditions that spread illness and suicide on reserves.

For years people across Canada and Quebec have also mobilized against Harper’s regime of war, Islamophobia, tar sands and austerity — and against the local “one per cent,” from the B.C. Liberals to the Toronto regime of Rob Ford.

In the context of a global economic crisis, social democracy is incapable of delivering reform — and people have watched governments elected from the left (from Barack Obama in the U.S., to George Papandreou in Greece, to David Miller in Toronto) impose the same neoliberal agenda.

The “orange wave” for the NDP, riding on the wave of inspiration provided by the Arab Spring, expressed people’s hopes of a better world — rather than support for the NDP platform that vowed to continue the military budget. The recent Ontario elections were much more about competing party platforms, and as a result drew the lowest voter turnout in the province’s history.

But the Occupy movement shows this is not because of apathy. Thousands of people have joined the Occupy movement — the first political experience for many — as they look for an alternative outside the dominant institutions of the system that can’t offer real change.

But like all movements there are fault lines that could fracture the movement.

On the question of demands there are two potential dangers. The media are asking for a few simple demands that the system might accommodate, eliminating the systemic critique at the heart of the movement.  On the other hand, some participants are calling for no demands in a way that reduces the movement to the procedural form divorced from the radical content and the movements that inform it.

A related problem to the exclusive focus on procedure is that it reduces the movement to the minority able to occupy for long hours, isolated from broader communities and struggles.

This can give rise to seeing this group as the agent of change — through a frenetic calendar of events that the majority of people don’t have the ability to participate in, or elevating the occupation from a tactic to a principle. 

As the temperature drops, it will become more unsustainable to maintain outdoor occupations, and prioritizing this over outreach beyond the occupation will cut the movement off from broader struggles. At Occupy Toronto there have been efforts to build beyond the park — joining the Ryerson Social Justice Week on day three, and marching with labour and community allies against the local 1 per cent regime of Rob Ford today.

As we’ve seen from Tahrir to Wisconsin, occupations are simply one tactic in a broader movement for change. The main strategy needs to be the active participation of masses of people — in the streets, campuses, and workplaces. Only through self-emancipation can we create a world for the 99 per cent, by the 99 per cent.

Jesse McLaren

Jesse McLaren

Jesse McLaren is a physician, activist and blogger, who like Virchow believes that if medicine is to accomplish its great task, it must intervene in political and social life. He blogs at yourheartsontheleft.blogspot.com,...