I wish I could start with the ritual “I love you” which the Occupy Movement is supposed to inspire. To be honest, it has been a space of turmoil. But also, virulent optimism.
What I outline below are not criticisms of the Occupy movement. I am inspired that the dynamic of the movement thus far has been organic, so that all those who choose to participate are collectively responsible for its evolution and development. To all those participating — I offer my deepest gratitude and respect. I am writing today with Grace Lee Boggs on the forefront of my mind: “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 may sound dramatic and counter-productive, but I find it a poignant reminder that, in our state of elation, we cannot underestimate the difficult terrain ahead and I look forward to the processes that will further these conversations.
Occupations on occupied land
One of the broad principles of unity of Occupy Vancouver thus far includes an acknowledgement of unceded Coast Salish territories. There has been some opposition to this as being “divisive” and as “focusing too much on First Nations issues.” I would argue that acknowledging Indigenous lands is a necessary and critical starting point for two primary reasons.
Firstly, the word Occupy has understandably ignited criticism from Indigenous people. While occupations are commonly associated with specific targets (such as occupying a government office or a bank), Occupy Vancouver (or any other city) has a deeply colonialist implication. Despite intentionality, it erases the brutal history of occupation and genocide of Indigenous peoples that settler societies have been built on. This is not simply a rhetorical or fringe point; it is a profound and indisputable matter of fact that this land is in fact already occupied. The province of B.C. in particular is still largely unceded land, which means that no treaties or agreements have been signed and the title holders of Vancouver are still the Squamish, Tseilwau-tuth, Musqueam people. As my Squamish friend Dustin Rivers joked, “Okay, so the premier and provincial government acknowledge and give thanks to the host territory, but Occupy Vancouver can’t?”
If we are to, in fact, represent the 99 per cent then heeding the voices of Indigenous peoples is critical to an inclusive process. Plus, supporting efforts towards decolonization is not only an Indigenous issue. It is also about us, as non-natives, learning the history of this land and locating ourselves and our responsibilities within the context of colonization. Acknowledging the territory we are on is the first step towards this and other occupations such as those in Boston and Denver and New York have taken similar steps in deepening an anti-colonial analysis.
Secondly, we must understand that the tentacles of corporate control and the collusion of government and corporations have roots in the processes of colonization and enslavement. As written by the Owe Aku International Justice Project: “Corporate greed is the driving factor for the global oppression and suffering of Indigenous populations. It is the driving factor for the conquest and continued suffering for the Indigenous peoples on this continent. The effects of greed eventually spill over and negatively impact all peoples, everywhere. Indigenous peoples feel the pain first, but it eventually reaches all people.”
The Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada and the East India Trading Company in India, for example, were some of the first corporate entities established on the stock market. Both these companies were granted trading monopolies by the British Crown, and were able to extract resources and amass massive profits as a direct result of the subjugation of local communities through the use of the British Empire’s military and police forces. The attendant processes of corporate expansion and colonization continues today, most evident in this country with the Alberta tar sands. In the midst of an economic crisis, corporations’ ability to accumulate wealth is dependent on discovering new frontiers from which to extract resources. This disproportionately impacts Indigenous peoples and destroys the land base required to sustain their communities, while creating an ecological crisis for the planet as a whole.
Systemic oppression connected to economic inequality
They want me to remember
And I keep on remembering mine
– Lucille Clifton
In creating a unified space of opposition to the 1 per cent, we must also simultaneously foster critical education to learn about the range of systemic injustices that many of us in the 99 per cent have faced historically and continue to face daily. In the context of the Occupy Together movement, the connection between the nature and structure of the political economy and systemic injustice is clear: the growing disparity in wealth and economic inequality being experienced in this city and across this country is nothing new for low-income racialized communities, particularly single mothers, who face the double brunt of scapegoating during periods of economic recession. This cannot be pejoratively dismissed as a “reduction to identity politics” or about being “divisive,” which for many re-enforces the patterns of silencing and marginalization. The idea of the multitude is powerful; it forces a contestation of any one lived experience binding the 99 per cent. Embracing this plurality and having an open heart to potentially uncomfortable truths about systemic injustice and oppression beyond just the “evil corporations and greedy banks” will actually strengthen this movement. Ignoring the hierarchies of power between us does not make them magically disappear. It actually does the opposite — it entrenches those inequalities.
If we learn from social movements past, we observe that the struggle to genuinely address issues of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, age, and nationality actually did more, rather than less, to facilitate broader participation. I would argue that it has historically been a mistake to cater movements to the idea of lowest common denominator “mainstream” politics. To be clear, I do not disagree with needing to reach out to as broad a base — i.e. the 99 per cent — as possible; what I am arguing is that we have to critically examine who constitutes the “mainstream.” If Indigenous communities, homeless people, immigrants, LGBTs, seniors and others are all considered “special-interest groups” (despite the fact that they actually constitute an overwhelming demographic majority), then by default that suggests that, as Rinku Sen argues, straight white men are the sole standard of universalism. “Addressing other systems of oppression, and the people those systems affect, isn’t about elevating one group’s suffering over that of white men. It’s about understanding how the mechanisms of control actually operate. When we understand, we can craft solutions that truly help everybody.” Therefore, this should not be misunderstood as advocating for a pecking order of issues or priorities; it is about understanding that the 99 per cent is not a homogenous group but a web of inter-connected and inter-related communities in struggle. As Syed Hussan writes, “Understand that to truly be free, to truly include the entire 99 per cent, you have to say today, and say every day: We will leave no one behind.” Just as we challenge the idea of austerity put forward by governments and corporations, we should challenge the idea of scarcity of space in our movements and instead facilitate a more nuanced discourse about economic inequality and the growing disparity in wealth locally and globally.
Learning from history and building on successes
While it is clearly too early to comment on the future of the Occupy movement, I offer few humble preliminary thoughts based on other peoples comments of the Occupy Wall Street occupation and the nature of the organizing of the Occupy Vancouver movement. Those who us who have been activists do not claim any particular authority in this movement; as many others have cautioned, more experienced activists should not claim moral righteousness and demoralize those who are just joining the struggle. But we also cannot claim ignorance either.
The Occupy Together movement is brilliantly transitional. As has already been noted, it is has been a moral and strategic success to not have a pre-articulated laundry list of demands within which to confine a nascent social movement. As Peter Marcus writes, “Occupy is seen by most of its participants and supporters not as a set of pressures for individual rights, but as a powerful claim for a better world… The whole essence of the movement is to reject the game’s rules as it is being played, to produce change that includes each of these demands but goes much further to question the structures that make those demands necessary… Demands, as opposed to claims, implicitly assume a setting within the established order. They call for reforms of the status quo, rather than for rejection, for what Richard Sennett has called ‘different shades of capitalisms’ rather than alternate methods of structuring a society.” Similarly Vijay Prashad has written that the movement “must breathe in the many currents of dissatisfaction, and breathe out a new radical imagination.”
The creation of encampments is in itself an act of freedom and liberation. Decentralized gatherings with democratic decision-making processes and autonomous space for people to gather and dialogue based on their interests — such as through reading circles or art zones or guerrilla gardening — create a deep sense of purpose, connectedness, and emancipation in a society that otherwise breeds apathy, disenchantment, and isolation. This type of pre-figurative politics — a living symbol of refusal — is a significant success that should continue so we can actively coming together to create and live the alternatives to this system. I am reminded of the modest (anti) Olympic Tent Village in our own city in the Downtown Eastside last year, which was deemed “paradise” and a place where “real freedom lives” by DTES residents of the Village. Even a glimmer of freedom and autonomy turn people to choose living rather than surviving and to fight for justice rather than beg for charity.
One lesson that I can offer is for the Occupy Together movement to learn about police violence and police infiltration. In some cities, Occupy organizers have actively collaborated with police and sought permission from police and local governments to carry forward their activities. There is only one way to say this: the police cannot be trusted. This is not a comment on individual police officers who may be “ordinary people,” but the unfortunate reality is that their job is to protect the 1 per cent. The police have a long history of repression of social movements. Marginalized people, such as those who are homeless, Indigenous, youth of colour, non-status, and trans people also routinely experience police abuse and do not feel that the police serve and protect their interests. We must take these concerns seriously in our organizing in order to promote participation from these communities. We must also learn to rely on ourselves, not the police, to keep ourselves safe and to hold ground when they are ordered to clear us out. This sounds like an insurmountable task, but it has been done before and can be done again.
On the heels of the Olympics and G20, another recurring issue is that of diversity of tactics. Despite a history in community-based movement building, based on a post-Olympics debate with an ally whom I respect, there has been unnecessary and misinformed fear-mongering that those of us who support a diversity of tactics “fundamentally reject peaceful assemblies.” For me, supporting a diversity of tactics has always implied respect for a range of strategies including non-violent civil disobedience. As G20 defendant Alex Hundert, who has written extensively about diversity of tactics, told me, “It is important to recognise that a belief in supporting a diversity of tactics means not ruling out intentionally peaceful means. These gatherings have been explicitly nonviolent from the start and in hundreds of cities across the continent. Obviously this is the right tactic for this moment.”
It is noteworthy that the Occupy Wall Street movement has not dogmatically rejected a diversity of tactics. It appears that the movement there has understood what diversity of tactics actually means — which is not imposing one strategy or one tactic in any and every context. The Occupy Wall Street Direct Action Working Group has adopted the basic tenet of “respect diversity of tactics, but be aware of how your actions will affect others.” This is an encouraging development as people work together to learn how to come keep each other safe within the encampment, while effectively escalating tactics in autonomous actions.
Finally, over time it would be wise to stop articulating that this is a leaderless movement; it might be more honest to suggest that We Are All Leaders. Denying that leadership exists deflects accountability, obscures potential hierarchies, and absolves us of actively creating structures within which to build collective leadership. Many of the models currently being used such as the General Assembly and Consensus are rooted in the practice of anti-authoritarians and community organizers. There are many other critical skills to share to empower and embolden this movement. As much as we wish we can radically transform unjust economic, political, and social systems overnight through this movement, the reality is that this is a long-term struggle. And there is always the danger of co-optation. Slavoj Zizek warned Occupy Wall Street that: “The problem is the system that pushes you to give up. Beware not only of the enemies. But also of false friends who are already working to dilute this process. In the same way you get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice cream without fat. They will try to make this into a harmless moral protest.” This means that we will need to find ways to do the painstaking work of making this movement sustainable and rooting it within and alongside existing grassroots movements for social and environmental justice.
With all of you, I remain hopeful. As beautifully articulated by Gloria Anzaldua: “We have begun to come out of the shadows; we have begun to break with routines and oppressive customs and to discard taboos; we have commenced to carry with pride the task of thawing hearts and changing consciousness. Women, let’s not let the danger of the journey and the vastness of the territory scare us — let’s look forward and open paths in these woods. Voyager, there are no bridges; one builds them as one walks.”
Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer trained in the law who is based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories, who has been active in a range of social movements for over a decade. You can find her on Twitter here.