A progressive dialogue: Occupy -- The struggle within

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A little over a month ago, surrounded by red-gold autumn trees on a beautiful October day at noon, I stood with my family and 500 people around the huge fountain in Confederation Park in Ottawa, 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, sternly 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 RCMP threw himself in front of it. "You aren't invited!" he spluttered. The tension of that moment summed up the local movement in Ottawa. So much seems to depend on "being invited" in this town!

The group forged on past the mountie to join the union supporters on the Hill and has since demonstrated at several events, from the protest at the union-busting Novotel hotel in Ottawa, to support for the Prairie farmers struggling to save the Wheat Board to a rally against Bill C-10, the Conservatives' omnibus crime bill. A steadily growing Occupy Ottawa labour outreach group attests to the potential that such alliances might have for our futures.

My thrill still isn't gone but a certain chill has pervaded Occupy Ottawa, for reasons that are greater than its recent eviction from Confederation Park. 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 that was holding down the park has experienced troubling behaviours, as have other camps; racism, misogyny, sexual violence and a tendency to dismiss concerns about these issues.

Pervasive problems of oppression and privilege infested the camps as they do all of our public spaces, including universities and bars. Not everybody supporting Occupy has identified 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 has arisen to address.

While the camp struggled to deal with these oppressive behaviours and the concerns they raised, some established Ottawa activists quickly decamped, taking their experience and skills with them. Many of these in-and-out-ivists took a "wait-and-see" approach, withholding their participation until they could somehow be reassured that all the issues they called out were fixed. These defections and demands placed those who stayed in a catch-22 situation that established the sense of a shadowy Kafkaesque "jury" putting Occupy Ottawa continually on trial.

Disturbingly -- and this is very much in keeping with the cliquish and backbiting political culture of Ottawa -- some used their networks to actively campaign against Occupy Ottawa, blocking support and funding from various groups and spreading damaging misinformation that kept people away. One example was a "ZOMG white supremacists are organizing in the park!" panic that raised the spectre of hordes of neo-Nazis roaming the park, putting out cigarettes in people's eyes. I exaggerate: so did they. The Great White Supremacist Gang turned out to be one homeless and frequently jailed man who could barely muster a coherent sentence but who made racist remarks to several people.

This and other incidents led to the slow and painful development of a code of conduct and the consensus decision that the campers would not kick this particular person out but would work to try to intercept and challenge any racist garbage that he uttered. By this time, however, the rumour about "white supremacists" was widespread and many who fled due to it just stayed gone, even though sincere efforts, however clumsy and slow, were being made to address the problems. At times, I felt as though "we lowly, unenlightened ones" were being ordered to grovel and beg for the grace of "activist" presence and support: "Will you now enter this movement, sir and milady? We have tidied the foyer and removed the vile undesirables."

We were treated, for example, to the distasteful spectacle of a smug white male heterosexual graduate student dangling a chunk of student association funding for Occupy Ottawa in front of two racialized, queer activists, boasting that he would give it to the movement if it magically created "safe space" for him that he would deem acceptable, on his terms. He seemed oblivious to the suggestion that such behaviour smacked of privilege and was itself rather oppressive. As the focus on the problematic individuals at the camp grew larger than life, acknowledgement of those who were trying to do anti-oppression work at the camp shrank. The frequent homogenizing claims bandied about by those on the sidelines that "there were no women or racialized people in the camp" completely and devastatingly erased those of us who happen to be women and racialized people, as if our experiences didn't matter. One young Indigenous woman frequently had to speak up and remind the safe space zealots that she existed and, moreover, had found a community she valued.

Part of our problem was a high pontification factor, facilitated by the divide between the "onsite" and "offsite" Occupy Ottawa camps. Despite their avoidance of Confederation Park, people continually went online to lecture those in support on the Occupy Ottawa Facebook group on our many failings. In my view, this attitude and behaviour bespoke a paternalistic and arrogant elitism that imposed all the shitwork of the struggle on the people freezing their asses off at the park while, interestingly, taking credit for the movement at higher profile events attended by higher-status people; for example, university faculty audiences at teach-ins.

As somebody who has been active in Ottawa for a long time, it's been a real eye-opener for me to see what this movement has brought out of the woodwork. I have been forced to re-examine long-held beliefs about how people organize, who is equipped to do the organizing and how effective we can really be in smaller groups that exalt theoretical principles above the gritty reality of on-the-ground mobilization, and heap scorn onto those who do not share the language and concepts of their struggles. I have also been challenged to rethink certain assumptions that I didn't realize had hardened into dogma.

For example, I had long subscribed to a central idea in Audre Lorde's famous 1984 essay The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House that it squanders energy to have to educate others on oppression and that the responsibility for education should rest squarely on the shoulders of the oppressor. Here's what she wrote:

"Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master's concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women -- in the face of tremendous resistance -- as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought."

I'm not sure that Lorde actually meant this to absolve anybody of all responsibility for engaging in productive dialogue, but I saw her words being taken and used in that way by people angry at the problems in the camps who nonetheless refused to do anything other than berate and belittle those who remained, on the grounds that we were "oppressors" who had to clean up our acts on our own. This caused me to reflect that, while it may not be the SOLE responsibility of women who have been hurt by racism and sexism to do the thankless and often risky work of educating, explaining and reaching out to those who may violently reject our ideas, it is nevertheless crucial and important to occasionally make this attempt if we want to make this movement grow beyond ourselves. Occupy Ottawa has showed me that the "I'm going to call you a mess but it's not my responsibility to help clean you up" position is not as simple and clear-cut as it appears to be and masks layers of privilege that go unexamined. Audre Lorde also said in that same essay:

"Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters."

It's hard work to struggle in real life (not just on Facebook) to overcome entrenched oppression. In response to the many legitimate concerns that have been raised, training, teach-ins and affinity groups are being organized by those of us who stay committed and the many people in the broader progressive community that continue to support us. We want to make Occupy Ottawa a safer space for everyone while reaching out as much as possible to those who may not have the privilege of the university educations and policy backgrounds that dominate this town.

One of the best things about this movement for me, in fact, has been the possibility of making connections that go beyond the boundaries of the familiar circles of activism, the people I always see at rallies (as fond of those people as I am). I have been energized, above all, by the people supporting the Occupy movement who I would never expect to see at the rallies, the people who I wasn't sure I would ever be able to make common cause with. The involvement of these people -- not the fragmented activist cliques -- is what gives me a great deal of hope for the long term success of an uprising that has already accomplished the feat of putting inequality back into dominant discourse.

By making more room for all of us, with all of our differences -- and did we ever think that would be easy? And did we really think we only had a month to do it in? -- I think that the Occupy movement will continue to shrug aside the cynicism that has stolen so much of our political conviction in the last decades.

Aalya Ahmad writes and practices about cultural politics, feminism and activism.

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