Long Live Occupy: Challenging white privilege in Occupy

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Photo: flickr/Michael_Swan

The ‘Occupy’ movement feels like it happened ages ago, but its resonance remains, at least for this young racialized activist, who is willing to admit that it was the most radical experience of participatory democracy that he has ever engaged with.

This however says more about the past, present and ongoing nature of my experiences in a society built on exclusion, genocide and racial exploitation than it does with the democratic nature of the spontaneous and collective movement known as Occupy Toronto. 

However, as some have pointed out, resistance to social and economic oppression, at least within the Toronto context, is nothing new or spontaneous, as various organizations and community groups have been collectively working against exploitation since the inception of this colonial capitalist state. Indigenous groups, racialized communities, anti-poverty coalitions, women’s rights organizations all represent ongoing and sustained struggles against colonial, capitalist patriarchy as it manifests itself in the “Canadian” experience. The “spontaneity” of Occupy TO, which carries on as one of its romanticized legacies, assumes a point in time and space where an otherwise sleeping populace began to move, and so finally noticed their chains.

If we have been asleep, it is not because we had accepted our domination, but because we have been ignored. But this is not to underestimate the significance of Occupy Toronto, as well as other Occupy movements that developed across the country and in various parts of the globe in late 2011. If we recall, at its peak, ‘Occupy’ as a movement had emerged in over 951 cities and in 82 countries. In the footsteps of the Arab Spring – still ongoing –which captivated the global imagination from December 2010, Occupy would complete the circle and for a time it seemed as if a global population was in movement.

Inspired by this promise of radical political engagement and transformation, myself and 10,000 other people marched through Toronto’s financial district on October 15th 2011, chanting “we are the 99%” before tucking away in a mid-sized park in the east end of the downtown core. No one really knew what was going on or who was in control, or where we were marching to. Most of the organizational restrictions developed later, but at that moment, all that mattered was our collective expression of rage; our discontent with the society we lived in; with the domination of the 99% by few but powerful elites; with the lack of public services, lack of jobs, poor working conditions, racist police force, sexist institutions, corrupt politicians, lack of good food, and a feeling – a conviction that the world we live in does not have to be so.

It was the multiplicity of experiences and demands that brought people to St. James Park, and was also what would have given Occupy its strength and capacity regardless of the ensuing critiques that it was “too broad” to achieve anything. Contrary to the notion that the Occupy movement was not centered, that it was “all over the place”, on that very first day the organizational nature of the movement as well as the demands that were to be centralized became increasingly evident.

As speaker after speaker took to the front of this diverse gathering that had amassed, one could not help experience the silencing of racialized bodies that comes with white domination. Not a single one of those that addressed the crowds – that took on the authority to tell us about why we were here – represented the experiences, the difficulties and the realities that come with having slightly more melanin in ones epidermis. Though, this may all be incidental, which is what those of the marginalized convinced themselves of in order to remain.

For those that sought to help transform the movement into a more democratic and capable force of change, we took to organizing ourselves into various support and working groups in the hopes of developing the strength to counter the sidelining of our experiences that had already begun. 

The People of Colour (POC) Working Group was one such organization that emerged as a means of organizing the racialized participants of Occupy with the hopes of pushing for a strong anti-racist approach that would help colour the movement’s objectives which were otherwise taking the form of abstract and “colour blind” demands.

When we raised these concerns through either our public education meetings or workshops, or even at the General Assemblies that took place on a regular basis, we were usually met with what Sarah Ahmed has described as “overing”. The idea that racism would be over simply if we would just “get over it”. “I don’t see colour, you are the one that is being racist” is what we were often met with.

For most of the white participants their privilege prevented them from seeing the walls which cast their shadows on the rest of us. Their privilege did not see the role that colonialism, racism or sexism play in informing the political economy that they so easily wanted to focus on. Demands for action against over policing and gentrification of racialized communities, against racist barriers to employment, against violence against women, against ongoing colonization of Indigenous communities, against border exclusions that characterize a new global apartheid; all were seen as secondary, “identity” specific demands that were a distraction to what was more obvious: that the 1% dominates the 99%. Our demands were chastised as reactionary, divisive, limiting and not revolutionary enough.

At the same time, the relative and growing absence of racialized participants was seen as symptomatic of communities that either don’t really care or aren’t interested in changing society. The blame was put on ‘us’ rather than in realizing that the reason people weren’t joining on board, or had either left too quickly, was because concerns that spoke to them were not being given any space; that marginalized groups were once again invisible – as they continue to be- in a white supremacist society.

If there was any semblance of the “inclusion” of people of colour at the Occupy camp – it was not through our politics or our struggles but in the form of incense sticks, bindi’s, African drum circles, Mongolian Yurt’s and a Sacred Fire. Interesting story: one day the People of Colour Working Group was holding a workshop on the prevalence of white supremacy in Canada, but struggled throughout this public educational because only a few feet away from us were a group of white people loudly delighting in an African drum circle.

Aside from being asked every time I stepped foot on the camp site as to whether I had any weed I could sell, or having a white woman call “Occupy Security” on a POC workshop we were holding (a safe space where we could open up and share our experiences with each other), there were far more structural issues that characterized Occupy Toronto as simply another representation of white supremacy that was unable and unwilling to interrogate itself. The oppressive realities and experiences faced by racialized and indigenous organizers were once again replicated in the Occupy movement, as it usually is in many other organizing circles today.

If this experience has had any impact on me, it is realization that the struggle for social and economic emancipation is far more difficult than we may assume. Challenging the 1% will require more than marches on Bay Street or abstract demands against “economic” exploitation – as if it were a neutral experience. It will require a movement made up of individuals who are willing to give space and to challenge the privileges that characterize their social experiences. It will require white folks engaging in serious anti-racist and de-colonial practices that move far beyond the tokenistic measures that characterize “diversity” in the mainstream. Anything less is destined to replicate the abuses that exist in society today and will be incapable of emerging as a truly broad based movement that is capable of emancipatory transformation.

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