I have spent the better part of two days at Occupy Sudbury, and two days before that at Occupy Toronto… that hardly makes me an expert, but I have heard some reoccurring questions that I want to address here.
What is it I think this movement can do?
First and foremost, in my opinion, is that it opens up space for dialogue. I often talk about politics in my everyday interactions with people, but I often read that talking about controversial things like politics is not polite in certain situations. I have friends that never talk about politics, which saddens me… politics are so much fun to talk about!
In my last post about the occupy movement, I talked about Weber, and in this one, I will discuss another theorist that I almost never use in my own academic work; Habermas! Hopefully I don't simplify this so much that I am not doing his work justice, but basically, what he said was that within the public sphere, which is a public space not controlled by the state, people could engage in conversation and exchange views and knowledge and that this undistorted communication could lead to liberation. However, through the mass media and mass consumption (as well is bureaucracy and excessive rationality among other things) we lose our ability to think critically about the state.
The space that has been created by the occupy movement, and how it has been used for political discussions, has reminded me of my third year sociological theory prof's lecture on Habermas. There are a lot of problems with his work - for instance, whereas Habermas thinks that opening up this space for communication could allow people to speak freely about politics, I would argue that we really need to put more emphasis on the social and economic hierarchies that shape how we view the world and how we can talk about it… speech, in a racialized, patriarchal, capitalist society will likely never be free from distorting influences such as social power, and this is something I keep bringing back into our conversations at the occupy sites (such as in my critique that most of the leaders-who-are-not seem to be young, charismatic, white men). Anyway, it just amuses me when every day experiences bring to mind lectures or readings that I haven't really thought of in years.
So, back to the question of what I want this movement to do. What I hope it is currently starting to do is expose some of the social relations involved in aspects of our economic and political system that have been reified to the point where they seem like naturally existing structures without any alternatives. We created capitalism. It is not a thing that has always existed... it hasn't even been around very long. We made it. We can end it or we can change it.
In order to want to do so, we have to expose so many of the ideas that we have come to think are true, but are really just ideologies that serve to uphold capitalism. Ideas like poverty being caused by individual flaws, we need to get rid of the language associated with "helping the poor" and "handouts" (which were used last weekend by some very progressive people in the group).
These imply that certain people deserve everything they have gotten within capitalism, but should help others who are less fortunate. This is problematic because it upholds the capitalist system.
The other question I hear a lot of is with regards to solutions… let's just say that the education part works, then what?
Here is where I come into problems... I simply don't know what the answer would be. But I think that is a good thing because I don't think that any one person has that answer. Nick Dyer-Witheford writes about using people's creative capacities to come up with something better - a new way of organizing. I like this idea, we can learn from previous movements - what has worked and what hasn't - and build from there.
I do think it has to be everyone working together. The workers movement was quieted by dividing us up into trade unions without the capacity to organize together and support all workers. It is difficult to frame this movement in a way that all people are being included, that reparations are being made to certain groups, that decisions are being made while considering the specific needs of groups, the ways that the current political, economic and social relations are affecting the ways that we are able to participate in this movement.
As a sidenote, also relating to Nick Dyer-Witheford's work, I love how we are using tools of capitalism against itself within this organizing. Using facebook, twitter, youtube, blogs, etc. to get the messages out to so many people.
It is very early in the organizing process. There are so many possibilities. And I believe that the problems within the movement are easier to talk about now, while it is still new, as opposed to later, when things become more entrenched and the social relations become hidden in routine processes.
Still, at the same time I am having trouble working in a movement with so many people with such diverse opinions. I enjoy the dialogue, and I am usually good at respecting the fact that people have different beliefs and ideas and that everyone's are just as valid as my own… but sometimes I hear things that make me cringe at just how problematic I think they are (granted, I'm sure there are people there who do the same when I speak)... I should add, are not reflective of the movement as a whole, just a few opinions that keep popping up either here or in Toronto, or both.
1. The national anthem.
I was not there when they sang this in Toronto, but I was shocked when I heard about it. Indigenous communities were torn apart by European settlers and that these communities are still struggling in a variety of ways. The national anthem is a colonial song - it celebrates a colonial nation. There were indigenous peoples present objecting to it, but it was sung anyway.
Then, in the local occupy movement, it was played in a youtube video right before an indigenous drumming circle, which fostered more than a few discussions yesterday afternoon at the occupy site about whether this is a sign of "solidarity and friendship" or whether it is colonial and disrespectful. Neither side won, but the people advocating for fostering friendship and solidarity agreed to check with elders in the community.
And, on top of colonial implications, nationalism does nothing to help support what should be viewed as a global movement.
2. "The police are our friends."
The police are not our friends. Individual officers do make up the 99% in that they do not have huge sums of money that influence decision making on a legislative level, but, as a group, they do have a considerable amount of power. Yes, they smile and act friendly towards us, and I am not necessarily opposed to us doing the same, but remember, when they get their orders to arrest us, the power they have will become very evident. This also has other implications, where certain groups are more likely to have problems with the police than others (such as indigenous people).
Still, the local police have told us that they support us, and we don't exactly have large numbers of people at the occupy site at the moment, so I wouldn't advocate for anything that is is too anti-police. But don't think of them as friends or allies.
3. The word "violence" is thrown around.
"No using violence... like yelling at police officers or breaking things". Now, I agree that the protest is probably best off being peaceful, especially because we are trying to build public support, but I object to using the word "violence" when referring to damaging property or speaking loudly. For police actions to be considered violent, there has to be bodily harm inflicted... why do we not have the same standard. I'm not saying that we should damage property... I think that doing so would likely halt the movement through mass arrests and outrage against the 'violent' and 'threatening' protesters. I just think we should reframe how we are conceiving of violence and use different language when we are talking about these issues. Property damage is not violence (unless someone is likely to get hurt).
4. Lastly was the phrase "the most important thing is..." at facilitation/organizing meetings. To me, the most important thing for a facilitating meeting is to work out the logistics to create a space that will foster discussion and allow occupiers to have necessary amenities (bathrooms, food, shelter, warmth, etc.). If you are coming to the facilitation meetings to talk about how the most important thing is promoting electoral reform or climate change or whatever else you think it is, then I believe we are going about this the wrong way. What makes the occupy movement so amazing is that it can bring in so many people with diverse experiences. Your specific soap box argument is not the point of a facilitation meeting (and yes, I understand that using my soap box - this blog - as a means to convey this statement can be seen as ironic, or even somewhat hypocritical, but my point stands).
And now I will set aside some of this cynicism, make a few more kick ass signs (thus far, I have carried a sign with a Marx quote "What the bourgeoisie produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers" and one I have carried before in Toronto "there's no war like class war"- which I would love to nuance, but a sign does not allow for that). I will be back at the occupy site this afternoon for the rush hour road-side demonstration I can't wait until we have enough people to have a march like in Toronto.