This past week, as the occupy movement expanded across the globe, I was flying across Canada on a book tour. Normally, flying from city to city is a tedious business, but this time it provided me with a unique opportunity to see what form the fledgling movement was taking in different parts of the country.
My tour took me from west to east and so the first occupy encampment I visited was in Vancouver. It seemed a fitting place to begin since it was in the Vancouver offices of Adbusters that the idea for the Occupy movement had been conceived.
A bus from my hotel on Granville Island brought me to the heart of downtown where the Occupy activists had pitched their camp behind the Vancouver Art Gallery. I arrived in the early afternoon and found the participants in the midst of a general assembly meeting. Dozens of people, mostly young, were sitting on the concrete. Some had brought or improvised cushions. It quickly became clear that they had been there a long time. At the base of the gallery’s wide marble steps, four other activists faced the assembly. A young man with a blond ponytail and a scraggly beard, in his late teens or early twenties, chaired the meeting. In his hands he held a pen and a small lined notebook. He was trying to get the assembly to vote on a preliminary agenda. The camp had only been in place for a few days and was still very much a work in progress. Repeatedly, he raised his hand to gain the floor. “Mic check,” he said, and then, emulating the Occupy Wall Street method, spoke in fragmented clauses so that his words could be repeated, and amplified, by everyone at the assembly.
“I propose.” I PROPOSE. “That we vote.” THAT WE VOTE. “On the agenda.” ON THE AGENDA.
He then asked if anyone had any objections of clarifications. Inevitably, someone made the designated hand signal and was given the floor. A young man with a droopy mustache and a hunting a cap rose time and again to insist on one or another point of process. Everyone there, even those who were impatient to press ahead, repeated his words. Standing behind the circle of activists were people like me–passersby, tourists, curiosity seekers. Off to one side, chatting to one another, were several Vancouver police officers. At one point, a young woman on the steps invited any and all of us to sit down and join the assembly. Nobody did, but that didn’t seem to faze the activists. I stayed there for over an hour, the time it took for them to vote on the agenda.
A few days later, I flew to Ottawa. Since I only arrived in in the afternoon and had obligations to the Ottawa Writers Festival, I didn’t manage to get to Confederation Park until after 9 that night. By then, it was dark and quite cold. As I approached the park, I heard the sound of amplified music. It was a Saturday night, and the activists had wired some speakers. I arrived to find four young women, bundled against the cold, singing a version of the “Earth is my body/ water is my blood” chant. They were followed by a tall young man who extemporaneously declaimed a long anti-capitalist screed—at once highly articulate and deeply affected. Next, a girl named Hannah played guitar and belted out the words to Marlilyn Manson’s “The Nobodies.” Its chorus went: “We are the nobodies/Wanna be somebodies/ We’re dead/We just know who we are.” She wore a great deal of black eye make-up, not in honor of Marilyn Manson, but because that night coincided with something called the Zombie Walk. On my way to the park, I’d seen dozens of people—their clothes torn, their throats artfully slashed—stalking the streets. To much applause, Hannah finished her song with the comic, ghoulish cry: “Brains!” After her were other singers, all more strident than polished. Four or five guys, either activists or drifters, danced arhythmically to the music. The young man who’d delivered the anti-capitalist screed flourished his long limbs in a manner that was part tai-chi, part stork. A squat, young black man with a speech impediment assumed the mic and called for a world of full equality, a world without bosses. “I woke up this morning feeling like shit,” he said. “Thinking the world was a piece of crap until I came to Occupy Ottawa. This place is home.”
I watched some of this beside a fresh-faced young man named Brian. He wore a black watch cap and a flannel shirt. He’d been living in the camp since its inception. During the day he worked a job as a cook at a pub; in the evening he returned to sleep in a tent. Before this, he’d lived at his parents’ house, paying rent. He continued to pay them rent. When I asked how they felt about his part in the occupy movement, he said they were supportive. Life was harder for them too. Looming in front of us, at one end of the park, was a Canadian government building, large illuminated letters spelling CANADA high on the facade, the Maple Leaf flying above it from a flagpole. Behind us, across the street, was the luxurious Lord Elgin Hotel. And up the road, not quite visible, were the buildings of the Canadian Parliament.
This was the glimpse of the Occupy movement as I saw it in Canada. As in the U.S. and elsewhere it had been met with varying degrees of ridicule, apprehension, and respect.
That the movement can easily be ridiculed, I won’t dispute. In Vancouver, I saw a young woman—with blond dreadlocks, multiple piercings, and tattoos, a stereotype of the Occupy activist—propose a motion that the kitchen at the camp be made primarily vegan so that the protesters could be in harmony with their “non-human brothers and sisters.” The motion received unanimous support.
That the occupy movement seems to be a clearinghouse for every liberal idea—legitimate and crackpot—is also the case.
And that the activists have failed to articulate any plan of action is no less true in Canada than it is in the U.S. And yet, even after briefly visiting just these two occupy encampments, these criticisms seemed to me to be misplaced.
Though Canada—with its vaunted tighter banking regulations—managed to evade the worst of the global recession, the social and economic trends besetting the U.S. and the rest of the world are besetting Canada as well. The gap is growing between the very rich and everyone else. This isn’t news. People have known it for a long time. Some of us have wondered if and when someone might try to do something about it. Now some people are trying. To me, it seems a perfectly reasonable response.
Here is what struck me about the general assembly meeting I witnessed in Vancouver. First, it was that I saw a group of young people—a generation that many had written off as ahistorical, self-absorbed Facebookers—engaging in a serious dialectic. They were listening to one another. They were going through the painstaking process of reaching consensus—which they’d defined as 90 per cent agreement. They were paying extraordinary attention to the words they were using, knowing that they’d be openly challenged if they misspoke. They were doing this in a completely transparent way—transparent not only amongst themselves, but also to the world at large. Anybody could stand and witness their deliberations. If many of them had piercings or tattoos, or if they looked like they got their clothes from Value Village, so what? Were they any more ridiculous than the politicians and pundits we saw every day on TV—with their idiotic banter, staged provocations, identical haircuts and calculated wardrobes? And, on balance, would I prefer to live in a world where we make some concessions to our non-human brothers and sisters, or one in which we pump the planet for every last hydrocarbon?
And as for presenting the media with a concise platform, that too seems premature, if not completely beside the point. Why, I wonder, would a movement that is so deeply disenchanted with the current political system want to play by its rules? If we recognize that the soundbyte hasn’t served us particularly well, why try coming up with soundbytes? As I watched that general assembly meeting, it looked to me like the activists were engaged in a fundamental rejection of the political system as it currently functions in Western democracies. Maybe there is a precedent for such a system in some Amazonian village, but it certainly doesn’t resemble the way decisions are made in Canada. To me, it felt like the process was itself the achievement—this change in the way people engaged with one another and as they tried to frame and attain their goals. In which case, to make conventional demands of such a movement while it is still in its infancy is both crude and wrongheaded.
What will happen in the weeks and months is impossible to predict. Winter is coming and Canada is cold. People are people and—if one can judge by the history of other revolutionary movements—jealousies and rivalries inevitably crop up. And then, of course, there are the random twists of fate that hobble any human endeavor. But all this is in the future. For now, what I saw in Vancouver and even in Ottawa filled me with a small measure of hope and a larger measure of admiration.