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Friday, 28 October 2011

Reflections on Occupy Ottawa II

During the past week there have been some significant changes within the movement and I am struggling with whether or not I can justify staying on.

The most salient concern I've been having is with many people considering the camp an unsafe space. There have been recent actions taken by small groups of individuals that have led many committed occupiers to abandon the movement. Making people uncomfortable who identify as LGBTQ is intolerable and must be dealt with. Moreover, any attack on any individual is not justifiable. Many women, first nations, communists, and others have decided that the movement no longer welcomes them. It is truly sad to see people who fight socioeconomic equality engage in behaviour that breeds inequality. Fundamentally, we have to judge this movement, just as we famously judge a society, by how it treats the people in the most vulnerable positions. And while one of my compatriots noted that "no community is impervious from conflict", I would like to point out that every community has the responsibility to find a way to minimise it.

The so-called "problem" has been traced back to those in the camp who are using substances. At a meeting for Security and Safety that I decided (thankfully) to attend, most agreed that we need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for these activities in the park. After it was clear that the group was achieving consensus on this issue, I reminded them that these policies are extremely ineffective and gave them a brief explanation of Ontario's zero tolerance policy in schools, instituted in the 1990s. I warned the group that there are three key issues here:

1) that intolerance will not solve the problem;
2) that we cannot act actually remove anyone from the land we are illegally occupying;
3) that not following through on the process undermines it entirely

So there are severe pitfalls to harsh treatment, and the only positive that we can see coming out of it is that it makes decisions "easier" because we are bound to a set principle. Thankfully I was able to defuse the situation, but when emotions are running high it is difficult to take a step back and find appropriate ways to deal with things. Although we still do not have a policy, at least we don't have a zero-tolerance one.

All this ties into a perceived notion of requiring leadership - an idea that is rapidly gaining ground at virtually all Occupy locations. Many feel that with these growing safety concerns we must find a way of strengthening a core group that will be leaders. While leader is a term that was avoided purposefully, the positions that were being advocated would cement more concentration of power in individuals. While there are already some informal structures that create hierarchy to a degree, they are very decentralised and thus make a minimal impact. The effects of heavily central power and the formalisation of roles (whether liaison on representative) will only serve to privilege certain people, often who are already quite privileged.

In response to a growing impression that leadership was on the way, there was a meeting last Monday where a small group of us designed an alternative model. We agreed that the atmosphere was becoming more toxic and that the best way to deal with the situation would be to invest time and energy into running camp-wide workshops on self-reflection before general assemblies.

The idea is relatively simple: people are coming to this movement and mentally and physically becoming very tired. Moreover, many in the movement are not applying their critical thinking skills that they devote to the 1 per cent to the 99 per cent. This is terribly problematic, especially when we are in a process of building a community. While we agreed on the idea and announced it throughout the week, it didn't catch on as people seemed dismissive of it. This is going to have some serious long-term consequences.

And now for my final thought: messages. Occupy has been criticised by the media everywhere for failing to have answers. This line of thinking has penetrated Ottawa's camp and is now taking over the discourse. This, of course, despite the purpose of Occupy to merely bring attention to the gross inequalities in our system. I fully oppose presenting a platform or list of demands. This movement, as one of my professors eloquently put it, is about "changing the channel". This resounded with me and made me think of this picture from Occupy San Diego.

I don't know where this movement is going in the short term, but I intend to stay involved and help keep this movement from slipping into hierarchy, exclusion, and ultimately failure. Stay tuned.

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