Among the rebels

An Occupy protester in Toronto. Photo by Ian Willms

Lia Grainger spent more than two months among the dissidents of Occupy. Nine camps, and dozens of interviews later, the Toronto reporter reflects on the movement’s message, its future, and why she’s convinced Canada needs more Occupy—and we need it now

There is no camping on the White House lawn. On the Wednesday before American Thanksgiving, when President Barack Obama drives down a darkened windy H Street and turns into the gated driveway that leads to his abode, no tents sully the immaculately manicured grass. One block away, several hundred people bed down in tents, tarps and cardboard on the modest rectangle of wet grass and snaking pavement known as McPherson Square—as close as they can get to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. I climb into my two-person MEC tent and join the dissidents.

The surrounding buildings light my nylon interior bright as noon. Eight days ago, I left the comfort of my Toronto home to spend the winter visiting Occupy Wall Street camps and actions across the United States. This is stop number two—last week was New York, and I’ve already spent two nights here in the capitol. Last night was a wet one: heavy rainfall had saturated the earth, turning the grass into icy mud that coated everything—my boots, my clothes, the walls of my tent. The smell of tobacco from hand-rolled cigarettes still hangs in the cold air.

It hasn’t taken long to get to know my neighbours. Nearby, in his own little tent is 57-year-old Frosty, a grandfatherly homeless man who started helping in the camp kitchen after he was kicked out of D.C.’s Old Post Office Pavilion by Homeland Security. A few yards away beneath a patchwork of tarp and plastic is 18-year-old Elliot from Northampton, Massachusetts, a pensive adolescent who has been waiting his whole short life for a movement like this to sweep across the nation. In a large communal tent just off 15th St., a half-dozen new arrivals from New York City doze, including a young Queens native named Kelley. The pint-sized instigator has led the crew on a 230-mile, two-week march from Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, spreading the Occupy gospel along the way.

Like them, I’d ditched everything—job and home—to experience a pivotal moment in the history of our monumental neighbours to the south, and perhaps in our own nation’s history as well. As a 30-year-old, raised by baby boomer parents who took me on peace marches before I could walk, I had inherited a casual commitment to social justice issues and environmentalism that was more theoretical than practical. I had never felt any real ability to influence the political world. Coming of age in a global world sometimes makes corruption and inequality seem insurmountable. You’re not just fighting local or national power; you’re pushing up against the world. Suddenly, here was 2011: Tunisia, Tahrir Square, Puerta del Sol. Individuals were upsetting the order of things by simply standing together. Something big and important and kind of wonderful was happening—something outside of the realm of normal, everyday, North American experience, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to join them.

On October 15, I began to visit the camps. My first was Toronto in October 2011. I then jumped the border to New York (six days), followed by D.C. (four days), Boston (four days), Savannah (two days), Miami (four days), Los Angeles (three days) and Seattle (two days). My last stop was Des Moines, Iowa, where I saw 18 of the hundred-odd Occupy the Caucus protesters get arrested at the campaign headquarters of GOP candidates. I arrived home on New Year’s Day, 2012 with a changed vision of the movement and a transformed understanding of the value of civil dissent. Some of the naivety is gone, and some of the cynicism is back, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that we still need Occupy—and in Canada, perhaps, more so than ever.

When news of the Occupy movement protest camp in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park first flooded the Canadian public consciousness in late September 2011, I was skeptical. By now, the precursors to the American explosion of populist rage are well known: the deregulation of banking and lending systems, the housing bubble, the 2008 crash, the subsequent foreclosures and bailouts, the obscene Wall Street bonuses, and the inability of the administration to improve regulation. It all highlighted one overarching theme—an unprecedented and ever-expanding gap between rich and poor. By 2007, the top ten percent of Americans held 73 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the rest held a mere 27 percent. By 2010, 46 million Americans, or 15 percent of the entire population, already lived in poverty.

The unlikely spark was the Estonian-born editor-in-chief of the Vancouver-based, culture-jamming magazine Adbusters. Inspired by the parallel uproar in Greece, Spain, Tunisia, and Egypt, Kalle Lasn and his team spent much of 2011 thinking about a soft regime change in North America. On July 13, Lasn sent a visual call-to-action to the magazine’s 70,000-person mailing list, an image he repeated in the next issue’s centrefold: a serene ballerina poised atop the iconic Wall Street bull, scored with a simple question, “What is our one demand?” The frustrating irony of that query would emerge only in the weeks to come.

“The political left for the past 20 or 30 years has been ineffective and whiny. It’s been a real dud,” says Lasn from his home office in Aldergrove, B.C.  “We need to jump over the dead body of the old Left and come up with new models.” If the Left wanted to follow the Egyptian model, he thought, it only made sense to occupy the iconic economic heart of America. On September 17, the first Occupiers set up camp in Zuccotti Park and renamed it Liberty Square.

It’s easy to see why the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt—achieved in a matter of weeks largely through the power of smartphones, laptops and human bodies as weapons—might make a lifelong activist like Lasn think: “Why not here?” But America is not Egypt. And Canada is not America.

On October 7, 2011, roughly 200 people gather in a semicircle on the grass in Berczy Park on Front Street. The occupation is set to start in a week; this is the designated planning session. Sarah Rotz, a recent graduate of the environmental studies master’s program at York University, addresses the youthful crowd: “Can we have consensus that we’re going to decide things by consensus?”

Numerous participants raise their arms to form an “X,” the agreed-upon signal for a “block” (strong opposition to a statement). A long and painfully nuanced conversation on the definition of consensus ensues. Many of those seated begin rolling their eyes. One person shouts: “What’s our goal here?” The answering shout: “Our goal is to figure out what our goal is.”

The Toronto Occupiers are trying to follow New York’s lead. By early October, Occupy Wall Street had established itself as a leaderless movement with a commitment to horizontal democracy. By design, the Zuccotti Park camp’s consensus-based decision-making process allows everyone to be heard. After three hours of attempting the same style in Toronto, however, little has been accomplished.

Part of the power of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States is that it speaks a truth nearly all Americans can recognize—even if some protesters can’t name the banks they’re targeting. The failings of their financial system and the influence of corporate interests in Washington are obvious. The same can’t be said for Canada. Corporate donations to political campaigns were made illegal here in 2007. Our government didn’t inject billions in cash into failing banks. Superior federal regulation prevented the banking catastrophe experienced by the U.S. in 2008.

In Toronto later that evening, I voice my skepticism for the first time: How relevant is the Occupy movement in Canada? The answer I received then was the same one I would receive any time I questioned or criticized the movement in the months to come: It’s new. We don’t know what this is yet. Like many, though, I was impatient to discover what the Occupy would become.

When I arrive in Lower Manhattan on October 16, 2011, the mood in Zuccotti Park is jubilant. Yesterday, thousands of citizens in cities around the world had pitched tents in parks and squares in solidarity with the amorphous demands of the 99 percent. It’s day 30 of Occupy Wall Street. Fresh off a 12-hour Greyhound bus ride from Toronto, I round the corner of Broadway onto Liberty Street and am confronted with a teeming mass of people. One month earlier, this space had been little more than a refuge for Wall Street workers on smoke breaks.

In Occupy camps, talking to strangers is de rigueur. The first person I meet is a 26-year-old Newfoundlander named Kanaska Carter. She has multiple facial piercings, neck and chest tattoos, but exudes a calm, feminine warmth. “The first day there was no organization. People didn’t have any roles at all … it was absolute torture trying to get some kind of consensus on what to do at the general assembly,” says Carter, who has been living here since day one. But by day three, “people realized they had to stop dilly-dallying with all the details and get to the point.”

Behind us, every inch of stone and grass is blanketed with human activity. Cops chat with tourists, families make protest signs, and young moms push baby strollers down narrow walkways. It’s a burgeoning autonomous city: there are named streets, a sanitation station, a hospital, a library and a kitchen where everyone eats for free. At the buzzing media centre, dozens of laptops and devices charge simultaneously while bandanna-ed volunteers furiously blog and live-stream. Photographers and reporters are everywhere. Even Geraldo Rivera, the famously mustached Fox News pundit, drops by—and is welcomed.

Within a couple of hours of arriving, I meet 62-year-old Vietnam veteran Bill Johnsen. With his poor-boy cap and handsomely wrinkled features, he looks like an aged Gene Kelly. He’s been waiting 30 years for this moment: something to jar America’s youth into action. “We’re beginning to break down the robotic, mechanical ways that people have related to one another over the past few decades,” says Johnsen. The lifelong activist beams at the scene around him. “This is rich, this is rich,” he says, nodding. “But how do you sustain this?”

Johnsen’s question animated the conversations of protesters around the world. The media, however, chose a different question to dwell on: What does the 99 percent want? Type “Occupy Wall Street” into Google, and it immediately adds the word “demands.” A small sampling of American and Canadian Occupy signs doesn’t help either:

“I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”
“End war! No drones.”
“I couldn’t afford a politician, so I made this sign.”
“Igualdad para todos.”
“Natives have been occupied since contact.”
“We want a university for the 99%.”
“You want a list of demands?? Here: 1) revolution. We are not here to compromise.”

It’s a real mixed bag—one that has confounded the mainstream media and given punditry an easy out. Kevin O’Leary characterized the movement on CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange in October as: “Just a few guys [with] guitars. Nobody knows what they want. They can’t even name the firms they’re protesting against.” This vagueness of purpose sets Occupy apart from other major movements—civil rights, gay rights, women’s suffrage—where the goals were clear, and victory, when achieved, was obvious.

When Lasn called for an occupation, he pushed for a single demand; his suggestions included a one percent “Robin Hood tax” on all financial transactions and currency trade. Once the epicenter of the movement had shifted from Vancouver to New York, however, the grievances of those pitching tents in Zuccotti Park stretched far beyond any one concrete, answerable request. Lasn now applauds the wide net cast by Occupy: “We wanted a debate, to have an argument about it. That’s exactly what’s happened.”

Many leading leftist thinkers have embraced this amorphous state of opposition to the status quo. In a speech last October 6, Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein told occupiers in New York: “I am talking about changing the underlying values that govern our society. That is hard to fit into a single media-friendly demand, and it’s also hard to figure out how to do it. But it is no less urgent for being difficult.”

I arrive in Washington, D.C. on November 21, six days after Mayor Bloomberg ordered police to dismantle New York’s Zuccotti Park encampment. Many of those evicted from Wall Street are headed this way. They’ll find Washington isn’t the same ideologue’s utopia. By now, across the continent, occupations are beginning to hold a dystopic mirror to the problems that plague each urban centre. In Vancouver, there have been two drug overdoses, one fatal. In Oakland, police violence flared, and in L.A. and D.C., the camps have become refuges for massive urban homeless populations. Only two months in, and the purpose of the occupation is shifting—from spotlighting inequality of wealth to the more practical task of maintaining the camps.

In the D.C. camp there is a small, dark library, a dismal kitchen, minimal food, and the GAs, if they are held at all, often end in shouting matches. In four days, I struggle to find someone willing to explain his or her reasons for being there. “I’m not interested in politics,” is a common response. Educated idealism has largely been replaced with radicalized anarchy.  One day, as we sit sipping chicken noodle soup from paper cups, a middle-aged female camper explains the camp. “You have four kinds of people here,” she says holding up the fingers of a weather-reddened hand. “The activists, the homeless people who have become activists, the homeless people with no interest in the movement, and the crack heads.”

By November 26 I’m in Boston. I discover the plain concrete rectangle there known as Dewey Square isn’t much better. When I arrive, much of the community is gathered in front of a towering spot-lit brick wall to hold the evening’s general assembly. The facilitators, a young German-American named Anna and a middle-aged man named Greg, first spend ten minutes explaining the general assembly process.

A young man named John stands up. His army issue cap covers his eyes: “The safety group proposes that we remove a certain individual, Henry [from the camp].” Henry is an alcoholic who is at times violent. Despite interventions and counseling from members of the camp, Henry is extremely disruptive. As the group debates the proposal, the hypocrisy becomes apparent: How can an avowedly inclusive community defend forcible removal of a member, especially in a public space?

In the next hour-and-a-half, the conversation vacillates between booting Henry out and allowing him to stay—illuminating both the success and failure of the camps.

In hundreds of parks in towns and cities across North America and the world, Occupy camps vitalize debate by “occupying” what might otherwise be abstract conversations with real people and real problems, often leading to real solutions. At the same time, the energy needed to care for the homeless, addicts, and mentally ill—members of the community most affected by the nation’s wealth disparity—undermines the progress of the movement. At one point, a middle-aged man speaks out: “My friends, this is public land. It’s a disaster if this group decides to evict somebody. As much as I think in my heart that he doesn’t belong here … We would [become] a parody of ourselves.”

The Boston occupiers do not evict Henry that night. Two weeks later, in the early hours of Saturday, December 10, the residents of Occupy Boston and their belongings are forcibly removed from Dewey Square. In many ways, it is a blessing.

By late November, the narrative of the movement in the media is one of police violence. The skull of 24-year-old Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen was fractured by a “police projectile” at Occupy Oakland on October 25. This was followed by Lieutenant Policeman John Pike’s casual deployment of pepper spray into the faces of a seated row of passive protesters at the University of California, Davis. In fact, the movement received its first serious treatment in the media when the NYPD pepper sprayed two penned-in female protesters on September 24. In her October speech in Zuccotti Park, Klein applauded the movement’s non-violence: “You have refused to give the media the images of broken windows and street fights it craves so desperately. And that tremendous discipline has meant that, again and again, the story has been the disgraceful and unprovoked police brutality.”

Perhaps the most iconic representation of Occupy violence is the November 15 photograph of the dripping, pepper-sprayed face of Dorli Rainey, an 84-year-old lifelong activist in Seattle. A few days before Christmas, Rainey and I meet over coffee. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment at a Seattle seniors’ housing development. Among the butterfly magnets and baby animal cards that decorate her fridge is a bumper sticker: “Regime change begins at home.”

When I ask Rainey about getting pepper-sprayed, she tells me it was a good thing: “Absolutely! I’m going to be on the cover of The Guardian weekend edition!” More than fifty-five years in the United States have not erased her lively Austrian accent. She says unprovoked police violence—often captured and broadcast by the protesters themselves via social media—gives the movement currency. It implies the Occupy message has enough weight for those in power to deem it worthy of oppressing. “[Occupy is] a microcosm of the entire population, trying to build a movement,” she says. “It’s bigger than any movement we’ve had before in our lives.”

Even so, numerous experienced and successful activists and intellectuals question the practical value of such attention in the absence of demands. Duff Conacher is one of them. As one of the founders of Democracy Watch, a non-profit Canadian citizens action group, he has spent the past 19 years advocating for democratic reform in Canada. Conacher was frequently called upon by media in the early days of Occupy Canada to explain his hopes for the burgeoning movement. His repeated advice: make demands.

The Toronto-based Conacher now speaks about the movement with fatigue. “Essentially, if you don’t have goals, you’re not cornering anyone,” he says. Democracy Watch, he adds, has won changes by detailing the problems, proving they exist and are bad, then setting out solutions, and pushing for those solutions. Conacher points to one of the primary concerns of the American Occupy movement: campaign finance reform. In Canada, he says, the battle was won seven and four years ago, with Democracy Watch’s Money in Politics coalition. That campaign brought advocacy groups together and forced Harper to revoke the right of corporations, unions, and other organizations to donate to political campaigns. He wonders if Occupy Canada is pushing for anything that activist groups or coalitions aren’t already tackling.

“[Occupy] was a great tactic for bringing attention to a lot of issues,” says Conacher. “But a tactic is not a strategy. Nor is it an organization.” When told many occupiers instead think of the camps as an example of a properly functioning democratic community, Conacher’s response is curt. At some point, he says, activists have to decide whether to create communes where everyone lives in the model way, or to change society so that it is the model way. Protesters, he adds, need to engage with the system in meaningful ways to create change. “Yes, [Occupy] got people involved who were not involved before,” says Conacher. “But what are they doing now?”

Conacher raises a fair question—and it’s one Dave Vasey can answer. Vasey slept in Toronto’s St. James Park for Occupy Toronto’s entire 40 day existence. At 33, Vasey has been organizing—primarily around tar sands issues—for the past four years. When he saw the initial call for Occupy Toronto, he didn’t think it would take off. “But then people started to plan—a lot of young people without much organizing experience. A lot of the white, middle-class, suburban demographic.” He speaks with a casual softness that belies the intensity of his politics. “There were a lot of people coming to political consciousness for the first time.”

So what was accomplished?  “It changed the conversation,” says Vasey, echoing most protesters’ response to this loaded question. “It reintroduced capitalism as an issue to be discussed.”

In the United States, protesters point to a number of tangible wins: last November 5th’s Bank Transfer Day, by which an estimated 650,000 Americans transferred some $4.5 billion from big banks to credit unions; Bank of America’s revocation of their proposed $5 monthly debit card user fee; and several courtroom wins regarding rights to protest and civil dissent. Even the change in conversation is tangible. A Nexis search for the term “income inequality” turned up 91 results in the week before the protests began; in the week of October 30, it’s there close to 500 times. Obama now references “the 99 percent”, framing his administration as sympathetic with the movement’s complaints, a stance he’ll likely maintain throughout this election year.

Will time equal success for Occupy? Conacher references the civil rights movement: “It took years for those protests to slowly build and grow. If you look at Occupy, it’s the opposite. They started big and are getting smaller and smaller.”

Vasey believes the lull is a blessing: “Action, reflection, action. The camp was a tactic, and yes, it needed to end. We know the idea of challenging capitalism will take a lot of work, but we have demonstrated that there is support.”

Adbusters’ Kalle Lasn is adamant the world will witness a resurgence of Occupy. He says it is becoming a “rainbow movement” that it is moving beyond occupation, and that the splintering we’re witnessing will somehow be useful. “Some of us,” he says, “are going to get involved in normal politics, some will move into more extreme ‘Black Bloc’ tactics, some will work on the internet.” These divisions regarding fundamental questions of ideology and strategy are already occurring. In Philadelphia, Occupier Nathan Kleinman is running for congress, yet in Oakland, increasingly violent Black Bloc tactics have derailed peaceful protests.

My last visit to an Occupy protest in the United States is on New Year’s Eve, 2011.

“Let’s see, there was David, Jess, Erin, Frankie, Kevin, Kalen…Geez! That’s 10.” Jessica Mizour, 24, of Des Moines, Iowa, is jotting down the names of the protesters who were moments earlier arrested at Michele Bachmann’s Iowa campaign headquarters. Mazour’s list is written in nearly illegible handwriting, but it isn’t her fault—her desk is her lap, and her office is the back of a graffitied school bus packed with Occupy the Caucus protesters. As she writes, the bus rips down the highway from Michele Bachmann’s headquarters to Newt Gingrich’s. The mood here is different than any other camps I’ve visited—it’s tactical and focused. There are press releases, demands, and a unified message: get money out of politics.

If Occupy is actually evolving into a new method of dissent—a way of exerting pressure on the political system without becoming a part of it—then its continued efforts in themselves could be judged a success. Occupy’s ongoing existence still confounds politicians, law enforcement and the public. Yet, while Occupy reminded candidates in Iowa of dissatisfaction with the status quo, it didn’t force anyone’s hand. To do so, Occupy will likely have to become a part of the system it claims to loathe.

Here in Canada, we’ve weathered the economic and social storm that has pummeled the U.S. and Europe. It’s unlikely we’ll be able to do so indefinitely. Already, our rate of income inequality is growing faster than in the U.S., according to a recent study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Plus, Statistics Canada already announced in late 2010 that Canadians are taking on more debt than Americans for the first time in 12 years. And steering the ship is Stephen Harper, a leader intent on stripping this country of the qualities—public health care, environmental protection initiatives, superior social services—that once made us enviable. We need the tools of direct action and horizontal, participatory democracy that Occupy has provided to steel ourselves for the battles we’ll face in the future.

Whatever Occupy becomes, chances are it won’t know where it’s going until it gets there. It has been more than half a year, but these things take time. Hell, we don’t even know what this is yet.