Letter to Occupy Together Movement

I wish I could start with the ritual “I love you” which the Occupy Movement is sup­posed to in­spire. To be honest, it has been a space of tur­moil. But also, vir­u­lent op­timism. What I out­line below are not cri­ti­cisms of the Occupy move­ment. I am in­spired that the dy­namic of the move­ment thus far has been or­ganic, so that all those who choose to par­ti­cipate are col­lect­ively re­spons­ible for its evol­u­tion and de­vel­op­ment. To all those par­ti­cip­ating — I offer my deepest grat­itude and re­spect. I am writing today with Grace Lee Boggs on the fore­front of my mind: “The coming struggle is a polit­ical struggle to take polit­ical power out of the hands of the few and put it into the hands of the many. But in order to get this power into the hands of the many, it will be ne­ces­sary for the many not only to fight the powerful few but to fight and clash among them­selves as well.” This may sound dra­matic and counter-​productive, but I find it a poignant re­minder that, in our state of ela­tion, we cannot un­der­es­timate the dif­fi­cult ter­rain ahead and I look for­ward to the pro­cesses that will fur­ther these conversations.

Occupations on oc­cu­pied land

One of the broad prin­ciples of unity of Occupy Vancouver thus far in­cludes an ac­know­ledge­ment of un­ceded Coast Salish ter­rit­ories. There has been some op­pos­i­tion to this as being “di­visive” and as “fo­cusing too much on First Nations is­sues.” I would argue that ac­know­ledging Indigenous lands is a ne­ces­sary and crit­ical starting point for two primary reasons.

Firstly, the word Occupy has un­der­stand­ably ig­nited cri­ti­cism from Indigenous people. While oc­cu­pa­tions are com­monly as­so­ci­ated with spe­cific tar­gets (such as oc­cupying a gov­ern­ment of­fice or a bank), Occupy Vancouver (or any other city) has a deeply co­lo­ni­alist im­plic­a­tion. Despite in­ten­tion­ality, it erases the brutal his­tory of oc­cu­pa­tion and gen­o­cide of Indigenous peoples that set­tler so­ci­eties have been built on. This is not simply a rhet­or­ical or fringe point; it is a pro­found and in­dis­put­able matter of fact that this land is in fact already oc­cu­pied. The province of B.C. in par­tic­ular is still largely un­ceded land, which means that no treaties or agree­ments have been signed and the title holders of Vancouver are still the Squamish, Tseilwau-​tuth, Musqueam people. As my Squamish friend Dustin Rivers joked, “Okay, so the premier and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment ac­know­ledge and give thanks to the host ter­ritory, but Occupy Vancouver can’t?”

If we are to, in fact, rep­resent the 99 per cent then heeding the voices of Indigenous peoples is crit­ical to an in­clusive pro­cess. Plus, sup­porting ef­forts to­wards de­col­on­iz­a­tion is not only an Indigenous issue. It is also about us, as non-​natives, learning the his­tory of this land and loc­ating ourselves and our re­spons­ib­il­ities within the con­text of col­on­iz­a­tion. Acknowledging the ter­ritory we are on is the first step to­wards this and other oc­cu­pa­tions such as those in Boston and Denver and New York have taken sim­ilar steps in deep­ening an anti-​colonial analysis.

Secondly, we must un­der­stand that the tentacles of cor­porate con­trol and the col­lu­sion of gov­ern­ment and cor­por­a­tions have roots in the pro­cesses of col­on­iz­a­tion and en­slave­ment. As written by the Owe Aku International Justice Project: “Corporate greed is the driving factor for the global op­pres­sion and suf­fering of Indigenous pop­u­la­tions. It is the driving factor for the con­quest and con­tinued suf­fering for the Indigenous peoples on this con­tinent. The ef­fects of greed even­tu­ally spill over and neg­at­ively im­pact all peoples, every­where. Indigenous peoples feel the pain first, but it even­tu­ally reaches all people.”

The Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada and the East India Trading Company in India, for ex­ample, were some of the first cor­porate en­tities es­tab­lished on the stock market. Both these com­panies were granted trading mono­polies by the British Crown, and were able to ex­tract re­sources and amass massive profits as a direct result of the sub­jug­a­tion of local com­munities through the use of the British Empire’s mil­itary and po­lice forces. The at­tendant pro­cesses of cor­porate ex­pan­sion and col­on­iz­a­tion con­tinues today, most evident in this country with the Alberta tar sands. In the midst of an eco­nomic crisis, cor­por­a­tions’ ability to ac­cu­mu­late wealth is de­pendent on dis­cov­ering new fron­tiers from which to ex­tract re­sources. This dis­pro­por­tion­ately im­pacts Indigenous peoples and des­troys the land base re­quired to sus­tain their com­munities, while cre­ating an eco­lo­gical crisis for the planet as a whole.

Systemic op­pres­sion con­nected to eco­nomic inequality

They want me to remember

Their memories

And I keep on re­mem­bering mine

- Lucille Clifton

In cre­ating a uni­fied space of op­pos­i­tion to the 1 per cent, we must also sim­ul­tan­eously foster crit­ical edu­ca­tion to learn about the range of sys­temic in­justices that many of us in the 99 per cent have faced his­tor­ic­ally and con­tinue to face daily. In the con­text of the Occupy Together move­ment, the con­nec­tion between the nature and struc­ture of the polit­ical eco­nomy and sys­temic in­justice is clear: the growing dis­parity in wealth and eco­nomic in­equality being ex­per­i­enced in this city and across this country is nothing new for low-​income ra­cial­ized com­munities, par­tic­u­larly single mothers, who face the double brunt of scape­goating during periods of eco­nomic re­ces­sion. This cannot be pe­jor­at­ively dis­missed as a “re­duc­tion to iden­tity politics” or about being “di­visive,” which for many re-​enforces the pat­terns of si­len­cing and mar­gin­al­iz­a­tion. The idea of the mul­ti­tude is powerful; it forces a con­test­a­tion of any one lived ex­per­i­ence binding the 99 per cent. Embracing this plur­ality and having an open heart to po­ten­tially un­com­fort­able truths about sys­temic in­justice and op­pres­sion beyond just the “evil cor­por­a­tions and greedy banks” will ac­tu­ally strengthen this move­ment. Ignoring the hier­archies of power between us does not make them ma­gic­ally dis­ap­pear. It ac­tu­ally does the op­posite — it en­trenches those inequalities.

If we learn from so­cial move­ments past, we ob­serve that the struggle to genu­inely ad­dress is­sues of race, class, gender, ability, sexu­ality, age, and na­tion­ality ac­tu­ally did more, rather than less, to fa­cil­itate broader par­ti­cip­a­tion. I would argue that it has his­tor­ic­ally been a mis­take to cater move­ments to the idea of lowest common de­nom­in­ator “main­stream” politics. To be clear, I do not dis­agree with needing to reach out to as broad a base — i.e. the 99 per cent — as pos­sible; what I am ar­guing is that we have to crit­ic­ally ex­amine who con­sti­tutes the “main­stream.” If Indigenous com­munities, home­less people, im­mig­rants, LGBTs, seniors and others are all con­sidered “special-​interest groups” (des­pite the fact that they ac­tu­ally con­sti­tute an over­whelming demo­graphic ma­jority), then by de­fault that sug­gests that, as Rinku Sen ar­gues, straight white men are the sole standard of uni­ver­salism. “Addressing other sys­tems of op­pres­sion, and the people those sys­tems af­fect, isn’t about el­ev­ating one group’s suf­fering over that of white men. It’s about un­der­standing how the mech­an­isms of con­trol ac­tu­ally op­erate. When we un­der­stand, we can craft solu­tions that truly help every­body.” Therefore, this should not be mis­un­der­stood as ad­voc­ating for a pecking order of is­sues or pri­or­ities; it is about un­der­standing that the 99 per cent is not a ho­mo­genous group but a web of inter-​connected and inter-​related com­munities in struggle. As Syed Hussan writes, “Understand that to truly be free, to truly in­clude the en­tire 99 per cent, you have to say today, and say every day: We will leave no one be­hind.” Just as we chal­lenge the idea of aus­terity put for­ward by gov­ern­ments and cor­por­a­tions, we should chal­lenge the idea of scarcity of space in our move­ments and in­stead fa­cil­itate a more nu­anced dis­course about eco­nomic in­equality and the growing dis­parity in wealth loc­ally and globally.

Learning from his­tory and building on successes

While it is clearly too early to com­ment on the fu­ture of the Occupy move­ment, I offer few humble pre­lim­inary thoughts based on other peoples com­ments of the Occupy Wall Street oc­cu­pa­tion and the nature of the or­gan­izing of the Occupy Vancouver move­ment. Those who us who have been act­iv­ists do not claim any par­tic­ular au­thority in this move­ment; as many others have cau­tioned, more ex­per­i­enced act­iv­ists should not claim moral right­eous­ness and de­mor­alize those who are just joining the struggle. But we also cannot claim ig­nor­ance either.

The Occupy Together move­ment is bril­liantly trans­itional. As has already been noted, it is has been a moral and stra­tegic suc­cess to not have a pre-​articulated laundry list of de­mands within which to con­fine a nas­cent so­cial move­ment. As Peter Marcus writes, “Occupy is seen by most of its par­ti­cipants and sup­porters not as a set of pres­sures for in­di­vidual rights, but as a powerful claim for a better world… The whole es­sence of the move­ment is to re­ject the game’s rules as it is being played, to pro­duce change that in­cludes each of these de­mands but goes much fur­ther to ques­tion the struc­tures that make those de­mands ne­ces­sary… Demands, as op­posed to claims, im­pli­citly as­sume a set­ting within the es­tab­lished order. They call for re­forms of the status quo, rather than for re­jec­tion, for what Richard Sennett has called ‘dif­ferent shades of cap­it­al­isms’ rather than al­ternate methods of struc­turing a so­ciety.” Similarly Vijay Prashad has written that the move­ment “must breathe in the many cur­rents of dis­sat­is­fac­tion, and breathe out a new rad­ical imagination.”

The cre­ation of en­camp­ments is in it­self an act of freedom and lib­er­a­tion. Decentralized gath­er­ings with demo­cratic decision-​making pro­cesses and autonomous space for people to gather and dia­logue based on their in­terests — such as through reading circles or art zones or guer­rilla gardening — create a deep sense of pur­pose, con­nec­ted­ness, and eman­cip­a­tion in a so­ciety that oth­er­wise breeds apathy, dis­en­chant­ment, and isol­a­tion. This type of pre-​figurative politics — a living symbol of re­fusal — is a sig­ni­ficant suc­cess that should con­tinue so we can act­ively coming to­gether to create and live the al­tern­at­ives to this system. I am re­minded of the modest (anti) Olympic Tent Village in our own city in the Downtown Eastside last year, which was deemed “para­dise” and a place where “real freedom lives” by DTES res­id­ents of the Village. Even a glimmer of freedom and autonomy turn people to choose living rather than sur­viving and to fight for justice rather than beg for charity.

One lesson that I can offer is for the Occupy Together move­ment to learn about po­lice vi­ol­ence and po­lice in­filt­ra­tion. In some cities, Occupy or­gan­izers have act­ively col­lab­or­ated with po­lice and sought per­mis­sion from po­lice and local gov­ern­ments to carry for­ward their activ­ities. There is only one way to say this: the po­lice cannot be trusted. This is not a com­ment on in­di­vidual po­lice of­ficers who may be “or­dinary people,” but the un­for­tu­nate reality is that their job is to pro­tect the 1 per cent. The po­lice have a long his­tory of re­pres­sion of so­cial move­ments. Marginalized people, such as those who are home­less, Indigenous, youth of colour, non-​status, and trans people also routinely ex­per­i­ence po­lice abuse and do not feel that the po­lice serve and pro­tect their in­terests. We must take these con­cerns ser­i­ously in our or­gan­izing in order to pro­mote par­ti­cip­a­tion from these com­munities. We must also learn to rely on ourselves, not the po­lice, to keep ourselves safe and to hold ground when they are ordered to clear us out. This sounds like an in­sur­mount­able task, but it has been done be­fore and can be done again.

On the heels of the Olympics and G20, an­other re­cur­ring issue is that of di­versity of tac­tics. Despite a his­tory in community-​based move­ment building, based on a post-​Olympics de­bate with an ally whom I re­spect, there has been un­ne­ces­sary and mis­in­formed fear-​mongering that those of us who sup­port a di­versity of tac­tics “fun­da­ment­ally re­ject peaceful as­sem­blies.” For me, sup­porting a di­versity of tac­tics has al­ways im­plied re­spect for a range of strategies in­cluding non-​violent civil dis­obedi­ence. As G20 de­fendant Alex Hundert, who has written ex­tens­ively about di­versity of tac­tics, told me, “It is im­portant to re­cog­nise that a be­lief in sup­porting a di­versity of tac­tics means not ruling out in­ten­tion­ally peaceful means. These gath­er­ings have been ex­pli­citly non­vi­olent from the start and in hun­dreds of cities across the con­tinent. Obviously this is the right tactic for this moment.”

It is note­worthy that the Occupy Wall Street move­ment has not dog­mat­ic­ally re­jected a di­versity of tac­tics. It ap­pears that the move­ment there has un­der­stood what di­versity of tac­tics ac­tu­ally means — which is not im­posing one strategy or one tactic in any and every con­text. The Occupy Wall Street Direct Action Working Group has ad­opted the basic tenet of “re­spect di­versity of tac­tics, but be aware of how your ac­tions will af­fect others.” This is an en­cour­aging de­vel­op­ment as people work to­gether to learn how to come keep each other safe within the en­camp­ment, while ef­fect­ively es­cal­ating tac­tics in autonomous actions.

Finally, over time it would be wise to stop ar­tic­u­lating that this is a lead­er­less move­ment; it might be more honest to sug­gest that We Are All Leaders. Denying that lead­er­ship ex­ists de­flects ac­count­ab­ility, ob­scures po­ten­tial hier­archies, and ab­solves us of act­ively cre­ating struc­tures within which to build col­lective lead­er­ship. Many of the models cur­rently being used such as the General Assembly and Consensus are rooted in the prac­tice of anti-​authoritarians and com­munity or­gan­izers. There are many other crit­ical skills to share to em­power and em­bolden this move­ment. As much as we wish we can rad­ic­ally trans­form un­just eco­nomic, polit­ical, and so­cial sys­tems overnight through this move­ment, the reality is that this is a long-​term struggle. And there is al­ways the danger of co-​optation. Slavoj Zizek warned Occupy Wall Street that: “The problem is the system that pushes you to give up. Beware not only of the en­emies. But also of false friends who are already working to di­lute this pro­cess. In the same way you get coffee without caf­feine, beer without al­cohol, ice cream without fat. They will try to make this into a harm­less moral protest.” This means that we will need to find ways to do the painstaking work of making this move­ment sus­tain­able and rooting it within and along­side ex­isting grass­roots move­ments for so­cial and en­vir­on­mental justice.

With all of you, I re­main hopeful. As beau­ti­fully ar­tic­u­lated by Gloria Anzaldua: “We have begun to come out of the shadows; we have begun to break with routines and op­pressive cus­toms and to dis­card ta­boos; we have com­menced to carry with pride the task of thawing hearts and chan­ging con­scious­ness. Women, let’s not let the danger of the journey and the vast­ness of the ter­ritory scare us — let’s look for­ward and open paths in these woods. Voyager, there are no bridges; one builds them as one walks.”

Reposted from Rabble​.ca

Harsha Walia is a South Asian act­ivist and writer trained in the law who is based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories, who has been active in a range of so­cial move­ments for over a decade. You can find her on Twitter here

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