I was down at Occupy Vancouver today with my daughter. We stopped by in the morning when things were quiet, chatting with some of the security people. It’s getting cold and stressful down there. People are short with each other, there are dangerous people coming and going and the security people, some of whom are trained body guards and bouncers, and doing their best to restrain themselves while they keep order. They were telling me that they need to but together a proposal for a General Assembly that is about people exercising collective resonsibility for safe and individual responsibility for themselves. They need to recharge.
On our way home we stopped in just as the scene was calming down from the death of a young woman who passed away. It was heart wrenching. When people die in marginalized communities where there is lots of stress and fear – like the Occupy camp at the moment – it spins people into despair, and that’s what I saw tonight, a mix of despair and calm, with the occaisional outbreak of rage and anger directed at no one in particular. Aine, my 14 year old daughter, who was with me said she felt that the people there were losing hope. It feels like that.
I was hoping to get to a Hearts and Minds committee meeting today which was discussing ways to improve the image of the camp in minds of those who are there. I’m not sure if that group met, because lots of stuff got cancelled tonight as the group dealt with the death and the subsequent media storm of finger pointing and I-told-you-sos and a mayor’s announcement that he was going to clear the camp. So instead, I have some ideas for Occupy Vancouver Hearts and Minds folks, offered as an ally, with respect and support.
I think though that even if the camp comes down, the movement needs to continue and these thoughts are offered for now or later, and perhaps as well to other camps that are experiencing similar dynamics.
Focus on resourceful ways to build collective safety. The safety conversation is the first one. That is not an exciting conversation to have necessarily – more process and meta talk – but it is a crucial one. My friend Christina Baldwin has said that “a single person cannot create safety in a group, but a group can learn to take responsibility for its own safety.” That learning could go on at Occupy Vancouver. What do we need to do to take collective responsibility for our own safety? At the moment, the security volunteers feel that it is being put all on them, and that projection of responsibility puts them in the position of an enforcement crew, but without any tools. There are people that come and go from the camp that are security challenges (shining a laser pointer in people’s eyes and refusing to stop because you are “autonomous” is just wrong; this is a true example). It looked like it was wearing on them. The group needs to take this role on otherwise it will get unsafe and dangerous there.
Focus on staying there, and help others keep the conversation alive. The moment OV disappears, the conversation ends. This is why politicians are happy saying “I agree with their goals, but it’s time for it to be over.” So whose interests are served by this desired invisibility? In that light, the goal of the Occupy movement needs to be simply present. Focus on staying there, which is a wicked job and then enlist and continue to enlist others to keep the conversation going about what it all means.
Invite more of the 99%. The 99% is a big umbrealla. And it’s not an easy one to be inside. In New York I was struck by the breadth of classes at the Occupy Wall Street camp. OV is gradually becoming a camp of people that are traditionally marginalized by society. Without the alliances of middle class people, they will easily be demonized and then cleared out. Unions are the most obvious way to lend credibility and stable middle class support to the effort. In New York the support of unions has been incredible and it has enabled the camp to stay there. In Oakland, an awful lot of sick days were taken last week in support of the movement. OV needs more support from unions in BC and a much more constant presence of union people there, as allies, capacity builders and helpers.
Admittedly, the middle class in the US has lost an awful lot more than in Canada in the last five years, and many people are one broken leg away from deep trouble. This has perhaps made action and solidarity easier in the States. In Canada, the middle class luxuriates in its privilege and opinion is fickle. Populist sentiment can distract people from the deep inequities in the system as middle class people are fed the lie that success comes from hard work alone. This is happening now in Vancouver, and it might yet be fatal to the camp. And everyone has to remember that this divide and conquer tactic is a STRATEGY. Be aware of it.
Have an active welcome table. It is sometimes miserable there in the rain and mud and loneliness. But all along Georgia Street is an edge where the Occupy Movement can engage the public. Almost every person that walks past that camp is potentially an ally. So perhaps people from OV can lead out a permanent welcome party where the face of the movement is about celebration of solidarity and a welcome to inclusion. The food people are great at this, and the food tent is near one of the entrances to the camp. Providing food is a natural act of kindness, as are the medical people on staff. If OV had a crew of folks working the edges of the camp, inviting conversation, asking questions, pointing out commonalities between who is camped and who is walking by in a non-contradictory way, the interest would pique. Last night I was talking to a Vancouver firefighter who admitted that he was enjoying the interactions he had with many of the OV residents. And he said others were scary and turning people off. At the very least, when you are not tired or despondent, head out to edges of the camp and welcome others in. When you are stressed and want to be alone, take time inside.
Practice more dilligently and help people to understand the practices. One of the #Occupy movement’s greatest assets is that it aims to practice the protocols of a new society. But many people inside the camp are not inside this mindset. Even the Elders sharing theoir thoughts at tonight’s memorial didn’t understand some of the basic ideas. One of the Elders called for #Occupy to be run the way traditional governments are run, with protocols, strong leaders and committees that flow from there. Another Elder talked about a fight she got in with a nurse that she claimed was enabling drug use. It turns out the nurse was from Insite, the supervised injection site in Vancouver and was discussing ways to do harm reduction at the camp. She was handing out clean needles for those who were there with addictions. I respect the Elders’ standing at the camp but in both of these ideas they are wrong. A hierarchical form of governance is not the answer to the leadership problem, and harm reduction is important and necessary for what is going on amongst those with addictions. But I’m not blaming the Elders: it is everyone’s responsibility to practice better. If people aren’t actively engaged in leadership, then there will be more calls from within for hierarchy. If the safety issue is not dealt with, there will be more reactions from those that operate from a control mindset rather than a mutual support mindset. Elders like everyone else can be convinced when they see good practice in operation.
When it’s over, it’s over, but it’s not necessarily all over. Without an injection of resourcefulness and vitality, I am afraid Occupy Vancouver doesn’t look robust enough to survive long after the municipal election on November 19, and it might be sooner. And when it finally ends, I hope it doesn’t fall apart violently, because the only people who will get hurt are those who are always hurt – the ones who are marginalized and stigmatized by the mainstream. If I was deep in the Occupy Vancouver camp I might propose a session that looks at creating a dignified exit strategy. Inspired by the Mohawks at Kanesatake who simply walked out of their occupation of the treatment centre in 1990, I would find a way that people could up and leave the camp and make a statement of extreme dignity in doing so. It may be a strategy that is never deployed, but it would be wiser and safer than staying until the police cleared them out. The beauty of leaving at some point on your own terms is that you can start again, so the strategy for me would include putting our allies on notice. What Occupy Vancouver decided to end the camp with a slow walk out en masse, with thousands of union members and supporters and allies cheering and applauding them and walking with them? And what if then, instead of everyone just disappearing, several smaller simultaneous occupations were to spring up. A school here, a hospital there, a bank over there. What if the movement went from VAG to everywhere?
Of course this would only be a strategy used pre-emptively before the police moved in and a violent eviction was immanent. It would all hinge on good timing, but it would nonetheless be wise to have the upper hand in the end game. The timing may be very short to plan this, given today’s events
And above all remember that you’re not alone. Not all #Occupy camps will survive and new ones will spring up. But this movement is bigger than any one city. If a camp ends in one place it is not a defeat for the movement. As long as there is one camp somewhere – and the New York camp is almost crucial in this regard – the movement is alive and the conversation continues. Already the G20 is moving. It doesn’t take much but it does take concentration and awareness of the bigger picture.
Again I offer these ideas with humility. I am not living there and I recognize that I may be speaking out of turn. They are offered as an ally, because I want the movement to survive and I want those that are struggling through a difficult night tonight to know that many of us care about them and their well being and give them props for the courage they are exhibiting in staying in this together. No one can deny that revitalization is needed. These might be some places to start.