Occupy movement grappling with "new phase of life"
Speakers at standing-room-only downtown forum help activists contemplate "moment of transition".
More than 300 people packed a hall at the Vancouver Public Library downtown Friday night to discuss the global Occupy movement – insisting the "organic" global protest will continue highlighting economic inequality without a physical encampment.
Speakers on the "Who are the 99%?: The Occupy Together Movement" panel, including some of Vancouver's most prominent activist organizers, discussed many facets of the Occupy movement as it makes a transition from tent cities to an ongoing movement for social change across Canada and the world.
“Now Occupy Vancouver – with losing its physical encampment – is entering a new phase in its life,” said panelist Richard Porteous, an organizer with Occupy Vancouver. “One of the things I think is most amazing about the movement is that it's really organic.
“It created a profound sense of empowerment for those of us who never felt any way of making a difference. I vote, but every time, nothing changes. People are talking about decentralizing it beyond the art gallery. We all have a unified goal: we want to change the system.”
Panelists included Porteous, veteran anti-poverty organizer Jean Swanson (coordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project, and author of Poor Bashing), Seth Klein (B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives), Harjap Grewal (regional organizer for the Council of Canadians and member of No One Is Illegal), Glen Coulthard (assistant professor at the University of British Columbia), and Lorene Oikawa (vice-president of the B.C. Government Employees Union).
Occupy Vancouver helped shift the way people talk about inequality in the city, Swanson told the audience. The task ahead, she said, is monumental.
“We really need a huge change in the way capitalism works,” Swanson told the standing-room only audience. “The task of the Occupy movement and everyone else is huge.
“We need a change in this stupid, unfair, cruel, greedy market system. One thing the Occupy movement has done is address inequality in a way the corporate media is unable to ignore. Why should the human right to housing be dependent on the market system when it has totally screwed up?”
The basic message of the Occupy movement – which began in New York with Occupy Wall Street in September, inspired by Vancouver-based Adbusters Magazine, and in Vancouver on Oct. 15 – needs to be pushed to the forefront, said Seth Klein, B.C. director of the left-wing think tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
“The whole thing is at a transition moment now, now that the encampments are gone,” Klein said. “In a way, that's a good moment to regroup and refocus.
“My sense is that's what people who came here tonight were looking for. For a lot of people who were galvanized and inspired in those early weeks and who are now wondering, 'Okay, how do we keep this alive and get it focused on issues again.' I hope that it ain’t over – it's going to take new and different forms now and evolve.”
In a format unique for a panel discussion, participants divided into small break-out groups midway through the evening to further discuss issues raised about the Occupy movement – an approach commonly employed during Occupy Vancouver's consensus-based General Assemblies to encourage wider participation. Although panelists followed the traditional panel format with a microphone and podium, several switched to the trademark-Occupy “mic check,” inviting the audience to repeat after each phrase.
Harjap Grewal, regional organizer with the citizen advocacy group Council of Canadians, joked that he was embarrassed to switch formats to a “mic check” in the middle of his address, and after faltering for a moment, encouraged the audience to recite a quote from Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things and An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire: “'Radical change cannot and will not be negotiated by governments – it can only be enforced by people,'” he quoted.
While Occupy Vancouver had been criticized for its encampment and refusal to apply for city permits for its protest, Grewal argued that the goal of Occupy should be to model new ways of political engagement – and challenge the jurisdiction of authorities over social change movements. He encouraged the audience – and the wide array of organizations represented in it – to heed international calls for Occupy to shut down West Coast ports in protest of the widening gap between rich and poor, amidst crackdowns on Occupy encampments.
“Let's stop appealing to the systems,” he said. “Let's start challenging their jurisdictions.
“In the end, if we're fighting for self-determination, ultimately we're not dancing to the tune of their drummer. Let's stop fighting for permits, and let's start fighting for our freedom.”
Grewal and fellow panelist Glen Coulthard argued that the Occupy movement should align itself with Indigenous peoples' struggles, because both share a common enemy in the economic system.
“My concern is the relationship between the Occupy movement and a concern for indigenous struggles against dispossession,” said Coulthard, who teaches in the University of B.C.'s First Nations studies and political science departments. “Across the country right now, indigenous peoples are re-occupying their own stolen territories -- there's dozens across the country.”
“The entire infrastructure of capitalism – especially in settler-colonial contexts like Canada – rests on that prior ongoing dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands. I think you're going to see a hell of a lot more roadblocks going up – like you saw in the 80s – and indigenous communities are going to need support for that direct action.”
Lorene Oikawa -- vice-president of the B.C. Government Employees Union and chair of the B.C. Federation of Labour's human rights committee – said the unexpectedly large turnout at Friday's event indicates that the issues of inequality raised by the Occupy movement are still very much alive.
“With the Occupy movement, that's the message that we need to retain and keep spreading – not to forget that it's about the people, and that we're all together in this,” Oikawa said. “We want safe, healthy, thriving communities for all people. We need to remember that goal and keep the conversation going.”
One policy demand that could become a movement focus is a tax on global financial transactions, Oikawa suggested – something akin to a “Tobin Tax” on currency speculation, or a “Robin Hood Tax” and financial transfers. Klein agreed that such a tax would make a workable target for a movement for economic equality.
Considering this week's displacement of Occupy Vancouver from the art gallery and courthouse, the mood in the crowded room was buoyant, with many laughing and cheering during the speeches, and small-group discussions animated. Many in the audience expressed hope that Occupy continue in a new form in Vancouver.
“I'm encouraged by the turnout tonight – the fact the room was full, it's to me a sign that people in the community are recognizing they are part of the 99 per cent,” said Craig Langston, president of Cerebral Palsy Association of B.C.. Since Occupy Vancouver started on Oct. 15, Langston said he has displayed a sign on his wheelchair: “People with disabilities part of the 99%.”
“What the movement has done for me is show me my own personal power,” he said. “I feel a bit of a calling to be part of the movement.”
“A lot of people with disabilities have a real fear of speaking out against the government – they wonder, 'If I criticize the government, will I lose my benefits?' (Occupy) is empowering the community. That's what I'm hoping from the next chapter of Occupy – I hope it'll come back, but bring the focus back to issues. More and more people in the community are seeing what's possible.”