38 days later: Occupy Ottawa the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Part 2
Occupy Ottawa The Bad
I think that the place to begin when addressing criticisms of Occupy Ottawa has to be, identical to Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement more generally, is the colonial mentality that was/is evident in the name and, more significantly, in the failure of the movement to address the historic and ongoing theft of indigenous lands and genocide of indigenous peoples that makes it possible for the national and Transnational corporations to reap massive profits, and for the US, and Canadian nation-state’s to even existi.
Related to this failure to acknowledge the unceded Algonquin land that Occupy Ottawa was going to occupy, is the ongoing problem which I’m going to call Activist Urgency Syndrome, to paraphrase a six nations elder who calls it European Urgency Syndrome. Hopefully it is clear that would have been better to make a serious effort to contact members of the Algonquin community and to talk with them about the occupation and exactly what it means to be occupying space that is already occupied (by the Canadian state), to be occupying stolen occupy or unceded land. But that didn’t happen, and the desire to begin while the Occupy Movement still had a great deal of momentum, and was, in some ways, quite understandable. But this same Activist Urgency Syndrome is an ongoing theme in almost all of the political organizing: people suggest organizing an action every day, or even every week. In politics, a week may be a long time, but in organizing, a week is a short time. Political organizations and relationships, just like any other type of relationship, are built over time, as different people and different groups learn to trust and work together. Similarly, political consciousness, revolutionary consciousness, is not created in the space of a week or two, or in a month, but over years and decades of struggle.
While all sorts of political organizing, relationship building and consciousness raising was rushed (and, therefore, made less effective and less meaningful), day-to-day issues of racism and sexism in the camp took weeks to even acknowledge, let alone address, and some of them, such as the presence of an open neo-nazi, never got addressed, except to the extent that all of these particular camp problems were “solved” by the eviction of the Confederation Park camp by the Ottawa Police.
It needs to be said that movements to end of capitalism, imperialism and oppression most emphatically did not begin with Occupy Wall Street, and whatever good the Occupy Movement does – and i hope it does much – it will not be this movement, by itself, that will end them. What role it will play in creating the conditions for those movements to emerge remains to be seen. And the role it plays will be dependent on what it learns from past movement for social justice, for racial justice, for economic and gender justice, and, for those of us who believe in the only solution (revolution!) from revolutionary movements. The ignorance about the history of different struggles, similar to the ignorance about the land, has and continues to be a serious flaw in Occupy Ottawa, but not, given the number of people new to activism involved, one that is especially surprising.
Two fundamental flaws in the Occupy Movement are the belief that absolute Nonviolence, or pacifism, has the potential to make revolutionary social changeiiiiiiv, and the ignorance and naiveté that exists about the role of police in society, and the role that the police play in repressing social movementsvviviiviii. Non-violent struggle certainly has a place, more than a place, really, as it is an essential part of revolutionary movements. Most, by far the vast majority of all of the organizing by people struggling for justice is Non-violent. The problem emerges whenever a tactic, in this case, non-violence, is elevated to the level of a strategy.
Another issue was the lack of analysis around the role of the police, both in the day-to-day work that the police do, and the daily violence that they effect on oppressed people, and in the role that they and any other corporate or security type agents play in disrupting, and in some extreme cases (such as the Black Panther Party) destroying those movements through a series of illegal activities, up to and including murderixx. Contradictory to this was the very bad habit of “cop-jacketing” people – accusing people, usually strangers of being police and even harassing them out the park. While it is certainly true that there were undercover police officers in the park, and informants, etc., it is absolutely not alright to publicly accuse people of being police officers if there is no evidence that they arexixii.
Occupy Ottawa has also had difficulties dealing with the mainstream media, both in terms of having various occupiers using the media to settle personal grievances, and/or out of some desire to be, however temporarily, a celebrity. Some members of the media team also chose to cover-up and minimize serious problems that were taking place in the camp. While the desire to present a positive spin to the public is understandable, misrepresenting serious issues doesn’t actually do the camp or the movement any good, and it was irresponsibly to portray the camp as safer and more peaceful than it, in fact, was.
It is at best an irony that Occupy Ottawa was willing to tolerate the presence of a neo-nazi, while the tent set-up by the University of Ottawa Marxists (a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist organization) has a urine, blood and shit soaked sleeping bag strung up on it, and they were harassed and red-baited out of the occupation. The irony is at least as great in that a variety Ottawa conspiracy theorists have made Occupy Ottawa their home. I think this points to, for the most part, the widespread ignorance that exists about the Radical Left, as a result of the anti-communist purges of the 50s and 60s, coupled with programs like the Counter Intelligence Program, followed, not coincidentally, by the resurgence of the Right-Wing since the 1980s.
Finally, The stigmatization of drug users, and the stereotyping of people with mental health issues and homeless people as somehow inherently problematic people to have at the camp was also a serious issue that was never well addressed. A friend who i had invited to speak to people about harm reduction was met with hostility, and his offer to leave disposal boxes for injection drug users was flatly rejected. Granted, This was in the context of a recent incident where several hundred needles had been found around the camp. The response however, was not the correct one. Harm reduction saves lives, and it should be an integral part of social justice organizing.
Occupy Ottawa The Ugly
Probably the “ugliest” aspects of the occupy movement in Ottawa is the rift and disconnect that has developed between this newly created community of activists and much of the pre-existent communities of radical activists. I have been organizing as part of the Radical Left (anarchist faction) for the past 7 years, and i have also been quite involved with Occupy Ottawa. Watching this rift broaden and deepen over the course of the past 6 weeks has been a pretty distressing experience. But i made the decision that i wasn’t going to try and “fix” this problem – it is too big for me to actually be able to address and it really requires both sides (to simplify, since there are far more than just two sides) to have a real interest in trying to address and resolve the issues that are dividing them.
In my opinion, this split has been caused primarily by the inexperience and privilege of many of the Occupy activists (i have watched as Occupy Ottawa has become less and less diverse. This isn’t to say that there is NO participation from people of colour, queers, working-class people, etc., but they are certainly a minority at the moment) and the rigid and overly critical attitude of many radical activists. The extent to which the police and government and corporate agencies have been involved in creating or accentuating this split will probably never be clear, but it seems highly likely that they have been involved in some attempts to disrupt Occupy Ottawa, and most certainly in attempts to disrupt and derail the Occupy movement more generally. Regardless, one of the results is that Occupy Ottawa has alienated experienced activists with a large number of useful skills and insightful analyses of capitalism, imperialism and different forms and systems of oppression, while the radical community has alienated a significant community and movement of (predominantly) new activists.
The absence of long-time activists and the vagueness of the 99% analysis continues to result in a movement that is, in many senses, politically incoherent. This does have some positive features to it, primarily in terms of making people from diverse political backgrounds feel at home in this movement. Negatives include folks will try and screen Zeitgeistxiii, or will post “documentaries” that quote directly from The Protocols of the Elders of Zionxiv, and more generally that a whole series of people who believe conspiracy theories about the banking system, often theories intentionally or not, that use the language and history of anti-semitism. This presents at least three difficulties: 1) theories that are based on fundamnetally flawed principles, such as that jews or international bankers, or the rothschilds secretly run the world are not true and do not provide useful insights on how to organize against capitalism, the state and for anarchist revolution; 2) how does the occupy movement engage with these people, who are attracted to the anti-bank message and politics, but who have a conspiratorial understanding of how systems of oppression work, rather than a systemic or institutional analysis? 3) the potentiality that, rather than involving them in the occupy movement and working with them to reach a common understanding about just what the role of finance capitalism and the banks are as parts of the overall capitalist and imperialist systems, that there politics will find a real home in the occupy movement, and move at least a significant section of the movement to this reactionary and conspiratorial politics. This is no doubt a goal of the organized and strategic elements of the conspiracy theory movements, and of the extreme right, and there is often quite a bit of overlap between these two political positions.
This lack of analysis is coupled with, not surprisingly, a lack of political vision; a limited and/or flawed understanding of what problems exist in our societies, and how to organize to end them, understandably leads to confusion over political direction and strategy, as well as to tactical confusion (yes, i mean the philosophy of absolute Nonviolence) and combined with the previously mention Activist Urgency Syndrome it results in the attempt to do everything all the time with little thought given to political priorities and to organizational capacities.
The process of learning to make directly democratic decisions with groups of 50 – 200 people has been a weird, conflicted, but absolutely necessary process with most people simple learning by doing it, and learning from mistakes along the way (and having to learn to do this despite both organized and individual attempts to disrupt it). With the current average attendance being around 50 people, and with 6 weeks of experience in holding General Assemblies, the process has improved greatly, but is still too often vague, and lacking direction. In my opinion this stems from the well-intentioned desire to let everyone be heard, which often conflicts with what is, to my mind, the more important issue of making political decisions on behalf of Occupy Ottawa. I believe that the process should be restricted only to committee and individual proposals and that committee proposals should be given priority. Failing this, the committees have become semi-autonomous bodies that organize in the name of Occupy Ottawa, but without any formal accountability to the Gas. This is a serious flaw in our democratic process.
This ongoing failure (which, i believe, many people are aware of and are trying to address) is also part and parcel of what Jo Freeman called, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. The fact that Occupy Ottawa does have a formal structure (General Assemblies and Committees) means that it can avoid some of the worst problems of total structurelessness, such as cliques, lack of accountability and real power lying in the hands of a few individuals, rather than in the committees and the General Assemblies. The fact that the GA process is still not entirely functional, means, though, that committees often make decisions for the group without the groups knowledge or approval. A related problem is the time commitment that Occupy Ottawa is asking of people if they want to be involved: there are usually four General Assemblies per week, plus a slew of committee meetings. For anyone who is not interested in or able to immerse themselves in this schedule, it means that they can easily be pushed to the margins. This is another institutional problem with Occupy Ottawa and it is one the prevents broader participation from a large number of people. Finally, people who understand well how the process works can, if they do not act in a principled manner, have an excessive influence on the decisions that are discussed, and whether they will be accepted or rejected.
38 Weeks Later?
Where will the Occupy Movement and Occupy Ottawa be in a year? This is the sort of question that Occupy Ottawa needs to start figuring out. The eviction means that we can now focus our energies on answering this question, in making sure that, if there is another occupation we make sure that we learned our lessons well and that we can create another camp that is substantially safer, more organized and more politically radical. It also means that we are no longer currently occupying anything (aside of course from us settlers who continue to occupy indigenous territories), and this means less visibility, less community building, and less of a centre for Occupy Ottawa to organize out of.
For me, the essential points are around the political direction that the movement will take: will it take to heart the valid criticism that have been made by indigenous people, people of colour, women, queers, disabled people, etc? Will it make sure to prioritize the issues of oppressed people, and ensure that the movement is consistent in working in solidarity with oppressed groups in order to end oppression, capitalism and imperialism? Likewise, will it reach out and learn from other movements, groups and individuals that have been organizing around these issues for years and have a great deal of knowledge, skills and wisdom to share?
The issues of radicalization, and militancy are also key to this movement becoming, as some of it’s members aspire for it to be, a revolutionary movement. I hope it is clear that these issues are inextricably linked to the issue of political direction that i just mentioned: revolutions are made by the masses of oppressed people rising up against their oppressors by any means necessary and taking power back into their own hands, into the hands of their communities, nations and organizations. There is a famous quote, “Freedom can’t be given, it has to be taken.” The banks, the White Supremacist Capitalist Heteropatriacrhy, the Canadian government cannot, and they will not give us what we need, they cannot give us freedom, or justice, or dignity, as they exist in order to ensure that oppressed people do not have access to any of these, and, if we are serious about wanting a better world for ourselves, or friends and families, we will have to take it for ourselves and for our communities.
This movement needs to learn how to use all the methods at our disposal and make sure to use strategies and tactics that will be effective in putting power in the hands of oppressed people, and in their revolutionary organizations and movements. I know that this is a little vague, and it should be no surprise really, as the Radical Left remains, while growing, still quite small and without the theoretical and practical vision needed to imagine what a mass revolutionary movement would look like. But that is what we need: a mass revolutionary movement, one that is not beholden to Foundation, Corporate or Government funders, one that is not subservient to political parties, NGOs or union bureaucrats, and one that is based in oppressed communities and will Fight To Win!
[i] “Whiteness and the 99%,” http://www.bringtheruckus.org/?q=node/146
[ii] “Occupy Rape Culture,” http://thefeministwire.com/2011/11/occupy-rape-culture/
[iii] “Activists Tie Occupy Movement To Global Gender Rights” http://www.awid.org/News-Analysis/Women-s-Rights-in-the-News2/Activists-Tie-Occupy-Movement-to-Global-Gender-Rights
[iv] ‘OCCUPY WALL STREET: The Game of Colonialism and further nationalism to be decolonized from the “Left”,’ http://www.racialicious.com/2011/09/30/occupy-wall-street-the-game-of-colonialism-and-further-nationalism-to-be-decolonized-from-the-left/
[v] “Combat Liberalism,” http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-2/mswv2_03.htm
[vi] This article lists a number of the positive aspects of the occupations generally: THE PURPOSE OF THE OCCUPATION MOVEMENT AND THE DANGER OF FETISHIZING SPACE, http://pmarcuse.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/the-purpose-of-the-occupation-movement-and-the-danger-of-fetishizing-space/
iAn Open Letter to the Occupy Wall Street Activist: http://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/decolonize-wall-street/
iiPacifism as Pathology: http://zinelibrary.info/files/pap_imposed.pdf
iiiHow Nonviolence Protects The State, http://zinelibrary.info/files/How%20Nonviolence%20Protects%20The%20State.pdf
ivDerrick Jensen’s Pacifism as Pathology (Introduction), http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/Derrick_Jensen__Pacifism_as_Pathology__Introduction_.html
vThe FBI and the Engineering of consent by Noam Chomsky, http://www.publiceye.org/liberty/Feds/ci-chomsky.html
viCOINTELPRO: What the (Deleted) Was It? by Mark Ryter, http://www.publiceye.org/liberty/Feds/ci-ryter.html
viiBuilding Liberty, http://www.buildingliberty.us/war-at-home/glick_overview.html
viiiWar at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About it by Brian Glick, http://www.buildingliberty.us/war-at-home/index.html
ix Activism 101: Security Culture Basics, http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20060126113630197
xNo action is sufficient in itself, black bloc or otherwise (2010), http://vanarchive.wordpress.com/page/2/
xiCommemorating Anna Mae, http://www.grahamdefense.org/200411investigatethefeds.htm
xiiWikipedia entry on leonerd peltier, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Peltier
xiiiConfront Racism: Zeitgeist Movement and #Occupy: http://www.peopleofcolororganize.com/featured/general/confront-racism-zeitgeist-movement-occupy/
xivWikipedia entry on the well-known anti-semitic forgery: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Protocols_of_the_Elders_of_Zion