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What's Next for Occupy?

11/28/2011 05:12 EST | Updated 01/28/2012 05:12 EST
CP

So Occupy Toronto has been turfed from St. James Park -- for the time being. It's a shame and a loss. But perhaps the movement had run into a rut. While it is difficult to watch the authorities simply turf them out, they may have actually done them a favour.

The physical state of the camp and her inhabitants was clearly degenerating. A number of crazy people had taken up residence. They were disruptive and alarming to both Occupy people and the general public. Physical fights sometimes broke out and neighbours were not rallied to the cause -- unfortunately, quite the opposite occurred.

But despite some problems, the camp in St. James Park was fundamentally courageous and important. I was often critical of it, but they basically did the right thing; they came out en masse and made a stink about important issues. Not only that, they wouldn't just go away after a couple of hours. The wealth disparity in this country is now an actual topic of conversation -- even media pundits deign to talk about it. It is thanks to those brave women and men, most of them quite young, who defied official disapproval and put themselves on the line.

To the people who snort that just camping isn't particularly brave, perhaps you've forgotten about the levels of police violence we've seen recently, not least the gleefully savage civil rights suppression that police meted out at the G20 demonstrations last year. So it is important to acknowledge what the Occupy kids were preparing to take on.

But they ran into difficulties fairly quickly. They made a number of poor management decisions. First, they rejected conventional leadership models and decided to operate by consensus. Let me state for the record that there's nothing wrong with leadership per se. It gets things done. And I'm sure many if not all of the young activists who lived in St. James were deeply saddened a few months ago when Jack Layton died. But mere months after mourning someone who used his leadership to materially benefit our country, they reject leadership as a tool.

Ditto the slavish use of the human mic, a painfully cumbersome tool that was invented to get around laws banning megaphones. Like many "emergency" measures, it's not as good as the original. It's making do with less. So deliberately making political meetings take twice or three times as long as they should? Why would you do that to your fellow activists? And why would you deliberately create unnecessary delays in your operational process? It was even used in a press conference I witnessed -- actual microphones there picking up what sounds to outsiders like a pack of political zombies repeating the speakers' words. A perfect mix of bizarre and boring.

So, next steps. After its initial success, it's time for Occupy to think big. Occupy movements around the world should prioritize synchronizing their message and activities to the maximum degree. The internets are primed and waiting to facilitate just such a co-ordination. A unified, worldwide movement, committed to non-violence, would be uniquely powerful. With many different causes involved but supporting one overarching theme, Occupy would be in a much stronger position to further influence the political discourse. Working together greatly increases their potential to challenge corporate power. Besides, corporations are transnational -- so it makes sense that the Occupy movement must devote itself to being effective at that level as well.

It won't be easy. Everyone thinks their cause is the most important. But the attempt to build this unity would have to be couched in language that encourages open dialogue and willingness to focus on root causes and not just symptoms. One immediately clear issue they could unify around is to fight for legal reforms that would forcibly separate big capital from the state. The system of mass corruption that we abide today is at the root of a wide number of societal ills, income disparity being not the least of them.

And the message has to be broadly appealing. It has to be inclusive. It has to be less about things being "unfair," which can be perceived as a childish whinge, to the adult "this is demonstrably bad for society." The movement has to show that the ridiculous concentration of wealth into the top 0.1 per cent of society isn't just immoral, it deprives society at large of all the creative potential that wealth represents. Arts funding, infrastructure investment, accessible education, scientific research -- the list goes on and on. We are all losing out.

The Occupy movement has made an impressive initial splash. These are early days, and despite current setbacks, it can go on to strongly challenge the power of Mammon. But a couple thousand individual movements can only do so much. A populist, unified approach seems to be the only effective way to go forward.

Nick Van der Graaf is a Toronto writer and activist.

http://neodemokratia.ca/