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R. Jeanette Martin
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WHAT Occupy Toronto, where general assemblies (at noon and 6 pm), workshops, music, marches and political discussion happen daily
WHERE St. James Park, King and Church, occupyto.org
HOW TO HELP Drop in or join the encampment and marches; send the message through social media; donate food, blankets, tarps
As night fell in St. James Park, lowering its dark ceiling over trees rapidly losing leaves in the fall winds, I couldn't shake the sense of the surreal.
To my left were assorted rhythm sections, to my right the candlelit people's library was dispensing nighttime reading, protesters were chilling in a tent area way too confined for sleeping comfort, and at different points on the damp grass committees were trying to resolve profound policy dilemmas that would decide the governance of the tiny civilization created miraculously in just a few hours on Saturday.
In this perfect space - though not perfect season - with its lit gazebo and proximity to a stunning cathedral, a sleepover standoff against corporate greed is forging a new protest paradigm.
Sitting there with the chill creeping up my legs, I was awestruck and have continued to be for five days.
Every new sunrise brings enhancements to the infrastructure: a medical service, generator, WiFi, food operation, meditation space, info booth, media tent, all-night patrols, logistics centre. Each day new committees form. Each day moves closer to the first frost and a reckoning with nature.
And, contrary to what the media have decided, the message emanating from St. James about the financial elite's privilege and presumption seems dramatically clear. I can only believe mainstream observers are faking their confusion. What's not to get? The rich have too much money and power; there's a recession; things aren't fair. Pretty simple, actually.
Beyond this, participants seem to sense they are mainly an expressive movement, a raw show of disdain and not primarily a policy-clarifying effort, though some struggle to do that, too.
I don't mean to suggest that the park isn't full of political conversations, that leaflets aren't being frantically exchanged and slogans and concerns painted on cardboard and carried about for hours a day. The camp is a spectacle of signage - my favourite scrawl: Justice Is What Love Looks Like In Public.
It's just that the formal structures of the protest, as they exist right now, the general assemblies and committees, like those of Occupy Wall Street, are less concerned with policy demands and manifestos than they are with the pragmatics of feeding, marshalling, protecting and march-planning.
"We are not really a political movement in the traditional sense," one of the original activists told the planning meeting on OISE's front lawn, setting the scene two days before the occupation.
I'll say they're not - and it looks good on them. There is nonetheless a creeping sensitivity here to press attacks on their so-called political disarray. At Monday's general assembly, speakers tried to address this head on, calling alternately for the creation of a mission statement, a solutions committee or an economics study group. Some suggested more thought bubbles throughout the park.
But the wiser among them have a precognition that such a fluid and disparate crowd could get the life sucked out of it by overindulging in analysis or attempts at strict political unity.
The real preoccupation here, and justifiably so, is process and the struggle for consensus democracy. "Our organization is the message," Colin told the assembly Monday.
The biggest debate Saturday evening was over what the ratio of agreement needed to be when consensus couldn't be achieved in an emergency situation. The choices were 75 per cent or 90, and the decision was deftly referred to the facilitation committee, which, like all the committees, is open to whoever shows.
The ideological - or shall I say polemical - deficit leaves a residue of discomfort for more traditional lefties, that's for sure. Some call the happening unsophisticated, but this just means they haven't spent enough time in the park.
I chuckled a bit last week when I heard that
CUPE OPSEU revered here because they supplied port-a-potties, promised a sound truck. Ha. The amplification provided here is the magnificent people's mic, borrowed from Occupy Wall Street - the repetition of speakers' phrases so all in the crowd can hear. When the sound wanes, there's a collective yell of "mic check" and hundreds of voices return to duty.
Saturday night there were almost 2,000 people present, and it worked amazingly well. Like slow food, slow meetings are meditations; you focus, take in and chew every phrase. It also means everyone is perpetually participating; it's impossible to doze. And most important, this broadcasting system is an antidote to rhetoric and surges of pumped-up oratory (everyone talks in short, clipped phrases) and completely in keeping with a movement that doesn't want leaders, charismatic or otherwise.
Meetings are chaired by rotating facilitators trained by the facilitation committee. The idea is horizontal power, not vertical, and the more practising of this everywhere on earth, I figure, the better.
There's also a behaviour code: folks aren't supposed to yell out or demean anyone. As one speaker explained, "The assembly is a process to control emotions. Don't use the meeting as a soapbox; stick to the agenda. There's plenty of time afterwards for passion."
Still, I found I actually had to restrain myself at points from yelling out, "That's dumb!" or "Bad idea!" But one gets socialized here, and while things can get nuttier, right now folks are practising the discipline of hearing everyone out.
As well, I've never seen such an attempt at activist transparency. I was stunned when the first general assembly at Berczy Park two weeks back not only didn't bar reporters but actually allowed itself to be videoed for Livestream. One of the reasons for this lack of collective paranoia is that Occupy Toronto decided not to endure the futile diversity-of-tactics debate, a sort of coded discussion for shielding the black bloc.
Still, the face-coverers show up. I stepped out of my reporter's cool one night to ask one to remove his mask. On Sunday, a participant with a yellow bandana over his nose tried to tell the meeting they were wasting their time and a revolution had to be made, but the human reverb machine went on strike and few could hear what he said.
No doubt bloc types are itching for destruction. The shadow of G20 trashing lurks like a warning. "Any black bloc mentality will destroy what we are trying to do; it will kill us," one speaker told the action committee. Unanimous finger-waggling affirmed agreement.
The occupation struggles to contain its fringeoid desperados. But there is also a tingling impatience to take the protest to Bay Street. At almost every assembly someone stands up and says, "Enough talk. Let's head to where the money is." The countervailing worry is that things will get out of hand and the optics will tilt against the occupiers.
Some are ready to do financial-district civil disobedience, but there's ambivalence. How many members can the small community actually afford to lose to arrests and bail conditions in a protest that isn't a one-off, but a persisting presence?
"Yes, we can confront the financial elite," one occupier succinctly warned the action committee, "but we'll get our asses arrested."
So in the end the issue comes down to deportment - how the tent city conducts itself determines its ability to make tangible its vast unexpressed support. At this moment, community sympathy is far greater than most commentators realize: food supplies are pouring in, local bakeries are contributing, farmers donate veggies, restaurants give sandwiches. At Tuesday's assembly an unnamed donor sent over boxes of warm pizza. OPSEU is serving a veg feast Thursday. St. James Cathedral shares its electricity.
Things could turn on a dime, and the more far-seeing of the organizers know it. At Tuesday's GA, Taylor, one of the facilitators, explained that the first-up organizers were exhausted and the longevity of the action depended on finding more volunteers. She was presenting the deepening problem of organizer burnout and the deficit of fresh recruits for tired committees - clearly a threat to the projected long-term encampment. She also warned that the sanitation shortfall could also short-circuit their staying power and that while "we have good relations with local businesses, the church and the police, "the people who are our allies now may not be later. Our survival depends on those relationships."
All too true. This little city within the city carries the hopes of tens of thousands of people for a fairer economy, most of whom haven't made their way to King and Church. They should get there. Holding this stretch of grass is, unbelievably, one of the few levers anyone has at the moment. Let's not loosen our grasp.