Should we defend the Occupy sites?
This morning I direct your attention to an editorial entitled “Should the Occupiers Stay or Go?” by Rick Salutin in today’s Toronto Star. Salutin says, “The Occupy movements have largely become dramas revolving around the excellent question posed by The Clash: Should I stay or should I go? It’s become a story about a place. Some, like London (Ontario) are gone. Others, like London (England) are on notice. Occupy Wall St. is gone but it’s back, in a different form. We’ll know about Occupy Toronto, apparently, tomorrow. But it’s possible that this is the wrong question. Let me offer another view based on a recent visit to Madrid.
The 15-M movement began there last May 15th with a protest held in Puerta del Sol square over the economic crisis that became an overnight occupation. When it was dismantled by authorities, a conflict ensued over whether they would stay or go. A month later, when they finally went, it was by choice. One veteran of 15-M (there are no leaders) said: ‘It was a strategic move that led to the survival of the movement.’ Almost happenstantially they had evolved another preference: to fan out into districts of the city (and elsewhere in Spain) and conduct regular meetings with local residents. These then forwarded proposals to a weekly assembly held in the square.
If you wander around Occupy sites, like St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, as I did this week, you often see signs saying, Join Us. It’s hard to imagine many of the people who pass by and warily eye the huddled tents, doing so. The Madrid option in a way is the opposite. It’s: Join Them. Go into your neighborhood, try and talk with your neighbors, different as they may be from you. Listen to them as they talk to you and each other.
This is different from a campaign to simply carry the Occupy message (99 per cent versus 1 per cent, etc.) out to ‘the people.’ Some organizers of the Occupy movements, according to the New York Times, are heading in that direction: ‘trying to broaden their influence by deepening their involvement in community groups.’ But there’s a difference between trying to make a point (the organizers quoted by the Times) and trying to engender a social phenomenon (15-M). It’s the difference between trying to win an argument, and focusing on the process of discussion itself, in the hope that something transformative might emerge. ‘We are going to create a new social category,’ says one 15-M participant, the aim of which is not to convince people to vote a certain way or embrace particular views: ‘It’s simply a widening of the political landscape.’
A new layer of political process wasn’t 15-M’s agenda at the start. It came to what you could call its democratic emphasis gradually; the stress on process emerged from the process. It was never called an Occupy movement, so it had the advantage that its very name didn’t press it to stay where it was born.”
A similar phenomenon, that some friends and I have been discussing and are putting into action, involves elements of “the people” forming affinity groups based on location, workplace or work situation, or any other common interest, which meet to talk about needs and problems, and send spokespersons to connect with other groups – at Occupy sites or elsewhere. The public space we/the Occupy movement are claiming, using, and defending doesn’t have to be specific and permanent, day after day, month after month – though it can be for those who want to try to make it so. The same or other public spaces can be used periodically to connect groups who want to communicate with each other and to provide regular focal points for community meetings. At the same time, Occupy and other websites – some yet to be created – can provide virtual meeting places, offering discussion forums, interactive maps showing community resources, and needs/offerings listings of goods and services available for gift or barter.
The important thing is having the conversations, “widening the political landscape,” considering alternatives to the current, unacceptable system, and creating a new one by using this respectful, democratic, and inclusive process. We’re learning the ways of a better world already. It’s here now. “We make the path by walking.”