Occupy Toronto: They Can’t Evict a Conversation
Last time I checked in with the occupiers of St. James Park, word was they were going to fight for their ground.
If Superior Court Judge David Brown rules to evict them on Monday, they plan to reoccupy, they told me.
That would be a mistake.
The movement, from what I have seen, is not about the park. It’s about a deep conversation.
You can’t evict a conversation – even a brief one.
The mayor says “they’ve made their point,” by which he means “there is no point” to Occupy Toronto or anywhere else. “Where are the actionable deliverables?” is the repeated objection right-wingers have used to dismiss the movement outright.
But, in just a month, big things have come out of the conversation unfurling in St. James Park.
To name a few:
1. People affected by decisions should be at the table making them. That’s Occupy Tenet Number One. It seems basic at first blush, but look around your office, travel down to City Hall or pop into a Toronto Community Housing building for an afternoon. This is a radical idea.
2. Tenet Number Two: No one gets left behind. We Canadians define ourselves by our social support systems. It’s an outdated profile. A single person on welfare in Ontario lives on less than $600 a month. That would cover one room in the last student hovel I rented seven years ago. No food, no heat, no subway tokens… The occupiers have enacted this principal at St. James Park by clothing, housing, feeding and – most importantly – expanding their conversation to 100 homeless people daily.
3. The revival of volunteerism. Go down to St. James Park any day, and you will see people chopping wood, ladling soup, delivering water, picking up garbage. The motto here is: “Be the change you are asking for.” In today’s era of hyper-individualism, just joining a club is radical. Occupier Kevin Connyu described to me how this fits into a new needs-based economy the group has devised that ranks money last. “We have four resources,” said Connyu, a 33-year-old drywaller and photographer. “Volunteers, material donations, in-kind donations like our legal aid and trades people who offer their skills. The very last thing is money donations, which we rarely use.”
4. The medium for discussion they’ve developed at the general assemblies: the speakers’ microphone. This is sharing personified – each person gathered repeats the words of the speaker, so others can hear them. Have you tried it? It’s amazing, once you get over the embarrassment of participating so heartily. It’s like eating other people’s thoughts. It keeps you engaged – you have no time to whisper or interrupt. There is no yelling or clapping or shouting – just wiggling fingers or crossed arms to signal how you feel about what’s being said.
Over the past month, I’ve visited St. James Park a dozen times. I’ve always left inspired. So have other people. Last night, the Design Exchange hosted a discussion entitled “Occupied Economies.”
Occupiers should be spreading their conversation all over the city – to old age homes, on the subway (like they did in New York this week), to Dundas Square and high school classrooms.
They could change their venue every week. They’ve proven they have the organizational skills for that, and their web savvy media team could spread the word every week. That would not only draw different people into the conversation, but would expose them to different perspectives.
Why do they have to sleep there? Who thinks well when they are tired and sick? They say their camp is their power. I says it’s an albatross – exhausting their reserves and energy, and sparking fights with people they should be engaging.
Most Occupiers I’ve spoken say they are still all talk, no plans. Some fear a concrete plan would diffuse their movement. Token wins for everyone – the politicians and the protesters, so everyone goes home. But I can think of a few old ideas that fit their philosophy of the “commons”: food cooperatives; credit unions; community gardens; community kitchens; cooperative housing. Why not talk in the rests between building something permanent, rather than in between police raids?
Plus, it’s easier to think with a hammer in your hand.
I hope the Occupiers are evicted on Monday. So far, they’ve had an easy ride, as far as revolutions go.
Movements, like leaders, are made by how they respond to challenges. This might be just the challenge the Occupiers need.
© 2011 Toronto Star