When thousands of Egyptian protesters took over Tahrir Square in events widely celebrated as the Arab Spring, I don’t recall anyone being concerned that they were violating local bylaws.
Of course, Egypt was a dictatorship and the only way to protest the lack of democracy was by breaking laws.
Canada isn’t a dictatorship, and so protesters — like the group now ordered evicted from St. James Park — don’t have the same clear moral license to ignore bylaws that their Egyptian counterparts had.
Critics argue that the Toronto Occupiers have made their point; if they want to take it further, they should join a political party — attend all-candidates meetings, put up lawn signs, eat hot dogs at summer barbecues, become backroom operatives.
Of course, Occupiers should join political parties and try to change them. But part of the Occupiers’ point is that democracy has become a hollow shell.
In theory, democracy is one of humankind’s noblest creations — a system in which people govern themselves. In practice, the results have been, well, disappointing.
In particular, as the Occupiers note, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 1 per cent undermines meaningful democracy, blocking the will of the bottom 99 per cent.
Or as the late 19th century Republican strategist Mark Hanna put it during another era of extreme inequality: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”
This is more obviously true in the U.S., but it’s also true here.
The financial elite manages to exert its dominance, not just at elections but at every stage of the political process — from the drafting of party platforms, the financing and organizing of political advocacy campaigns, the writing and amending of legislation, to the shaping of public opinion through the media (which they largely own). The wealthy are adept at influencing every stage of the broader political process.
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Given the lopsided influence of the wealthy, those seeking to restore meaningful democracy and a more inclusive economic system can be forgiven for thinking it’s necessary to grab attention through extraordinary measures like occupying more than 1,000 parks across North America.
After all, they’re drawing attention to nothing less than the fundamental dysfunction of our economic system, which massively favors a privileged elite at the expense of the rest and which led to the disastrous 2008 financial collapse, from which millions still suffer around the world (including in Canada).
Despite its radical message, the Occupy movement has attracted some surprising supporters, including a retired Philadelphia police chief who was arrested last week at a New York protest where he told the cops they were just “workers for the 1 per cent.”
Another unexpected supporter is former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin, who as finance minister in the 1990s slashed social spending in the name of deficit reduction. Martin, former CEO of Canadian Steamship Lines, is also very much part of the top 1 per cent.
Yet, in a telephone interview on Monday from Montreal, Martin told me that he sees “considerable value” in the Occupy movement. “Everybody I’ve talked to feels the same way. The question of inequality and the top 1 per cent. That’s not what built North America.
“The fact is (the Occupiers) have touched a chord with Canadians and, I’m sure, with Americans,” said Martin. “Look, there’s something fundamentally wrong here . . . For the last hundred years, certainly in North America, every generation has felt it’s going to have a better life than their parents. For the first time, that’s not there.”
Rather than hanging out at malls or zoning out on Facebook, these young people have endured real hardship in the Canadian near-winter to fight for a more inclusive society. Any inconvenience they’ve caused through their peaceful occupation seems minor in comparison to their contribution to the public good.
As lawyers from the Law Union of Ontario point out: “Some inconveniences to local park users is a small price to pay for the larger price being paid by the 99 per cent worldwide in the face of an economic system that privileges the few over the many.”
Are occupations really necessary to draw attention to their cause? Perhaps not. But I’d trust their judgment over mine. After all, they’ve managed to change the public discourse, putting inequality front and center — something activists and writers, myself included, have failed to accomplish despite decades of trying.
An article last week in the mainstream magazine New York notes that we’re now moving “from the terror era to the income-inequality era.”
Wow. After only two months, the Occupy movement — without backing from billionaires or governments — seems to have moved us into a new era. Not bad for a leaderless group that sleeps in tents and doesn’t even use microphones.