Understanding and Learning from Occupy Toronto

From mid-October 2011 until its eviction in late November, Occupy Toronto attracted a lot of attention. Earlier this year, Adrie Naylor, Dave Vasey and Donya Ziaee, who were all active in Occupy Toronto, talked with New Socialist Webzine co-editor David Camfield about what happened, its significance and its lessons for people who want to build a new Left.

David: How did Occupy Toronto begin?

Dave:  Obviously Occupy Toronto did not exist outside of other social movements, there is a long movement history. The catalyst in practical terms was the internet and Facebook.

Donya:  I saw it as something that began in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, which many of us were excited and inspired by. Many of us went in not knowing what would come of it or if it would even last past the first day. It was interesting that something just put together on Facebook could bring in these many people and go on for weeks after.

 

Adrie: That's right, and it seems like a similar process happened in other places in Canada. Anybody could make the Facebook page and set up the meetings. In Toronto, it seemed as though the organization of Occupy happened parallel to other types of community organizing, but it did not come out of them. This helps explain some of the dynamics within Occupy Toronto afterwards.

Dave: There were a couple stages to how it got organized. First it was the Facebook call, and then it was the call to the initial meetings. Those meetings ended up setting the tone for how Occupy would proceed. There were committee level meetings versus general assemblies, but it wasn't clear how the committee meetings were being organized.

Adrie: One of the questions from observers and participants was "who is Occupy?" For me, it was unique in the sense that I've never been involved in a convergence of people where there was no real sense of where it was coming from. You would find people participating in Occupy or using the space of the park to hold discussions and meetings and yet talking about themselves as being outside it. This lack of clarity of who Occupy was led to a real openness - and a lack of focus - in its politics.

David:  What kinds of people got involved in the weeks following the initial action?

 

Donya: I would say that there was a pretty broad range of people involved, especially in the earlier days. You saw some of the "usual suspects" there, but more than that we were actually seeing the participation of broad sectors that didn't typically take part in protests. There were a lot of young folks, including students and recent graduates who were struggling with debt and unemployment, young activists from various groups, and also more "bohemian" youths who were often more immersed in the spirit of the park rather than the broader political goals. We also saw the presence of middle-class families who, I think, were inspired by the messaging around opposition to corporate greed and bailouts, but it seemed like the participation of this group dropped significantly very early on. I think it's also important to talk about who wasn't there. As one of my friends put it, the space was really heterogeneous in some ways, but also quite homogenous in others. Even though the language of the 99% was powerful in many ways, it was also pretty abstract. It didn't address the structural differences within the so-called 99%, and was particularly silent on race and racism. This led to the lack of participation by broad constituencies of people in our city, especially people directly affected by the crisis.

Adrie: I really agree with what Donya is saying. And the diversity of people at the park began to shrink as time went on. People tried to have conversations around who was there, who wasn't and what the 99% means, but it didn't translate into the organizing strategy. I think that part of the reason was that many organizers with a deeper analysis of the links between capitalism and other types of oppression were hesitant to work within Occupy - or found it extremely frustrating to do that kind of work. And other groups were also hesitant to do deeper organizing work within Occupy. For example, on a few occasions unions made a show of coming to the park in solidarity, but with a couple of individual exceptions, they weren't involved in Occupy's planning.

Dave: The language of the 99% included elements of a libertarian universalism, where even the police were part of the 99%. There were even debates over anti-oppression as a guiding principle in General Assemblies (GAs). That basic principles of equity were under debate drove out many. As well, in many GAs there was a domination of privileged or white males voices, which created a tone more inaccessible to women and often to poor people and people of colour.

Adrie: Even having the debate about whether a politics of anti-oppression should be a guiding politics for Occupy Toronto really spoke about the newness of many participants. People behaved in sexist or homophobic or racist ways, and it was remarkable that they were so new to this that they didn't even pay lip service to anti-oppression politics, never mind addressing the ways that we behaved together. Questions of gender-based violence, the language of patriarchy, how systemic violence against women is reproduced in activism - these weren't discussed. Rather, people spoke of the need to behave towards each other with kindness, respect, etc.

Donya: I think it's important to point out that there were certainly some groups like the people of colour working group, and the indigenous women and women of colour group, who had a very active presence throughout our one-month stay at the park, and who were working hard to integrate a more critical analysis into the conversation. There were also various groups who hosted workshops at the free school tent about these questions.  However, ultimately at the core spaces where people gathered, such as the general assemblies, these analyses didn't really come through and the spaces tended to be dominated by white males. For many individuals and communities who came down to the park to get a feel for the space and its politics, the first impression was often not the best. You really had to dig to find the politics you were looking for.

Other important issues were practical: who can afford to be at the park, at general assemblies, meetings, and so on - especially when these meetings were happening every day. It is obviously more difficult for marginalized communities who have to juggle jobs and responsibilities in the home to come down to the park as often as some others could. In future organizing, we have to think more creatively about how to create spaces that allow for different kinds of participation from members of various communities. David: Could you say something about the kind of the political orientation that was most vocal? If it was mostly white men, what kind of politics informed how they talked about Occupy?

Dave:  I don't think that has an answer because of Occupy Toronto's complexity. The complexity of the analyses present, from indigenous to environmentalist, anarchist to libertarian, was a strength, but a weakness was that we never had many political discussions. Rather we performed our politics through signs on the streets when we marched or in the park when we planned.

 

Adrie: For better or worse, Occupy Toronto replicated Occupy Wall Street in not having one single demand. Obviously it was an extremely powerful rallying call. But it also meant that we assumed everybody knew why everyone else was there. People took that language to mean that any demand was legitimate and no political discussion was necessary, because having political discussion was to somehow make demands. So a political orientation didn't develop.

In a way, the park becomes the politics. This had positive and negative impacts. The most positive outcome of this was that over a hundred homeless people were living in the park full-time and had access to food, shelter, sanctuary from police brutality, access to medical and mental health care, and the opportunity to have conversations and to be treated with respect. In that sense the park was extremely functional. But daily I would walk through the park and someone would say "Let's have a silent meditation" or "I love you blah, blah, blah." In the absence of anything more concrete, what I thought was the shared purpose for being the park was sometimes lost.  And, it also meant that when we were facing eviction, it was difficult to have conversations about the extent to which it was necessary to guard the camp, how we should do that, to what extent was the occupation of the park this a tactic whose time has passed, and how could we use a different tactic, etc.

Donya: I agree that it is hard to pinpoint an overriding political orientation. This can be seen positively, in that the park was a space that brought together people of different political camps. But I would argue that Occupy - at least in Toronto - didn't in fact allow for people to articulate their political positions.  Because there were very few spaces where we discussed questions around strategy or political goals, there were hardly any opportunities for us to explicitly articulate our political positions.

This also led to a lack of cohesion because there wasn't an essential project to bring us together.  It also led to inconsistencies in the work we did. In certain committees, like the action committee, the decisions we made literally depended on who happened to make the meeting that night. This made our planning and actions incoherent and meant that the impact of our work and its overall trajectory were constantly oscillating. Meanwhile, the lack of structure to record the decisions we made meant being back at square one with every discussion. There was no institutional memory of what had been discussed before and what kinds of consensus had already been reached, and the fact that committee members were constantly changing and coming in and out with different ideas made it all very inconsistent.

David: Could you say a few things about what kinds of activities actually were carried out, and did those activities change over the weeks between mid-October and the eviction in late November?

Dave: In the first couple of weeks we had what we referred to as a daily raiding party into the financial district - very loosely organized with no structure and safety/risk often overlooked. It's why the action committee developed and tried to move towards mass mobilization. There was a strong focus on labour, austerity and financial issues in early mobilizations. Then there were mobilizations around environmental justice and indigenous rights, which were hugely important but often taken up problematically. The intent of supporting indigenous rights was a success, but the way many people engaged with it wasn't the greatest.

Donya: I would just add, in terms of our activities, that there was a discrepancy between the way things functioned at the general assemblies and the way they were happening in committees. While what was often celebrated about the Occupy movement was the consensus-based model of the GAs, many of us found that the more substantial decisions were being made in committee meetings instead. This was a contradiction that we faced throughout our stay at the park. Although we were initially inspired by the possibilities of the assembly model, the GAs pretty quickly became more of a dysfunctional and depoliticized space where very little that was of substance to pressing political questions was being discussed. Instead, GA discussions tended to focus on the politics of the park itself and attempted to resolve the many practical and personal issues that resulted from such a diverse group of people occupying a space together. Those of us who were more interested in planning actions, reaching out to different groups, or responding to public scrutiny, ended up having those conversations in committees. This was of course a problem from a decision-making perspective when you consider that committee members were not chosen by the larger group and decisions were contingent on who was able to attend meetings, as I mentioned before.

 

Adrie:  To add, because of the decision-making dynamics that Donya was describing, sometimes really important political conversations were happening in committees, and sometimes they were purely around the logistics of getting a demonstration or rally organized.  Because political discussions weren't really happening in the general assembly, and because broadly people were coming from such diverse political backgrounds and experience, sometimes there would be an action that was actually really good, but that manifested itself weirdly.

For example, one day we marched down to the Novotel Hotel to rally in support of workers trying to organize there. There were maybe forty-five or fifty people on the march, and probably ten of them knew what was going on. It felt like a lot of people were there because they believed, "Well, this is the march that's going on this afternoon." I remember some people behind me on the march saying, "Who is Novotel?" or "What's Novotel?" When we got to the hotel, I looked around me and the person beside me was holding a sign that says "the revolution is a philosophy," meaning, I guess, that our thoughts are the revolution, and one other person was holding a mirror towards Novotel. At the same time, more experienced or radical elements of the march were debating whether to move into the hotel or take over the street. These two elements seemed so disjointed. Within this group of forty or fifty people, there was such a wide range of ideas. It was, of course, useful that we went there, and although I doubt that it made a huge impact, hopefully we at least showed some of the workers that we are in solidarity with them. But I don't know how politically useful it was for people who randomly ended up on this march, or to what extent political conversations were happening before, during or after.

 

David: How did other forces respond to Occupy Toronto, in particular union officials and community activist groups?

 

Donya: There were a couple of responses that I found particularly problematic.  One was the type that was espoused by various leftist activists, union representatives and other groups and individuals who provided overwhelming praise and applause for the movement. These folks came out and spoke at rallies, wrote articles and so on, and they had nothing but praise for the movement, its novelty and its goals. But for the most part they weren't active in the day-to-day operation of the park. Certainly the financial support that some of the unions provided was really important, and the fact that they brought bodies down and provided words of support was very encouraging. But there was a general fetishization of the Occupy movement that meant that we didn't get the necessary criticism or substantial assistance that was needed. I think it would have been a lot more useful if this energy was invested in pushing the movement forward with practical and constructive interventions. Instead, many of these groups or individuals envisioned their role as being outside of the Occupy movement and didn't get involved beyond the offer of praise. What was also troubling was that this fetishization gave us a false sense of who we were and what we were actually accomplishing, when what we really needed was critique and reflection.

The other response that I found problematic was by those who took a "wait and see" approach, especially in the earlier days, which was when things were falling into place, discussions were happening, and there were large numbers of people involved from very diverse groups. It seemed that many leftist groups initially took a more critical stance and waited to see where the movement was headed in order to decide whether or not to be involved. And, by the time many of them decided to get engaged, I think it was too late and a crucial historical moment had been lost. This perhaps applies not just to Toronto but maybe the Occupy movement as a whole: I think what was needed was for all of us to take a leap of faith and devote some energy to the possibilities that existed, and to leave some of our cynicism behind. I think it was possible to have criticisms but to be engaged with what was underway firsthand, rather than to stand on the sidelines and miss an important opportunity.

Adrie: I remember at one point Judy Rebick said, "This is the greatest thing that's ever happened in the world since the 1960s." Probably this reflects my growing frustration with the dynamics that I saw within the park, but I remember thinking that it was just so laudatory that it couldn't possibly reflect an awareness of the challenges that we were facing. At the same time I was equally if not more frustrated by people who, within hours of Occupy starting, had already taken to Facebook to say that "It's doomed to failure." Sometimes these are valid criticisms: even the language of Occupy is politically questionable from an anti-colonial perspective. But I felt these were really important conversations to be having in the park with other people, not on your blog. One of the reasons that I found Occupy so exciting was precisely the newness and the new faces. But at the same time, it would have been good for more experienced organizers to say, "We've had these conversations before; here are some of the ways that we've been able to reach out to communities in the past." For example, the Workers' Assembly had a series of talks with lessons for Occupy, some of which were really useful. But people would go home immediately afterwards, without making an effort to share those conversations with anyone else in the park. And since 90% of the people in the conversation were Assembly members themselves, this was really unfortunate.

 

David:  Can you say something about what's happened with Occupy Toronto since the eviction from the park?

 

Dave: It's broken down into a lot of autonomous groups using the name Occupy. The committees have partially remained functional, through folks who made connections during Occupy and expressed some shared basis of unity. Yet the GA has dwindled to maybe fifteen or twenty people and is no bigger than any of the other committees at this point. I think we need to have some serious conversations around how decisions are made, because committees are producing actions and putting on talks without consulting the general assembly as the general assembly has been seen as blocking issues of equity and accountability… it's developed into an informal hierarchy and scattered decision-making process.

Adrie: In Toronto it seems like some of the most pressing things we are facing are the cuts to services and city workers, and I wonder to what degree Occupy has been involved in that or working with other groups in the city. I don't really see much of it. Although there was a small Occupy presence, I recall, at the January 17th Stop the Cuts demonstration.

David: Could you say something about the significance of Occupy Toronto?

Donya:  I would assess the significance of Occupy Toronto the same way I would Occupy movements everywhere else. The Occupy movement managed to bring the issue of class differences and inequalities and the language of haves and have-nots to the forefront of public opinion, and that was a huge achievement on its own. It managed to normalize critiques of the status quo and of the so-called "system," even though what that system is was not clearly articulated. What remains to be seen is whether this language will have the potential to transform into a more radical political agenda.

Adrie: In spite of the problems of Occupy Toronto, it was so much more than the sum of its parts. For example, at one point Donya and I put together a little pamphlet of frequently asked questions about Occupy: why are we occupying, what's the point, etc. We printed out a lot of them, and there was a demonstration going from the park to Dundas Square, and I think probably on my own I handed out three hundred or more fliers. I had five- or ten-minute conversations with people, and I never had that experience before, where people were genuinely interested and receptive to a demonstration. I think that speaks to not only what was happening in Toronto, but the extent to which both the Occupy movement and the language of Occupy, in a context of austerity, appealed to people. You can't deny that people are losing their jobs and services are being cut, and that we are in a crisis. For some of the people that we spoke to, or who saw the march, I hope it was as significant for them as it was for me.

Dave:  Occupy was very significant because it demonstrated a willingness and commitment to the idea of direct action. It became an achievement: forty days and forty nights.

David: What do you think people who want to build a new left should learn from this experience, positive or negative?

Dave: One thing that Occupy taught me is that there is something to be said for just going ahead and doing it, despite all the problems. And have people in place to assume leadership roles -- don't be afraid of leadership on the left. We are at a crisis situation, we are not going to back off, and neither are Harper et al. With catastrophic climate change, we need to act and Occupy was good that way. On the other hand, what Occupy wasn't going to build was having those with leadership skills step in and provide some direction so that we don't repeat the past.

Donya:  For me, it really brought to the forefront the question of forms of organization in our resistance. In many ways the Occupy movement -- not just in Toronto but everywhere -- has been an interesting experiment in pre-figurative politics. It was certainly interesting to see the park function as a collective and communal existence in the heart of capitalism and to experiment with practicing our politics in the functioning of the park itself. But as we've been saying so far, park politics were too often seen as the end goal altogether and left us with too little time and energy to discuss broader political objectives and made us lose sight, to some extent, of what initially brought us together.

I think this also brings up the question of a means-focused versus an end-focused movement.  In many ways, Toronto Occupy was means-focused and this was a real problem. What many of us struggled with was how do we work towards a cohesive political project while maintaining the potentialities offered by a pre-figurative movement. Also, how do we tap into the new possibilities and energies that were created by Occupy's decentralized and consensus-based approach, while at the same time not rejecting all structures and not embracing a model that tends towards depoliticization.

The other major challenge is how to articulate the links between austerity and racism, patriarchy, and queer- and trans-phobia and so on, to not lose sight of the integration of these different structures, and to not focus only on what seem like abstract economic questions that are in fact experienced in quite differentiated ways for different groups of people.

Adrie:  As left organizers, who do we think we are organizing against capitalism? We're going to focus on people who are most marginalized by capitalism and other systems of oppression, and that presents political and logistical challenges. In the case of Occupy, that was compounded by the fact that it drew people who didn't have a lot of political experience. Now, this is absolutely necessary -- obviously if we could do it all ourselves we would have probably won by now. But, it presents challenges: to what extent are we able to have non-hierarchical mode of organizing that isn't derailed along the way? And who gets to decide what a derailment is and what isn't? To what extent does it become about servicing people who are most marginalized? How does a politics of "being with one another" translate into the political organizing that we are doing? If people come down to the park who haven't thought about capitalism or patriarchy, how do you have conversations that begin to develop this politics? While at the same time being able to make decisions: what are we doing, what press release are we putting out in half an hour, what is our messaging at our demonstration, do we want to engage with the police? Occupy Toronto showed that solutions to these problems could begin to be developed, but at the same time they are not theoretical questions only. They are really practical questions will only come out by organizing, messing up or trying different things.


Adrie Naylor is a member of the Greater Toronto Workers' Assembly, St. Clair West Stop the Cuts, and is an editor of Upping the Anti.

Dave Vasey an environmental justice activist from Walkerton, Ontario who works on issues of Indigenous rights, tar sands and the links to Bay Street.

Donya Ziaee was a member of Occupy Toronto's action committee until the eviction from St. James Park.

Thanks to Greg Sharzer for work editing this interview.

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