On November 23rd, both the Ottawa and Toronto branches of the Occupy Wall Street were evicted from their month long homes in their respective parks. While, I was never able to visit the Ottawa branch, about a week before a hundred Toronto police officers walked into Saint James Park to evict the month long occupants, I was able to visit the Occupy Toronto protestors in their downtown home.
It was a rag-tag group of 20-somethings hipsters, playing guitars and writing on nearby walls and statues with chalk as they walked down Queen’s Street, that first put me on to the idea of going to the protest. A friend and I had come to Toronto to look at universities, and we were touring the city when this motley crew passed us by, singing songs and handing out flyers. I reached out and grabbed a handout. As it turned out, this was an Occupy Toronto outreach team, and I had just taken an advertisement to come and join the cause at Saint James Park in the heart of Toronto’s financial sector. My friend and I, never the ones to miss an opportunity to make fun of hipsters, decided to go to Saint James Park to see what all the fuss was about. What we expected to find was more people like those in the outreach team, anti-establishment hipsters and crazed burnouts, sitting around and smoking god knows what. Yet what we actually found when we finally made it to the “tent city” of Occupy Toronto, was something completely unexpected.
Indeed, “tent city” was a very accurate representation of the Occupy camp in Saint James Park. Not so much due to the hundreds of tents that littered the park, positioned to form snaking paths through the mud covered ground (although that too, is a fine reason to call it a city), but more so because of the odd sense you got while walking in the park.
Walking into Saint James Park was like entering a different world, much like the feeling one would get as they walk into Central Park from the bustling metropolis of New York, or into The Vatican from the dusty streets of Rome. The bright neon colours of the tents clashed with the more neutral colours of the surrounding buildings, and even the neutrally dressed protestors themselves. The people too seemed to contrast the stereotypical idea of Torontonians: outside of the park, people wouldn’t give you a second glance as they rushed by on their way to wherever they were headed, if you even dared to try and talk to them they would assume that you wanted money or something of that sort, yet there in the tent city we spent hours having actual intelligent conversations with many of the protestors there. For the most part they were very friendly and were very keen to talk about what they were doing there.
True, Saint James Park had its fair share of younger hipsters and burnouts, protesting because they think it’s cool to rebel, or just because they have nothing better to do, but last time I checked, every organization or movement has had these kind of people in some form or another. To base a movement as large as that of Occupy on such a small yet sensationalist portion of their population, might make for interesting television, yet it does not accurately represent the movement as a whole.
In truth, the majority of people in the park were middle aged folks who simply were tired of the system we have come to accept. During the tour of the park, I met a middle aged veteran who explained to me how he had been to many countries in the Middle East and had seen how many people did not have the freedom to promote change like we do here. In that regard he was very impressed by the movement willingness to peacefully promote healthy change and gives them his full support. I also had a nice conversation with a man in his early sixties about how the protestors were aware of the similarities between the current movement and the hippie movement of the 1960s and how they are very conscious about learning from the mistakes of that movement and go
out of their way to make sure that they don’t fall down that path.
But what surprised me most was how the community as a whole was organized: “It’s democratic” Kevin Konnyu, a protestor and member of the Occupy Toronto media committee and the anti-oppression committee, explained over a man playing an African drum in the park’s gazebo behind him. “It’s based on a direct democracy process that centers around something called the “general assembly” and works through committees, working groups, caucuses, and uses a horizontal decision making structure.
“The general discussions start around noon; we have everyday breakout groups. Topics will come up, proposals will be made in the evening general assembly the night before. Many times those refer to the next day’s breakout groups, pressing issues of the camp, logistics, etc. If urgent news comes up, breakout groups are then used to explore those. Throughout the day, committees meet to go over business and they discuss and come up with proposals that are then brought to the evening general assembly. At the evening general assembly, we go through an agenda that involves announcements and proposals from both committees and individuals. The proposals can either be passed by consensus or super majority, and if it’s not, it will go back to a breakout group, working group, or committee, and the process is done over again.”
And strangely enough, the system seems to work. Despite the lack of a traditional leadership structure, the protestors of Saint James Park had made great progress in their cause. Not only had they created their own newsletter, countless flyers and handouts, and had set up a 24/7 live stream of the camp, but they have also undergone much larger projects such as creating a public library in one of the yurts to protest the municipal government’s closures of multiple libraries in the city. At the time of the eviction, the library had accumulate over 1,000 books on multiple subjects, all donated by both protestors and citizens. Also at the time of the eviction, the protestors were working on the construction of a makeshift theatre.
If anything can be learned from this protest, it’s that there are other ways to organize a community than the traditional hierarchal method. In some ways, the tent city was less of a protest, and more of an experiment of the horizontal decision making organization structure that it incorporated. “We don’t have to wait for or demand the change.” Konnyu said “We can be the change and we can make the change”.
That being said, the system is far from perfect, mostly due to the unsustainability of the tent city itself. The protestor’s funds either come from charitable donations from those who support the movement, or from their own pockets when the need is urgent.
Yet as full time protestors, the occupants of the tent city will eventually not have enough disposable income to maintain the average maintenance that the city needs, and as the protest drags on, the lessening of media attention as news coverage shifts to more current issues will significantly lower the amount of donations to the cause. The unsustainability of the protest without some way to gain sufficient income begs the question: how long would the protestors have
even been able to sustain the protest even if the city were on their side? Another month? Through the winter?
Although the answer to that question won’t come from Toronto or Ottawa, the movement is still going strong in other parts of the country despite the massive country wide shutdowns of most of the tent cities. As it stands now, Windsor, Fredericton, Winnipeg, and Saint John’s are the only cities in Canada who still have occupy camps. How they will fair in the long run will certainly be great test of community and commitment, and of great interest to follow.
As for the protestors of Occupy Ottawa and Toronto, the have made it quite clear that they will not be deterred. The communities have become much more internet based, yet general assemblies are still held in person and protests and marches still are continuing in both cities. Will they still be as effective as the close knit tent communities? Only time will tell.
Editor’s Note: Although both the occupations for Occupy Ottawa and Occupy Toronto have been cleared out of their respective parks, both hold peaceful protests on the streets of Toronto and Ottawa. They just have no place to stay.