Letter to the Occupy Together Movement, Harsha Walia
This piece is re-posted from Rabble.ca.
I wish I could start with the ritual “I love you” which the Occupy Movement is supposed to inspire. To be honest, it has been a space of turmoil. But also, virulent optimism.
What I outline below are not criticisms of the Occupy movement. I am inspired that the dynamic of the movement thus far has been organic, so that all those who choose to participate are collectively responsible for its evolution and development. To all those participating — I offer my deepest gratitude and respect. I am writing today with Grace Lee Boggs on the forefront of my mind: “The coming struggle is a political struggle to take political power out of the hands of the few and put it into the hands of the many. But in order to get this power into the hands of the many, it will be necessary for the many not only to fight the powerful few but to fight and clash among themselves as well.” This may sound dramatic and counter-productive, but I find it a poignant reminder that, in our state of elation, we cannot underestimate the difficult terrain ahead and I look forward to the processes that will further these conversations.
Occupations on occupied land
One of the broad principles of unity of Occupy Vancouver thus far includes an acknowledgement of unceded Coast Salish territories. There has been some opposition to this as being “divisive” and as “focusing too much on First Nations issues.” I would argue that acknowledging Indigenous lands is a necessary and critical starting point for two primary reasons.
Firstly, the word Occupy has understandably ignited criticism from Indigenous people. While occupations are commonly associated with specific targets (such as occupying a government office or a bank), Occupy Vancouver (or any other city) has a deeply colonialist implication. Despite intentionality, it erases the brutal history of occupation and genocide of Indigenous peoples that settler societies have been built on. This is not simply a rhetorical or fringe point; it is a profound and indisputable matter of fact that this land is in fact already occupied. The province of B.C. in particular is still largely unceded land, which means that no treaties or agreements have been signed and the title holders of Vancouver are still the Squamish, Tseilwau-tuth, Musqueam people. As my Squamish friend Dustin Rivers joked, “Okay, so the premier and provincial government acknowledge and give thanks to the host territory, but Occupy Vancouver can’t?”
If we are to, in fact, represent the 99 per cent then heeding the voices of Indigenous peoples is critical to an inclusive process. Plus, supporting efforts towards decolonization is not only an Indigenous issue. It is also about us, as non-natives, learning the history of this land and locating ourselves and our responsibilities within the context of colonization. Acknowledging the territory we are on is the first step towards this and other occupations such as those in Boston and Denver and New York have taken similar steps in deepening an anti-colonial analysis.
Secondly, we must understand that the tentacles of corporate control and the collusion of government and corporations have roots in the processes of colonization and enslavement. As written by the Owe Aku International Justice Project: “Corporate greed is the driving factor for the global oppression and suffering of Indigenous populations. It is the driving factor for the conquest and continued suffering for the Indigenous peoples on this continent. The effects of greed eventually spill over and negatively impact all peoples, everywhere. Indigenous peoples feel the pain first, but it eventually reaches all people.”
he Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada and the East India Trading Company in India, for example, were some of the first corporate entities established on the stock market. Both these companies were granted trading monopolies by the British Crown, and were able to extract resources and amass massive profits as a direct result of the subjugation of local communities through the use of the British Empire’s military and police forces. The attendant processes of corporate expansion and colonization continues today, most evident in this country with the Alberta tar sands. In the midst of an economic crisis, corporations’ ability to accumulate wealth is dependent on discovering new frontiers from which to extract resources. This disproportionately impacts Indigenous peoples and destroys the land base required to sustain their communities, while creating an ecological crisis for the planet as a whole.
Systemic oppression connected to economic inequality
They want me to remember
And I keep on remembering mine
– Lucille Clifton
In creating a unified space of opposition to the 1 per cent, we must also simultaneously foster critical education to learn about the range of systemic injustices that many of us in the 99 per cent have faced historically and continue to face daily. In the context of the Occupy Together movement, the connection between the nature and structure of the political economy and systemic injustice is clear: the growing disparity in wealth and economic inequality being experienced in this city and across this country is nothing new for low-income racialized communities, particularly single mothers, who face the double brunt of scapegoating during periods of economic recession. This cannot be pejoratively dismissed as a “reduction to identity politics” or about being “divisive,” which for many re-enforces the patterns of silencing and marginalization. The idea of the multitude is powerful; it forces a contestation of any one lived experience binding the 99 per cent. Embracing this plurality and having an open heart to potentially uncomfortable truths about systemic injustice and oppression beyond just the “evil corporations and greedy banks” will actually strengthen this movement. Ignoring the hierarchies of power between us does not make them magically disappear. It actually does the opposite — it entrenches those inequalities.
If we learn from social movements past, we observe that the struggle to genuinely address issues of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, age, and nationality actually did more, rather than less, to facilitate broader participation. I would argue that it has historically been a mistake to cater movements to the idea of lowest common denominator “mainstream” politics. To be clear, I do not disagree with needing to reach out to as broad a base — i.e. the 99 per cent — as possible; what I am arguing is that we have to critically examine who constitutes the “mainstream.” If Indigenous communities, homeless people, immigrants, LGBTs, seniors and others are all considered “special-interest groups” (despite the fact that they actually constitute an overwhelming demographic majority), then by default that suggests that, as Rinku Sen argues, straight white men are the sole standard of universalism. “Addressing other systems of oppression, and the people those systems affect, isn’t about elevating one group’s suffering over that of white men. It’s about understanding how the mechanisms of control actually operate. When we understand, we can craft solutions that truly help everybody.” Therefore, this should not be misunderstood as advocating for a pecking order of issues or priorities; it is about understanding that the 99 per cent is not a homogenous group but a web of inter-connected and inter-related communities in struggle. As Syed Hussan writes, “Understand that to truly be free, to truly include the entire 99 per cent, you have to say today, and say every day: We will leave no one behind.” Just as we challenge the idea of austerity put forward by governments and corporations, we should challenge the idea of scarcity of space in our movements and instead facilitate a more nuanced discourse about economic inequality and the growing disparity in wealth locally and globally.
Learning from history and building on successes
While it is clearly too early to comment on the future of the Occupy movement, I offer few humble preliminary thoughts based on other peoples comments of the Occupy Wall Street occupation and the nature of the organizing of the Occupy Vancouver movement. Those who us who have been activists do not claim any particular authority in this movement; as many others have cautioned, more experienced activists should not claim moral righteousness and demoralize those who are just joining the struggle. But we also cannot claim ignorance either.
The Occupy Together movement is brilliantly transitional. As has already been noted, it is has been a moral and strategic success to not have a pre-articulated laundry list of demands within which to confine a nascent social movement. As Peter Marcus writes, “Occupy is seen by most of its participants and supporters not as a set of pressures for individual rights, but as a powerful claim for a better world… The whole essence of the movement is to reject the game’s rules as it is being played, to produce change that includes each of these demands but goes much further to question the structures that make those demands necessary… Demands, as opposed to claims, implicitly assume a setting within the established order. They call for reforms of the status quo, rather than for rejection, for what Richard Sennett has called ‘different shades of capitalisms’ rather than alternate methods of structuring a society.” Similarly Vijay Prashad has written that the movement “must breathe in the many currents of dissatisfaction, and breathe out a new radical imagination.”
The creation of encampments is in itself an act of freedom and liberation. Decentralized gatherings with democratic decision-making processes and autonomous space for people to gather and dialogue based on their interests — such as through reading circles or art zones or guerrilla gardening — create a deep sense of purpose, connectedness, and emancipation in a society that otherwise breeds apathy, disenchantment, and isolation. This type of pre-figurative politics — a living symbol of refusal — is a significant success that should continue so we can actively coming together to create and live the alternatives to this system. I am reminded of the modest (anti) Olympic Tent Village in our own city in the Downtown Eastside last year, which was deemed “paradise” and a place where “real freedom lives” by DTES residents of the Village. Even a glimmer of freedom and autonomy turn people to choose living rather than surviving and to fight for justice rather than beg for charity.
One lesson that I can offer is for the Occupy Together movement to learn about police violence and police infiltration. In some cities, Occupy organizers have actively collaborated with police and sought permission from police and local governments to carry forward their activities. There is only one way to say this: the police cannot be trusted. This is not a comment on individual police officers who may be “ordinary people,” but the unfortunate reality is that their job is to protect the 1 per cent. The police have a long history of repression of social movements. Marginalized people, such as those who are homeless, Indigenous, youth of colour, n