First, as a personal observation, I have found the people at the Occupy Toronto site hard to deal with unless one has good social skills and can easily start conversations with strangers. During all my visits it has only been people that know me that have come up to me to talk, share stories and memories, etc. I get friendly nods but I can be at St. James Park for a long time before someone (and, again, it is always people that know me) stops me for a chat. I can’t be the only person coming by that wanders through who feels uncomfortable in groups and informal settings. For those at the Occupy site, I do encourage you to welcome the stranger among you.
When I wander through and observe what is happening at St. James Park and read about what is happening elsewhere I am always pleasantly surprised. It is all too rare for those who are homeless, addicted and otherwise marginalised to be seen, let alone integrated into a broad effort to transform the world. Yet, from speaking at general assemblies to sharing food to having a fairly safe place to rest, the Occupy movement has been a phenomenal example of inclusiveness. It is not perfect, but it is in many ways closer to the shalom kingdom than most faith communities.
I have been excited at the use that St. James Park has been put to. From having community speakers to being a base for marches, at last there seems to be in Toronto a truly public square. The state provided spaces at Queen’s Park, Nathan Philips Square, Dundas Square, etc. have not proven to be welcoming places. Yet a park that is built on the site of a cholera burying ground has proven to be a living and dynamic place.
I am angered and frightened that elected officials seem to have the popular support to stop public usage of a shared resource. Mayors and city councillors have taken what should be a welcomed change—large number of publically and peacefully politically engaged people—and labelled the movement a danger. Courts in Canada seem all to willing to put aside the ideal of public assembly. The police seem all to willing to use excessive force to put down dissent, noticed in Toronto at the G20 and around the world when people gather in the public squares. I can understand why the state and corporate interests want to hide away dissent; wants to hide away homelessness, addictions and mental health challenges; wants to use violence against current protestors to discourage future ones. However, as one dependent on the media for information, it is easy to develop the opinion that oppression is a very popular political option. This angers and frightens me.
This week a 28 year struggle for pay equity was finally won. If it takes over a generation for one victory to occur, why is there impatience with a few weeks that the Occupy movement has been a part of the political landscape? Social change takes a long time. Progressive movements need to be a part of the ongoing social fabric. Ending the Occupy movement, even transforming it by taking it into local meetings, having small scale neighbourhood actions and becoming a part of the private meetings and backroom lobbying of traditional social movements, will be a real set back for the work for positive social transformation. Currently there are places in cities and towns around the world where there is a clear statement that not only is something wrong but there are alternatives to be considered. The commons have been communalised but around the world, from court injunctions to brutal physical force, the Occupy movement is under substantial threat.
I hope that I will continue to have the opportunity to feel a stranger in the midst of the Occupy Movement. Come tomorrow the courts may rule that the City of Toronto can take down the camp in St. James Park. With the state and corporate interests driving the Occupy movement out of public spaces and having significant popular support to do so, it is hard to feel confident that a wonderful public expression of hope and anger will continue to be a public witness.