Friday, November 4, 2011

A Worthy Occupation

I finally made my first visit to the Occupy Toronto site, and I'm very impressed with what I saw.

In Toronto, the movement has encamped itself in St. James Park, a medium-sized plot, taking up a full city block just east of St. James Cathedral, and just bordering the downtown commercial core, but perhaps half a mile from the heart of Bay Street, which is Toronto’s – hence, Canada’s – financial heart.  King Street forms the southern border of the park, so that many of those who commute to Bay Street will pass right by it on their way to the financial towers in which they toil.

My first impression, upon walking into the park along one of its diagonal walkways, is of a small village coming into being. There are tents of all types, sizes and condition pitched everywhere, but they have begun to take on the informal, impromptu order of a community. I didn’t consciously recognize the signs of this order at first, merely took in the impression of it. But later, I learned that committees have formed to take on certain areas of responsibility, like Logistics, Media and Food. I realize now that there was none of the random trash nor the foul odors that I’m accustomed to finding at urban encampments, when I encounter them in my profession as a Street Outreach Counsellor to Toronto’s homeless community. While some of the street homeless have found their way to St. James Park, or have been recruited there, it isn’t the culture and ways of the random homeless that has asserted itself here. It is in fact an Intentional Community.

There are signs everywhere - promoting various positions, thoughts, viewpoints related to the wide and increasing imbalance in fortunes that we experience in Canada and in the world. Many of them come across as gentle provocations, invitations to thought. And the feel of the Park, despite it being so densely packed, is open and inviting. People walk about variously clothed against the elements. Many are eating, out of bowls, cups and assorted other containers, with spoons, ladles and fingers.

The most impressive thing I come across during my brief visit is the small grouping of about twenty people, forming a loose circle just east of the gazebo, and discussing issues, logistics and strategy. They are mostly in their twenties, but a few are older. They are about to break into smaller groups to address a number of subjects: violence (and I’m not there long enough to discover what violence they mean); the Remembrance Day activities being planned at St. James Cathedral, and the proactive intention to avoid any negative interactions between pro and anti military sympathizers who might be there; and the overarching topic: "Why We Are Here". Individuals volunteer to facilitate each group, and others are invited to join whichever group they prefer. One of the two people facilitating this larger group, a well-spoken young man wearing a tuque and a skinny tie beneath his wool blazer, suggests that, if a breakout group is too small, others be recruited from around the park to give input.

A man who appears to be in his fifties and middle-class, in smart, casual dress, and wearing a soft, wide-brimmed hat, asks to speak to the assembled before they disperse. He appears to be a bit apprehensive about speaking, and his audience is slightly wary. “It depends on what it’s about,” says the young man. But once assured that the interruption will be brief, he invites the older man to share.

The oldster announces that he and two companions are from St. Catherine's, a small city an hour’s drive away. They are planning an Occupy movement in that city, and they’ve come to consult with the organizers and to glean some do's and don't's before proceeding.

There are pleased looks all around, and a smattering of applause. The man is invited to "speak to everyone", but the second of the facilitators, a young woman wrapped in a blanket and eating stew from a bowl, gives practical and focused advice: "You should take time to connect with all of the committees that have taken responsibility for different areas," she says. Which is when I myself learn of the various committees. "The people in those groups can give you the best overview, tell you what problems arise and the best solutions so far."

The older man thanks them and tells them what a model and inspiration they are. There are smiles, and a young man who’s been videotaping the whole thing asks that something he didn’t catch be repeated. I notice then that one of my young homeless clients is sitting on the opposite edge of the group, smiling broadly, clearly pleased about the circumstance in which he finds himself. I tried to catch up with him as the group broke up, but he’d disappeared into the group, which by then had doubled in size. I left and went about my day.

The impression lingered, however. As it always does, and always will, going to the encampment and experiencing it live, for even a few minutes, brought a sense of reality and context to this fledgling movement that would not have been conveyed through an hour or two of media clips. What comes across on television as chaotic, indulgent and unfocused (to the unsympathetic), in the flesh reveals itself to be, if nothing else, earnest. I haven’t bothered to report any of the specific political messages I saw declared on various signs, because, to me, they aren’t the point.

It’s obvious to everyone attending to the current, world financial crisis, that solutions will be complex and will take time. What the Occupy movement reminds me of is that, even while the media and politicians try to wean themselves from the conditioned obsession with daily and quarterly fluctuations in currencies and markets, to get at more long-term indicators and mechanisms of the global economy, they haven’t come close to digging deep enough.

What the Occupiers are saying – all around the world – is that is won’t be enough to restore smooth, predictable functioning to an economy that bases itself on fiscal and monetary values, but ignores human values. They are saying this in many ways, pointing out lots of specific aberrations and injustices. But it seems to me to boil down to a howl of protest, a loud and sometimes ineloquent insistence that we’ve simply gotten things all wrong.

In recent years, I’ve often reflected back on the world I was entering into in my late teens, and what’s happened since. In the late sixties and the seventies, it seemed that my generation was going to be the one to tear down the moral and intellectual mindset that rationalized and upheld oppression of all kinds. It almost seems as though we were raised to do so. At that time, in the US at least, income disparities were shrinking. Oppression based on race and gender and sexual identity were all slowly being eroded. And yet, all that while, we allowed our attention to slip somehow, or we began to take too much credit for our own well-being. And the current monstrosity that wears the guise of international finance was allowed to grow. We blew it!

And so, my feeling, as I walked through St. James Park yesterday, was a combination of appreciation, excitement and hope. “Look at them,” I thought. They don’t seem as angry as we were, and not so extreme in their rejection of us as we were of our elders. There’s a focus and confidence about what I’m witnessing in these movements that inspires and touches me. And it’s all encapsulated somehow in the fact of seeing my homeless client in the midst of this rag tag group of young, practical activists. They sought him out and took him in, made him a part of their community and listen to what he has to offer. Maybe they will succeed. They’ve already sparked imaginations, shaped dialogues and enlarged the playing field.

My request, to each one of you who may read this, is that you go to one of the occupy encampments yourself, that you not simply dismiss it. Explore it. Talk with the occupiers. And Listen. Despite what you may be hearing, the lack of focus, and the organic, embryonic qualities of this movement are its strengths. And each of us has something to give.

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