Lessons from My Occupy Experience

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My local occupy group has been evicted and I pause to reflect upon different things I have learned. It has been a very intense six weeks for me. I was there regularly, participated in many meetings and in online conversations, and done everything I could to help out. I have greatly enjoyed taking my children down to the site and meeting so many fascinating people. However, as I could not stay at the site overnight or even just late into the evening, I have not had the opportunity to become friends the same way many others at the site have. There is a loneliness to that, made worse by the sense that even though I see more activities listed, more events planned, I will not be continuing to participate in their activities.

I need to withdraw for my own mental health. I need to withdraw to figure out how I understand the world, and to ponder the implications of things I have learned, particularly regarding social interactions. Here was a group of strangers who were working together to form a community and support a 24/7 protest site. In some ways what the group accomplished was really impressive and in other ways we bungled things so badly (and not just by burning a tent down)!

Participants of our group talked about consensus making and participatory democracy. Yet having poorly attended daily GAs meant that only those with too much time to spare could participate in making decisions. The justification for daily GAs was that then those who could not attend one day would be able to attend another day. The reality was that one never knew whether to make an effort to attend the GA or whether you would arrive only to find out that there wasn’t really going to be one that day because there was nothing important to discuss. Then if you choose not to attend, you could easily find out that some serious issue had been discussed and a “consensus” created. The phrase “decisions are formed by those who show up” (a quote from Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing) kept echoing in my mind, but I felt like I was on a treadmill being asked to show up more than I could afford to. Such a system of decision making is not inclusive. It does not allow the majority to participate. Instead it allows a few dedicated people to take over making all the decisions. To make it worse decisions were not always properly relayed, even amongst the most active people, and because the GAs lost credibility their decisions were constantly argued online.

People talk about Occupy being a leaderless movement but the reality is, those with the most time become leaders, whether they are the most skilled or not. The fast-pace of everything, with daily meetings and short notice events, prevents those with more tight schedules from being able to influence the group as much, and their voices are lost. In larger cities with larger numbers of participants there is probably a better chance that some of the people with time available will be skilled leaders. In smaller cities, we take what we can get. Many of the serious local activists I talked to told me that they would have liked to be involved in Occupy because they support the international movement, but that they felt that the local group had too many problems. At first I thought that was a poor excuse, and that if they had shown up and participated they would have been able to help fix the problems of the local group. As time went on I started to think about the systematic problems that made it impossible for those on the fringes to really influence the group.

The small size of the local occupy group also meant that the political discourse was limited. We lacked education. People were frequently relying on youtube videos and hearsay for their information. Simple facts  were stated inaccurately and then misquoted over and over and over. Attempts to correct misinformation were rejected. I suspect that some of the people who were only able to attend infrequently due to time constraints would have been able to offer more astute political observations. I also noticed that one of the prevalent beliefs was that we don’t need to understand politics or economics because those are both to corrupt to allow to continue.  This ties in with a closely related problem of where one can get accurate information. If our information gathering systems (universities, policy groups, media etc, etc) are all serving a corrupt system, where do we get information or do we have to act without it? Can we become our own information gathering systems and how then do we ensure accuracy? Do we have the skills to do that? How do we sift the wheat from the chaff?

I worked as much as I could to promote the Occupy group within the community, but the realization came to me about a week or so before it ended, that I could not continue to do that. I had been talking with a religious leader, who had talked to her community about Occupy and wanted to continue to encourage people to get involved. And she asked whether there was anything at the site for people to see, to learn about, if they came down. And I had to say no…. there’s no information packets there, nothing they can take away to learn about social justice. They could talk to people, but how the conversation went would depend on who happened to be there at the time. And I thought about saying “encourage them to connect with us online” but the reality is, I didn’t want to encourage that either, because I was embarrassed about what happens in the online group. I made a desperate appeal to the local Occupy group to tone down their arguing, criticisms and to work on being the type of group that would be welcoming and relevant to mainstream people. My online post to that effect got the highest number of “likes” any of my posts have, but nothing came of it. I think those who agreed were as stumped as I was about what could be done to change things.

The issue of whether or not the facebook webpage should be censored or not arose quite quickly. The argument was made that there should be no censorship but that everyone should be “held accountable” for what he or she says. We were to answer rudeness with love, misinformation with truth. I tried this for a couple of weeks and found myself drained and exhausted. Eventually I lost it and twice told people off. One of the times I private messaged the guy and had a good talk. Even after that we only occasionally agreed with each other but at least we treated each other with respect.

So I’ve been spending quite a bit of time the last few days thinking about group dynamics and group norms. I’ve been wondering about how this could have played out otherwise. What would permit a group to function on a place such as facebook without it going crazy? One possibility might be to have a more limited agenda and to encourage people to limit their posts to those issues, but I don’t think that would address the real issues that were at play in our local occupy group. I think the real problems came out of different views that were commonly referenced to.

A few people made frequent reference to the idea that no one can offend anyone else, because it is an individual’s own choice to be offended. While there is some truth to that idea there are also major problems with it. It justifies not caring about what other people think or feel. It lets people justify their own rude or obnoxious behavior and it communicates that those who are offended are not worth worrying about. It tells them they can just go away, because no one wants to hear from them. Offence is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, but a more appropriate way of dealing with people’s concerns it to try to look into why the person is offended. Address the root issues. Find out about the person’s values.

Another idea that kept popping up is that ‘we’re saving the world’ and that people should overlook any problems because of the importance of the cause. This is dismissive to people with genuine concerns and it suggests a lack of understanding about the reality of Occupy. Camping in a park, even in protest or solidarity, is not magical. It doesn’t magically save the world. Building a movement might save the world but one doesn’t do that by telling other people that they or their ideas are not important. Nor is Occupy the only way to go about saving the world. Just because a person does not agree with Occupy or the individuals within Occupy does not mean that the person is not working to make the world a better place.

The third of the problematic ideas is the idea that those who do not agree are just “sheeple” or “brainwashed.” The moment someone pulls this idea into a conversation all intelligent conversation has to stop. It means that certain people feel they know all the answers. There is no wiggle room or space for ideas to be discussed. Closely related to this is the idea that if people don’t agree with us already they aren’t worth worrying about (or that since the media is against us isn’t worth trying to work with it.)

Added to the above issues, was a general problem with how to have discussions about issues. Productive conversation comes about by getting to the heart of issues. Why are people really disagreeing? What are they trying to say? What information is missing or contested? What different values do people hold? Conversations that turn to insulting people (even “the enemy”) are not productive, and yes, I know I do that wrong too. But I think, if the left really wants to awaken people, to build a real movement, we need to learn better how to converse with one another, how to share information without being condescending and how to listen to others views. It isn’t just a matter of politeness, it is a matter of no one having the full story and us all having a lot to learn.

Those are the ideas I see as most problematic. I’m sure this list is by no means exhaustive. There are probably other problems in the local group too and there were of course many, many wonderful things about the local Occupy group. I want to remember the good conversations I had, the wonderful people I’ve met and the feeling (possibly naive) of being part of something making a difference in the world. Writing this is not meant to be a rejection of the memories, people or experience. I’m writing this because I wanted to clear my own thoughts on the issue, and I want to remember the lessons I have learned from this experience.

There are many interesting topics that I wish I could have more discussions on. I would love to talk with people about their understanding of the role of government. Is government a necessary evil? Is it something that could be used for good but has been co-opted by evil? Or is government just a reflection of the will of the people, and the problems of our government willingly chosen by the majority of people? I’d like to discuss the big philosophical ideas.

I’d also like to discuss smaller issues. I’d like to talk about tuition fees. Does it make sense to have post-secondary education free, as my husband would argue, or would that result in taxpayers subsidizing young people’s party-time too much? Does having more complete scholarships tied with grades create unfairness for those who come from lower economic backgrounds? Would it be unfair to those with learning disabilities? Would giving special treatment for those with learning disabilities be unfair to those who still struggle but don’t qualify?

What about minimum wage? Would increasing minimum wage hurt small business owners too much? Having full time employed people live below the poverty line suggests that we are letting employees be exploited. Can we justify that simply by saying that the businesses would fail if it isn’t allowed? But then small businesses are often competing with larger businesses that can exploit people overseas. Maybe we need to crack down on that exploitation more and/or find other ways of subsidizing small businesses. (Subsidize small businesses directly perhaps, but require them to pay wages high enough that minimum wage employees aren’t using the food banks.) Or have different minimum wages for businesses that hire more than ten employees. What about having a guaranteed annual income so the government tops up the income of anyone living below the poverty-line, no questions asked?

The occupy movement has been successful at bringing certain ideas to the public’s attention more. Mainstream media has been talking more about inequality and what to do about it. I would love though, to see more conversations on smaller levels too. Or perhaps they are happening, and what I wish is that I could find a way to be part of those conversations.

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  • Eireann

    Thank you so much for writing this! These problems are unfortunately not just unique to your city, a lot of them are here in Portland. I had to shake my head when I saw the word “sheeple”, because I’ve already had several arguments with people who are dismissive of those that they THINK are brainwashed, and they use that exact same word! I also don’t have time to attend all the GA meetings, but still want my voice heard. I am going to volunteer for Occupy here but I strictly want to do more organizing work and online things (especially stuff like “buy local” resource books for the holidays) – I do have problems with the way Occupy is run, and it echoes what you write here, but I feel that it’s also a huge movement and can reach a lot of people. I definitely want to be a part of that.

  • Ms.Marx

    I saw a lot of these issues myself and even wrote about some of them with respect to both Toronto and Sudbury protests.

    I had a similar experience in that I couldn’t go often with children, and having kids prevented me from sleeping on site. I was there everyday for the first week, but still felt like I was often being told that I mattered less than those who were “camping out”. This was despite the fact that I study social movements and, although I am by no means the most knowledgeable when it comes to discussing these issues, I do have a certain level of expertise that could possibly be of help at times, which is something that you mentioned in your post as well.

    It began to feel like tiers were created… those who were able to sleep at the site were constructed as more important than those who were involved in other ways, be it online or through other related events. It didn’t matter the reasons for not being there (work, family responsibilities, disability, etc), all that mattered was who was physically present and who was not.

    I think Sudbury had some very important things happening… we were among the most actively involved in making extremely marginalized groups, such as the homeless, feel welcome in the movement from what I have seen. We had a considerable number of workshops, considering our small size. But we also had problems, such as a lack of positive visibility that was not often addressed and I was dismissed when I brought it up.

    I think we have a lot to learn from this experience. We need to figure out how to take the positives and keep working on them, learn from the negatives, and build it into something new. As much as I would like to have the physical site, maybe not having it will help extend the reach to those with somewhat less time or ability to physically occupy that space and let a new/expanded group get involved and continue working on some of the issues that were brought up through occupy.

  • Happybeing

    Thank you for this article and I saw the same thing you saw. Sounds like there were competing interest or objectives happening at Occupy just like in the rest of our competitive world. Some wanted to work within the status quo while others wanted to scrap it and start over. Which is better? Occupy by itself could not and will not change peoples beliefs in competition as what serves us best. But does competition really serve us well? In this case competing interest divided people within Occupy which did not serve us well. Those who were there 24/7 thought they were better occupiers then the people who only came during the day or when they could.

    Competitiveness dividing the good intention into disjunction dysfunction by both those who felt their contributions where more valuable and those who thought they may have been right by feeling slighted and so stopped participating. However, life does not have to be a competition as we are lead to believe it is. If we all wanted to do right instead of being right success would almost be automatic. Life could be cooperative if we decided it to be so and realized it may serve us better to cooperate with each other instead of competing ourselves out of existence. But our conditioning which says life is a competition is strong as is evident in the above blog.

    The unsustainability of our systems means it is not a question of whether we will change or not, but, when and how will we change. It would behoove us to start transitioning into proper management of our world as soon as possible. We can not continue to ignore the physical laws of nature which dictates what is and is not sustainable without consequences. Math is not an opinion and if people can do the math then and only then can they know this is true. What is left is proper action. Pretty hard when so many people are out of touch with reality and unable of critical thinking and feel the need to be right instead doing right.

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