So I’ll confess I sounded a bit maudlin on Monday when looking at how things were shaping up for the Occupy Vancouver movement. I don’t know that my mood has changed much since then, but I have some new insights.
As some of you know, the city was granted an unjunction to remove all persons and structures present on the lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery so that the city could ‘clean’. I put this in quotes because I sincerely doubt the city’s intention to remove anything other than protesters they don’t like. Antipathy toward the movement has been turned up as the movement has progressed. Some of the blame for this can probably be laid at the feet of the protesters themselves, who failed to articulate the reasons why the occupation itself was necessary. The majority of fingers, however, can be pointed at the ridiculously one-sided media coverage it has received.
There was no shortage of people capable of articulating the ideology of the occupation at the site. There were passionate, coherent, well-informed people running sound equipment, organizing marches, working at the library and info tents, plus volunteer medical staff always within earshot. What the media has done instead is consistently focussed on the more flamboyant members of the group. I am not so cynical as to consider this an intentional campaign of misinformation by a media that wishes to maintain the corporate status quo. At the same time, however, considering that this criticism is leveled at them regularly – to the point where protesters have stopped talking to the media at all - makes me think that they are either just really stubborn in their stupidity, or that there is indeed an element of intentionality:
Earlier this week, CTV reporter Mi-Jung Lee was shouted down by an Occupy Vancouver participant who urged viewers to “stop listening to their lies” — and he’s hardly the only one unhappy with media coverage of the protest. The man, who was arrested protesting former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney’s recent Vancouver visit and charged with assault, stood behind Lee as she reported on the Occupy encampment during a live TV broadcast Tuesday night.
“It’s just a lie, whatever she tells you is a lie about what’s going on here,” he yelled. It wasn’t the first tense moment between journalists and protesters. Last Wednesday, as ambulances arrived at the camp to help a woman in medical distress, protesters blocked cameras and accused the media of “spin-doctoring everything that goes on here.”
So whether the media is just incompetent or corrupt, they have been instrumental in undermining public opinion of the movement. This is unfortunate, because as I pointed out earlier today, the problems are germane to a wide swath of the public who would, given the right information, stand in solidarity with the aims (if not the means).
I took the day off on Monday (every time someone says that people need to “Occupy a job” as though that’s something clever’ I want to shake them violently and tell them that some of us are taking time away from careers we are passionate about in order to participate) and went down to help the cleanup effort. Occupy Vancouver had a library, a food pavillion, an info tent, and a wide variety of other services it was providing for free. The essential element that everyone seems to be missing is that the reason the protests are attracting the homeless and jobless is because they don’t exactly have a lot of other options:
With city shelters stretched to capacity, Occupy Vancouver is needed to give many homeless a place to stay, a lawyer for one of the protesters argued in B.C. Supreme Court Wednesday. Urging the court not to grant an injunction ordering the month-old tent city dismantled, Jason Gratl said the protest encampment has become a key refuge for those with nowhere to go at night. About half of those sleeping at the site are homeless, he said. “There are insufficient shelter beds in the city of Vancouver. … They have nowhere else to go.”
Outside court, lawyer Michael McCubbin, who represents several protesters, said a survey by Occupy Vancouver estimated that upward of 30 occupants of the site are homeless. Those involved in providing overnight shelter confirm that, as winter approaches, capacity in the city is virtually full.
This connects to a larger issue that I think hasn’t been explored elsewhere. The occupation is attracting First Nations people, the mentally ill, the disabled, and the otherwise fringe elements of the society. It is not because Occupy is a fringe issue – it’s because these people are ignored in larger society. Imagine facing major problems every day and being ignored by the courts, the media, the political establishment, and even by your fellow human beings. Try to picture the sense of hopelessness and despair that accompanies that. Maybe some reading this are newly out atheists – remember the feeling when you first encountered another godless person who actually understood what you were going through? That’s the feeling that many attending the occupations have every day. They are finally being listened to, and being invited to take part in and shape the direction of society for the first time ever.
That is what Occupy is about – finding a new way to engage with each other to make changes to society where the voice of the minority is truly heard, rather than simply being a photo opportunity at a campaign stop, or a promise that is quickly forgotten once elections are over. Our democracy is sick, and these are people who feel, some for the first time, that they can actually participate in a way that doesn’t end up with them being shut out. People who are impatient that Occupy hasn’t changed the world yet (yes, I have actually heard this expressed by critics) are failing to recognize the depth and scope of the problems. These issues take a lot of time to work out, most of which is the time it takes to get someone to actually listen and understand an idea that is foreign to them.
The occupation in Vancouver has vowed not to stop their work, even as they have been displaced. The city has promised to house some of the people who were sleeping in the tents – I’m sure they wouldn’t tell you that the protest didn’t accomplish anything. The longer-term and more diffuse goals of the movement, however, will be achieved at a pace that is far more languid than the average attention span can keep track of. As the camp itself stops being the symbol of the movement, action will have to be taken by those who can work from behind the scenes. Crucial to this, however, will be the need to continue the dialogue with those underrepresented persons, or the movement will succumb to the social pressures of corporate greed and the supremacy of economic ‘growth’. The movement will need to be kept honest, and will need to sell its message to the public at the same time. I hope to be able to contribute in my own small way.
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