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Occupy Wall Street's Rebel Spirit: Where Next?

One year after the movement sparked, The Tyee talks to two members still fired up.

By David P. Ball, 17 Sep 2012, TheTyee.ca

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While the numbers never again reached the massive crowd attending Occupy Vancouver's Day One, the art gallery lawns were crammed with thousands on Oct. 22, 2011, to hear David Suzuki voice his support. Photo by David P. Ball.

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One year ago, a movement against economic and social inequality sprung up in North America -- riding the optimistic wake of the Arab Spring and upheaval worldwide, in part the aftermath of the worst financial crisis in many decades.

Occupy Wall Street's call-to-action was distinctly British Columbian -- trumpeted by Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine -- but each encampment, in each place, took unique form. Within a month, hundreds of tent protests had echoed New York City's, and B.C. was no exception: camps blossomed in Vancouver, Victoria and several other places in the province.

Using horizontal decision-making in daily "General Assemblies," the encampments grew. At its apex, Occupy's cause held the sympathies of a majority of Vancouver's residents according to opinion polls: Something was resonating.

But with a civic election in full swing, B.C.'s largest encampment soon became a political football. When Ashlie Gough -- a 23-year old scuba diver, globe-trotter and body modification artist -- died of a drug overdose at the camp on Nov. 5, however, the picture darkened. Calls to send in the police escalated; in the end, the city used fire safety fears to break up the camp.

Last week, the only remaining Occupy camp -- in the front lobby of a Hong Kong bank -- was finally evicted.

On Saturday, Occupy Vancouver participants regrouped to mark the one-year anniversary and strategize.

One year after Occupy Wall Street, The Tyee spoke with two women involved in Vancouver and Victoria, respectively. D.L. Williams is an artist, writer and community worker. Anushka Nagji is a law student who also organized with a national Occupy network.

They insist they're no spokespeople for the movement, but just two individuals who -- inspired by an idea -- got involved. Here are excerpts of our conversations:

What propelled you to first become involved in Occupy?

WILLIAMS: In a sense, it was an extension of things I was already involved in -- wanting to change the corrupt system we live in. I was involved the moment I heard of Occupy Wall Street. I happened to be moving to Vancouver at the time that Occupy Vancouver was starting... I got immediately on board.

NAGJI: I'd been involved in multiple forms of activism throughout my life. I grew up in a family where activism wasn't only encouraged, but we did activism together: volunteer work, working with organizations in the city core, and food banks.

I watched with real anticipation and excitement that the Arab Spring, the revolution in Spain -- things that felt really moving and powerful -- could happen anywhere. Then Occupy Wall Street came along and really exploded onto the scene in a way I'd never experienced. It was very exciting -- there was a pull there. I wanted to drop everything -- to leave law school and give everything to the movement! Luckily, Occupy Wall Street spread and people were able to get meetings going in Victoria about perhaps setting up a chapter there.... Here was my chance to be part of something I'd been watching for a while. I needed it; I showed up and was immediately consumed in the people, the excitement and the general feeling of change, of newness, of novelty, of the power of that night -- hook, line and sinker!

And what spoke most to you about the idea?

W: It's not just one idea, right? It's a whole series of things -- addressing inequities and inequalities embedded within and spread across our system. Yes, it's about financial inequality, yes it's about anti-capitalism; but it's also about addressing the systemic inequities that capitalism is built on and sustained through.

N: My involvement in Occupy didn't centre around one specific issue or set of issues; it centred around understanding that the system I'm living in -- that I participate in and abide by -- is wrong.... The feelings of alienation I'd been living with came to a head, I feel for a lot of people. They manifested as issues around corporations, but for me the root cause was that everything we've built -- bureaucracy, government, the way people vote and interact with power and politics -- all of it is not benefiting the majority of the population it's supposed to benefit. In fact, it suppresses the majority of people it's supposed to be serving.

Looking back a year later, what was most important about the movement, for you? How has it impacted your life?

W: It politicized me in ways that I hadn't been before; it broadened my analysis. I had been quite siloed within violence-against-women issues before -- issues of trauma and recovery, addictions and mental health, sexuality and gender -- in particular with women and youth. (Occupy) made me have to question larger things that are going on related to these issues and beyond them. It made me start connecting the dots.

N: Throughout the years I've spent volunteering, doing activism, creating organizations and participating in them, going to marches and rallies -- they're all building towards sense of political or bodily empowerment that I individually matter and have a voice. In a way, that feels quite liberating and empowering. Occupy, for the period of time it existed in my life ... really gave me a strong sense of empowerment and purpose. It put me on a path to understanding larger issues, and not only understanding them, but thinking about solutions to systemic issues.

What, in your view, was the key idea? Do you feel the message was heard?

W: I feel like Occupy barely scratched the surface. I don't know that Occupy ever had a central message worked out.... What it did was make explicit -- and push into visible consciousness -- something already brewing and out there. Speaking to distant friends, family and acquaintances, it was definitely a topic of conversation. The message that this system is not working -- and we need to do something -- I feel that was successful.

N: I don't know if there was one key idea. I think Occupy as a general movement has this theme within it of love and community; that was very exciting.... There was such a diversity of encampments and people involved, so you'd have a diversity of answers. But in my mind, it was the general feeling of love, community and empowerment that Occupy encouraged and allowed to flourish; that's the idea of Occupy for me. Unfortunately, it was very put down and destroyed, not just by external forces but internal forces as well.

What kind of internal forces?

N: If you come from the concept that we live in a patriarchal and racist society -- and you understand we all exist as fish living in that ocean -- it affects everything about our day-to-day living: where we go to school, who we fuck, the places we go, all those things. Occupy was very much a piece of that (system). As much as it strove to try to step out of those internally embedded systemic issues, it was unable to appropriately address them. It was such a short period of time, setting out with a group of strangers, some of whom were much further along in understanding privilege, racism and gender politics.

What was your most inspiring or poignant moment during the encampment?

W: The Run on the Banks (Oct. 22) was unbelievable. There were hundreds of people willing to push the boundaries of daily acceptable behaviour and willing to interrupt business as usual -- going into the banks and having a party inside, celebrating the fact that we are standing together in resistance. It was a moment of genuine empowerment.... There was a sense of exuberance and resistance that was really beautiful. Coming back to my earlier point of how it politicized me -- it was an action that politicized whole groups of people who had never previously considered themselves activists, such as myself.

N: We were really lucky to have had a lot of musicians camped out with us for a while, occupying the space. In the later hours of the night, we'd have late dinners for those coming off the streets and people who would come over after work. I have very fond and warm memories of our after-dinner singalongs, where you'd have people who would generally have never met each other -- much less shared a meal, songs, space and warmth -- doing those things. That spontaneous creation of community, night after night ... was very inspiring.

What was the most difficult or painful moment?

W: There were also many of those. It's no small challenge, having a whole group of people from varying life experiences -- varying socio-economic class, race, gender, orientation, abilities -- coming together into one space to try to quote-unquote 'change the world'.... There was a lot of unchecked and invisible privilege in the [Occupy Vancouver] space. It was definitely hard to hear each other and make space for people to speak and be heard; there were a lot of oppressive dynamics.... Just because we came together in the name and spirit of resistance, doesn't mean we don't recreate the very conditions we came together to resist.

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Nearly a month after Occupy Wall Street began, Vancouver took up the cause, with thousands attending the establishment of Occupy Vancouver at the art gallery. Photo by David P. Ball.

N: We had a really fantastic first few weeks or even a month when everything was still quite new, when we were still learning about each other, we were gracious and polite, and the public was quite interested in the encampment and would show up bringing food.... It very much felt like the Occupy encampment was part of the community, and had even become the best piece of the city.

W: It became clear, as the (2011 Vancouver civic) election started nearing its end and the encampment was slowly-but-surely infiltrated by police presence -- and the whole fire safety thing, all these moments of the fire department coming in and looking at our tents, defining what wasn't safe -- each time there was an interaction (with authorities), it caused breakdowns within the movement. As opposed to focusing on the issues of why we were there and where we want to go, we had to talk about the logistics of where our tents would be, and who would have to agree if we moved them. It became a subtle tactic.

N: All of a sudden, the politicians and media decided that this wasn't going to do anymore, and they needed to move everybody out. They convinced the rest of the city that we weren't a real community -- and that we were all street drug users, ne'er-do-wells that they don't want in their city. And the public believed them. Again, internally, there were a lot of issues as well: our lack of ability to deal with elephants in the room, like queer politics, gender gap issues, and race issues.

W: Then, after Ashlie (Gough)'s death, there was an increase in police presence -- we were suddenly 'dangerous.'

Could you say more about how her death affected the community?

W: It was painful on a number of fronts. On one hand, drug overdoses are not something unique to Occupy. We had statistics about the number of heroin overdoses in 2011, but we now had an individual overdose who was a member of our community.... It was a big deal that there was a heroin overdose -- but on the other hand, it happens regularly on the streets of Vancouver, and there is no mass sympathy or outrage on a daily basis. But when a member of our community died ... there was no space to actually mourn her death or deal with it as a community. The loss of Ashlie became a public spectacle about the safety of our camp, and whether or not we could stay. The whole thing was really upsetting.

Can you think of something most people don't know about the camp or the movement, some feature that got overlooked by the media?

W: The camp especially, the work that went into creating it. Having the [People's] Library and all the resources available on site, and all the different places people liked: the tea hut, the number of donations we had of thoughtful items, the blankets, the food; there was even an arts space and book club! I was surprised by this whole little world, this microcosm, we created there.... All of that has its magic.

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Participants of the People's Assembly of Victoria, the name adopted by Occupy's branch in BC's capital. Photo by Anushka Nagji.

One year on, what key lessons do you think people took from the Occupy Wall Street experiment?

N: Empowerment is the biggest lesson I took away. I can do great things, and not only can I do great things, but everyone can do great things! When we get together and realize that all of us together can do even better things, it's exciting; it almost makes me less anxious about the world, and less anxious about what's going to happen when shit gets crazy. Humanity, community and love is still possible; it happened! And we are all empowered to create that every day.

W: It was about organizing with people and working through relationships, developing them, and recognizing this isn't something that's going to happen overnight. Systemic change is a long-term goal to work towards. There are so many interlocking factors; there's not going to be one easy fix.

What's next?

W: We keep building and changing the world we live in. The "what's next" is already happening.... As I said: Occupy barely scratched the surface. And Occupy was only one moment in a continuum of moments and movements that are going strong.... The conditions we are facing are not going to magically resolve themselves. Everyone is being directly hit by this (system) now, right? The growth economy leaves very little room for us to keep growing. People are being hit -- families -- but it's hitting on a large scale.... This movement is a manifestation that (discontent) is no longer just under the surface.

N: What's next? The world! I don't know what's next.... I would be so excited to see if there is a possibility of doing another solidarity movement. It doesn't have to be encampment, but it seems that a lot of the power in Occupy, and how it spread, came from the national, international, global solidarity. I want to get to something else that taps into the collective consciousness -- and revitalize the rebel spirit that's been awoken in our hearts -- that's where I want to be.  [Tyee]

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