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Occupy Vancouver and the fight for human rights

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The "Occupy Wall Street" protests are rapidly growing and spreading from New York to other cities in America and Canada. Vancouver will join the list with a protest scheduled for Oct. 15 at the Art Gallery.

The protests may yet fizzle out, but the news out of New York City suggests that a fire has been kindled in the hearts of many otherwise ordinary, non- political people who normally go about their lives just trying to raise families and make ends meet while quietly fuming about the machinations of those in power. Those who started the Wall Street protests and took the brunt of the initial police brutality may have been from some part of the left-of-centre spectrum, but this demographic may not hold for much longer. A resonance with this spirit of resistance seems to be spreading around the world and involving those who likely never held a protest placard in their lives.

The anger of those in the streets, and those watching at home, manifests against the financial elite and the banks who gamble with and control our lives and at governments which seem to care more for the powerful than for their own citizenry. Underlying it all is a growing sense that something is simply not right in our world, not just with the more egregious excesses of predatory capitalism, but with an entire system of finance and politics that degrades people and the natural world alike. For many, it is hard to escape the gut feeling that we are trapped in a death spiral and that if we are to pull out, it had better be damned soon.

In Europe, countries like Greece are facing an International Monetary Fund-imposed fiscal crisis and the virtual sell-off of the entire country. As the Greek parliament conspires with the IMF and the banks to cut wages and pensions, there has been a mental shift not seen for years as the notion of resistance begins to have overtones of outright rebellion.

Much of the unrest in Europe mirrors philosophically the so-called Arab Spring which has seen popular uprisings from Syria to Morocco against corrupt, despotic regimes, often those supported overtly or covertly by the United States. Even Israel, which in the face of its perceived enemies appears united, now has protest tent cities springing up to confront its own government.

Of particular note was the armed uprising in Libya, a rebellion actively supported by our own government. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, before dispatching war planes, even noted that "you are for human rights, or you aren't." Leaving aside who the Libyan rebels actually are or for whom they are really fighting, the likely unintended message for the rest of us was actually pretty clear: People are justified in fighting for their rights when governments do not listen. The same people are justified in taking up arms when the same governments use the force of the state to suppress dissent. We got the memo, Mr. Harper: Rebellion, even armed rebellion, is acceptable. Here is the return Post-it note: The rules of rebellion don't just apply to Libyans, but to anyone, anywhere, anytime an unresponsive government fails to respond to the needs of its citizens. If it's true in Benghazi, then it's true in Athens and New York. It's even true in Toronto and Vancouver.

What do the "occupy" protests mean and where are they heading? At this early stage, no one can really know. Even the organizers likely don't know, neither here in Vancouver or in New York. Maybe the protests will fizzle, as popular expressions of anger so often do. Maybe they will be co-opted by those in power as a means to gain still more power.

Or, just maybe, the protests will grow, diversify, and become even more radical in their demands. Maybe, rather than merely being about corruption and the unholy power of the banks and financial elite, the protests will inculcate the spirit of resistance to confront the very status quo, including the sometimes blithe acceptance that is somehow right for settler societies anywhere to dispossess Native peoples of their lands and rights.

Maybe, at least in Vancouver, the Occupy Vancouver protest will come to stand for the opposite of what the Steven Harpers, Christy Clarks and Gregor Robertsons hold dear and begin to transform the city into one where thousands don't sleep in the streets, where the city is not given over to the circuses of the powerful, and where all of the people who live here have complete control of the elements of their lives.

If the latter is true, here or elsewhere, it may come at a considerable cost. Those who rule didn't get there by being passive and are not likely to go quietly into a new social order where their power is diminished if not utterly dissolved. We can expect them to fight back, the intensity of their response in direct proportion to the level of threat they perceive. Against this power, we have the right to press our demands and resist the continuing take over of our city, our country and our world. And, if the powers that be use violence, then we have the right to use whatever ethical means necessary to protect ourselves.

It shouldn't have to come to that, but if it does, then we are within our human rights to fight back. Mr. Harper told us so.

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