The Occupy movement and questions about place

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The Occupy movements have largely become dramas revolving around the excellent question posed by The Clash: Should I stay or should I go? It's become a story about a place. Some, like London (Ontario) are gone. Others, like London (England) are on notice. Occupy Wall St. is gone but it's back, in a different form. We'll know about Occupy Toronto, apparently, tomorrow. But it's possible that this is the wrong question. Let me offer another view based on a recent visit to Madrid.

The 15-M movement began there last May 15. It wasn't an occupation. It was a protest held in Puerta del Sol square over the economic crisis that became an overnight occupation. Then it was dismantled by authorities, then it turned into a see-saw conflict over whether they would stay or go. A month later, when they finally went, it was by choice. One veteran of 15-M (there are no leaders) said: "It was a strategic move that led to the survival of the movement." Almost happenstantially they had evolved another preference: to fan out into districts of the city (and elsewhere in Spain) and conduct regular meetings with local residents. These then forwarded proposals to a weekly "assembly" held in the square.

If you wander around Occupy sites, like St. Paul's Cathedral in London, England, as I did this week, you often see signs saying, Join Us. It's hard to imagine many of the people who pass by and warily eye the huddled tents, doing so. The Madrid option in a way is the opposite. It's: Join Them. Go into your neighbourhood, try and talk with your neighbours, different as they may be from you. Listen to them as they talk to you and each other.

This is different from a campaign to simply carry the Occupy message (99 per cent versus 1 per cent, etc.) out to "the people." Some organizers of the Occupy movements, wrote the New York Times, are heading in that direction: "trying to broaden their influence ... by deepening their involvement in community groups." The media critic Danny Schecter took a similar tack, urging the movement to use "ads in newspapers, PSAs and even political infomercials on cable TV" in order "to penetrate deeper into small towns, the suburbs ... " etc.

But there's a difference between trying to make a point (Schecter and the organizers quoted by the Times) and trying to engender a social phenomenon (15-M). It's the difference between trying to win an argument, and focusing on the process of discussion itself, in the hope that something transformative might emerge. "We are going to create a new social category," says one 15-M participant, the aim of which is not to convince people to vote a certain way or embrace particular views: "It is simply a widening of the political landscape." It's a goal that sounds simultaneously modest and arrogant.

But the alternate goal for Occupiers: persuading people to see what you already know to be true, à la Schecter and others, is also arrogant. On my way back from St. Paul's, just before crossing the Millenium Bridge over the Thames, I saw the Salvation Army's grand London headquarters. Along its front is written: Jesus said I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life. Similar approach, I'd say.

A new layer of political process wasn't 15-M's agenda at the start. It began as a lashing out in anger and perplexity -- in indignation -- against the costs of the crisis and the inadequate response. It came to what you could call its democratic emphasis gradually; the stress on process emerged from the process. It was never called an Occupy movement, so it had the advantage that its very name didn't press it to stay right there, where it was born.

To some extent, everyone has to find their own way in these matters. I was also in Tunis recently, talking to a veteran foe of the former dictatorship there, when a protest march called Occupy Tunis, steamed by. He shook his head. "The Occupy movements in the West say they got the idea from us. Now it comes back here. I thought we already occupied Tunis ..."

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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