12. 21. 2021
Festivals of the Possible
Ten years ago, I was in a tent in St. James Park in downtown Toronto, close to the financial district. I was frantically organizing: publishing a print newspaper, coordinating protests, liaising with unions, and putting out fires both figurative and literal. We tried to handle the ever-present mud by putting down straw, but as fall deepened into winter, the cold and damp became serious impediments to staying in the park. I was part of the Occupy movement, a semi-spontaneous and slightly disorganized array of protest camps that changed the Global North’s political landscape.
At Occupy Toronto, I was both an organizer and a writer/editor. I published a weekly broadsheet for the park occupation, and wrote for a larger audience that was following the Occupy movement in Canada through the Media Co-op, then at the height of its influence and publishing a special #Occupy page that coordinated coverage across the country. One of my main self-appointed tasks was to try to bring theory onto the ground at Occupy Toronto, and to try to explain to the larger world exactly what was developing there. In some ways this essay is a continuation of that work.
The Occupy movement in Canada
Occupy was about many things. It was about inequality and class. It was about homelessness. It was about the subprime mortgage crisis and the 2008 economic crash, and the corporate bailouts that followed. It was about a generation whose concerns over paltry minimum wages and overwhelming student debt and unaffordable housing had been ignored. It was the Internet come into the streets – including some of the Internet’s conspiracist and fascist elements. It was a meme, and it was an encampment. It was a kind of self-organized social service, feeding people and trying (and failing) to deal with addiction and domestic violence and mental illness. It was confusing, both to people observing and to people on the ground. It was exciting and it was also kind of fucked up.
One of the first of the so-called hashtag movements (#IdleNoMore and #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo would follow), Occupy combined significant online activity with in-person actions in public spaces. Occupy also coincided with, and formed a layer of, the global “movement of the squares” – mass uprisings, of which the largest were the Los Indignados protests in Spain and the revolutionary upheavals in Tahrir Square in Egypt, part of the Arab Spring. Some of these movements partly rebranded as Occupy protests once the latter picked up steam. There were significant Occupy protests in England and Scotland, but mostly it was a movement based in the United States and Canada, with Occupy Wall Street in New York City’s Zuccotti Park serving as the movement’s inspiration and key node.
Occupy’s call to action came first from the anarchist-leaning magazine Adbusters, based in Vancouver and among the survivors of the 1990s’ surge of anti-corporate activism. It was surprising that the call actually caught on, as other Adbusters efforts like Buy Nothing Day hadn’t really taken off. Many big cities like Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Montreal; smaller cities like Hamilton and London, Ontario; and even towns like Nelson and Nanaimo in British Columbia and Sault Ste. Marie in Northern Ontario had their own Occupy protests – all with local characters, but connected to Occupy’s broader North American and global contexts.
In Toronto, Occupy took place a little more than a year after the police repression of the 2010 G20 protests. It benefited from significant anger in the city against the police, who had kettled, beaten, and arrested not only G20 protesters and activists but also many people who’d had nothing to do with the summit. Occupy Vancouver unfolded in the wake of the 2010 Winter Olympics in that city, which had displaced Indigenous people and increased pressure on low-income areas already struggling with colonial dispossession, high rates of drug addiction, and an escalating housing crisis.
In Montreal, Occupy presaged the much more organized 2012 Quebec student strike that would become known as the Maple Spring (printemps érable) – a militant response to a tuition increase planned by the Liberal government then in power in Quebec. Facing low wages and high youth unemployment, Quebec students were determined that they not be saddled with student debt as their counterparts were (and are) in English Canada and especially in the US. In March 2012, I was there in the streets of Montreal, which were filled with people, strikers and supporters spilling up and down the broad avenues as far as the eye could see. Not just students, but also workers, organizations of poor people, broad sectors of society backed the movement – especially when state repression increased, and people began to support the strike with nightly pots-and-pans-banging protests, dubbed “casseroles.” During the strike, there was a small contingent still using #Occupy branding, with that movement’s signature cardboard signs. Though most of the strike’s organizing happened through pre-existing student organizations (the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE), the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ), and the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ)), as well as through trade unions and other political groups, much of the strike’s energy felt clearly related to Occupy and the broader international movement of the squares.
Across the country, Occupy was criticized for not taking Indigenous issues seriously enough. Even the name “Occupy,” with its settler-colonial implications, was a problem; the hashtag #decolonize was adopted as an alternative at some encampments, a move that was met with varying degrees of resistance and acceptance.
Vanloads of occupiers travelled from Toronto to the nearby reserve at Six Nations of the Grand River and connected with Mohawk Workers and other Haudenosaunee groups. Settlers at the Toronto encampment pushed each other to learn the histories of the tract of land we were on. We discussed the specifics of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s six distinct nations; the Anishinaabe people; the Huron-Wendat who now reside in Quebec; and other Indigenous peoples who either historically lived in the area or are now living in Toronto. A sacred fire and an Indigenous area were set up on Anglican Church land at the east side of the park, as it was hoped that the church would take seriously its stated commitments to reconciliation and not allow the police to evict Indigenous people from the church-owned park section. (It was a last-minute Media Co-op investigation, including an 11th hour visit to the city archives, that determined without a doubt that the church owned that section of the park). But the church didn’t come through on reconciliation (surprise!), and the Indigenous protest area, its medics, and its food tent (which served 1000 people daily) were cleared by police at the same time as the rest of the park.
The failure to take Indigenous issues seriously that characterized Occupy, the refusal to foreground justice for Indigenous people, continues to be a pressing problem for progressive organizations of all kinds in the Canadian settler state. But Occupy introduced to so-called Canada a new form of movement organizing that would also find expression in the Indigenous-led Idle No More movement the following year: semi-spontaneous, spread through the Internet using hashtags and memes, but with a physical presence across the country.
As a “hashtag movement,” Occupy also affected #BlackLivesMatter in complex ways. Occupy in Canada largely failed to take Black issues seriously, but the most progressive US Occupy encampments placed Black issues at the forefront. Occupy Oakland did so from the start, renaming the occupied park Oscar Grant Plaza, after a local Black man who had been killed by transit police in 2009. Occupy Oakland had a de facto spokesperson in Boots Riley, a well-known revolutionary hip hop artist with massive grassroots popularity. In Atlanta, rapper Killer Mike was involved in Occupy and later became a visible supporter of Black Lives Matter. The emphasis on racism and police brutality at such US Occupy encampments helped lay some of the groundwork for the Black Lives Matter movement, which first erupted in 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the extrajudicial killing of teenager Trayvon Martin.
In Toronto specifically, there wasn’t a direct link between Occupy and Black Lives Matter, except insofar as both belonged to a new wave of semi-spontaneous mobilizations coordinated partly by hashtags. While there were some Black individuals at Occupy Toronto who shined a light on issues facing their communities, Occupy Toronto as a collective did not engage with Black issues or the long history of Black organizing in the city – not even to the extent that it engaged with Indigenous issues. For its part, Black Lives Matter Toronto emerged not simply as part of any US movement but instead as a response to local events: most of all, the police shootings of Jermaine Carby and Andrew Loku in 2014 and 2015 respectively. (BLM-TO has continued to place Toronto-specific crises at the centre of its work: organizing to get police out of the city’s Pride parade, for example, and to win justice for Afro-Indigenous woman Regis Korchinski-Paquet, whose police-involved death in 2020 coincided with the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis that kicked off that summer’s Black-led uprisings.) Before Occupy, there had been no shortage of effective Black organizing against police brutality in Toronto, but the white-dominated media had often ignored it. With encampments like Occupy Oakland turning up the volume on the racist oppression of Black people, that began to change. As it emerged as an independent movement, Black Lives Matter distinguished itself from Occupy by consistently taking steps to consolidate gains, formulate clear demands, and create organizations – bridging spontaneity and durability with methods that drew on rich histories of Black community organizing.
Organization, spontaneity, technology
The tension between organization and spontaneity, and how they’re mediated by technology, has long been of both theoretical and practical interest to marxists and other progressive organizers. In her short book The Mass Strike, the Political Parties, and the Trade Unions (1906), the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemberg traced how general strikes broke out in various Russian cities early in the 20th century, inspired by each other and semi-spontaneously arising – and how the development of the telegraph, as well as the newspaper, encouraged this contagion, spreading news of strike activity that was then replicated elsewhere. Occupy, a movement of this same type, spread by way of new digital technologies: the Internet, social media. The central tactic of occupying a public park or square, the “We are the 99%” slogan, the People’s Mic (a crowd echoing a speaker’s words to amplify them), the general assembly decision-making body: propagated by the Internet, this recipe was replicated across the US and Canada and, to a lesser extent, in Europe and other places.
With its technology-assisted spontaneity, Occupy was criticized at the time by mainstream media and the established left for supposedly not having demands, and for lacking clear leadership or spokespeople. The decade directly before Occupy had seen a lot of carefully stage-managed protests: some planned by NGOs with professional staff, some driven by volunteer activists in tightly structured groups. Campaigns led by Greenpeace or other NGOs had modest, achievable demands; they were accountable to institutional grantors and other funders, to whom those non-profits had to show gains.
A strategy of well-organized, centrally planned summit and event protests had predominated on the Canadian settler left since the 2001 Quebec City protests and 2003’s massive demonstrations against the Iraq war. That strategy had persisted, more or less, up to the 2010 G20 protests in Toronto. But Occupy caused a rupture in this established way of doing things, and protest waves since then have more often resembled its model: a spontaneous or semi-spontaneous reaction to events such as horrifying episodes of police brutality or colonial violence against Indigenous people.
When Occupy erupted, most legacy left organizations were still thinking in terms of the former – carefully planned and managed – model of protest. In general, they were far behind in using the Internet to organize and mobilize; they dreamed of coordinated general strikes by unionized workers in the mode of the Days of Action against former premier Mike Harris’s austerity government in Ontario, not protest camps full of youth who in most cases were not able to get stable or unionized employment.
Yet some of the established trade unions saw in Occupy the potential for revitalization. The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) provided funding for porta-potties, yurts, and the newspaper I co-edited. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) provided generators, as well as the temporary power sources for personal Internet use and the media tent that helped connect the Toronto encampment to other Occupies and the outside world. Toronto’s organized left didn’t participate significantly in Occupy, though many individual leftists did – often the youngest members of organizations. A few left organizations, like the Workers’ Assembly and the Communist Party (groups whose memberships at the time consisted mostly of older people), did have presences at St. James Park. Still, the informal leadership on the ground at Occupy Toronto wasn’t institutional. It was a loose network of individuals, many of us in our 30s and coming from an environmental justice organizing background (Dave Vasey, Sakura Saunders, Taylor Flook, and myself, among others), while many new leaders emerged as the encampment progressed. We felt the absence of key organizers from the G20 protests who were still dealing with criminal charges and had bail conditions that didn’t allow them to join us in the park.
Though much about Occupy Toronto was spontaneous, it spurred left and labour organization in the city. In its wake, younger people started to get more involved in union organizing. Alongside others from Toronto’s post-G20 left milieux and organizers from the anarchist-communist group Common Cause, people who had been active in Occupy Toronto revived the local branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The Toronto IWW began to hold trainings and meetings, and to work on wage theft cases. More recently, during Foodora food couriers’ union organizing drive, a number of Toronto IWW members were deeply involved; the IWW itself played a sort of advisory role. While those couriers did not fully implement the IWW’s solidarity unionism model – favouring workers’ direct action and constant organizing over periodic bargaining – legacies of Occupy Toronto remained present as those grassroots courier organizers enlisted the help of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), eventually establishing the new union Gig Workers United.
The consciousness generated by Occupy helped not only to organize new unions, but also to revitalize existing ones. Stewards councils, NextGen (next generation) committees, and other initiatives within existing unions started to activate more millennials. But not enough, and not using all the organizing tools at unions’ disposal. Although most unions now have a token online presence, the power of social media to organize workers across worksites has not truly been harnessed. The 1% – to use the parlance of Occupy – wields digital technology like apps to its benefit, while organizations representing the 99% are too often still relying on organizational technology from the last century.
New technologies can be over-pumped, of course. Communications technologies in themselves are not going to replace the IRL (in real life) components of social movements. In the words of the great poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution will not be televised. But new technologies can play an important role in causing ruptures in old systems, from the mass petition movements in early modern England, to Lenin’s conception of a newspaper as a potential organizing tool, to the telegraph that spurred the mass strikes that Luxemburg evoked, to underground radio. Occupy was one of the first movements to bridge the gap between online and offline organizing in ways that enhanced both.
Occupy could also be weirdly low-tech. In response to a police crackdown on amplifying devices in New York’s Zuccotti Park, occupiers used what they called the People’s Mic, waves of voices echoing a speaker’s words to carry them through the crowd. It became such an Occupy signature that it was adopted at most other Occupy encampments, including those that weren’t facing amplification restrictions. If the movement was made possible by emerging technologies, it was also a workshop for new technologies and organizational possibilities of its own.
Life in a tent encampment (or, Occupy trauma)
I told my friend I was writing an article about Occupy, and he said, “Are you going to include the fact that you have weird PTSD from it? And that Occupy [Toronto] became a drug-fest hellhole?”
There were problems. For all the idealism and energy of Occupy Toronto, we were still living in a city park, and it was not always a safe space. One night we found someone trying to light the diesel from the generator on fire. Sometimes young teenage girls would arrive at St. James Park and we would be worried for their safety. There was domestic violence in the tents. Occupy Toronto did not tolerate fascists or antisemites and would expel them when they showed up (unlike Occupy Ottawa, which decided to tolerate the constant presence of an open neo-Nazi wearing Nazi patches), but not without significant arguments about freedom of speech. Occupy’s fetishization of consensus, tolerance, and lack of formal leadership was all too easily exploited by fascist and conspiracist elements. Some people tried to implement a no-drugs policy; others argued that homeless drug users were in the park first and were the population who most needed political change. There were a lot of fights. A team of marshals tried to train themselves in de-escalation, but then there were accusations that the marshals were abusing their power. At Occupy Vancouver, a 23-year-old named Ashlie Gough died of an overdose, which was the excuse for the city to clear the protest. In Scotland, Occupy Glasgow ended with a rape. There were tent fires. There was brutal police repression, especially in the United States, especially directed at Black and Latina/o/x occupiers.
Some of the movement’s problems stemmed from Occupy’s political governance model. Partly through the influence of the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, Occupy adopted a consensus-based decision-making process, with a general assembly as each occupation’s highest body. Many occupiers at Occupy Toronto interpreted this model as requiring 100% consensus on any decision: an organizational impossibility. The nightly general assemblies became increasingly like mass therapy sessions; people told stories of their struggles and their hopes for the future, but we weren’t able to make decisions about the operational and political strategy of the encampment. I kept trying to convince people of the impossibility of 100% consensus in an open assembly: I wrote articles, I taught a class on consensus governance at a free school I helped organize, I gave workshops about spokescouncils. But it was difficult to bring new theories into a movement that was already dedicated to a particular framework. Various committees sprang up – food, logistics, media, marshals – and a system of committee representatives (a spokescouncil) was partially established, but there were constant tensions around whether this setup was undemocratic, not following the wishes of the general assembly.
As weeks passed, Occupy Toronto started to deteriorate. It was hard to sleep with constant drum circles and screaming and fights and general chaos in the park. Many people at Occupy were suffering from mental illness or otherwise in crisis, and some chose to stop medication in the heightened atmosphere of community and energy. One person declared themselves to be the prophet Elijah. A guy named 13 Dragons made a proposal at the encampment’s general assembly to carry 13 golden Cadillacs down Yonge Street and bury them under the full moon to bring about world peace.
Still, for many who spent time at St. James Park, Occupy was their first experience of community. This was especially the case for youth from the suburbs who had grown up in relatively alienated, isolated single-family homes; for many of them, the communal living and self-coordinated action of Occupy was mind-blowing and inspiring. I remember a young white kid from the suburbs who started to rant to a longtime Colombian-Canadian organizer, Raul Burbano, about the wonderful community that Occupy formed. Burbano eventually interrupted him, exclaiming: “This is new for you, but not for us.” He went on to explain that Latin Americans and many other people of colour have strong traditions of communal living and collective work – the Minga, for example, an Andean Indigenous form of working collectively for the wellbeing of the community. I had hundreds of such conversations with people who were passing through the park, many of whom told me it was their first time talking politics or philosophy. There were free yoga classes and drum circles and art projects and constant intense discussions and plans. There was a significant hippy counterculture element to the Occupy Toronto community, evoking both the positive and negative legacies of the Long Sixties.
As other Occupy protests across North America met with violence and police repression, people in St. James Park started to get paranoid. Lateral violence and infighting grew. Many women started to feel more and more uncomfortable; a women’s yurt was designated as a safe space to sleep, but fewer and fewer women stayed around. Many people had given up their housing or come from faraway cities to participate in Occupy and had nowhere to go other than the encampment. I remember talking to my close friend Dave Vasey about how we needed to leave but couldn’t, because Occupy would continue with or without us and by staying we were helping keep people safer, especially the very young people who kept showing up with stars in their eyes. For weeks, organizers had tempered our lofty political aspirations and committed to the goal that Occupy Toronto should not end with a stabbing, a rape, or an overdose. But it was getting harder and harder to prevent those things from happening.
It’s difficult to admit, but when the police came to evict us – after a biblical 40 days and nights – it was something of a relief for me personally, especially as they were surprisingly non-violent in the wake of widespread anger in Toronto about police violence at the G20 the year before. A few people stayed until the bitter end: Sherry Craig, who was meditating in the library yurt; anti-racist skinhead Joey Ashhole, who stood on top of the main yurt waving a black anarchist flag; and “Logistics Mike,” who climbed a tree, hung upside down by his legs from its branches, and refused to move. But by and large, the park was cleared without much resistance.
Occupy would continue in more diffuse forms over the next year. People who’d been at St. James Park briefly occupied some Crown land at Queen’s Park. An occupation of the courthouse was brutally evicted by the police; to this day, there are signs at City Hall forbidding “tents and yurts,” a direct nod to Occupy’s yurts. People in need of housing squatted some empty buildings; the food team from Occupy Toronto occupied a vacant downtown space; the last temporary “Occupod” moved around the city. Occupy people continued to hold increasingly dysfunctional general assemblies, and acted as part of the protests against Rob Ford’s cuts to city services. But we were never able to build a permanent space of exception like Copenhagen’s Christiania or Exarchia in Greece, as some of us dreamed. Neither could we repurpose any individual buildings or other spaces for permanent community projects, since Occupy was never meant to be a structured organization. Without a lasting central hub, the movement’s embers gave out. Most of the people involved moved on to other organizing and survival projects.
I dunno if I have PTSD from Occupy. Probably. When I’ve been sitting in Trinity Bellwoods Park or Kensington Market’s Bellevue Square Park during the pandemic and the cops have started ticketing people for alcohol, I’ve felt it. I’ve never forgotten the time at Occupy when I argued in favour of a march to support striking workers and was put in a headlock by someone who thought unions were “the man.” I know I have trauma from my life before I became a leftist; probably this is why I became a leftist. I kind of cringe when I hear a drum circle led by white people with dreadlocks. I think a lot of people look to social movement organizing for healing, but the truth is that organizing itself will hurt you, cause its own trauma. My friend Dave Vasey, one of my closest comrades at Occupy, lost his life to suicide in 2019, his mental illness exacerbated by the constant stress of activism and state repression. Another of my closest friends from Occupy ended up going to Syria and losing himself in the awful genocidal tragedy that Syrian, Kurdish, and other peoples experienced there – among the unforeseen consequences of the Arab Spring and the movement of the squares.
Today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, large encampments have sprung up again in city parks. Unlike most of the people who lived at Occupy sites, today’s encampment residents have nowhere to go. The housing crisis has gotten worse and worse; there’s next to no space in the shelter system, and the spaces that do exist are unsafe. Some of the recent encampments have visually resembled Occupy, especially at Trinity Bellwoods, with its art camp that used a lot of cardboard and paint in Occupy’s DIY style. “Hippie Jeff,” a major figure in the communities at Alexander Park and Bellevue Square Park, first became politicized at Occupy Toronto. In some ways he never stopped occupying: he continues to point out the political nature of the city’s housing crisis and tries to keep the parks’ communities together. He said to me recently by the Kensington Market encampment: “What we built at Occupy, what we found: I will spend my life defending that.” The recent park encampments have now been going on for much longer than Occupy did, and the police have brought out their old tools of brutality to evict them. Meanwhile, the drug supply is poisoned with fentanyl, and deaths from drug poisonings have reached epidemic proportions. The far-right and conspiracist elements that menaced Occupy have only grown in power, disrupting social movements and stoking COVID-19 paranoia to deadly effect.
In the face of these crises, there’s a lot of me that wants to ignore the 10-year anniversary of Occupy. It was kind of a messed up experience and I’m kind of messed up from it. But I also feel like it might have been the most important thing I’ve ever done. Though the frustrations and economic inequalities that sparked Occupy have still not been resolved, the movement changed the terrain of political struggle. It’s hard to remember how difficult it was to discuss wealth and income inequality before Occupy. The gig economy, precarious part-time work arrangements, and skyrocketing housing prices were affecting large swaths of the population when Occupy took off, but often not taken seriously in the media or other mainstream discourse. Though tuition kept increasing and student loans were crushing young people forced to contend with the post-2008 recession job market, there was little discussion of debt cancellation or basic income. With its “We are the 99%” slogan, Occupy helped make it possible to talk about class again.
I’ll never forget how, towards the start of Occupy Toronto, as we left the St. James Park encampment and marched down the street, workers unloading a truck cheered us on and took our pamphlets. Taxi drivers refused to charge a fare when they found out where we were going. People constantly showed up to the encampment with food and donations. It felt very different from anything I’d ever been part of. It felt like a social movement. A new beginning.
Megan Kinch is a writer and construction electrician from Toronto. During Occupy she was involved as a movement journalist with the Toronto Media Co-op, and as an organizer. @meganysta on Twitter.