We thank Andrea and Ignite: Undergraduate Journal for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice where this article was first published v. 4, no. 1 (2012) for allowing us to republish this article.
Nowhere are we more immersed in consumer culture than urban centers like Downtown Vancouver. Everywhere you look: emaciated inhuman models on bill boards and bus stops; business people in suits gripping smart phones; hurried shoppers clutching bags in both hands; baristas holding aching wrists with burnt fingers; people running for hurried transit, late for wherever they need to be. And all the while, hidden in alley ways and waiting for coins at store entrances, running a secret economy, the city’s homeless and street population – simultaneously ignored and hyper visible. It is in this context that 5,000 people gathered on October 15th to Occupy Vancouver (OV).
The initial rally was buzzing as it flowed onto the streets, blocking traffic. The tension and sense of expectation was palpable. Many were impatient as we sorted out our consensus system, using our voices to ‘human mike’ each other’s comments. The day carried on and tents were set up as the crowd dissipated. By nightfall only about a hundred people remained. These people made up the beginning of OV’s infamous tent city. Much infrastructure was soon to blossom on site including a kitchen, library, media center, first aid tent, First Nation’s Elders’ tent, anti-oppression and safe space, healing dome, kid’s space, tea tent, movie theatre and public stage and sound system. I slept at OV’s tent city about half the time from its first day until its court-ordered de-construction. The following essay contains my reflections on OV both as a space and as a tactic.
The opinions contained in this essay are shaped by my experience as a camper and long-time social justice and environmental activist, as well as by my education in First Nations studies and Women and Gender studies. I wish to acknowledge my social location as a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, Canadian citizen and university student. I am the first to acknowledge that I have lived a life deeply nestled in privilege, but I work to understand power and oppression and I strive to cultivate a community of respect, resistance and resilience. This essay largely contains my thoughts on the operation of racism and colonialism (and resistance to it) within OV. However I also touch shortly on gender dynamics within the camp. This is part of a long discussion that has been underway for some time and this paper is simply my contribution. I hope it brings us one step forward in our journey to make OV a successful movement, especially as we consider rebuilding the camp in the sprin
The Occupy movement began when Occupy Wallstreet (OWS) came together on September 17th 2011 after a call out from Adbusters magazine (a Vancouver publication). Following the success of OWS international solidarity was called for and over 1,400 occupations sprung up across the world. The Occupy movement was born. On October 15th rallies were held across the world and as crowds dwindled camps were left behind. One of those camps was OV.
The primary focus of the Occupy movement is economic inequality. Much of the messaging targets big banks and corporations and challenges corporate control and collusion with government. The critiques manifested themselves in different ways within different communities. In Vancouver the critiques were broad and encompassed many different issues but much of the organizing tended to center on homelessness, gentrification and poverty. This focus was informed by the civic election that played out concurrently with the occupation. It was an election where we saw the primary race between two candidates, both of whom received thousands of dollars in donations from condominium developers.
Over the duration of the tent city OV appeared in the news almost every day. In my experience the coverage ranged from harsh and often uninformed editorial to “factual” news lacking in depth, context and accuracy. Nonetheless OV was on the minds of most Vancouver residents and it certainly became dinner table conversation. More meaningfully OV was a hub for activism, skill sharing and community building. It provided essential services the city itself was falling short on such as serving over 1,000 meals per day and providing shelter while city shelters were being shut down and turning people away. I heard numerous stories of people coming to OV who drastically reduced their drug intake as a result of the community support they found. Unfortunately the media failed to tell these stories of healing and resilience. Instead they provided inconsistent, reductive, sensationalized and often intentionally polarizing stories of our camp and the events that took place there. For me it was revealing reading about the camp every day because I felt none of the articles accurately portrayed what it was like to live there or what our intentions were. It was not uncommon for multiple articles on the same subject to contradict each other. The experience left me with even less trust in Canada’s mainstream news media than I started with – which is not to say I had much to begin withDespite the media’s poor coverage, I feel OV accomplished a remarkable amount of good. It brought people together in a way I have never experienced before. I am deeply grateful to have been a part of such a remarkable space. At the same time it is important to acknowledge that, while the movement found general agreement on its critique of economic inequality, we sometimes struggled to find consensus on what I consider to be key issues of race and gender inequality. I feel we specifically fell short on meaningfully acknowledging the effects of colonialism on Canadian Aboriginal people. I also think we could have done more to create a safe space for women.
In the planning meeting one week before OV’s enormous rally several people suggested a name change to “De-Colonize Vancouver’. They explained that the land was already occupied and that the name OV did nothing to acknowledge or address this. It was also suggested that a committee be created to address the unique needs and safety concerns of oppressed and marginalized groups such as women, people of colour, people with disabilities and queer people – to name a few. Amongst the large crowd at our first meeting these suggestions were met with strong support from some participants but also a great deal of resistance – mostly from apparently white, able-bodied men. I could feel the tension in the air as people explained that they felt it wasn’t fair to put one cause over another. Some people felt that colonialism is a thing of the past. Others said that they “don’t see colour” and that “we are all equal here so let’s not privilege certain people’s needs over others.”
While I recognize that these people spoke with good intentions, I feel that if you want to create a robust critique of economic inequality you must address the impacts of colonialism, not only on aboriginal people but on the country as a whole. After all, we could not have the unjust and disproportionately distributed economy OV is opposed to without colonialism. Further, colonialism is ongoing and this is demonstrated in many of the projects OV works to critique. An example of this is the Enbridge Gateway pipeline, which if constructed will be built mostly through un-ceded Indigenous territory against fierce community resistance. I wonder how we can expect robust engagement and inclusion of aboriginal people – some of the people most severely affected by income disparity, especially in Vancouver – if we refuse to acknowledge the centrality of colonialism in this struggle? Without doing so I fear this movement may seem irrelevant, useless or perhaps even harmful to people whom could be some of our most powerful allies.
Eventually an acknowledgement that we are on un-ceded Coast Salish territory was included in the Statement of Unity, which was read at the beginning of general assemblies. However, even this was met with resistance from some members. While the inclusion of this statement is important I feel it doesn’t do enough to acknowledge the reality faced by many indigenous people who are currently struggling with the impacts of colonialism. I don’t feel this was a significant enough contribution to create a safe and inclusive space for aboriginal people or people of colour more generally.As the days passed on I heard people make comments similar to the ones from the first meeting: “I don’t see colour” or “we’re all equal here”. While I understand that these comments were well intentioned I think they function to erase pertinent difference between the people in our movement. It is my contention that, if we don’t acknowledge how race impacts the way people interact with spaces and institutions (including ones striving for non-hierarchy like OV), then we manage to ignore the impacts these systems of oppression can have on marginalized groups. Worst of all we set ourselves up to replicate the same patterns of power and privilege we claim to challenge. To me this was demonstrated by the all too typical over-representation of white men using the microphone to voice their opinions and facilitate meetings. It is not that their opinions aren’t meaningful or important, rather I implore us to ask why they feel comfortable speaking in this manner and taking up this kind of space while other groups are under-represented as usual.
Hoping to address the under-representation of non-white and non-male facilitators a proposal was made to exclude white men from the first facilitator training. From my perspective this proposal was not designed to silence white men, but to open up space for people to take on leadership roles who otherwise face barriers to doing so. The proposal was about inclusivity, not exclusion. As with the other meetings described above, the proposal was met with resistance. People from many different social locations, not just white men, made comments like “this is a space for equality so we should not be excluding people from anything”. Again, I feel comments like these work to erase difference by supporting the idea of universal human experience. The comments suggest that the temporary removal of white men, who were already over represented in these roles, would be the same as excluding members from any other demographic. This idea forgets that social forces like racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia (to name a few) are already working to exclude people from these spaces and leadership roles. That’s part of why we see such little diversity in our facilitators in the first place. To counter act this I think it’s important that we intentionally make space for people who otherwise might not step into these roles. If we don’t do this then we allow informal privileged access to be maintained. For me, that is not what equality looks like.All this being said I want to acknowledge the value of OV as a space for dialogue around issues of oppression. For example when someone spoke very strongly against the facilitator-training proposal I almost always witnessed a person taking them aside and engaging them in private conversation. Because of discussions like those OV was a space for dialogue, critical self-discovery and community building. This willingness to explore issues like the impacts of colonialism was further practiced in activities such as regular smudge circles and ceremonies; daily support to the protestors outside the missing and murdered women’s inquiry and giving priority speaking order to First Nations Elders.
On a slightly different topic, I did feel that OV was not always a safe space for women. For example when I was cleaning my dishes a male camper asked whether I was married or had a boyfriend. I didn’t know this person and they had spoken to me for barely two minutes before they began probing me on my personal and dating life. The conversation left me feeling disrespected. I felt this man felt entitled to speak to me this way – as if what mattered to him was whether or not I was available to him, not who I am or what valuable contributions I was making to this space. I felt his questions also assumed I would be interested in dating him even though I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me. Essentially I wonder if he assumed I would be open to this conversation simply because he perceived me to be a heterosexual woman. That is a lot of harmful assumptions to be making, ones I think OV members need to question if we hope to create a space that is safe and respectful of people’s boundaries.This trend continued when I was studying alone outside my tent one afternoon. I camped with a large group of friends and we set up a small “living room” outside our tent with chairs, a table and a tarp to keep us dry. As I sat there minding my own business another camper sat across from me, right in front of the entrance to my tent. He didn’t ask for permission to enter my space or whether I was interested in speaking with him, even though I was clearly busy with something else. He began asking me questions about what I was doing and why I was there. The questions became extremely personal very quickly despite the fact that I was giving short answers or no answers at all. I was visibly uncomfortable and told the man that I was busy and needed to study but he persisted and continued to question me. What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t go sit in my tent because he was sitting in front of it. Honestly I didn’t want to walk over him or for him to see where I slept. It’s not fair that I should have to leave my space to study somewhere else.
Much of what made this conversation uncomfortable for me cannot be expressed in this paper. It was largely something I sensed about our interaction that I find difficult to explain with words. Reading his body language and his energy made me feel unsafe around him. What matters though is that I didn’t feel safe around or respected by this person. I felt exactly the opposite. I felt leered at, intimidated and cornered. I don’t think it’s right for me or anyone else to be treated this way in a space that’s been created to foster community and solidarity.
I spent much of OV with my partner, who is a white male. I noticed that whenever he was around the advances from men stopped, but whenever he left my side I felt unsafe. His presence offered me protection that I wish I didn’t need in a space that meant so much to me. Several female campers I spoke with expressed similar sentiments. For this reason I encourage members of OV to expand their analysis of power beyond simply economic disparity to include discourse of patriarchy, consent and anti-oppression more generally. I worry that if we neglect to expand our understanding in this way any new camp we set up will run the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past. I want to look forward to going to OV and not have to worry about whether my partner will be there to shield me. Not everyone has that privilege and no one should need it to feel safe.
Looking back, living at OV taught me many valuable lessons. I am still processing exactly what I’ve taken away from this experience but I’ve realized that if I were to take part in another occupation of public space I would want to do so with a group of people who I hold more common truths with than just a critique of economic inequality. I want to build community with people who acknowledge the intersecting impacts of gender, sexuality, ability and race on power and this is by no means an exhaustive list. To be honest, I’m not sure a community or political occupation can succeed without doing so.