One of the features of the Occupy Wall Street movement that’s fascinated me is the concern with holding physical space — “occupying” part of the city. In New York, it’s Zuccotti Park; here in Montreal, it’s Square Victoria; in London, the Reverend Dr Giles Fraser of St. Paul’s Cathedral gave his blessing to the protestors to occupy church land.
But the word “occupy” itself has some deeply hurtful historical associations. Fellow Sapien Andrew Loewen, over a week ago, shared with his Facebook friends this open letter from Harsha Walia, writing from Vancouver.
“While occupations are commonly associated with specific targets (such as occupying a government office or a bank), Occupy Vancouver (or any other city) has a deeply colonialist implication,” Walia writes. “Despite intentionality, it erases the brutal history of occupation and genocide of Indigenous peoples that settler societies have been built on.”
Walia points out that what has now supposedly become a mainstream concern – the relative impoverishment of the 99% by the 1% — describes the reality of marginalized peoples for centuries:
“In the context of the Occupy Together movement, the connection between the nature and structure of the political economy and systemic injustice is clear: the growing disparity in wealth and economic inequality being experienced in this city and across this country is nothing new for low-income racialized communities, particularly single mothers, who face the double brunt of scapegoating during periods of economic recession.”
While Walia is clearly supportive of the Occupy movement, it appears to me an overly cautious endorsement and in some respects rather a confusing one. To mention the Occupy movement in the same breath as colonialism implicates the protesters in the crime of erasing “the brutal history of occupation and genocide of Indigenous peoples.” Furthermore, while Walia claims she agrees with reaching out to a broad base – the 99% — she goes on to say that “we have to critically examine who constitutes the ‘mainstream.’”
Is the Left Finally Asserting a Political Will?
In his earlier observation of the Occupy movement’s apparent “non-agenda,” Doug Henwood wondered whether OWS lacked “political will” for fear of committing what had been identified here by Jodi Dean as “crimes” in the eyes of those in the New Left. The two most pertinent crimes would be (in Dean’s words):
• taking the place or speaking for another (the crime of representation)
• obscuring other crimes and harms (the crime of exclusion)
Are these the crimes that preoccupy Walia? It appears so. It seems that Walia would have Occupy Vancouver refrain from calling itself Occupy Vancouver because this “erases” the history of those who rightfully occupied Vancouver first (it commits the crime of exclusion). Furthermore, Walia would caution OWS from calling itself the 99% because in so doing it suddenly claims to speak on behalf of groups that have felt marginalized all along (it commits the crime of representation).
These criticisms should not be casually cast aside. I’ll note in passing that the crime of representation has more frequently been a charge of pro-establishment voices, insofar as OWS’ refusal to contemplate party politics is seen to make it illegitimate – i.e. the “rabble” only represents itself. If you’re not elected, or seeking to become so, you can’t claim to represent anybody, so the argument goes.
I think OWS is moving so fast that it perhaps blunts arguments from the right as well as Walia’s before they’ve made much of an impact. This protest movement does not look exactly like previous protest movements. Watch this wonderful interview with Chris Hedges and you can detect an almost palpable glee from the usually deadpan journalist and author. As Hedges notes, OWS has no hierarchy or leaders. “It’s genius… I would never have thought of that.”
Growing the movement (non-hierarchically) and occupying space where a protest can be heard while social and economic alternatives are discussed appears to be the first concern (and major success) of OWS so far. In this respect, it is different from the kind of previous tactical incursions that Walia points to (“targeting” a bank or a university for an “occupation.”) Walia, in my view, is also incorrect to use the word “target.” Vancouver, here, is not the “target” of an occupation in the same way as a bank or a university. Occupy Vancouver is called Occupy Vancouver because it’s part of the Occupy movement that started out by seeking to Occupy Wall Street. Clearly, Wall Street has not yet been “occupied”; the stoke-brokers and hedge fund managers are still at it. In this respect, OWS has not held hostage or pushed aside any source of power, nor has it yet made in a coherent way any specific demands of those in power. Rather, it’s asserting its need to be there. The need to “occupy” space. This is a need that comes about because most other space in New York, Vancouver, or London, etc. is not occupied by proponents of democratic discourse. Practically all other space of note is “colonial” space (if we tie colonialism to capitalism, which I don’t think is exactly unfair). OWS, then, opens up space in urban areas that is truly free because all other space is subject to rules that benefit the 1%.
Because of its decentralization, its non-hierarchical nature and its inherent inclusivity and peacefulness, I think OWS can become exactly the kind of movement that Walia would want it to be.