Letter to the Occupy Together movement

By Harsha Walia

I wish I could start with the ritualistic “I love you” for the Occupy Movement. To be honest, it has been a space of turmoil for me. But also one of virulent optimism. What I outline below are not criticisms. I am inspired that the dynamic of the movement thus far has been organic, so that all those who choose to participate are collectively responsible for its evolution. To everyone – I offer my deepest respect.

I am writing today with Grace Lee Boggs in mind: “The coming struggle is a political struggle to take political power out of the hands of the few and put it into the hands of the many.  But in order to get this power into the hands of the many, it will be necessary for the many not only to fight the powerful few but to fight and clash among themselves as well.” This may sound counter-productive, but I find it a poignant reminder that, in our state of elation, we cannot under-estimate the difficult terrain ahead.  I look forward to the processes that will further these conversations.

Occupations on Occupied Land

One of the broad principles in a working statement of unity (yet to be formally adopted) of Occupy Vancouver thus far includes an acknowledgement of unceded Coast Salish territories. There has been opposition to this as being “divisive” and “focusing on First Nations issues”. I would argue that acknowledging Indigenous lands is a necessary and critical starting point for two primary reasons.

Firstly, the word Occupy has understandably ignited criticism from Indigenous people as having a deeply colonial implication. It erases the brutal history of genocide that settler societies have been built on. This is not simply a rhetorical or fringe point; it is a profound and indisputable matter of fact that this land is already occupied. The province of BC is largely still unceded land, which means that no treaties have been signed and the title holders of Vancouver are the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Tseilwau-tuth, and Musqueam. As my Sḵwx̱wú7mesh friend Dustin Rivers joked “Okay so the Premier and provincial government acknowledge and give thanks to the host territory, but Occupy Vancouver can’t?”

Supporting efforts towards decolonization is not only an Indigenous issue. It is also about us, as non-natives, learning the history of this land and locating ourselves and our responsibilities within the context of colonization. Occupation movements such as those in Boston and Denver and New York have taken similar steps in deepening an anti-colonial analysis.

Secondly, we must understand that the tentacles of corporate control have roots in the processes of colonization and enslavement.  As written by the Owe Aku International Justice Project: “Corporate greed is the driving factor for the global oppression and suffering of Indigenous populations. It is the driving factor for the conquest and continued suffering for the Indigenous peoples on this continent. The effects of greed eventually spill over and negatively impact all peoples, everywhere.”

The Hudsons Bay Company in Canadaand the East India Trading Company in India, for example, were some of the first corporate entities established on the stock market. Both companies were granted trading monopolies by the British Crown, and were able to extract resources and amass massive profits due to the subjugation of local communities through the use of the Empire’s military and police forces. The attendant processes of corporate expansion and colonization continues today, most evident in this country with the Alberta Tar Sands. In the midst of an economic crisis, corporations’ ability to accumulate wealth is dependent on discovering new frontiers from which to extract resources. This disproportionately impacts Indigenous peoples and destroys the land base required to sustain their communities, while creating an ecological crisis for the planet as a whole.

Systemic Oppression Connected to Economic Inequality

In creating a unified space of opposition to the 1% who hold a concentration of power and wealth, we must simultaneously foster critical education to learn about the systemic injustices that many of us in the 99% continue to face. This should not be pejoratively dismissed as “identity politics”, which for many re-enforces the patterns of marginalization. The connection between the nature and structure of the political economy and systemic injustice is clear: the growing economic inequality being experienced in this city and across this country is nothing new for low-income racialized communities, particularly single mothers, all of whom face the double brunt of scape-goating during periods of recession.

The very idea of the multitude forces a contestation of any one lived experience binding the 99%. Embracing this plurality and having an open heart to potentially uncomfortable truths about systemic oppression beyond the ‘evil corporations and greedy banks’ will strengthen this movement. Ignoring the hierarchies of power between us does not make them magically disappear. It actually does the opposite – it entrenches those inequalities. If we learn from social movements past, we observe that the struggle to genuinely address issues of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, age, and nationality actually did more, rather than less, to facilitate broader participation.

In order to do this we need to critically examine the idea of “catering to the mainstream.” I do not disagree with reaching out to as broad a base as possible; but we should ask ourselves: who constitutes the “mainstream”? If Indigenous communities, homeless people, immigrants, LGBTQs, seniors and others are all considered “special interest groups” (although we actually constitute an overwhelming demographic majority), then by default that suggests, as Rinku Sen argues, that straight white men are the sole standard of universalism. “Addressing other systems of oppression, and the people those systems affect, isn’t about elevating one group’s suffering over that of white men. It’s about understanding how the mechanisms of control actually operate. When we understand, we can craft solutions that truly help everybody. ” This should not be misunderstood as advocating for a pecking order of issues; it is about understanding that the 99% is not a homogenous group but a web of inter-related communities in struggle.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, Tar Sands Campaign Organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, wrote to me: “Our own Indigenous Rights movements are gaining momentum which means that we all must continually be educating new folks getting politicized. We can all be working towards a larger convergence that is strongly rooted in an Anti colonial, Anti Racist, Anti Oppressive framework.” In a similar vein, Syed Hussan writes, “Understand that to truly be free, to truly include the entire 99 per cent, you have to say today, and say every day: We will leave no one behind.” Just as we challenge the idea of austerity put forward by governments and corporations, we should challenge the idea of scarcity of space in our movements and instead facilitate a more nuanced discourse about inequality.

Learning from History and Building on Successes

While it is clearly too early to comment on the future of the Occupy movement, I offer a few humble preliminary thoughts based on Occupy Wall Street and the nature of the Vancouver organizing. Those who us who have been activists rightfully do not have any particular authority in this movement, and as many others have cautioned, more experienced activists should not claim moral righteousness over those who are just joining the struggle.  But we also cannot claim ignorance either.

It must be re-stated that Occupy Together is brilliantly transitional. As has been repeatedly noted, it is has been a moral and strategic success to not have a pre-articulated laundry list of demands within which to confine a nascent movement. Peter Marcus writes “Occupy is seen by most of its participants and supporters not as a set of pressures for individual rights, but as a powerful claim for a better world… The whole essence of the movement is to reject the game’s rules as it is being played, to produce change that includes each of these demands but goes much further to question the structures that make those demands necessary.” Similarly Vijay Prashad says that we “must breathe in the many currents of dissatisfaction, and breathe out a new radical imagination.”

The creation of encampments is in itself an act of liberation. Decentralized gatherings with democratic decision-making processes and autonomous space for people to gather and dialogue based on their interests – such as through reading circles or art zones or guerrilla gardening – create a sense of purpose, connectedness, and emancipation in a society that otherwise breeds apathy, disenchantment, and isolation. This type of pre-figurative politics – a living symbol of refusal – is a ways to come together to create and live the alternatives to this system. I am reminded of the modest (Anti) Olympic Tent Village in our own city in the Downtown Eastside last year, which was deemed ‘paradise’ and a place where ‘real freedom lives’ by many.

One issue I would stress is building awareness about police violence and police infiltration. In some cities, Occupy organizers have actively collaborated with police. While many do this on the principle of “we have nothing to hide”, the police cannot be trusted. This is not a comment on individual police officers who maybe “ordinary people,” but their job is to protect the 1%. The police have a long history of repression of social movements. Plus, people who are homeless, racialized, non-status, or queer routinely experience arbitrary police abuse. We must take these concerns seriously in order to promote participation from these communities. We must also learn to rely on ourselves to keep ourselves safe and to hold ground when police are ordered to clear us out. This seems insurmountable, but it has been done before and can be done again.

In the heels of the Olympics and G20, a recurring issue is diversity of tactics. Despite a history in community-based movement-building, based on a debate about diversity of tactics with an ally whom I respect, there has been unnecessary and misinformed fear-mongering that those who support a diversity of tactics “fundamentally reject peaceful assemblies”. For me, supporting a diversity of tactics has always implied respect for a range of strategies including non-violent assembly. As G20 defendant Alex Hundert, who has written extensively about diversity of tactics told me, “It is important to recognise that a belief in supporting a diversity of tactics means not ruling out intentionally peaceful means. These gatherings have been explicitly nonviolent from the start and in hundreds of cities across the continent. Obviously this is the right tactic for this moment.”

It is noteworthy that Occupy Wall Street has not actually dogmatically rejected a diversity of tactics. It appears that the movement there has understood what diversity of tactics actually means – which is not imposing one tactic in any and every context. The Occupy Wall Street Direct Action Working Group has adopted the basic tenet of “respect diversity of tactics, but be aware of how your actions will affect others.” In my opinion, this is an encouraging development as people work together to learn how to come keep each other safe within the encampment, while effectively escalating tactics in autonomous actions.

Finally, we may want to stop articulating that this is a leaderless movement; it might be more honest to suggest that We Are All Leaders. Denying that leadership exists deflects accountability, obscures potential hierarchies, and absolves us of actively creating structures within which to build collective leadership. Many of the models being used such as the General Assembly and Consensus are rooted in the practice of anti-authoritarians and community organizers. There are many other skills to share to empower and embolden this movement. As much as we wish we can radically transform unjust economic, political, and social systems overnight, but this is a long-term struggle. And there is always the danger of co-optation. Slavoj Zizek warned Occupy Wall Street that “Beware not only of the enemies. But also of false friends who are already working to dilute this process. In the same way you get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice cream without fat, they will try to make this into a harmless moral protest.” Which means that we will need to find ways to do the pain-staking work of making this movement sustainable and rooting it within and alongside existing grassroots movements for social and environmental justice.

“We have begun to come out of the shadows; we have begun to break with routines and oppressive customs and to discard taboos; we have commenced to carry with pride the task of thawing hearts and changing consciousness. Women, let’s not let the danger of the journey and the vastness of the territory scare us — let’s look forward and open paths in these woods. Voyager, there are no bridges; one builds them as one walks.”- Gloria Anzaldua

Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer who is based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. She has been active in a range of social movements for over a decade. You can find her on Twitter. A version of this article originally appeared in rabble.ca 

7 Responses to “Letter to the Occupy Together movement”

  1. The article doesn’t seem terribly fair to me. First of all, the author seems to be unaware of the dozens of teach-ins that are going on at occupy wal st and at the other occupations, many of which have highlighted genocide and continued crimes against oindigenous people (this was the main topic on ‘Columbus Day’ in nyc). Moreover, the tenor of her remarks seem to be that she wants politics to be more of a collection of interest groups all making their particularistic demands–there is nothing radical about this view. The pluralist school pioneered by liberal theorists like Dahl, thinks politics amounts to precisely this. A MOVEMENT, however, is something altogether different, namely, a large swath of people with disparate interests who all unite around a common universal signifier that stands in for their particularistic injustices (e.g. ‘we are the 99 percent’). That is what makes it political, precisely its overdetermined nature that eclipses the particularity of each atomic constituent.

  2. Left Turn had a similar piece, with a crucial difference — the author did not just gripe, but actively took part in the General Assembly process and her argument won the day and had a tangible impact:


    I’m in solidarity with those who are working to make the OWS movement as pointed and inclusive as possible. None of us gain by mealy-mouthed “We are the world” statements that whitewash differences.

    But I’m also wary of attempts to impost a particular ideology — let’s call it GradSchoolism — on this movement. Insisting that a movement that is succeeding pause and adopt your chosen jargon is the tactic of political cults.

  3. @Buford Los Gatos

    “If Indigenous communities, homeless people, immigrants, LGBTQs, seniors and others are all considered ‘special interest groups’ … then by default that suggests … that straight white men are the sole standard of universalism.”

    This is the problem with the normative ideal of “unit[ing] around a common universal signifier that stands in for their particularistic injustices (e.g. ‘we are the 99 percent’)” – the “universal” is in fact particular. Its “universality” rests on the “invisibility” of privilege (i.e. whiteness, masculinity, heterosexuality, etc).

    I also hate this idea that under-represented and marginalized people need to “actively [take] part in the General Assembly process” for their criticism to count as more than “griping” – for their analysis to be taken seriously. This puts the burden on marginalized people (instead of on people with privilege) to make the space of the GA more inclusive and accessible.


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