“First they ignore you
Then they laugh at you
Then they fight you
Then you win” – Gandhi
(on a sign at Occupy Vancouver)
“In times of universal deceit,
Telling the truth is a revolutionary act”
– George Orwell
(on a sign at Occupy Vancouver)
Under the menacing glare of gargoyles perched high on the corners of Hotel Vancouver, across from looming RBC and HSBC buildings, we gathered downtown, 3,000+ strong on Oct. 15. This Occupy Vancouver movement, spawned by weeks of Occupy Wall Street activism in New York City, had set up a sprawling camp of tents, plus tents for food, first aid, public education, and a children’s area, in front of the art gallery.
— photos by Heather Conn
A handful of friends and I from British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast sat on the edge of the mosaic fountain in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, surrounded by people of every age, ethnicity, and background: infants, white-haired grandmothers, laid-off workers, disgruntled professionals, business people in suits, women in high heels and fashionable dress, bohemians in masks and costumes . . .They were all a highly visible part of the 99 per cent of western society seeking to be heard and counted as banks, corporations, and governments have gained hugely skewed levels of power, making decisions with little accountability over issues that affect the earth, the public good, and livelihoods. As activist Naomi Klein said a week earlier as part of Occupy Wall Street: “Our system is crashing economically and ecologically.” As one of the dozens and dozens of homemade signs in Vancouver, held high among the throng, said on this day: “Another world is possible.”
I was heartened to see more than a thousand people gathered by 10 a.m., after premier Christy Clark and others had dismissively predicted that few would appear at the event. More and more people kept arriving, until at least 3,000 (some reports claimed 5,000) marched peacefully in a square along four downtown blocks, starting northward at Georgia and Howe. No one smashed windows, threw food at cops, or yelled verbal abuse at passersby. Cars honked in support of the moving crowd. A police officer wore an orange flower in his lapel. The sea of signs gave heart and meaning to what was a living, growing statement (not “a protest”) shared with others who were organizing publicly on the same day in 1,000 cities across the globe:
“One World, One Humanity, Share the World’s Resources”
“Serve the people”
“Close the gap”
“Vancouver wakes up”
“A fair taxation system is overdue”
“We’re the #1 Highest Child Poverty Rate in Canada – Way to go B.C.”
In the first general assembly that morning, various speakers, as part of a moderating team, stood on the art gallery steps and explained the proposed working model for consensus. As defined in the handout provided to the crowd: “A consensus is a decision-making process that attempts to be inclusive and accommodating of the desires and needs of an entire group.” Workers in Venezuela and other Latin American countries have used such models for decision-making in factories and collectives. As one of the moderators pointed out: “It’s not pretty.” It was slow, tedious, and the process bumbling. We were all new at this; our capitalist system had not created models for such forms of decision-making. People would holler out occasionally: “This is what democracy looks like.”
Eager for action and group-based agreements, I grew impatient as different speakers read through the consensus document, word for word, using the mike and then having people within the crowd repeat each phrase in a “human mike” format. Requests went out for translators in a host of languages, from Farsi to Spanish. Hand gestures were given as symbols for how each participant could indicate whether he or she agreed with a proposal, had reservations, would stand aside (“I cannot support this proposal and will not help implement it but do not want to stop the group or block the proposal”) or would block it (“I have a fundamental disagreement with the proposal that must be addressed and has not been resolved”). This repetitive process took an hour and a half.
I was soon growing bored and frustrated. I had to examine my own impatience and desire for a quick outcome, over the inclusion of all questions and requests for something to be repeated. Rather than feeling energized, hopeful, and excited, this process left me feeling deflated and in limbo. But the non-stop stream of informal speakers from the crowd, who took turns at the microphone, helped to draw me back to the power of a group assembly. (The maximum time allotment for each speaker, decided by the group as a whole, was five minutes.) A speaker asked: “Do you trust the system?”
“No,” the crowd roared back. If the group thought that someone was going on too long or the remarks were too self-serving, they hooted or called “Wrap it up” or made the accompanying hand signal. Here is a selection of those who spoke, besides David Eby of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Seth Klein (Naomi’s brother) of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:
- Bob, a unionized meter reader for BC Hydro, who will be replaced by a smart meter within a year, after receiving only a 1% pay increase in a decade: “Gordo (former premier Gordon Campbell) exempted smart meters from due process”;
- an artist from Montreal: “We’re losing our neighbourhoods”;
- Paul Grignon, creator of animated films such as Money as Debt;
- a representative from Zeitgeist Vancouver, part of the Zeitgeist world movement: “What are the root problems?”
- Activist and grandmother Betty Krawczyk: “Our environment is going, our wild salmon are going. We won’t tolerate it. Their (government/corporate) power comes with our permission, from our acquiescence. True power is in our hands. The power belongs to us, always and forever.” That brought on loud cheers.
- The Raging Grannies: “Your right is to be heard.”
Later that day, after meeting a client and some of his medical colleagues for lunch at upscale Shaughnessy Restaurant, I was heartened (again) to hear that one of them, a successful doctor, had wanted to join the Occupy Vancouver events himself. He said that he had felt like going down there and throwing something. I was surprised to hear such a remark in that context from such a professional; you never know where you’ll find someone of like mind.
The day’s events did not topple any existing structures or result in resounding changes. However, the simple act of people coming together in peace in a public space to voice discontent and seek more compassionate and inclusive alternatives was a powerful reminder that the power of the people lies innately with the people and in democratic process. We are the power of the majority and we control how much of that we choose to keep or give up.
After returning home just before the seven p.m. general assembly, my husband and I stopped to watch an astounding natural sight: thousands upon thousands of crows were flying, seemingly without end, through the sky. They kept coming and coming, a sprawling black flap of wings across blue, heading east above the Commercial Drive SkyTrain station. They appeared to be coming from downtown. I thought to myself: “Maybe they had their own gathering.” I had never seen such a massive group of crows in my life. I took it as a sign.
Click here for a Buddhist perspective on Occupy Wall Street, by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Michael Stone, author of Awake in the World: Teachings From Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life.
Click here to watch U.S. news commentator Keith Olbermann outline what Wall Street protesters want (October 05, 2011)