Occupy the New Year: Reflections on covering a global movement

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site: Obversations blog |  December 27, 2011  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers.

Demonstrators rally on the first day of Occupy Vancouver, October 15. Photo by David P. Ball.

As the year comes to an end, I am honoured to have been able to report onthe Occupy movement for the Vancouver Observer, and grateful for readers who have shared, discussed and responded to those stories.

I reported on Occupy Vancouver for VO from its first few days in October – after roughly 6,000 people demonstrated against economic inequality and corporate power, inspired by the U.S. movement which heeded Adbusters‘ call. (Ironically, the magazine is actually based here in Vancouver, but the movement took a month to reach us).

And while I have my own skepticism and critiques – Occupy’s hesitance to explicitly recognize that a large portion of the “99 per cent” are not white or middle class, or to recognize the countless other movements which have been trying to change things for a long, long time – even dismissing them as the “loony left” (Adbusters’ Kalle Lasn’s phrase) instead of forebears and mentors.

That said, it has been an inspiring experience to follow Occupy movement – from the thousands of demonstrators presiding over the establishment of the art gallery encampment, to David Suzuki’s rousing speech and bank occupations, to “occupying” the city’s election race, and the camp’s ultimate eviction and ongoing discussions of “what’s next?” and “what needs to be done?”

I slept out in a tent on the art gallery lawns the first night of the demonstration — October 15 — and I must say that, surrounded by political debates, philosophical chatter, and the energy of a newly birthed project, it was difficult to get to sleep. In fact, after midnight I dragged myself out of my sleeping bag to join a roving dance party — powered by dozens of backback FM stereos — parading around the downtown streets. I’d never seen anything like it.

The highlight of my time reporting on Occupy was one day, while interviewing passers-by and participants at the art gallery, I suddenly realized that the tent city had expanded gradually into a thriving community – with even a movie theatre, tea house, library, chess room, medical tent, art room, yoga and healing dome, and food serving and dining areas. The scope and span of this community struck me in that instant as audacious and something from which we could all, perhaps, learn: how to live a little more freely, how to build community in the city, how to look outside the box a little more often.

On the other hand, I will never forget receiving a late-night phone call from one of my Occupy Vancouver contacts and friends, former city council candidate Lauren Gill, on November 5 — “There’s been a death at Occupy,” she said, adding that mainstream media has descended aggressively on the site – even attempting to get into the deceased woman’s tent.

“You need to get down here right away.”

Within an hour, I was reporting directly from the site, and spent the next week interviewing the late 23-year old Ashlie Gough‘s boyfriend, father, mother-in-law and sister, as well as the Occupy Vancouver medics who tried to save her. I felt like I was growing close to this life-loving young woman – who, despite media rhetoric about drug addictions, homelessness, camp safety and the election, was in fact only by chance in a tent at that location visiting friends when she died.

Gough’s loved ones – with whom I talked extensively, who occasionally even called me that week just to talk – insisted she should not become a symbol of the Occupy movement, nor for the camp’s dismantlement.

But, amidst all the political rhetoric around that tragedy – as well as controversies around Occupy Vancouver’s tactics – the work of the movement’s volunteer medics in offering first aid, counselling, and arguablyhundreds of thousands of dollars of medical care should truly be a symbol of what the movement could accomplish. Not to mention the many others who contributed food, time, outhouses, banners, tents, art supplies, computers and sleeping bags – and the roughly half of Vancouverites whom polls showed supported the movement.

One might not agree with some participants’ heckling of the mayoral election homelessness debate, or the lack of demands or press releases, or refusing the abandon the tent city earlier. But every movement has problems, struggles, contradictions – and tactical critics. Remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was criticized by white liberals during one stretch in jail for being too militant? In retrospect, he certainly wasn’t.

As Douglas Rushkoff wrote for CNN:

“Anyone who says he has no idea what these folks are protesting is not being truthful. Whether we agree with them or not, we all know what they are upset about, and we all know that there are investment bankers working on Wall Street getting richer while things for most of the rest of us are getting tougher. What upsets banking’s defenders and politicians alike is the refusal of this movement to state its terms or set its goals in the traditional language of campaigns.”

Countless people I’ve interviewed since October 15 at Occupy – both here as well as in Oakland, California after a police crackdown left one protester in a coma with a brain injury – have spoken of being inspired by the movement, and almost all have presented me with diverse, coherent and informed critiques of the system.

Whatever is next – and VO will continue covering this important phenomenon, as well as issues of inequality in our community – we must not let Vancouver be separated from what’s happening globally.

Our city, like so many other places, faces a disastrous housing crisisgrowing inequality, and oppression on a day-to-day basis.

Child poverty rates are higher in B.C. than the rest of Canada, which already ranks poorly among developed countries. Corporations continue to exploit resources without permission from First Nations in the province. The high-rise condo developments downtown cast their shadows over Canada’s poorest off-reserve postal code, the Downtown Eastside.

As we head into the New Year, my hope is that more audacious acts of mutual aid and community building – experiments I witnessed at the tent city – will flourish in 2012. And that more people would be drawn into such audacious acts – from the large to the small.

I also hope that frustrations with economic inequality in Vancouver and globally – frustrations which Occupy revealed to be widespread – will lead to real change for life on-the-ground in our city, to the lives of people in the Downtown Eastside, and poor people elsewhere.

Time Magazine may have nominated “the protester” as Person of the Year, and deservedly so. But behind each person is an experience, a story, values, and reasons for speaking out – and it’s sharing people’s stories that gives me the greatest joy as a journalist.

I love the title of Velcrow Ripper’s new documentary about the Occupy movement: “Occupy Love.”

And that is my wish for Vancouver’s New Year – that the love and courage shown from Tahrir Square, Egypt to Wall Street, from South Africa to Vancouver inspire us all to occupy love a little more.

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