A friend recently said she supported the Occupy movement but felt their activities were inconveniencing others. I thought of this while watching police clearing Occupy Nova Scotia from Victoria Park in Halifax. Drenched protestors wrestled to the ground, handcuffed, and dragged through mud into waiting paddy wagons was hardly an edifying commemoration of lives lost in defense of country, given that freedom of speech and assembly are core values behind such sacrifice.
I've attended several gatherings of Occupy Nova Scotia. Theirs is an eloquent voice concerned with democracy, corporate greed, growing inequity, social justice, climate change, violence against women, and the manifest failures of political and economic systems to address these imperatives. They are committed to non-violence and consensus decision-making. Their involvement has plunged them into an intense laboratory of democracy: thinking globally, acting locally, making consequential decisions, working cooperatively, finding solutions, and facing criticism. Their desire is to make a change, not just a point.
How much of an "inconvenience" should society be prepared to tolerate? A modicum, I would suppose, given that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly. If the ship of state is off-course, some rocking of the boat will be required, there will be associated splashing, and someone might get wet. Freedom of association is also enshrined under the Charter and Canada Labour Code giving workers have the right to strike in pursuit of collective agreements. These rights can unquestionably cause inconvenience, as anyone who has been through a postal or airline strike can attest.
Furthermore, the past 40 years have seen a marked decline in youth engagement in politics. Between 1974-2011 election participation in the 18-24 age bracket declined from 84% to 37%. The Occupy movement includes young people electrified by injustice, but often alienated from formal politics. "Don't vote - revolt" one of them told me in conversation. "Better still," I replied, "revolt and vote!"
It's also apparent where else the disaffection of youth can lead - directly to the "Black Bloc" smashing of storefronts, setting vehicles alight, and generating maximal chaos. This philosophy of responding to corporate and institutional violence with violence is an angry and inarticulate politics that plays to the media's fascination with violence, destruction, and criminality.
Evicting people on the pretext of a municipal bylaw prohibiting tenting in city parks, sends precisely the wrong message: that of a complacent society preoccupied with bureaucratic administrativa, rather than substantive issues. We seem reluctant to face the mirror and admit that our own house may not be in order. In the face of massive social inequity, of hitherto unimagined income gaps, a seemingly endless global financial crisis, and the gathering pace of climate change – we seem unable to grasp why young people feel there is something profoundly wrong.
The clock is ticking. If we are to survive, we need democratic, environmental, social, and economic renewal from the ground up. The time for cosmetic measures is long past. The Occupy movement represents a golden opportunity. Evicting means embracing the status quo. We are going to have to make decisions whose repercussions will not always be convenient. Profligate use of energy must stop. Wasteful use of resources cannot continue. Our oceans can no longer be all-purpose cesspools. Unregulated markets are self-destructive. Political systems need reform. All of these are highly inconvenient – and utterly unavoidable.
Christopher Majka is a biologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and arts advocate. He is chair of the Nova Scotia Cultural Action Network and a member of the Project Democracy team.