I'm a big fan of Councillor Can Guthrie, and I appreciate his outside the box approach to civic engagement, but when yesterday he called for an end to the Occupy Guelph movement, I couldn't have disagreed more.
Leaving aside the fact that yesterday a lot of the tents in St. George's Square were already packed up, but the statement from Guthrie quoted by the Mercury seems to align him, on the issue of the Occupy Wall Street protests, with politicians like Rob Ford and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. The point, they seem to think, is to get the protesters out of sight and only then can we properly focus on the issues they're concerned with.
But as Rachel Maddow pointed out on Real Time with Bill Maher a couple of weeks ago, the point of a demonstration is to be inconvenient. The point is to get in the way of people, slow down the wheels of progress, take up people's time, get them to stop, make them think, make them talk... It's the same theory behind strikes and other worker action, make things inconvenient for the management, show solidarity - a united front - and they'll have to give into your demands.
At least that's how it's supposed to work. If there's a criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement it's that maybe its scope exceeds its grasp. If the goal is to convince corporations, financial institutions and wealthy individuals to work to equalize the growing income gap, that's easier said than done. Even in the wake of accepting massive government bailouts, it wasn't six months later that news about executives getting huge bonuses started making headlines. It's no coincidence that the first rumblings from the then nascent Tea Party began to make waves shortly thereafter.
Interestingly, there are some comparisons between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, at least until the Tea Party became the pre-eminent voice in the Republican Party. They're both grassroots movements started to oppose corporate greed and government collusion in making that greed possible. But at some point, the Tea Party became purely anti-government; the fault of the bailouts lies not with corporate mismanagement, but with the government signing over the loans to cover it.
But in those early days, the Tea Party was just as ramshackle, disorganized and unfocused as people accuse the Occupy Movement of being now. Of course, Guthrie is one of those people claiming that the Occupy movement, at least in the case of the Guelph wing, is that they have no coherent message. “It was about a five-minute ramble and not one coherent message at all,” Guthrie said about talking to one of the protesters. “If you can’t even give me a coherent reason why you’re there … you’ve turned from being protesters into being campers.”
I can't say who Guthrie talked to or what they said to him, but in any movement that's gathered steam, it is naturally going to attract anyone with a message. As much as we talk about the internet age and it's million pipelines, there's still a lot of difficulty in trying to get your message heard by the masses. But I think the key to getting the Occupy movement is to understand that it's about the general message, not the specifics. The fact that one per cent of the people controls 40 per cent of the wealth is galling. The fact that the divide between what CEOs make and what the average worker makes is exactly the same now as it was before the Great Depression is unacceptable. And the fact that lobbies representing the interests of the wealthy have managed to convince middle class people for so long that raising taxes on the rich is an attack on people of all incomes may be the greatest long con of all time.
But here's the thing: in Canada we fared the economic troubled waters far better than anywhere else in the developed world. In terms of the near-Depression, Canada was financially akin to that place in all the zombie movies that the survivors are trying to get it: an untouched paradise where the evils of the world can't reach. The financial deregulation that happened in the United States didn't happen here, and the Bank of Canada never put the seal of approval on sub-prime mortgages. That resilient economy that the Harper government likes to talk about, exists because of Paul Martin. Of course, many Conservatives were calling for Canada to follow suit with U.S. deregulation,and in 2008, just months before the crash, the Conservative government was still projecting huge surpluses for the foreseeable future. Hindsight is 20/20, true, but it shows that the current stewards of our economy may not be everything they think they're cracked up to be.
But back to the protest downtown, which, I'll admit, was a little lackluster. Certainly, I've seen more energetic protests downtown, but a point that Alan Pickersgill made in his Guelph Tribune column intrigues me. Pickersgill suggested that the Occupy Guelph protesters should have set up shop in the Wal-Mart parking lot. "The protest would be a lot more meaningful, although a lot riskier, if the tents were set up in the Wal-Mart parking lot," Pickersgill wrote. "If any one thing has materially hurt Guelph, it is that store. The entire eastern section of town has no commercial outlets bigger than Big Bear because of Wal-Mart. The symbolism would be perfect. You can park and sleep in your RV on a Wal-Mart parking lot, but would they tolerate a tent village? For how long? It is a lot safer to protest downtown."
That's the thing about this recent hate-on for Occupy Guelph, it really was a safe protest, it terms of both the physical safety of protesters and passersby, as well as the choice of protest venue. We don't have a "financial district" in Guelph, but if one business in our town is emblematic of "too big to fail" it's Wal-Mart. Suppose for a minute that something happened and all Wal-Mart stores nationwide closed. In many places, the only store with a wide variety of affordable goods is Wal-Mart, and if the local Wal-Mart were to suddenly shut its doors where would people go then?
The thing about a monopoly is that once you have it, it all depends on you. In a way, being "too big to fail" should force a higher degree of social responsibility from these companies, but the need for bailouts prove this is not the case. Perhaps paradoxically, that as Guthrie and his fellow councillors face the harsh realities of the new budget, and with a legion of taxpayers demanding fiscal prudence with viscous tongues, the Occupy Guelph protesters are merely demanding the same thing of corporations.