Occupy Utopia: Trouble For One Spells Trouble For All

Police carting away the garbage of an Occupy Nova Scotia tent

Halifax, home of Occupy Nova Scotia, has been one of the first Occupy protests in Canada forcibly cleared out by law enforcement. Their eviction will probably not be the last, and it forces the movement to ask itself some questions. But it should force the public, who may or may not feel part of the “99 percent,” to ask themselves some questions, too.

Haligonians are still wrapping our heads around the specifics of what happened here. The protesters moved out of a city square where they had been allowed to stay by the Mayor, both voluntarily and in good faith. They had understood that if they vacated the square to make space for a Remembrance Day ceremony, they could later return. In their temporary home, a different downtown city park, the city received a higher volume of complaints from nearby residents about their presence. Council met in secret session (even the agenda item was kept secret by having been added in-camera), and the politicians decided it was now time to “enforce the by-laws.” They passed the matter over to police, Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly says, and the matter became “an operational issue.” Mayor Kelly issued a release about council’s decision at about 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 11, a holiday Friday. Thanks to Twitter, the rest of the city found out about the order at about the same time as the protesters did. With less than an hour’s notice and in the middle of a tropical storm, police began confiscating the tents that people had been living in for weeks, and dragged those who resisted away.

It was a Remembrance Day event that won’t quickly be forgotten. Fourteen arrests were made, and a few dozen Occupiers found themselves suddenly with nowhere to sleep on the wettest night of the year.

These are the specifics of the Halifax story. The only difference with other cities is that this hasn’t happened in them—yet. The municipal politicians and police here acted faster and with more clumsiness and fewer legal buttresses than elsewhere (with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association suggesting that evictions may be open for constitutional challenge, cities like Vancouver are going through the courts to get injunctions before clearing out camps), but Occupy faces the same threat in every city: even as they gather and organize to oppose global financial structures, they are a burden on the municipalities, and the municipalities are making noise that they want them gone.

Halifax politicians failed to display tact, compassion, and public relations savvy when they cleared out the occupiers, but they accomplished what many wanted: to get rid of the camp. Even the campers, I think, hated that camp a little bit. It was devolving, away from the Utopia they had promised themselves, and into a dangerous, violent place, where sickness, drugs, and poverty were on display and hard to deal with.

The truth is, the Occupy camp had problems before Mayor Kelly cleared it out. In fact, if the events of November 11 hadn’t happened, I’m not sure how much longer the gathering would’ve lasted.

At the November 9 general assembly, tensions were high. The camp’s reputation for accepting anyone, giving them shelter, food and a makeshift community was attracting more people who needed help than people who were able to offer it. People who are homeless used the facilities at the camp: the medical supplies, the food, the kitchen, the common “hang-out” area. People are homeless in Canada for many reasons, but there is usually an addiction in their past or present, or a mental health issue. Homeless youth are usually fleeing the addictions or abuse in whatever house they escaped from.

This community of needy people became a sometimes violent place. There were clashes. The healthiest residents, from luckier backgrounds, who were there because of strong political convictions, were being attacked, a lot of times by the residents of the camp who were frequently in need of help. Either the healthy help-givers were not helping the help-needers enough, or they had made some mistakes that tend to happen when you’re overworked and only human. On Tuesday night, many Occupiers had been sick, throwing up in their tents. Sanitation had become an issue. Too many people eating, not enough people doing dishes, or not doing them well enough. Some people had been threatened, verbally or with weapons, and due to weariness some key political organizers had taken to spending more time away from the camp than at it.

In effect, Utopia was already being saddled with the ‘problem people’ our general society has major challenges assimilating. They had to host the rejects we sweep under the rug into jails, homeless shelters and the foster system all over the country.

Although Occupy preaches acceptance, consensus and non-violence, most occupiers were raised in the same Western culture as the rest of us (or have been here long enough to assimilate it). They have to challenge within themselves the urge to alienate the people who don’t fit so comfortably into their political plans, as they struggle to adapt to the new world they want to create in their tent cities.

In Halifax, the street kids did drugs and made a lot of noise. The mentally ill could be loud, unpredictable, violent. Those with addictions were treating them with whatever substance they were addicted to, even as they lived in the Occupy camp. All of these people certainly have valid, political, complaints about society, but they were not in the position to put much effort into the Occupy day-to-day, hard and slow political work.

The words “intentional community” were mentioned at the last general assembly I was at before the eviction. But an intentional community only thrives if more members contribute to it than drain it.

Belonging to the Occupy community because it’s a welcoming place, because it’s not your parents' house, because you’re protected from the cold cement, because you’re protected from the cops by virtue of being a political protester (or so they thought), because hot meals are served every so often and organized labour donated cash: is not enough. Occupy camp began as a comfortable, welcoming place for people, but as the burden of keeping it positive has began to fall on less and less shoulders, it became too heavy a load.

The right wing calls these people—the homeless, the unemployed, the ill—freeloaders already, so Occupy is loath to do so. I think the fact that these camps exist is a valid critique of our general society, which gives bankers golden parachutes and homeless people a cot in a warehouse for the night. Canada is a rich country: it’s shameful that homelessness exists. Our system has problems.

But Occupy is not a rich country. The fact that they do not have the resources or people power to adequately deal with the problems Canadian society has created and cannot solve should not come as a surprise.

That retreat away from the square and to the park had already affected the morale of the camp in more ways than was acknowledged to the press. The space was bigger, and camp had been allowed to spread out more. Divisions that already existed were allowed to geographically materialize. The centre of camp life was the paved square at the head of the park, facing the busiest pedestrian corner in the city. The living quarters of the Occupy camp sprawled South, down a narrow and long green space bordered by a much quieter street, residential towers, and a hospital. The deeper into the camp you went, the further away from the public. That’s where kids went to do drugs, and where it felt a little dangerous walking past sunset.

These problems have now been cited by politicians who support the violent clearing of the Occupy camp. As a reason for why something had to be done.

Our general culture’s way of solving problems: violent, clumsy, unaffected by sympathy, without compromise, has been imposed on the Halifax Occupation’s way of life. What remains to be seen will be how Occupy, with their frustratingly slow and democratic way of making decisions, will deal with the elimination of their little village. Will they find somewhere new to continue their social experiment? Or will they dissolve back into the general culture, go back to being the homeless in our shelters, the hippies on our street corners, the runaways and wage slaves and people who don’t matter.

Like we want them to be. For our own comfort.

(Sidenote: that Occupy was so soon faced with the problems that other intentional squatters communities like Denmark’s Christiania Freetown —which still exists—have faced surprised my father, a mental health worker in Ontario who was a long-haired traveller in Europe in the 70s. He writes:

“Christiania was an old army base vacated by the military and used to try to set up a free society. It was a dirty, drug-infested place where Utopian organizers were struggling to maintain law and order. It was exciting for me to hang out there, but I didn’t feel safe at night time and there were major organizational and infrastructural issues. The fact that Occupy NS had deteriorated that fast is surprising in one sense but maybe it is just a reflection of how unhealthy society is. The second wave of people that moved in caused issues. They are the ones who populate our downtowns year-round and are spread out or warehoused and therefore more easily ignored. You are right, society and government don’t know what to do with them.”)

Image courtesy of Nick Rudnicki for OpenFile Halifax

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This is an excelent article

This is an excelent article giving a grity overview of the relations street people/occupiers and midclass/occupiers.
Bethany's emphases is on the problems, my own commentary in an interview on CBC Mainstreeet was considerabley more focused on the many sucesses the of the OCCUPY community in
de-escalating conflict . OCCUPY was more sucessful in this than most professional mental health encounters. It is a really tough issue which all the resources devoted by official caretakers has not solved. In my professional opinion OCCUPY was unusually sucessful in preventing many incidents from becomeing more dangerous to the sufferer and caretaker and the citizenry.

Occupy NS

10

Well written article Bethany, gives us another perspective of what was/is going on. The ones that are there for political reasons cannot be faulted for their cause. Unfortunately, the hangers on and freeloaders made their cause moot.

Occupy Halifax

9

I do wonder if the experiences and developments that Bethany observes are common across the Occupy sites? It would be interesting to hear from some of them.

Really well rounded article.

Really well rounded article. It gave us a glimps into day to day life of the movement. The issue is not a simple one.