Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sudbury's 99%: Day 1

My first journalistic piece in awhile -- written for and published at the site of the Grassroots Sudbury Media working group affiliated with The Media Co-op.

Sudbury's 99%: Day 1

On a sunny but cool October 22, the global wave of "Occupy" actions swept into Sudbury, Ontario. Around 40 people gathered in Memorial Park in the city's downtown and began conversations that they hope are an early step in changing their community and changing the world.

Christy Knockleby, who identified herself as a stay-at-home mother, said, "There are probably a lot of peple in Sudbury who think that change needs to happen but don't know what to do." She sees the kinds of spaces being created by Occupy actions as a chance to "make contact with other people" and begin to figure that out. She brought a bulletin board to the park in hopes that people can bring information about the struggles that they are involved in or are passionate about, pin it to the board, and read the information that other people have left.

Local climate change activist Cathy Orlando agreed: "I see this Occupy movement as something that is connecting everything together." She continued, "I may be a climate activist but I care about poverty, I care about world peace," and bringing people together in this way is a recognition that all of these issues are linked.

As in many other cities, a key element of the afternoon's activities was a general assembly meeting to begin making decisions about how the action would move forward. Though at times chaotic and unfocused, the meeting made initial steps to address basic questions like how the group intends to make decisions, how to relate to the police, and how to break into smaller committees or discussion circles to deal with specific questions and various practical tasks.

An important concern during the assembly was the name of the action. While many spoke in favour of retaining "Occupy Sudbury," others drew attention to the objections that some indigenous people have raised to that language. These objections relate to their experience of having lived under occupation in North America for five centuries, and to the ways that this use of language has in some instances been emblematic of a broader disconnection from the concerns and struggles of indigenous people and people of colour. Suggestions for new names included "The People's Assembly of Sudbury" and "Sudbury's 99%", while still retaining something like "formerly Occupy Sudbury" in online material to make the group easier to find.

Marguerite Thibaudeau, a student at Laurentian University and a Metis woman, brought word that the chief of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbeck First Nation, in whose traditional territory Sudbury lies, had extended his welcome to the action. Though she acknowledged that there have been moments of poor choices by non-Native activists at other Occupy actions in terms of relating to indigenous issues and peoples, including at the one in Toronto where she spent last weekend, she feels it is personally important for her to be present and to participate: "Every issue that these people talk about [at Occupy actions] we've been talking about for 500 years."

The importance of "acknowledging the colonial context in which we are operating" was also echoed by Chris Dixon, a long-time activist currently based in Sudbury. He has been to Occupy actions in New York City, Seattle, and Vancouver over the past month and he spoke to the general assembly in Sudbury about some of the lessons he has taken from what he has seen. He suggested, for instance, that Occupy actions at their best avoid a purely internal focus and need to "constantly be relating to other sectors and other groups who would be in broad sympathy with what we're doing."

As well, he thinks it is a priority to build "a clear and intentional decision-making process" and to draw on the lessons that social movements have learned over the last several decades about different models, beyond just general assemblies, to be participatory and democratic. And he emphasized the importance of pedagogy: Occupy actions are "succeeding where they are trying to transform a public space to a space of learning and exchange. ... When we occupy together we can actually learn together and gain skills we can use over the long haul of what we need to do."

Other participants brought other experiences and concerns to the event. Jonathan Glass is a part-time worker and a recipient of Ontario Disability Support. He wondered, "Why does a banker have to get so much money and the little guy gets nothing?" He went on, "You work 9-to-5 and you get a shitty paycheque."

Jamie West is an active member of the United Steel Workers Local 6500, which represents workers in the nickel mines in the Sudbury area that are owned by international mining giant Vale. He has been following the developments at Occupy Wall Street closely and is really encouraged -- "It seems to be a movement like you'd hear about in the '60s." He said, "It isn't just a bunch of radical people in Toronto" but rather it is lots of "people [who are] not seeing much of a future for their kids."

Speaking about the fellow members of his local, he drew the connection to the year-long strike that they waged against Vale in 2009 and 2010. "I think because of the strike a lot of us are more politically active and politically aware" but for the moment he feels that some activists from the union might be a bit "standoffish" because they "don't want this to be a Steel Workers movement, we want it to be a people's movement that Steel Workers are attending."

When the general assembly ended in Memorial Park, a couple of people broke out guitars, a few continued puzzling out practical details, most stood around and chatted, and the handful planning to camp out started putting up tents. Even a question as basic as bathrooms remained to be solved, and though initial steps to think through relating to the police had begun it was still far from clear how cops on patrol in the middle of the night might respond to tents in the park. Yet the mood was buoyant and there seemed to be a consensus that something siginificant had begun.

Participant Laurel O'Gorman -- a graduate student and trade union activist -- stressed the need for ongoing work to make sure that Occupy actions make decisions in good ways and really listen to all of the voices that need to be heard. At the same time, she said of the continent-wide movement, "It's just so beautiful that it has built from -- what was it, 12 people or 21 people in New York?"

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