An interview for occupy Toronto

Activist and comedian Jesse Owens interviewed me for the website, way back in ancient occupy toronto history (ie., October 26). For posterity, I am also reproducing it here. Thanks Jesse…

Activist and comedian Jesse Owens interviewed me for the website, way back in ancient occupy toronto history (ie., October 26). For posterity, I am also reproducing it here. Thanks Jesse…

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer, teacher and activist who has been involved with social movements all across the globe for over a decade. His work has been featured in many publications such as Z Magazine, Frontline, New Politics, and New Left Review. I met up with Justin at St. James Park on Oct. 26 during his first visit to the occupation. He had been in Haiti during the first week of the movement.

JO: What’s your overall impression of the occupy movements? And then specifically what do you think of the Occupy Toronto movement?

JP: Overall it’s very exciting. There have been a lot of moments over the past ten years where I thought there is every reason for a social explosion to take place. Hurricane Katrina was one for the U.S. and the financial crisis was another huge moment and I was kind of surprised it didn’t happen. When Occupy Wall Street started I thought it was nice people are doing something, but I kind of underrated it expecting the police would clear it out within a couple days. When that didn’t happen I was very pleasantly surprised that my constant pessimism about how people in North America aren’t doing enough was proven wrong. So overall I’m quite excited and I hope we can make the most of the moment.

As for Toronto I’m very curious to see how it is. I haven’t been down yet, but from what I’ve heard it’s refreshing because my feeling over the past 10 years, especially the past three or four years, is that anything that’s different is good. Because a lot of activists who have been active for many years get stuck doing the same kind of things over and over. And we make assumptions and mistakes we don’t even realize we’re making. We rationalize why and what we’re doing makes the most sense, and so when new things happen I am very excited to see what I can learn, what’s new and what’s different. Those are my main impressions.

JO: You’ve been active in movements for over a decade, do you have lots of activist friends and colleagues involved in Occupy Toronto?

JP: What’s great is no. A lot of us were kind of surprised to see it happening and I’ll be honest and say part of the reason I didn’t want to come right away was this feeling that I didn’t want to just show up and impose my thinking on it or judge it from the perspective that I come from. But I just wanted to see it evolve. This is what I would have counseled any longtime activist.
However, I believe we do have to get involved and people are definitely getting involved, but part of what is so exciting is that it’s not the usual suspects.

JO: You’ve written that one of the best things about the movement is its diversity, but do you think the movement should adopt a singular identity or manifesto?

JP: I have no opinion on it. I have all kinds of ideas of how politics should proceed but Naomi Klein said when she spoke to Occupy Wall Street to not stress out about coming up with a unified set of demands. What you can demand depends on how big and strong you are. So if you’re still small and growing maybe it’s not the time to make demands. Maybe the time to make demands is when you’re big and fearsome to the people in power. So if a manifesto of demands will help the movement to grow and strengthen itself, then by all means. But if it won’t at this moment, then no rush. I think that’s the criteria to judge these things at this point.

JO: The Occupy Toronto movement is attempting to use participatory politics and there are a number of people who are getting frustrated at the decision making process because there are no strict rules or regulations. It changes regularly. Do you think a good way in moving forward is to define a process?

JP: Any movement has to think about what it offers people who get involved. This is how any movement or organization can grow is by offering people something they are not getting. Our society is class divided. It’s racist, it’s sexist, it’s consumerist. It offers these meaningless experiences that alienate people from each other and I think the big draw of movements and activism is that opportunity to be more human. To express that political side of yourself. To have meaningful debates about things that affect you. To struggle alongside people for principles that you believe in. And all of those things are important. If we do have a class-based movement for more equality, that also can benefit from the formulation of principles, demands, manifestos and anything that makes it more clear.

I don’t take criticism that there is a lack of coherence too seriously. The fact is there are a lot of problems that stem from inequality, so the expressions are going to be diverse. But if more clarity around issues and demands and process will strengthen a movement toward these principles then I support it.

JO: At the moment, a lot of the decision making at the general assemblies and sub-committees have strived for absolute consensus. And there have been a few occupiers who are consistently the lone dissenter in the group. You’ve written about the idea of when consensus can’t be reached, a simple rule for decision making can help: greater importance requires greater majority.

JP: I think it comes from a good place. If we’re a collective then the collective has to agree. And when it comes to an action and there’s a consensus then we’re much stronger. But exactly like you said, not all decisions need consensus. Michael Albert writes about this a lot. The issue is what he calls self-management. You could also call it autonomy or democracy or liberty. The issue is whether people get to control the decisions that affect them. If it affects everyone equally, or if it affects everybody a lot, then you may need a consensus. In some cases you still might want to make the decision by simple or super majority. It depends on the severity of the decision and how it impacts the movement. But also there are a lot of elements in the consensus process that are common to all decision-making processes. You want to make sure all views are heard and that nobody is silenced because of the oppressive dynamics of classism or racism or sexism. And you can build that all into the discussion process. Once you’ve had that discussion, whether you require a simple majority, super majority or absolute consensus I think is less important. I think it’s something that the occupy movement might want to consider.

This is always the test. This is always the criteria. What is the principle that you are trying to fulfill through this particular process, policy, demand, tactic, action or strategy. Look at the principle. The principle is people should have a say in the decisions that affect them. Now how is that fulfilled by giving every single person a veto versus a majority? How is the principle of self-management affected? When you think through and test your actions against your principles you sometimes realize you’re doing some things just because of historical legacy, because someone else did or because it’s the way you learned how to do it. And then you can add more flexibility on how you can go about fighting for your principles.

JO: There have also been concerns raised regarding some voices being louder than others during assemblies and meetings, which leads to oppression of voices. Do we need to change the process?

JP: It’s important to remember that almost any process can be manipulated. Having said that, if you do have a process that a large number of people respect, then that can actually be a very good thing for a movement. This goes back to the 60s. There were two essays: The Tyranny of Structurelessness and the Tyranny of Tyranny that refer to the feminist movement. The Tyranny of Structurelessness says that if there is no structure then it’s going to be dominated by a few people. And the Tyranny of Tyranny says if you bureaucratize everything, that’s the same kind of tyranny everyone already lives in. I do endorse the idea that if you don’t have a shared process to include everyone, then you’re going to get into trouble. One of the principles people gravitate to is fairness. They want to be treated like everyone else. If they come to the occupy movement and they aren’t being treated fairly, then it’s not an alternative.

JO: What do you think of the use of progressive stack for speakers’ lists, where women and traditionally marginalized people are encouraged to speak before, or at least as much, as the more privileged people?

JP: I think that is a difficult one because a part of oppression is defining what someone else is. If I decide that you’re a person of colour for you, and you didn’t self identify, that’s potentially an oppressive thing to do. But in my experience, with a progressive stack, I’ve seen it quite effectively applied, particularly with sex. I’ve been at meetings where there were two speakers’ lists where they alternate between female and male speakers.

JO: Were there any objections?

JP: No, it was fine. It was an accepted way to do things. And it worked quite well I thought. Unless they are conscious of it, male and even female facilitators might favour male speakers at times. So this is why you do it. I’ve seen it done in classrooms too, and it’s quite effective actually.

Race and other things are less easy to identify if people are not self-identifying. I haven’t seen it in practice. In principle I can see how it might structurally help, but I can also see cases where I, as someone who’s brown, might not want to jump the queue ahead of a so-called white person. I might instead just be into the discussion and letting it flow organically (understanding that sometimes what looks like an organic flow, especially to those who are privileged, is actually privileged voices dominating the conversation). It’s important to remember that the general assembly with the facilitator at the front and a speakers list with the human microphone are just a particular bunch of choices. There’s nothing particularly anti-oppressive about these choices. They are just mechanisms that could be used in an oppressive way, or an anti-oppressive way. They’re neutral. A lesson from other movements is that you don’t want to fetishize how to do things. The only things non-negotiable are the main, basic principles. And how you fulfill those and what methods and tactics you use are up for grabs.

JO: There have also been concerns about people subverting the meetings and the occupation. What are your thoughts on that?

JP: A group has to be aware of that. The police are going to eventually try to clear you out. It happened in Oakland. So you have to have a plan. How linked to this particular park is the movement? I would say it shouldn’t be linked at all. I would say it transcends the park. Right now a lot of the energy is going to running the park, but winter is coming. The cold might do the job, or the cops might. But what’s next? What are the plans? What’s the idea for moving forward? That’s a question the movement has to answer. If a movement can be blocked by one spoiler, the group will have to consider that. They might have to change their process, to go from consensus to two-thirds majority, or something else, for some decisions. Then as a democrat, the person who opposes a vote has to go and try to win people over. That’s part of democracy. This is one reason why I like a majority vote, because if you block or oppose a decision you have to try and convince your comrades. That’s not a bad thing. That process can be manipulated too. There are tricks to everything. But if a group is conscious of these things, then they can plan for them. And there’s an answer for everything.

I was reading an article on Znet by Shamus Cooke where he said if there’s a concern that there is a right wing infiltration to the movement, then class-based demands is the strongest repellant. If we support unions, a strong public sector and taxes to the rich, then the right wing is allergic to that.

JO: So how important is education for the group?

JP: I think it’s very important. From what I’ve heard the group here has been learning incredibly fast. And that’s key. There are lots of lessons from past and present failures. And they are really important. One of the slogans is, “we’re all leaders. If you’re looking for a leader look in the mirror.” That’s a huge responsibility. That means everyone’s responsible for where this goes and what happens. And that means a huge responsibility to read and learn. Education is a responsibility of the movement.

JO: Finally, what are your general thoughts on how to keep the movement moving forward?

JP: What I tell everybody these days is there’s nobody else that’s going to do it. If you do not like how it’s going, you’ve got to do something else. If you think it’s dominated by certain voices, then you’ve got to step up and claim your voice and space. And if you want more action or a more constructive movement, you’ve got to do it and argue for it. I think in that light, my sense is that everywhere in the world movements advance by offering something that’s not being offered. We’re in a very defensive moment in Canada. Just before Occupy Toronto the thing I liked the most in the city to was the Stop the Cuts movement against the Ford government, stop the attacks on unions by the Harper government, defending the public sector from privatization. There is a wide range of struggles going on. What I like about the occupy movement is it takes the initiative away from that defensive model to say we’re envisioning a society that is more equal than the one we have. So we can now start to have a sensible discussion about taxes, macro economics and other issues that affect our lives.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.