Reflections on Occupy Montréal

A couple of weeks ago I took a walk with my roommate down to Square Victoria in the middle of a downpour to see if the police had taken any precautions, set up barriers or were otherwise surveilling the area in preparation for the confrontation I was fairly certain I would witness the following day, when Montréalers from all walks of life would participate in an international day of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protesters. I think I was legitimately concerned the SPVM would take a cue from the OPP/SQ/TPS G8/G20 playbook and we’d have a repeat of any anti-police brutality march in this city (that is to say, mass police brutality). Instead I found nothing, no precautions. I was surprised.

The next day the weather was generally cooperative, though at times unsure of itself, non-committal. It provided a hallucinatory experience as I crossed René-Lévesque to make my way to a late lunch with some friends, looking West along the boulevard into a sea of golden raindrops filling the cavernous corporate trench with a universe of temporary stars. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen lately.

My first experience with Occupy Montréal had been earlier that day when it was just getting going. It was so typically Canadian, so typically Montréal – overt contrasts, peaceful cohabitation, clean, neat, orderly, pleasant. There were very few police officers, though an unfortunate number of individuals who felt compelled to look like an anarchist stereotype ripped from the pages of a hysterical RCMP training manual from the last Red Scare. My previous concerns about the possibility of any real aggression from police were mitigated when I observed a grandfatherly police captain making gooney faces with a toddler, the child’s mother, a demonstrator, was laughing warmly. We had nothing to worry about.

I returned later in the afternoon to find myself involved in a march that tore through the retail heart of the city, blocking traffic and effectively stopping all activity on Ste-Catherine’s as we barrelled down towards Concordia. Then we looped on Mackay back onto Ste-Catherine’s, made our way down past the Place des Arts, into the Old Financial Quarter on St. James and finally back to the Square. If I didn’t know any better I could swear that the SPVM planned for this and let it happen in order to let the crowd diffuse its frustrations. I’m almost certain it had a police escort come to think of it. What I found curious and clever was how they managed to keep the demonstrators and the Habs fans separate. The numerous people I saw walking around the tent city earlier with head-sets must have had something to do with this very peculiar march. I smell smart, subtle policing, if such a thing can exist.

From what I’ve seen since, I would suspect local authorities are under the impression once Winter sets in most will clear out, as that is without a doubt the path of least resistance. As I walked around on the 15th and since, I’ve noticed that the membership of the MPQ were eager to set-up camp – part of me wondered whether or not it was just exceptionally opportunistic. The MPQ isn’t much more than an army surplus store owner and his merry band of grown-up toy soldiers. The RRQ was around, as were a bunch of unilingual Anglophone student activists missing out on a real opportunity to get to know their new Francophone brothers and sisters. Perhaps things have changed since then, I’ve only passed by a few times since. I was put-off by some drunk shmuck I encountered in the formidable tent-city who was wondering (aloud) why there was gender segregation in the tents. I didn’t want to acknowledge him, so I just looked directly in his eyes and gave him a ‘move along’ look. Hard to resist. It’s part of a common theme I saw throughout my time there – it was almost as if pot consumption was about to become a death-penalty offence, and everyone was doing their utmost to consume as much as they could before the law went into effect. My personal philosophy with regards to the consumption and distribution of narcotics notwithstanding, there was far more consumption than demonstration; I suppose we can just lump antiquated laws regarding marijuana consumption in with the very new laws that make corporations people and allow governments to play fast and loose with the People’s money as just another injustice against the working man by the hypocritical elites, but I’d prefer to stay more focused.

Yes, it’s been said before ad nauseum, but let’s face it – lack of focus is an easy problem to pick at by the mainstream media. If the direction was in place the collective would ensure it had both a list of short and long term demands, in addition to an exit strategy.

Without an exit strategy, there are only two options, one of which you can almost bank on. Either the authorities let it fizzle out on its own (which will be very demoralizing for the movement and the youth), or they clean house. Without an exit strategy, demands, and a cohesive (though, probably multi-faceted) argument, this movement, regardless of where it finds itself, is doomed to fail.

We are fortunate we have been spared the violence that has befallen Oakland, Rome and New York City. Its too early to say what will happen here.

There is something worthwhile in this local version of the Occupy Wall Street protest; it unites youth, it allows the frustrated public a chance to vent. People learn, people teach, people work together. Pass by Square-Victoria and see a veritable self-supporting community in the midst of a commercial no-man’s land. Witness the industrious 99%, backbone of the modern, stable social-democracy. Times are tough and the tent-cities are doing a good job providing. Let the example shine.

I feel compelled to end on a cautionary note, however. It is fundamentally important that the demonstrators, the protesters and occupiers out there know why they personally are participating. It’s all you need to know. Don’t speak of vague notions, don’t list all the problems with the world from a progressive-socialist perspective, just know your own personal reason. You will doubtless find many people who share your point of view and can relate, but to each his own. What is important next is maintaining the media’s focus. Let us show ourselves to the media, to show our personal reasons for protest, and let us go forth and tell them precisely we, as a collective of individuals, would go out and live in a tent city in solidarity with this growing and impressive social movement.

There can be no question we have a legitimate right to protest our current conditions here in Canada. Government is both corrupt and repressive, civil liberties are squashed in the name of public security, our economy is too reliant on corrosive American investment and trade, we allow social policy to be dictated to us like children by Washington and frankly, the less said about what we’ve allowed to happen to our once world-class healthcare and public education services, the better. It is only within the last few years that I have begun feeling ashamed of my country and my people. We’re better than what we’ve allowed ourselves to become.

I’m also less than convinced Stephen Harper is the economic mastermind he purports to be. The middle class is disappearing faster here than South of the 49th, and our elites have a far greater stranglehold on our political and economic machine than I think we care to admit. Our media has been taking cues from the worst shlock you’d find on Fox News; in sum, there’s plenty to complain about, plenty that requires urgent and dramatic action.

But this movement will go nowhere unless those already mobilized can effectively articulate their own messages of protest, justified in media-savvy terms designed for maximal political impact. We have to play the game better than those who are already the established experts.

More on this later.