One consequence of efforts to evict Occupy encampments in countless cities across the continent has been the dilution of much of the mainstream debate around the movement to a focus on the extent to which it complies with the law. Organizations like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have put forth compelling arguments that “Freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association are core democratic rights that are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” and that “Unilateral enforcement action by police is unacceptable and dangerous.”
Scan your favourite news outlet and you will find endless quotes from lawyers and constitutional scholars taking positions, generally in favour of the occupiers. (One needn’t be a legal expert to figure that city bylaws ought to wilt under the Charter.) As pragmatic, helpful, and even necessary as these arguments may be in short to medium term, they are somewhat beside the point.
Those of us who consider ourselves part of that which is variously named Occupy Together or Occupy Everywhere ought to refuse this shift to a discussion about legal minutia. To engage in such debates is to implicitly accept that municipal bylaws, or indeed constitutional rights, are the sole or the main arbiter’s of a political movement’s justification.
Of far greater importance are the by now well-documented drastic, material inequalities with which the movement is concerned as well as the prevailing sense that something more than tinkering with the political system that enables these disparities is required.
The Montreal Gazette highlights some of the inequities: “Between 1980 and 2005, median earnings among the top 20 per cent of full-time full-year earners increased by 16.4 per cent. Median earnings among those in the bottom one-fifth fell 20.6 per cent. Median earnings among those in the middle stagnated. By the end of 2009, 3.8 per cent of Canadian households controlled $1.78 trillion, or 67 per cent, of financial wealth.”
Likewise, a September article in The Globe and Mail reported on a Conference Board of Canada study which found that “The gap between the rich and the rest is growing … at a faster pace in Canada than in the United States” and that “market forces and globalization are increasing disparity, along with institutional shifts such as dwindling unionization rates and stagnating minimum wages.”
As court rulings over the occupation in Toronto and elsewhere play out, keep in mind that laws are not unchanging, God-given, transcendent truths. Laws are subjective and dynamic and they vary dramatically across geographical and temporal divisions. They are made, interpreted and enforced by humans in specific historical contexts who have political and economic interests as well as ideological biases. Politics, whether within the formal political system or external to it, is about the struggle to abolish existing laws or establish new ones.
Let us not fetishize any one law or act as though the violation of municipal bylaws is the first step toward widespread cannibalism. More importantly, let us not assume that the legitimacy of the Occupy movement rests upon court rulings. And in the event that specific, inconsequential laws pose an obstruction, let us not be servile to them. Because, as Howard Zinn imperishably phrased it in a 1972 debate with Charles Frankel: “[Civil disobedience] is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience….Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”
Greg Shupak is a writer, an activist and a PhD student. This article originally appeared on this.org.