This will be the first in a series of articles I intend to write on the occupy Toronto movement. I wish to make it clear that although I am attending as much as I can find the time, I do not consider myself to be apart of this movement. Although I do sympathize with the goals and spirit of the movement, I am seeing a lot of the activists and independent alternative media blindly throwing their support behind it even though they freely admit they have problems with the way things are being done, things being said and the transparency.
The day started for me at 11a.m. at the corner of King and York streets. The protest had been called for King and Bay (one short block away) at 10 a.m. but as I was meeting some out of town friends I had to allow time for them to get here. By the time we walked to the corner we were met by about 100 other protesters who were all wondering where everyone else had gone? In one hour the whole protest had disappeared leaving late comers to figure out for themselves where the secret location of the protest had moved to. After some calls to an activist friend we found the group at St. James park a few blocks south of Toronto’s financial district.
On arriving at the park the first thing that struck me was there was not near as much of a police presence as I expected. In the park the usual factions had set up, the unions, communists, socialists all these familiar groups were using sound equipment to make speeches and the general protesters wandering around with their signs. It all seemed like just another protest in the park. The drummers and the usual kind of things we veterans of protest have seen before. But amongst this large crowd, taking their time setting up more permanent encampments were the people I was interested in, the group who have been organizing the Occupy Toronto movement.
What’s interesting about the O.T. organizers is they have set up teams and asked for volunteers for these teams. Most of these teams are easy to understand food, medical, media, but the most interesting group is the facilitating team. This is the team that moderates and controls the group meetings known as the general assembly. Now there are activists that are known to me on many of the teams and even the media team. Everybody tells me there are no leaders and nobody is in charge.
As the day wore on the regular players and their supporters packed up and dwindled away and went home as the O.T. team’s encampments got larger and organized, the protesters that stuck around were the younger and less experienced protesters, many attending their first protest. Early evening the general assembly had begun. Now this method of holding a meeting seems a bit strange to me. The person speaking makes himself heard by the crowd by having the people in the front repeat what he says in a loud voice so those in the back may hear. That technique strikes me as odd. These people can organize all this but can’t put together a sound system or a $30 bull horn? What’s the advantage of this? In my view it made the meeting much longer, it also took away the tone of the speaker so you may as well have written it down on a large screen everyone could read? No what this did was create a group dynamic, one I had seen used before in cults and religious groups.
When I got closer and forced myself to listen to the words these people were repeating in a chant like manner I was mildly shocked. These moderators and facilitators were laying out rules for speech and conduct in dealing with each other and others! What was really shocking was no one was objecting at being told what to do? Whoever these people were they were controlling this crowd like seasoned professionals. What I heard was that for all problems that may arise in the process of this general assembly a person should contact a facilitator, so I decided to do just that. I wandered up to the media tent, told them my name and asked to speak to a facilitator. The guy at the table looked up at me and said “You’re Lawrence, aren’t you?” My reputation had preceded me. I recognized him as someone who had given the CBC interview the week before. Right away another guy named Josh dropped what he was doing to help me with my concerns. Again I felt like I was dealing with a cult, but how could this be possible? Working at the same table was a well known activist and friend that earlier in the day had assured me nothing funny was going on here.
I had a long conversation with Josh; I related my concerns about the group think methods I saw and the rumors about anonymous donations that had been made. The fact that although every one claimed there was no leader, somebody had to have started all this organizing and have paid for or arranged for the meeting space they have been using at OSIE the week leading up to this event? Josh threw out some first names but could not give me last names without his phone and the people I really should be talking to were these facilitators who were busy running this meeting somewhere in the middle of this sea of chanting repeaters. He suggested I wait till after the meeting or come back later.
Well at this rate I could see this general assembly meeting might be going on all night. To his credit Josh did offer to send me organizing documents he had, copies of e-mails and a pdf file that would explain the methods they were using entitled Quick guide on group dynamics in people’s assemblies. He also assured me that he would arrange a face-to-face meeting with a facilitator. Josh seemed like an upfront guy, we exchanged contact information and he was good for his word and by the time I got home the things he said he would send were in my mail box.
There was one more thing that kind of freaked me out. As I was leaving the media tent I spotted a woman who I recognized from many protests around town, she is a blogger for a popular alternative news site. After introducing myself, I asked her if she still wrote for that site and she said she did. I then asked her “as a journalist, are you not concerned with the lack of transparency in this movement?” What happened next made me feel like I was in the body snatchers film. She replied with “Go away, you’re scaring me with your aggressive language, and I don’t wish to talk with you anymore!” What??? I was shocked. Surly this woman had seen me around at other events as I her? How was asking her this question aggressive in any shape or form? I left the park more disturbed than I have ever been from a day of protest with maybe the exception of the day of the G-20.
Josh called me back at 1 a.m. Sunday morning and assured me that he could arrange a meeting with facilitators when I came back to the park on Monday. Now I’m not saying that anything sinister is going on here. But as an old hand at civil disobedience and protest I’m feeling off balance about this whole thing. For the first time I have questions about motives. Not of the hard working activists and friends that I know and see working in this, but of the people behind the scenes that I have not met and have no idea of who they may be.
There is rumor of a march on Bay Street on Monday when the greedy bankers and stock traders start their week. I will go downtown and back to the park and try to understand just what is making me feel different about this than anything else I’ve been a part of over the last few years. More to come.