Monday, April 30, 2012


At what point does power restrict freedom? My area of research has to do with mental health care and the law. I look at what points people who are considered to have lost their grip on consensual reality have their rights and autonomy taken away by the state.
Here with an impending eviction of Harbourside Park we have a conceptually similar situation. A group of people who are perceived as not adhering to a normal way of living are going to be soon faced with a decision. Leave the park, ie normalize, or be confronted with the law and the restrictions that follow from that. 

The decision to restrict freedom seems easier to make when a group has been categorized as other; different or abnormal in some way. I think there is something abnormal about what is happening with the Occupy movement. I also think we are at the point where it might be time to consider the virtues of abnormality.

I understand not wanting to participate in Occupy, or ignoring it altogether. We are free to choose. My question is, what is there about the movement to not support? Here as elsewhere, (and I have been to the encampments at Dewey Square in Boston and the womb at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan), I have seen a lot of things. I have seen people motivated to contribute their time and energy to provide food, shelter, and camaraderie in a virtually judgement free setting. I read from Joel Hynes' Straight Razor Days at the Zuccotti Park library. I was violently chased through Manhattan by the riot police for my efforts. Hynes does have a gift for antagonism. 

One of the abnormal things about Occupy is that it doesn't matter if you are well-off or poor, formally educated or not, lifestyle-open or whatever you can think of. It doesn't matter how you might live or self-identify, you are a person and are welcome and invited to participate with all the other people participating, and everyone has an equal opportunity to make a contribution. Structurally speaking it's not so much a hatred of power or wealth so much as it doesn't matter that you have power or wealth. It won't give your opinions and perspectives any more weight. If you have something to say, you are welcome to say it and people might agree or disagree. It seems pretty democratic to me, and it speaks volumes that it is abnormal.

While it may be abnormal, it's not a vague thing. It is the participation in an ongoing public conversation about the world we live in. The validity and the need for this ongoing conversation to be happening is legitimized by the threat of eviction. The fact that a group of people in our city who are volunteering time and energy participating in this are soon going to be restricted by the city, with force if need be, is confusing to me. Don't we want people off the couch, away from the TV, talking about important issues that affect everyone, while trying to help people in need? At what point did that become an undesirable thing to the point that force could be used to prevent it? 
I don't participate in meetings anymore. I think it's amazing that they happen though, and I fully support them. It's not about agreeing or disagreeing with any particular point being made, it's about the importance of being allowed, of being free, to participate in the world in this kind of way. Why is it that I am free to go down to George Street to get loaded on any night of the week, but I will soon be restricted from participating in a conversation about democracy? I don't understand the underlying set of values that has to be in place for that to be the case.

So, while I have been away from the meetings for a while, I will be at the park when the eviction happens, because I think Occupy is a great use of a public park and they should be free to do it. I wonder if the officers that could be used for an eviction sympathize with Occupy, maybe officers who have been at the wrong end of discrimination, officers who are fed up with seeing crime that comes out of inequality, of laws they have to enforce that don't seem to address underlying social problems that can create cycles of violence, addiction, and fractured communities. If I were a police officer I would want people to be spending their time talking about ways to make the community safer. Who is it exactly that benefits from an end to that conversation? My understanding is that Harbourside Park is cleaner and safer because of the Occupy presence.

It may very well be abnormal for a group of people to have sustained a conversation about democracy down at Harbourside, but I think it's a good kind of abnormal. I think we need to take a serious look at what kinds of things we restrict, discourage, or interrupt, with the use of power and force. Is participating in positive community-building really something we want to discourage? And do we really think the threat and the possible use of force is the way we want to interact with each other?

Iain McCurdy


Anonymous said...

Nice article. It is disconcerting, as you note, that the underlying ethics of our society have been eroded. I've heard it quite aptly put as "fend for yourself" or "siege mentality" Newfoundland. Rather than considering the other as an extension of the self and deserving of care, the other is stigmatized and made an object of fear. The strength of the movement is the embrace of the other as the self, and the empowerment of those the oppressor makes abject.

Concerned Citizen said...

Im really concerned that the direction Occupy NL is taking is detrimental to its cause. Recently I was walking down town with a friend and decided to go check on the status of our friends by the harbour and noticed behind me two guys. We veered off in another direction because it was obvious they were there for a mission and it was what we thought it was, a drug deal. Which is fine, to each their own, but previous talks with them ended in being directed to web sites. This is not adequate information sharing. Your right, we need to reinterpret whats happening here and take a look at going in a different direction. We cant move back to the past so we need to confront the future. Any thoughts? I dont think the park should be used for drug abuse and my position as 'concerned citizen' allows me to make that judgement.

Anonymous said...

Why exactly do you need to camp out in a public park forever? There seems to be no tangible benefits or logical reasoning to this.

Is it because you feel you have to occupy to continue calling yourself.. occupy?

I believe you would have much, much more support without this.

You should compare and contrast your mode of protest with that of suffrage and other civil rights movements. Think of how differently you appeared to the public than did those movements.

You're not only NOT selling yourselves, you're burying yourselves.

occupier said...

It would be great if you would come to a General Assembly and voice your concerns and propose alternative directions for Occupy NL. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sundays.

Anonymous said...

@ concerned citizen
thank you for making clear my point regarding stigma

@ anon
you are right
we are not selling ourselves

Gudahtt said...

@Concerned Citizen: "previous talks with them ended in being directed to web sites. This is not adequate information sharing."

Agreed, but the best solution we have for that right now is our General Assemblies.
This blog is only really effective for publishing information.

I'm glad these comment sections allow for some discussion, but I've been planning on setting up an additional website for OccupyNL to host discussions, debates, voting on suggestions, and project/task management. Until it's finished though, this is the best we've got. We're somewhat lacking in volunteers for maintaining the website and creating online services.

It's hard to ensure information is available at camp without them having internet access anymore. Camp infrastructure is mostly non-existent now, as most of what we had has been dismantled. I don't think anyone's interesting on building up much now, so close to the May 15 deadline.

It's been suggested that we host discussion forums weekly on Saturday. It would serve as a place for informal discussion, a place to talk about and develop proposals to bring up at GA. Also suggested was a monthly flyer or magazine.

"I dont think the park should be used for drug abuse"
That's a fair point, drugs shouldn't be present at camp, it violates the rules. If you believe the rule was broke, it'd be good to bring it up at GA. I'll mention that this was commented upon at the meeting.

"Why exactly do you need to camp out in a public park forever? There seems to be no tangible benefits or logical reasoning to this.

Is it because you feel you have to occupy to continue calling yourself.. occupy?"
Haha, certainly not I hope. We don't have to use the same direct action technique all of the time surely. The camp doesn't need to be there, strictly speaking. It does have it's purpose though. It's in an accessible location, great venue for discussion and encouraging people to get involved. It serves as an important symbol for the movement, and has been an important meeting place for this movement. But no, I don't think the idea was to stay forever in that particular location.

"You're not only NOT selling yourselves, you're burying yourselves."

A fair point. The main topic of discussion lately has been improving our outreach efforts. We're in the process of developing our first mission statement, for example, and there are presentations and videos being worked on as well. If you're interested in getting involved in the discussion, I'd recommend attending GA sometime.

Kyle said...

Excellent words, Iain. I'll see you on the 15th, if not before.

occupier said...

Despite all odds, Occupy NL has lasted through the winter (and that's saying something, at the edge of the continent...), but now that Spring is here the City of St. John's is preparing for tourist season.

We have been issued an informal eviction notice effective May 15. We have been occupying a public space (Harbourside Park for its historical connection to colonialism and protest) to show that we are not happy with the current state of affairs: municipally, provincially, federally, globally. The central issue of inequality recreates itself at all levels, and evicting us to clean up a park will not clear away these issues.

On May 15th show your support for the Occupy movement and bring your energy to the social momentum that will be sweeping the globe this May. Occupy is not merely about camping in public spaces (although the tent is a powerful symbol), and we will evolve in whatever way will allow us to highlight what's wrong with this world. An eviction will not stop what has been set in motion October 15th, 2011 -- Occupy NL will find other ways to express (in new and creative ways) what is so fundamental to this movement: that another world is possible.

If you've ever wanted to support Occupy or think that the issues we stand for are important (or you are angry or worried by the slow march to fascism we are seeing in Canada), now is the time to speak up. Get involved. Don't let it creep up on you...