VANCOUVER — It’s time for democracy, not corporatocracy, we’re doomed without it.
With that message, Adbusters, the Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine, called on people in July’s 97th issue to flood into Lower Manhattan on September 17 to “occupy Wall Street for a few months.”
Little did the magazine’s staff know that the movement to protest against corporate greed, now known as Occupy Wall Street, would gather so much momentum via social media and spread to so many cities.
And now, on Oct. 15, the movement is coming to Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal. According to its Facebook page, the Occupy Vancouver event alone is expected to attract more than 2,500 people. Participants plan to occupy the area outside the Vancouver Art Gallery indefinitely. While protesters say the demonstration will be peaceful, police have been notified, and downtown businesses have been advised to beef up security.
The Occupy Wall Street movement goes international just as the U.S. version enters a new level of confrontation. On Saturday, the online hacker group Anonymous warned that some of its members planned to take down the New York Stock Exchange website, NYSE.com, on Tuesday as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
In a YouTube video, a computer-generated voice said that there was a short hack on NYSE.com Saturday and that it was down for 30 minutes “in a matter of seconds.”
The video said factions in Anonymous were going ahead with the hack on Tuesday despite opposition from some members.
The message to NYSE was simple: Anonymous members would “destroy you,” the video said.
“Those who are going to be part of the attack have a message to the NYSE: We hack you because we don’t like you,” the voice said.
“We are all Anonymous. We are all one Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget.”
In Vancouver, at Occupy’s first general assembly on Saturday, hundreds of people squeezed into the W2 Media Cafe to discuss the logistics of occupying the Art Gallery successfully. Eventually, the meeting was moved up to the atrium. There was no leader, and all participants were careful to use diplomatic language, such as, “I would recommend,” or, “Do we all agree?”
Even though many had ideas for the actual demonstration, no one seemed to know what Occupy Vancouver’s demands are.
“My suggestion would be that this is not the place to iron out demands, that (when we) occupy together, that is our time to figure ourselves out,” said moderator Sarah Rose Edwards Noel, to which the crowd answered, “Agreed!”
Eric Hamilton-Smith, one of the organizers for Occupy Vancouver, said he is confident those demands will materialize over the next few weeks. For now, he said, the most important thing is for people to discuss their economic and political frustrations and to share ideas and common experiences. Eventually, proposals for change will form organically, he said.
“I’m frustrated with . . . having governments making policies that don’t represent me,” he said. “I can’t stand idly by while our financial (situation) and our society . . . is coming apart at the seams, and I think more and more people realize that and are hoping for more positive change and a better tomorrow.”
That sentiment is shared by Adbusters’ founder and editor, Kalle Lasn. Although Adbusters catalyzed the Occupy demonstrations, Lasn said he had not expected the protest to spread from New York so rapidly.
“I was quite surprised when suddenly, they started to have occupations in Chicago, in Los Angeles, and then there was one in San Francisco,” he said. “Now it’s spread to 200 cities in America and spilling over to Canada, and I thought, ‘This is more than just a one-shot deal. This is becoming a movement.’”
As with Occupy Vancouver, Occupy Wall Street does not have a defined objective, either. Participants are united by a common grievance: that a small group of corporations hold massive amounts of wealth and decision-making power, while the majority of the population suffers from enormous debt, unemployment, and unaffordable health care and housing. The movement still lacks concrete demands, but protesters seem to pride themselves more in the process than the outcome. General assemblies, where decisions about the occupation are made through consensus, are held twice a day.
The organizers of Occupation Vancouver plan to follow the footsteps of their New York counterparts.
“A social movement that aims to reclaim democracy has to be democratic in its process,” said Min Reyes, another Occupy Vancouver organizer. “It’s a movement that focuses on the essence of democracy and therefore, nobody can set up goals and impose it on others.”
University of British Columbia sociology professor Rima Wilkes said that without a unified voice and clear-cut position, Occupy Wall Street and other similar protests may not have the power to effect change.
“The people who have that much money, there’s a reason they have that much money and they’re not going to give it up, just like that,” she said.
Simon Fraser University labour history professor Mark Leier agrees that change would be difficult, but not impossible if protesters connect with groups that have bargaining power. For example, labour unions, such as the teachers, nurses and transit workers who joined the protest on Wall Street on Wednesday, can put different kinds of economic and political pressure on the powerful.
“Where people have a sense of injustice, a sense that things must be better, they’re going to talk about it,” Leier said. “They’re going to say, ‘What do we most want on the agenda?’ And they’re going to discuss it, and they’re going to, with any luck, find some way forward.”
Lasn said he believes Occupy could become a global movement driven by social media. Young people who face a “big, black hole” — bleak economic future, political grievances, and climate change — will “bite the bullet and have a surge of bottoms-up, democratic demands that will change the world,” he said.
“All around the world, people will stand up and say, ‘You, the leaders who are creating my future, you don’t understand what’s going on, you don’t understand the complexity and the danger of what the future is,’” he said. “And they’re going to . . . demand things like a tax on all financial transactions, banning of high-frequency trading, banking reforms.”
Regardless of whether the movement can bring forth change, both Wilkes and Leier stressed the importance of highlighting economic inequality and the true potential of democracy.
“Even if we don’t see direct political change, what people are going to learn are lessons they have forgotten over the last 30 years,” Leier said. “Democracy is not just about casting a ballot every four or five years. Whether it’s women’s suffrage, unemployment insurance, health care, they have certainly not been divorced from electoral politics, but it’s the power of the people . . . to get out on the streets that have also propelled this.”
Reyes agreed, saying that Occupy Vancouver is as much of a symbolic occupation as it is a physical one.
“I would hope that this movement wakens people up in terms of their rightful, political engagement with issues they deal with,” she said. “If it came to a point where people just have to go back home, they will take the spirit and experience back with them, and never forget that the public sphere is there for them to reclaim their voice and be heard.”