I hate to rain on anyone’s movement. But the breathless media coverage of the weekend’s Occupy Toronto (Vancouver, Montreal etc.) protests bears an inverse relation to what really happened.
In Toronto, perhaps a thousand people showed up at St. James’s Park on Saturday. I saw more at Jack Layton’s funeral. By Sunday, the numbers had dwindled to a few hundred. Meantime, a few miles northwest of the city, 20,000 people clamoured to get into Foodstock, an event held to protest against the construction of a giant quarry on prime farmland. Another 23,000 turned out to run in the Toronto Marathon.
By Monday, the media had converged at King and Bay, where protesters had promised a “large-impact demonstration” when the stock market opened. Alas, nothing happened. “There are only around three people here,” said a CBC reporter mournfully.
The protest mostly featured the usual suspects – anti-capitalists, environmentalists, union types chanting “Solidarity,” and aging hippies nostalgic for their youth. The faces were overwhelmingly white. “We need to adjust the monetary system to be a lot more respectful to the planet,” said one man I spoke with. “We need kindness, not greed,” said someone else. And who could disagree with that? One protester wore a gas mask, clearly fearing (or hoping) that the police would sweep in with tear gas and truncheons. No such luck. Apart from the odd good-natured bicycle patrol, there were no police in sight.
“We are the new silent majority,” said a 23-year-old in a plastic Guy Fawkes mask. He told me he’s in the record business, but it’s tough to make a living because no one will give him grants. “Why should artists have to work instead of just making art?” he asked. “In a better world, it’s your birthright to have the things you need to survive.” His two masked friends nodded. One is a student who said he pays too much tuition. The other has a lowly job in a large software company. “They gave all the managers an iPad,” he groused. “But I’m the one who’s supposed to know how they work.”
So much for the voice of the oppressed masses. These kids don’t need a revolution. They need pacifiers.
To be fair, there were some thoughtful voices in the crowd. My companion for the afternoon was a 30-year-old Bay Street banker who’s deeply disillusioned by what he’s seen. Banks used to operate like regulated utilities, rendering a necessary service to the public. After deregulation, they became reckless gamblers, speculating with trillions of dollars worth of fancy instruments that turned out to be worthless. Wall Street betrayed Main Street, top bankers continued to get obscenely rich and nobody was ever punished.
The Canadian media have overblown the occupier story because they’re desperately afraid of missing something big. They don’t want to make the same mistake they made with the Tea Party, which they at first portrayed as a bunch of nuts in tricorne hats. Also, like the occupiers themselves, they have a bad case of me-tooism. They really want to be a part of something significant.
Inflating the importance of the occupation is a brainless way of nodding to a number of extremely significant but complex issues: the growing wealth gap, the stagnation of middle-class incomes, the rise of long-term unemployment, diminished generational prospects for the young. Much has gone wrong in America, and Canadians will be affected, too. But until the occupation movement in North America attracts as many people as the Halloween Parade does in New York, or a marathon in Toronto, you can safely ignore it.