For a couple of hours Wednesday, things got pretty tense in Toronto’s St. James Park. A guy named Brendan had chained himself to a yurt. “We can’t unchain ourselves,” he explained. “We can’t. We don’t have the keys!”
The yurts were a nice touch. They were donated by labour unions, and had colourful tribal-style decorations on the doors. Otherwise, the park was looking pretty ratty, with messy piles of tarp and plywood all over the place. The rows of porta-potties did not enhance any sense that revolutionary change was in the air.
For weeks, the Occupier camps in North America have received more airtime than the protests in Egypt, Syria, Greece and Italy combined. After all, you never know. The media speculated that perhaps we were witnessing the first stirrings of a global movement, led by a new generation of Internet-empowered youth demanding fundamental reforms to the excesses of capitalism. Perhaps this was the West’s Tahrir moment.
Unfortunately, anyone who actually encountered the Occupiers in the flesh quickly realized they were perhaps not the greatest ambassadors for this message. In fact, they were pretty much the same folks who turn out for your standard antipoverty demonstrations and G20 protests. They had many piercings and impressive dreadlocks. Their encampments were festooned with the same images of Che, Mao and Marx (Karl, not Groucho) that have been tiresome for decades. Their slogans (“Down with capitalism!”) were unbearably clichéd and their prescriptions for change weren’t too helpful either. Somehow, I doubt that imposing an 80-per-cent tax on corporate profits would achieve quite the equalizing effects they imagine.
We can all agree that corporate greed has run amok, that the leadership classes of Washington, Wall Street and the euro zone have let us down, that lots of vulnerable people (which most of the protesters are not, I should note) are getting screwed.
But comparisons between these protests and the ones in Tahrir Square strike me as perverse. Despite the current circumstances, every single protester in North America is pretty well guaranteed a comfortable middle-class existence – so long as he or she can manage to finish school, show up for work and avoid excessive substance abuse – in a functioning democracy with the rule of law.
The same cannot be said for Egypt’s millions, who are pretty well guaranteed a life of grinding poverty and blighted hopes, no matter who’s in charge. On top of that, they run the risk of being imprisoned, beaten and shot if they complain about it.
Nonetheless, much of the infatuated media couldn’t help projecting their romantic fantasies on the occupiers. One night, I heard an interview with Kalle Lasn on the CBC. Mr. Lasn, the force behind the anti-capitalist Canadian magazine Adbusters, is widely credited with inspiring what he calls the “American Autumn.” The normally hard-hitting host of As It Happens treated him with deference normally reserved for the Dalai Lama. “Do you think we’re getting close? That we are covering this with an understanding of what’s really behind it?” she asked.
“I don’t think you’re even close,” he said. “… I can feel this movement is the beginning of a deep transformation in capitalism. It’s a game-changer.”
“Mr. Lasn, you are an inspiration!” she thanked him at the end.
By that time, things were already turning a little ugly. The camps had become magnets for street people and weirdos. In New York’s Zuccotti Park, the neighbours complained about public urination and excessive drumming. The volunteer chefs, who’d been labouring 18 hours a day to keep the occupiers supplied with organic chicken and roasted beet and sheep’s-milk-cheese salad, went on strike after a sudden influx of homeless people began eating their food. A women-only tent was set up after several sexual assaults. In Oakland, Calif., people protested corporate tyranny by attacking a Whole Foods store. Some people overdosed and died. In several cities, including Toronto, investigative reporters took infrared cameras to the parks at night and discovered that hardly anyone was sleeping in the tents.
By midday Wednesday in Toronto, the standoff was just about over. Brendan unchained himself from the yurt, and most people dispersed peacefully. A USA Today poll found that Americans were largely indifferent to the protests. Meantime, in Cairo, the protesters got on with burying their dead.