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ANALYSIS

Will they still occupy us tomorrow? Add to ...

For the Occupy movement, this has been the week of evictions and confrontations – the most visible sign that the international demonstration against economic inequality has reached a turning point. What happens next will determine whether the protest can evolve beyond an occupation of space and turn into the world-changing force it has often claimed to be, as encampments modelled on Zuccotti Park in Manhattan proliferated across the Western world, including Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver.

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The Arab Spring was the guiding model for Occupy – thousands of people standing in the public square, bearing witness to their pent-up demands for radical change. But the 200-plus arrests during Tuesday night's police raid on Occupy Wall Street and the 300 more during its Day of Action on Thursday present a more disturbing scenario for protest's endgame. The Canadian outposts are awaiting the decisions of judges and politicians (an injunction preventing Occupy Toronto's eviction has been extended to Monday).

After a mere two months – which may be no time at all in the time frame of civil-rights movements, but is forever in the shortened attention span of both popular culture and impatient law enforcement – the protest has clearly reached the crossroads. Stay put and you're breaking the law, provoking the authorities into the kind of showdowns that are bound to undermine a peaceful and hopeful message. Clear out and you lose both the visibility and the united sense of commitment that made the pop-up protesters such a potent expression of collective dissatisfaction and engagement.

Surveys seem to show that support for the movement is ebbing: Public Policy Polling reported this week that the Occupy movement's goals are supported by 33 per cent of those polled and opposed by 45 per cent, an increase of nine percentage points on the negative side. That makes the movement's heroic claim to represent the disenfranchised 99 per cent look particularly deluded.

But polls about a movement so purposely vague, leaderless and undefined can supply only a blunt instrument for understanding. Maybe people don't see anything productive in confrontations and evictions, which is understandable, whoever is to blame. Maybe they value the underlying message about the harm done by economic inequality but don't see a remedy emerging from two months of occupations, because that physical presence has become too static and humdrum to represent a revolutionary idea.

Umberto Eco, the Italian cultural theorist and bestselling The Name of the Rose author, has been watching the Occupy movement with both fascination and concern. Like many commentators of his generation, he compares the street-based movement to the student protests of 1968 that challenged a stratified social system and provoked a generational shift. But he sees a key problem in the current tactics of protest.

“This time, it seems there is indignation but no positive suggestions,” he says. “In 1968, there was, at least, a Marxist idea of opposition, right or wrong. Here, there is only revolt. So I am waiting to see what comes next.”

Something's got to give: Winter alone will put pressure on Occupy to evolve from a series of encampments distracted by sanitation and law-and-order issues into a broader-based movement of ideas and actions. Adbusters, the Vancouver-based group that inspired the initial Wall Street occupation, has issued a tactical statement calling for “precision disruptions” that do not depend on a laborious tent-city infrastructure to make a point.

Yet guerrilla theatre can become its own form of marginalization, as alternative culture's aversion to the norm undermines the universality that gave Occupy its democratic credentials.

‘They're going to strike out'

To move ahead, it is first necessary to determine what has been accomplished by the protest in a mere two months. Anyone eager to be dismissive of the Occupy movement – and there is no shortage of commentators railing against its optimistic vagaries, substandard hygiene and weird fashion choices – has first to contend with the fact that billionaires now take it seriously.

One key billionaire in particular: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. As his police force was doing its best to eradicate the protest on Thursday, the mayor delivered a stark assessment of the social pain and dislocation that the demonstrations have laid bare: “The public is getting scared,” he said, in language meant to bring his plutocrat audience to attention. “They don't know what to do and they're going to strike out and they don't know where. … They just know the system isn't working, and they don't want to wait around.”

Mr. Bloomberg is too savvy a money-maker to miss the real issue: People have had enough. But a motley collection of ragtag protests and outbursts of street theatre set against a backdrop of yurts and drum circles? Could this really have been enough to undo the Thatcherite revolution and make the money moguls cower? Or to chart a course for social engineers, such as the hard-headed anti-poverty economist Jeffrey Sachs? He has called the Occupy movement “the start of a new era in America,” where the 99-per-cent utopians would get to “tax the rich, end the wars and restore honest and effective government for all.”

Heady stuff, but so far it hasn't proved easy to spot the straight line leading from the slightly goofy protests to the progressive paradise envisioned by Mr. Sachs. Much of the movement seems just as much caught up in the great American tradition of personal transformation.

“We all know we're going to get kicked out at some point,” says Cindy Milstein of Occupy Philadelphia. “But for now we don't want to lose the feeling of feeding each other, housing each other, taking care of each other. It isn't about holding on to a piece of concrete, it's about us wanting to find ourselves and wanting to change the world.”

Steve Collis is a participant at the Occupy Vancouver site. He's also a professor of literature at Simon Fraser University who studies the idea of artistic and social change. As Vancouver officials seek a court injunction to evict the protesters from their encampment on the lawn of the city art gallery, Prof. Collis acknowledges that the movement's attachment to an occupied space, and the confrontations that go with it, has become a worry.

“It's not clear how to think this through,” he says. “Some people say, ‘Let's become nomadic and virtual.' Others say, ‘No way, this is where we make a stand.' I think reality, the external world, will help with the decision: There'll either be a negotiated removal or a physical removal.”

But a virtual protest or a shift to backroom lobbying wouldn't satisfy Prof. Collis. The open, physical manifestation of dissent, with the three-hour general assemblies that take place each night across the Occupy sites, is for him a truer expression of the pure democracy the movement advocates.

“We're changing the way people think about political interaction,” he says. “Clearly the way [society has]been doing it isn't working, if fewer and fewer people vote and we can't redress environmental problems or issues of economic inequality. The Occupy space returns us to the old Greek notion of agora, the public place that's always open, where anyone can participate in a public discussion about ideas at any time.”

‘I'm looking at a bunch of outsiders'

But even two months of occupation has proved a challenge to the glorious Greek ideals. Few of the 99 per cent have the time or the energy for endless debates decided by consensus, and what started out as a democracy movement quickly turned, in large measure, into a mission for the homeless and addicted, who found the sites to be a salvation.

Day-to-day concerns with feeding people and keeping them warm and healthy tend to narrow the goals of the movement rather than expand it. When the crucible for democracy turns into a temporary shelter, the boundless limits of youthful idealism get confined quickly and policy-makers find it easier to look away.

At the political level, the movement has been treated as a municipal issue – which is to say, as a temporary nuisance, more like a music festival that has overstayed its welcome than a new way of imagining public discourse.

Athenian democracy attracted ingenious philosophers and eloquent orators, but Occupy sites are thronged with health officials and fire inspectors. Provincial and national leaders have barely acknowledged the existence of the movement, perhaps out of fear and uncertainty, or perhaps because they are pretty sure they can wait it out.

Liberal political strategist John Duffy's office window faces the Toronto Occupy encampment, and that has enhanced the conflict he feels in assessing the movement.

“I don't think everyone wants to be an outsider,” he says, “and I'm looking at a bunch of outsiders. Bob Rae said Canadians don't want a forced choice between the Tea Party and the Occupiers, and I don't agree with the messengers particularly. But I agree with the message – and the message is, we have to open up the conversation.

“If you feel that the free-market Chicago School and Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Reagan and their heirs have dominated the discussion and shut down everyone else, then certainly you want the channel changed. So I welcome the channel changers. But you don't necessarily want to end up on their channel if you're a fan of the middle.”

In partisan terms, that means the Liberals don't see any value in an alliance with the occupiers as they try to reclaim the middle-class vote lost to the Conservatives, while the NDP is more cautiously engaged in outreach: Any polarization of the Canadian political process, after all, will benefit the NDP at the expense of the Liberal centrists. And unions have been quietly but actively supporting and advising the protesters.

‘The Canadian movement is just a copycat'

The question of whether the Occupy movement really is broadly representative of a deep-seated social unrest is at the heart of its existence, and will determine its future course. For Joseph Heath, a University of Toronto philosophy professor who writes often about political dialogue, the answer to that question is completely different depending on whether you are looking at the U.S. or Canada.

“The U.S. movement is long overdue and quite valuable,” he says. “But the Canadian movement is just a copycat. Income equality is quite different in Canada from the United States, plus the United States had a financial crisis and Canada didn't. Their banks behaved extremely badly and ours didn't. And they have a political system that is broken and blocked up – they have a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in the Senate that can't get their legislation passed.”

The United States elected Barack Obama in a spirit of optimism, and the Occupiers are an obvious response to three years of deflected hopes and ideals. “Whereas in Canada,” Prof. Heath notes, “Canadians just elected a Conservative majority government. So here, the Occupy movement ends up saying things that are vaguely anti-democratic: ‘We're the 99 per cent, just not the ones who voted for the current government.' That's a lot less persuasive than the message in the States.”

Occupy Wall Street makes perfect sense to Prof. Heath: That's where the U.S. financial crisis was incubated, where the undeserved bonuses were paid. But Bay Street is in no way as culpable, he believes. He tells Canadian protesters to make tracks for Fort McMurray, Alta., and lead an occupation of the oil-sands projects instead. “Income inequality in Canada doesn't come from the financial sector,” he says. “The economy has shifted hugely toward resource extraction.”

‘Serious private-sector leaders get it'

Occupy Fort McMurray in winter? That's taking a nomadic movement a little too far, perhaps. But not everyone agrees that the Occupiers have the wrong idea about who to blame and how best to make a better world.

Ed Waitzer is a veteran Bay Streeter, a high-level corporate lawyer who also teaches corporate governance at York University. Instead of being put off by the Occupiers and their anger, he says, “I'd be very disappointed if they don't find a way to continue. I think they've resonated at a profound level with the public disaffection for greed.”

Occupiers have been inclined to say that they're not in the business of making policy prescriptions. The movement is more about process, a way of reviving participatory politics and showing true democracy in action. But Mr. Waitzer is a policy guy, and he is more eager to connect the protesters' distaste for the world they're inheriting with the anxiety he hears from institutional investors about profit-driven myopia in the corporate world and political decision-making based solely on short-term electability.

“Serious private-sector leaders get it,” he says. “They understand that there are systemic problems for which Occupy Wall Street has become a very powerful articulation.”

He says politicians should be more welcoming of the dissent – that the people in the tent cities represent a group of stakeholders who can stiffen the spines of elected leaders who have got caught up in short-term thinking.

As for the Occupiers themselves, however, the Bay Streeter's counsel is to seize the opportunity to move on: “The physical presence in the camps is obviously a declining strategy. So they've got to figure out a virtual presence and build a platform that will expand out and make links with like-minded groups. They should be linking up with activist shareholders and consumer groups and student organizations. Otherwise, we'll have kids now leaving high school who may never have jobs. And the implication that has on social capital should be frightening.”

A movement that won't make this move from process to policy, that lives in the joy of occupation's eternal present, doesn't have much of a future. Ask Umberto Eco: What will happen if the Occupy movement doesn't move into the realm of ideas and politics?

“The other side will win.”

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