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This is what democracy looks like: Occupying Wall Street and Bay Street

Occupy Wall Street protesters chant before marching up 5th Avenue in New York on Oct. 11, 2011.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Has the revolution finally arrived?

Chances are you hadn't heard of the Occupy Wall Street movement three weeks ago, when a few hundred mostly 20- and 30-something activists first occupied a park in Manhattan to protest corporate greed and corrupt party politics. For as long as they could get away with it, the corporate media greeted the occupation of the heart of global financial power with an information blackout. Many suspected, not unreasonably, that the occupiers would lose momentum and the movement would simply fizzle out and die.

They were wrong. Occupy Wall Street has grown exponentially since its inception on Sept. 17. And now that the story has belatedly exploded in the news media, everyone is paying attention. Inspired in part by the Arab Spring, the movement is defined by leaderless, participatory democratic action and nonviolent civil disobedience. Under the umbrella of Occupy Together, the movement has taken root in more than 1,000 cities across the United States, with similar occupations planned across Canada on Saturday, Oct. 15.

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The occupiers have the backing of academics, veterans, civil-society organizations and several major unions that had ferociously opposed the anti-war protesters of the 1960s, with which Occupy Together has many obvious similarities. Even some politicians are sympathetic – Philadelphia Mayor Michel Nutter, for example, told Occupy Philly protestors: "The things you're talking about are the things I talk about every day."

Of course conservatives are hysterically dismissing the occupiers as a mob of flakes and hippies, if not subversives. The Wall Street Journal, reflecting well the ethics of its owner Rupert Murdoch, calls them "a collection of ne'er do wells." CBC's own pride and joy, Kevin O'Leary, elegantly described one well-known protestor, Chris Hedges, as a "left-wing nut bar." Ann Coulter, once again plumbing depths few thought were attainable, compares them to the early Nazis. Yet many of these critics lauded the Arab Spring protest movements and consider Tea Party radicals to be bold freedom fighters.

In truth, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party can be seen as rather distorted mirror images of each other. Both are mad as hell and won't take it any more. But the differences are critical. The Tea Party is funded by a small group of reactionary billionaires and pushes simple-minded nostrums that will even further enrich these patrons. Gun-carrying supporters were rife at Tea Party rallies. Occupy Together is a genuine non-violent grassroots movement that understands the larger, ugly truths about modern capitalism while sensibly having no simple prescriptions for dealing with them.

What has brought the occupiers together is that they know exactly what they don't like: vast social inequities, climate change, rising unemployment, precarious jobs, the lack of upward social mobility and the egregious corporate influence over government. They understand there's been an active, conscious, successful class war against them in the United States over the past several decades. As they say repeatedly, they are sick and tired of struggling to make ends meet while 1 per cent of the American population has 40 per cent of the nation's wealth. In Joseph Stiglitz's nice phrase: it's government of the 1 per cent, by the 1 per cent and for the 1 per cent. The occupiers are "the other 99 per cent" and they're finally speaking up. And if they assemble in public spaces, it's because their elected assemblies – both Democrat- and Republican-dominated – have failed them.

It's true, as critics state, that the occupiers lack focus. What those critics haven't grasped is that the initial absence of a cleanly packaged set of demands is precisely what marks Occupy Wall Street as a truly democratic movement. It's all about the process. There is no CEO corporate-style hierarchy here, and no one told the occupiers in advance what they should say. What we are witnessing is a leaderless, horizontally organized, participatory democratic process in action. The occupiers meet frequently at outdoor general assemblies, where they engage in dialogue, plan marches and develop solidarity statements. It is at these public meetings where the participants are both refining the demands of Occupy Wall Street and inspiring other cities to organize similar actions.

Perhaps the most cogent symbol of this raw democratic process is the "human microphone," a natural form of call-and-response voice amplification that the occupiers use to overcome the police ban on speakers and megaphones. At their general assemblies, a large group of occupiers repeat the words of a single speaker, allowing the power of multiple voices to resonate through the crowd. The result is both moving and arresting. The speaker must slow down, choose his or her words carefully, and then listen as the crowd repeats those words back. Likewise, members of the crowd move from passive listeners to active participants.

Canadians should welcome this collective protest against concentrated corporate power when the occupation comes to Canada on Oct. 15. As long as the protests remain peaceful, we all have much to gain from an open, democratic dialogue about the ways that our government privileges corporate profits over the public good.

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Well-documented inequality of wealth and disparities in Canadian living standards are unprecedented. The youth unemployment rate is 17.2 per cent. An increasing number of Canadians – young and old – are precariously employed or underemployed, without benefits and without job security. The poverty rate in Canada is over 10 per cent, and one in seven children live in poverty. Our homeless shelters are over capacity and our food banks face constant shortages. Tuitions at Canadian universities are rising, and graduating students are debilitated by student loan debt. A nation of such wealth simply should not have such glaring social inequities.

There are any number of ways the protest might fizzle out, as so many progressive movements have done since the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s. It will certainly be infiltrated by government provocateurs promoting violence. It is likely to attract leftists who have never learned the twin lessons of violent action in the 20th century: It discredits the movement in the eyes of the majority and it inevitably leads to counter-violence. Somehow, as most occupiers well know, these destructive idealists must be sidelined. And of course the very process of defining an actual coherent program has unlimited potential for divisiveness and disunity.

Yet this is the most exciting anti-corporate movement in many years with vast potential if it is able to remain engaged, unified and innocent yet strategic. It could well push American Democrats towards real liberalism, just as the Tea Party pushed the Republicans to new extremes of pro-business conservatism, while in Canada it could affect the discourse within both the Liberal and New Democratic parties.

As Princeton philosopher Cornell West told an Occupy Wall Street general assembly, "We the people have found our voice." And in the words of one farewell to Jack Layton chalked on the pavement at Toronto City Hall, "We will not lose hope and we will not shut up."

May those conversations start and continue on Wall Street and Bay Street, in Greece and India and Britain, and Israel and Egypt and across the globe.

Amanda Grzyb is assistant professor of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario, where she teaches courses on social movements and media.

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