Wednesday, October 26, 2011

This page is now Occupied

by Lin Abdul Rahman
Photo by Deanna Budgell
The Sputnik, Fall 2011, Issue 6

On September 17, a group of protesters set up camp on Zuccotti Park in the Wall Street financial district to demand a reform to the US financial and economic system. Over the next few weeks, the number of campers swelled, media attention grew and the movement’s influence began to spread.

Although criticized as being leaderless, the movement’s goal of ending corporate greed and lobbyist control over government policies resonated across the globe.

On October 15th, 900 cities around the world staged their own “occupations”. In Malaysia, over 200 people “occupied” Dataran Merdeka. In Spain, over 46, 000 people “occupied” Madrid Square. In Toronto, over 1000 people gathered at the corner of King and Bay Street and marched to St. James Park. Later, “occupations” sprang up in Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary, London and Windsor.

Despite the movement’s growing popularity, authorities have shown little sympathy and no sign of acquiescing to occupiers’ demands. The occupiers, meanwhile, show no signs of leaving. Mainstream media attention has been largely pessimistic while critics question the movement’s ability to sustain itself. After all, these occupiers are just rabble-rousing anarchists and hippies without clear objectives, right?

This image seems to be at odds with the movement’s growing influence and my curiosity was naturally piqued. I decided to visit St. James Park myself.

It quickly became apparent to me that a lot of planning and organization had occurred even before the October 15 March took place. As soon as the contingent arrived at the park, various areas were cordoned off for specific purposes. The camping area came with family-friendly and female-only sections. The Sanitation Committee had prepared rows of port-a-potties and hand-washing stations. The Medic Committee put up signs saying “no photos” around the medic area, as would be the normal procedure in medical facilities. The Media Committee kept occupiers and everyone abreast on everything occupation-related. There was also a “free occupy library” with free reading materials and an occupation “must read” list.

There was no shortage of what society calls “hippies” but they were mostly involved with the basic mechanisms that kept movement running smoothly. There were trained marshal teams patrolling the park in the evening to keep it safe. The Sanitation Committee keeps the park clean. The Facilitation Committee keeps discussions going and ensured the movement remained as participatory as possible.

There was little semblance of anarchy at the park, except maybe for the multitude of signs hung on trees and tucked among bushes. – signs that cleverly and clearly articulated the need for change.

These signs highlighted problems regarding a myriad issues: inadequate health care; rising tuition fees and student debt; lack of citizen participation in government; infringement upon native, minority and immigrant rights; violation of workers’ rights; a failed capitalist economy; increased military spending; the list goes on.

To the movement’s critics, this underscores its lack of focus. To me, this illustrates one simple fact: there are so many things wrong with our system today that it’s hard to pinpoint one single problem that can be easily addressed. The global economic and political system has become so corrupt that it is harming rather than serving the interests of the people, also known the “99%”.

Evidently the Occupy movement’s slogan, “we are the 99%” is not an oversimplified concept designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. A research team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich developed a complex model which demonstrates how a few transnational corporations (TNCs) own disproportionately large chunks of the world’s economy. Simply put, there is a small network of 1318 corporations worldwide, each owning several other corporations and businesses, each of which have ownerships in several other businesses. This multiple ownership gives these corporations control over 60% of global manufacturing revenues.

This means that most of the world’s wealth is going to top tier of this network, which largely comprises of financial corporations like Barclays Bank and the Goldman Sachs Group.

Hence, it makes perfect sense for the movement to begin on Wall Street and spread to Ontario’s financial hub on Bay Street and elsewhere on the globe. Our political and economic systems are closely linked and the problems we face are multi-faceted. Instigating change, therefore, will require a global effort.

While the movement has mobilized people from diverse backgrounds, it appears to attract a lot youths in particular. This is not surprising as the younger generation’s future hinges precariously on the stability of today’s economy, whether they are entering post-secondary education or the job market. Nonetheless, it is contingent upon society as a whole to ensure that there is an economy for youths to graduate into.

Students in Chile took this to heart when they protested against increasing privatization of universities and rising tuition fees. Over 80% of Chile’s population responded in support of the students, forcing the government to replace its Minister of Education, negotiate terms with the student movement and reform Chile’s education system.

Perhaps it’s time for us to do more than just gripe about our own rising tuition fees and increasingly unsatisfactory educational experience. If there’s anything we can learn from Chile and the Occupy movement it is that we all have a voice and, when we speak in unity, that voice will be heard.

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