He was working at the base of the statue of Queen Victoria when I photographed him. The tools of his trade were a simple black marker & a small sheet of plywood. What he was drawing was a beautiful, if a little terrifying, piece of artwork. This was the moment that my scepticism about Occupons Montréal faded & was replaced with hope – cautious hope, cautious optimism – but hope nonetheless.
The reason I had felt sceptical, the reason I had felt that Occupons Montréal might fade into irrelevance until I saw it for myself, is rooted in my understanding of other occupations worldwide – most notably, Occupy Wall Street, where the message is much clearer than the media is portraying it to be & the protestors’ organizing prowess & sense of community repeatedly seems to win out against the established powers & authorities. Globally, we are seeing a sort of 1968 all over again – a mass protest movement, simultaneously local & international in scope, with issues ranging from ending war, economic justice, student debt, unemployment, animal rights, etc. The momentum of this movement seems implacable & the energy of the people participating in it is contagious when you are around it.
So when I saw, over the weekend, a headline on the Le Devoir website saying that Occupons Montréal was associating itself with a march for Québec independence (the headline has since been removed), I felt my heart sink. The rest of the world was challenging an unfair, unscrupulous & predatory economic system that is pushing governments to austerity & here I was seeing my city’s Occupation rehashing old battles & using old, still-divisive politics to undermine its own message & popular support with nearly half of Québec’s population.
Except it wasn’t, and it isn’t. The Occupation General Assembly’s Minutes don’t mention a word about sovereignty or independence. The Occupation seems to be about changing the system to make it fairer for the people in our society who aren’t at the top of the wealth & power pyramid; the old battles are being brought up in the media, but not in the discussions I heard people having down in Square-Victoria-cum-La-Place-du-Peuple. Some of the ideas being discussed are frivolous, unachievable, blue-sky pushes for revolutionary, total world-system reform, but mostly what’s talked about seems to be about making the movement work, making the occupation durable &, beyond those goals, it seems to be about making the world better for people who need it. Allowing people not just to exist, but to live.
So yes, my scepticism faded. It faded because of the message of the Occupation, which is simply “Here are the problems foisted on our society by the wealthy & the powerful at our expense & in our name. Fix them. Now.”; it faded because of the people at the protest, who are living together with a sense of community I have simply never seen in Montreal; it faded because artists are sitting next to enthusiastic political activists, drawing pictures & sculpting stones while someone lectures about inequality and social justice, just because this place has given them the opportunity to express themselves in a way they could not before; it faded because in a city where people will riot because a band can’t play a gig for being held up at the border, there is a village of tents cooperating in an astonishing display of direct, deliberative democracy to change things for the better & not only has it not descended into chaos, but it has grown larger, more organized & more beautiful.
The artist with his plywood canvas sat on the plinth of a statue in a true, 21st Century Agora. If nothing else is accomplished by this movement, the community & the sense of being at the bustling, creative heart of a true democracy will nevertheless stay with me always.