I’m writing this column on B.C. politics from New York City, the morning after spending a night in Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of Occupy Wall Street. I joined a few hundred occupiers who spent St. Patrick’s Day marking six months since the beginning of the movement that has reshaped political discourse across North America.
The atmosphere was a microcosm for the inspiration OWS has provided, and the challenges it faces. At first, the mood was celebratory, especially when Michael Moore and a few hundred friends marched over from the nearby Left Forum conference. The chant of the hour was, ““We are unstoppable, another world is possible!”
Alas, the NYPD had other ideas. Shortly before midnight, after the crowd had thinned somewhat, they moved in, arresting a couple dozen people and clearing out the park – again.
This is still a very young movement, and the ideas and debates it has brought out throughout society are not going away anytime soon. I think the same is true of Occupy Vancouver (OV), however much the physical encampment that dominated the headlines in the fall has been wiped out. OV faced a relentless wave of negative press, culminating in physical eviction. When occupiers tried to move the camp over to the provincial courthouse downtown, it was Premier Christy Clark who moved quickly to draw a legal and rhetorical line in the sand. “I’m fed up. It’s time to end this nonsense.” Clark snapped, and a day later OV was moved out from the law courts complex.
A camp is easy enough to evict, but issues that Occupy Vancouver brought to the forefront will prove harder to banish.
It’s worth recalling just how quickly Occupy Vancouver gained broad public support. Vancouver joined cities across Canada in kicking off the northern front of the Occupy movement on October 15, 2011. The largest rally in the country was right here, with an estimated crowd of over 5,000 converging at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The Vancouver and District Labour Council and the B.C. Federation of Labour were quick to issue statements of support, with some unions kicking in for camp infrastructure. The labour movement, after putting up some fight in the early years of Gordon Campbell’s right-wing agenda, has been largely inert or on the defensive. Obviously many labour activists took heart from the young people who took the initiative in setting up the local chapter of Occupy.
Some of the early goodwill Occupy Vancouver enjoyed was lost or never followed up on, and early majority public support as measured by opinion polls was gradually broken down under a relentless negative campaign by the mainstream media. While the camp is gone – for now – the example set by Occupy continues to inspire creative public actions. Some of the hundreds of high school students who recently staged a spirited protest in support of their teachers took to calling themselves ‘Occupy Education’.
The breadth of the sympathy OV garnered speaks to the deep-seated awareness about how this province and this city have been scarred by growing inequality. In Vancouver the past decade has featured an absurd housing bubble, with homelessness just the most visible aspect of a widespread affordability crisis.
Across the province, poverty levels are alarming. For eight consecutive years, B.C has registered the worst levels of child poverty in Canada, with more than 16 per cent of children living below the poverty line. First Call, the B.C Child and Youth Advocacy coalition that publicizes these figures, was damning of the government in Victoria: “We’ve noticed government has stopped making the claim that B.C. is the best place on earth. Is this a sign that they recognize that we have failed to fulfill one very basic function of government – meeting the needs of our poorest people?”
With any luck, the issue of inequality and poverty will define the political discussion heading into next year’s provincial election. For this, the ball is in the court of the NDP and its leader, Adrian Dix, who early on made a strong statement of support for the goals of Occupy Wall Street and its Canadian counterparts.
Cautious elements within the NDP – always wary of a hostile corporate media and reluctant to do anything daring given their lead in the polls – may judge that they would be best to trim their words and strike the pose of a ‘responsible government in waiting’. But this would be irresponsible to the 99 per cent in British Columbia, the big majority who need to see the gap between rich and poor addressed in a meaningful way.
The kids who set up shop in Zuccotti Park six months ago have already changed the world, but it’s just a beginning. These are early days yet. This struggle to take the power back from the 1 per cent is the great challenge of our generation.
Whether the NDP embraces its language and ideas, or shies away, the Occupy movement will continue to impact the political discussion – from New York to B.C.