Occupying Streets: The Global Democracy Movement Comes to Hamilton

If direct democracy is truly to take hold, it needs to go beyond popular causes of today, no matter how all-encompassing they might seem.

By Undustrial
Published October 22, 2011

Over the past year, the explosive growth of protest movements has become impossible to ignore, from North Africa and the Middle East to the unrest spread through the Mediterranean, throughout Europe and then across the Atlantic. As of this past Saturday, it's now easier to list parts of the world that aren't rising up.

In each region, these protests took on a broad but distinct direction. At first, they targeted dictators and despots, in the name of democracy. As they moved northward, though, these protests began to appear in "democracies" as well.

Not only did these new European protests focus on the sweeping "austerity" measures being imposed, but especially in Spain, took this democratic mandate much further. Using the same methods - occupied public spaces and open public assemblies - they demanded "Real Democracy Now", straight from the grassroots.

Now that these protests have spread across North America, the focus has shifted to the elite rule of the economy, beginning with the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York's financial district.

Inequality in Hamilton

Steeltown has a fair bit to be angry about. Beyond our own stunning disparities in wealth and living standards (including a two-decade difference in life expectancies), our entire economy has taken a dramatic turn for the worse over the past few decades.

The effects of globalization - outsourcing, consolidation and a general shift away from First World manufacturing has laid waste to many of our town's traditional keystone employers, leaving us with little but many brownfields and plentiful unemployment.

Hamilton, like most of Canada, held our first rally this past weekend. It was modest in size and faced horrific weather, but spirits were high and many excellent speeches were made, coming from quite a variety of backgrounds.

This Saturday, plans are to bring our decision making out into the public and hold Hamilton's first General Assembly in Gore Park, beginning at noon.

Demanding Demands

In both personal conversations and large-scale discussions in the media, I keep hearing about the "need" for clear and decisive demands and platforms. So far these protests have been almost mysterious on the subject of aims and goals.

There are very good reasons for this strategy.

First, this list of demands is still very much on the drawing board. The point of these protests and assemblies is to draw attention to the issues and create a space to build a list through open discussion. Second, a few individuals "taking charge" and "issuing statements" early on can have a very powerful effect on the "tone", which would both turn people off and overrule the assemblies. Thirdly, it's gained a lot of attention.

As a long-time activist, I often find myself cringing when told what activists "should" do. Sometimes the ideas are very good, but most generally are not. Some are dismissive, others clichéd, but even with the best of intentions, the sad fact is that strategies that work from positions of power generally do not work very well against them.

Bold, decisive leadership may work well in the business world, but it can be utterly crippling to an association of equals. It turns people off, breeds conflict, tends to produce fairly mediocre decisions, and is utterly hypocritical.

This last point demands special attention, since it's such a favoured critique of protests of all kinds (from both activists and detractors). When organizations that claim to represent the oppressed and marginalized in the name of freedom and liberty start behaving like those they oppose, they offend people to an amazing degree.

True grassroots organizing requires a far more open approach.

Process Matters

This new generation of protests is the accumulation of decades of experience. They go beyond the confines of single-issue protests, back toward the kind of radicalism of the 1960s or 30s. Unlike many of their predecessors, though, it's being done in a very different way.

Given the colossal failures caused by seemingly "radical" authoritarian parties and regimes, there's been a growing consensus on more directly democratic forms of organization (no pun intended). These traditions have a rich history, in the peace movement (SNCC, Quakers) along with many indigenous societies.

Recent examples include the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, where villages turned to autonomous self-governance by local consensus-based meetings (in the Mayan tradition) to the large anti-globalization protests of the late 1990s that ultimately managed to shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) process.

Locally, the struggle against the Red Hill Valley Parkway also functioned largely in this way, often involving large 60+ person consensus-based meetings of activists, neighbours and Six Nations representatives.

When it comes to these occupations, the medium is the message. Many demands could be made, but none are more important than public discussion. To some degree, this has already been massively successful. Everyone's talking about inequality, up to and including US President Barack Obama.

Some real heavyweight names have come out with a lot of praise, from Paul Krugman to Talib Kweli to Lech Walesa himself.

The More Important Discussion

The more important discussion, though, between "the 99%" ourselves, is only beginning.

What struck me first upon visiting these fledgling demonstrations wasn't the lack of answers I'd heard about, it was the plethora of answers being offered up. Both in personal conversations and at the microphone last Saturday, there was an amazing depth and diversity of ideas.

Some were critical of fractional reserve credit, others jaded ex-bankers, anarchists, poverty advocates or random people from the street.

People were talking at length about the economy itself and not just a few issues in isolation. It goes without saying that it'll take time for something truly substantial to come from all this discussion, and that much of it will have to wait until even more people are involved.

When it does, though, it will be very different from the simplistic programs put out by vanguards of the past.

In many ways, North Americans are latecomers to this party, and we'd do well to mind some of the lessons learned so far across the Atlantic.

In Spain, in particular, the popularity of these assemblies became overwhelming. General assemblies of thousands began to drown out the voices of individuals. At this point the movement made a crucial choice to return to the neighbourhoods from which they came and set up assemblies there.

Similar assemblies have long been an important part of the radical tradition. Neighbourhood-level organizing was a big part of the Egyptian revolution for tactical reasons.

On the other side of the globe, the role of neighbourhood assemblies when Argentina's economy collapsed a decade ago is well documented, helping to hold communities together.

Moving Forward

Of course, it doesn't need to take a revolution or a recession to seriously consider these ideas. The work being done over at Town Halls Hamilton is truly inspiring. Local issues are far easier to tackle on a face-to-face basis than global crises.

If direct democracy is truly to take hold, it needs to go beyond popular causes of today, no matter how all-encompassing they might seem. Serious engagement requires more than ad-hoc meetings, and our city desperately needs every venue it can get for open discussion.

It's hard to tell what will come of the "Occupy" movement. While it's literally exploded over the past month, it's also only a symbol. Whether this momentum will continue over the coming months or fade and make way for something else is still very uncertain.

The cold northern winter may defeat many cities, or a meltdown in the economy may rapidly add fuel to the fire. It's an experiment, and one that is teaching us a lot.

Poverty, inequality and corruption are finally getting the attention they deserve, and people all over the world are gaining loads of first-hand experience at grassroots organizing.

Perhaps most inspiring is the way that boundaries are breaking down, as people of the Americas, Europe and the Middle East are realising that we all have a lot more in common than we thought.

Disclaimer: The above represent comments and observations reflect the views of the author, Undustrial, and not Occupy Hamilton.

Undustrial is a writer, tinkerer, activist and father who lives in Hamilton's North End. He chooses to remain pseudonymous as he frequently works with much of Hamilton's Development industry.


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By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted October 22, 2011 at 10:36:49

Good article! I find lately that what the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes about makes more and more sense. His 'Living in the End Times' is a good but very dense read.

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted October 22, 2011 at 10:49:14

Nice piece. I might add a couple more heavyweights that have laid out the problems that need to be adressed: David Suzuki, Jeffery Sachs of Columbia U, and my personal favourite - Chris Hedges. After being insulted by CBC bully Kevin O'Leary, Hedges lays out the problem as one being caused by the "criminal class" that has taken over corporations and hijacked democracy. I would be upset if I wasn't so embarassed for O'Leary, after he was made to look foolish in his childish attempt to discredit a Pulitzer prize winning author. See

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By Imperial (anonymous) | Posted October 22, 2011 at 19:48:48

Thanks for the informative article Undustrial. I've admittedly been one of those people asking 'so what is it the 'Occupy' movement wants? I find your article sets me at ease about the movement with the sense that this is the continuation of a new form of protest - or an exploratory form in engagement and idea generation. I like that. Sounds like it has the potential for productivity and unity without having a 'leader'.

As a person who enjoys strategy and action I guess I'm still stuck wondering how I can get involved. I'm not a stand out in the cold and protest kind of guy. I'm also not angry at this stage in the game so I tend to stay away from events that conventionally revolve around negativity.

It's interesting that you're concerned about northern weather getting the best of the movement. If the conviction is there to sustain regular protests, disruptions, etc - I would imagine the cold Canadian climate means those events can head indoors and be all the more impactful as space, and the access to it, becomes a premium in our cold months. 30 people occupying gore park has no physical impact (imho) - groups of 10 people occupying the line-ups at three majors banks downtown for hours on end would. Same volume - way more impact.

Keep up the innovative approach.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 22, 2011 at 21:42:47 in reply to Comment 70776

Negativity-based protests have their place, but it's an entirely defensive strategy. At some point somebody needs to articulate something beyond what we, collectively, do not want. I suspect we'll continue to see entertaining disruptions of 'business as usual' at banks and other institutions, but while they bring more attention to the movement, they don't create a lot of space for discussion.

The winter will likely hit us hard - most so in cities where tents and other "structures" are prohibited. Still, community organizing has always found homes indoors, everywhere from churches to bars. So far we've been holding week-night assemblies (now set on Thursdays) at Homegrown Hamilton (Skydragon) or Pearl Company, so venues certainly exist here. Also, should any of these occupations survive into the winter, we can all expect some truly impressive snow-forts.

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By occupy this (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2011 at 01:25:06

Just people with to much time on there hands.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted October 24, 2011 at 06:27:17 in reply to Comment 70795

Just people with to (sic) much time on there (sic) hands.


I hear ya.

The same ilk that spend time on a site named 'Raise the Hammer', whose mandate is to contribute towards creating a better city in which to live.

They should all just get hobbies, huh?

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By occupy this (anonymous) | Posted October 25, 2011 at 03:02:43 in reply to Comment 70798

Contribute towards a creating a better city by whose standards? I think Hamilton was a better city with more 1 way streets. Do you agree? Why is your opinion better, or more important than mine? You want LRT, I think it is a waste of a lot of money. Again what gives you the idea that you are right and I am wrong? We are both entitled to an opinion. (no matter how wrong you may be) This site is primarily a propaganda site for you and those who agree with you. Secondly it is a sight of frustration for those of us who are a little wiser and know better.

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By contribute for change (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2011 at 08:37:31

Yes the same misguided souls who believe in change but are not willing to put their own resources into making change but rather spend time lecturing those that do contribute on their evil ways

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By RB (registered) | Posted October 24, 2011 at 10:45:29

I just want to throw in my 2 cents (feel free to tell me that I'm talking out of my ass if you think so! Hahaha!). The bottom line for me is this: I think the current system is broken/not workable/easily manipulated by people with lots of money, but unfortunately many of the people who are complaining/protesting/making noise SEEM (not ARE, just SEEM TO BE) to be the takers of society. The lazy seem to be looking for more handouts, which might not be the case.

I rarely see productive members of society protesting the current system, and I think that leads to bad optics. I'm sure many will point out that people won't protest a system when it's working for them (ie: the rich/well off enjoy the status quo), but I don't think that's totally true. The system works well for me, but I still see it as broken. Just because I am hardworking, a self-starter, and someone who has never asked for a handout in my life (even when unemployed) does not mean that I cannot see negative aspects in the way things are going, and how this can negatively affect people of all stripes.

Truth is, unregulated capitalism ultimately leads to person A taking advantage of person B because of greed. If greed was a non-issue, then capitalism would be fine. But because we always need more more more, things get stretched out to the limit. A world without greed, huh? Ha!

Now, I'm not a proponent of communism/socialism (I think is stunts creativity & hard work and rewards the lazy), but there seems to be the need of some sort of mix of the two. I dunno... Canadian companies must manufacture 75% of its products on Canadian soil, but they get HUGE tax breaks to make up for the loss in revenue being paid out to higher paid employees. this in turn allows for more Canadians to be able to purchase the more of their products, and at a slightly higher price, and reduces the strain on social services (more people employed). I'm not an economist, so this might not make sense in real terms, but it seems to make sense to me.

I like the idea of these "Occupy" protests being educational, and not confrontational. I just think that it gets the message across better rather than feeding the "toss out the angry hippies" crowd. The more people know about the system, the more they might want to make a change for the better. I think education is key here.

Sorry for the babble... had to get it off my chest! Happy Monday, everyone!

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted October 24, 2011 at 11:15:07

but unfortunately many of the people who are complaining/protesting/making noise SEEM (not ARE, just SEEM TO BE) to be the takers of society.

If you believe it is the people sitting in the streets protesting the greed of our global economic system that are the "takers" of our society you still don't get it.

You seem more than a little bit confused (and misinformed) about what you do believe.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted October 24, 2011 at 11:22:38 in reply to Comment 70819

SEEM (not ARE, just SEEM TO BE) to be the takers of society.

RB doesn't sound confused at all. There's the way things are, and the way things appear, and they're not the same.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted October 24, 2011 at 14:32:31 in reply to Comment 70820

I'd forgive the "takers" comment if it wasn't followed by the "socialists are lazy" and stunt creativity too nonsense. Or these statements:

I rarely see productive members of society protesting the current system.

Just because I am hardworking, a self-starter, and someone who has never asked for a handout in my life

Hmmm??? Who are you implying is not hard working or simply seeking handout RB?

I think in fact I was being rather kind to RB by simply calling him confused and misinformed.

He seems afflicted with the mass media driven poor-lazy-no-good-socialist (not to mention uncreative) always wants a hand out BS. Unable to identify the true root of our global problem because the real culprit has been whispering sweet nothings in his ear for too many years.

You may take the awe shucks I'm just "inarticulate" approach to your comments RB but I don't view them as innocently as some here seem willing to... they are comments of ignorance, at best, and articulated your opinion quite well I believe.

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By RB (registered) | Posted October 25, 2011 at 09:55:07 in reply to Comment 70837

I see you only read the first little bit of my post, then just decided to attack me based on a portion of the whole.

Way to go!

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted October 25, 2011 at 11:48:47 in reply to Comment 70868

No, I challenged your statements made in the whole.

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By RB (registered) | Posted October 25, 2011 at 12:18:55 in reply to Comment 70871

So you challenged my statements about capitalism leading to people taking advantage of each other?

And you challenged my statements of a possible system where employment could be gained by more people by NOT shipping work overseas?

And you challenged my statements of thinking that educating the public is a good way to get people to notice that the system might not the best out there?

Please show me where you challenged all these other points that I noted, since you just said that you "challenged your (my) statements made in the whole".

I cannot seem to see where that is... please point it out for me, since I'm so "uninformed" and "confused".

And you know, since I've had all these "real culprit's... whispering sweet nothings in his (my) ear for too many years", I'm having difficulty ascertaining where you "challenged" my whole statement.

Enlighten my, please.

look Kiely, I was just trying to make a comment on how sometimes things are not always as they seem and how perception plays large part in things, even though it might not always bee the truth. You managed to grab one little section from my post, which was not even the heart of the matter, and twist it into something that you can attack for some reason.

That in itself is a skill, as I tend to read a post/article in it's entirety before criticizing, but ultimately, you're quite mistaken if you think the whole of what I wrote was simply an attack on those who are protesting/sympathizing with protesters.

But then again... this is coming from someone who is quite "confused" & "misinformed", right?

Comment edited by RB on 2011-10-25 13:22:16

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted October 28, 2011 at 15:53:23 in reply to Comment 70872

So you challenged my statements about capitalism leading to people taking advantage of each other?

No, I pointed to the obvious biases you displayed in your various statements and challenged you to explain them.

You know the ones about productive members of society not protesting, socialists stunting creativity (economic "creativity" perhaps…), you never receiving a handout which implies someone does but you don't say who… would that be the poor? And I suppose they'd be poor because they're not "hardworking" or "self-starters"?

If you don't see the bias of those statements and how those are notions frequently promoted by rightwing media outlets that is cool, but don't ask me to excuse them RB.

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By seem to (anonymous) | Posted October 28, 2011 at 16:32:01 in reply to Comment 70947

Actually you show your bias by refusing to acknowledge that he never said any of those things but suggested thats what it looks like if you are not involved. Huge difference.

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By RB (registered) | Posted October 24, 2011 at 11:46:39 in reply to Comment 70820

Thank you, z jones, that is what I was trying to say; maybe I came off inarticulate.

I just think often there are poor optics when trying to get a point across.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted October 24, 2011 at 13:12:47 in reply to Comment 70823

I just think often there are poor optics when trying to get a point across.

My feelings exactly. Thanks for sharing.

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By RB (registered) | Posted October 24, 2011 at 13:47:41 in reply to Comment 70827

I'm assuming you meant that my post was really boring, and that's ok!

But I'll never look at my cat yawing again in the same way.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted October 24, 2011 at 14:00:53

Here's Andrew Coyne's take, in Maclean's:

I really, really want to hear the response to this.

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By hello out there (anonymous) | Posted October 25, 2011 at 17:41:32

I believe that this movement will gain greater traction, as more people become engaged. To simply call people who follow the socialist ideology, lazy people, is just bizarre and an unworthy judgement.

Those in our community who are struggling for the most part do want jobs, they want to recognized as community members. Those who give their time freely, are a vital part of our society. It is not people's fault, that volunteer community work, is not deemed as valuable work, because one does not get paid.

An injury to one, is an injury to all!

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