Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Balancing 'Occupy Sudbury' and the Public Interest

I read with interest today an editorial published in the Sudbury Star by the Star’s Editor Brian MacLeod (“City should not facilitate permanent ‘Occupy’ presence – Point of View”, the Sudbury Star, November 30 2011)

I have been a supporter of Occupy Sudbury almost since the first day of the occupation, as I share many of the concerns of those who have and who are now occupying a part of Memorial Park in Sudbury’s downtown. I do not, however, consider myself to be an occupier, as I lack both the courage and the conviction to maintain a physical presence in the Park in order to stand for what I believe in. My shortcomings in this respect are my own burden to bear, and I do not relish having to answer the future questions of my daughter who, years from now, may ask me where I was when the Occupy Movement had its first physical presence in Sudbury.

Media Coverage

With regards to the editorial, on the whole, I believe this was a pretty balanced piece from Brian MacLeod regarding the future of the Occupy Movement in Sudbury. As a follower of the global Occupy Together Movement, I appreciate that Brian has taken the time to articulate in his editorial the reasons that the Movement has come together in the first place. All too often, our mainstream media has tended to focus on the occupation of public spaces (and generally in a very negative way), while entirely missing the point as to why the protests are going on. Alternatively, the mainstream media in many cases has offered only its airy dismissal of a leaderless protest movement that makes no demands.

The lack of thoughtful coverage of the Occupy Together Movement in the North American mainstream media has not been in reaction to the media’s inability to pigeon-hole and sound-bite the protesters, despite the protests of many journalists to that effect. Granted, it’s easier for the media to deal with a single spokesperson, especially one who can identify a protests’ single demand in 20 words or less. But that’s not what this Movement is all about. It’s an organic, truly grassroots Movement which has coalesced not for one specific reason, but to shine a light on a society which clearly is leaving too many people behind in all of our communities. Poverty, environmental degradation, social justice, healthy democracy, education, human rights…we could (and should) be doing so much better addressing all of these issues.

Yet the mainstream media has, to a degree, failed to articulate to a generally disinterested public the reasons behind the Movement, mainly because most of the issues which the Movement wants to have addressed are issues which the mainstream media are not ready to report on to any great degree. That income inequality has now entered the vocabulary of the mainstream media is a testament to the success of the global Occupy Together Movement. But that’s just one issue (and the one issue with the best sound-bite to emerge from Occupy: “We are the 99%”).

Occupy Sudbury and a Unique Local Issue: Homelessness

Here in Sudbury, one of the biggest issues that I’ve heard discussed when I’ve attended the Occupy site in Memorial Park has been homelessness. Those at the park engaged in a Charter of Rights sanctioned act of freedom of assembly have come face to face with the issue of homelessness and how it is affecting community members. I know that many who are staying in the Park have expressed surprise with their new-found knowledge about the homelessness situation in our Greater City. Their eyes have been opened to this local issue, and they are doing what they can to bring more attention to this issue. Whether that’s directly providing food or shelter to the homeless, or protesting unjust federal legislation which will lead to more social inequality, poverty and homelessness, those involved directly with Occupy Sudbury have found themselves on the frontlines of this issue, due to their direct experiences.

Although homelessness does receive some coverage in the mainstream media, again the coverage tends not to delve into the systemic reasons for homelessness. The media is very good at reporting on the “what”, but continues to struggle with reporting on the “why”. And that’s why I’m glad that this editorial provided a significant level of depth to the discussion. Our mainstream media continues to be a prominent force for shaping public opinion, and I believe that it’s important to watch what’s being reported in the media, and what’s being omitted by the media. There is certainly a lot more going on in the world today than what appears on our TV sets and in our newspapers. Thankfully, new social media has provided us all with a historic opportunity to inform ourselves about issues and matters on which the mainstream media has not or will not address. That we must often wade through conflicting facts, unsourced materials and a bevy of cat videos to find real stories remains perhaps a frustrating experience for those who participate in social media.

Participatory Democracy and Consensus-Based Decision-Making

All of that being said, above, with regards to Brian MacLeod’s editorial, I think that there is one area where MacLeod has missed the mark, and that has to do with what is to happen next at the Park. I believe that we can all stand to learn a valuable lesson about the health of our democracy from the Occupy Sudbury protest underway at Memorial Park.

The Occupy Together Movement is a truly grassroots movement, with decisions being made in the most democratic way possible: through a consensus-based approach which truly expresses the will of all of those involved in the decision-making process. This isn’t an exercise in “majority rule” or “might makes right”. Instead, this approach to “participatory democracy” in which those engaged in decision-making seek first to discuss all issues related to the matter under discussion, and provide for an organic way forward which all involved in the process are able to buy into. When a decision is made by the group, the group is then able to take ownership of it.

And as we know, those who make decisions have to wear those decisions. With a consensus-based approach to decision making, the entire group will share in the success of the decision made, or in its failure! Either way, though, the group has taken ownership.

Full disclosure here: I belong to a federal political party, the Green Party, which has embraced a consensus-based decision-making approach within its corporate structure. The consensus-based approach to making decisions was in place in the Party long before I became a member. I can tell you that it was one of many aspects of the Green Party which attracted me to joining, and to giving much of my time and energy to. So I am biased about consensus-based decision making processes.

With regards to Brian MacLeod’s advice to Occupiers that it’s time to move the protest ahead through other means, I don’t think that there’s any question that the time has come to do so, and I know that Occupiers have been having those discussions. As MacLeod points out, the minutes of the Occupy Sudbury General Assembly are available online, and anybody is free to come down to the Park and participate in the Assembly (as I have done on occasion), or to offer suggestions and ideas online through their Facebook Page. Occupy Sudbury offers a truly open and engaging process for people to become involved with on issues important to our communities.

The Continuing Occupation of a Part of Memorial Park: Finding Balance in the Public Interest

However, it seems that for now, the Occupiers have chosen to remain in the park. I understand that this upsets a number of people in the community, given that a part of our public infrastructure appears to have been removed from the public realm, and that there are concerns regarding costs to the municipality. That these concerns with the occupation are being brought forward to our City and to our elected officials is another exercise in democracy. If one feels strongly about what’s going on in our community, it’s important to express those concerns in a legitimate and healthy manner. Writing or calling your Councillor is one way of doing so. Of course, physically occupying a portion of the public realm is another, in my opinion. That there must be a balance between the two is evident, along with a recognition that at some point, a decision regarding the future of the Occupy Sudbury site will need to be made. Such a decision, however, needs to be informed by the will of the community, which means that the valid issues brought forward by everyone require careful and conscientious consideration. We can not afford to be dismissive of the opinions and positions of others simply because they may appear to be contrary to our own.

I believe that the occupation should continue at this time. The following informs my opinion: First, the entirety of Memorial Park has not been placed out of bounds for the general public. In fact, the Occupiers have been very welcoming of anybody who has stopped by the portion of the park being occupied, and certainly when members of the public have simply indicated that they’re not interested in engaging the protesters, the protesters have let those members of the public be.

I understand that the physical nature of that part of the park being occupied appears to have become less inviting for the public, but I believe the opposite is actually happening, despite appearances. What I’ve seen is that more people than ever are using Memorial Park now because of the occupation. People are stopping by, and engaging members of their community whom they’ve never met before. They are forming new relationships, and in some cases, new business partnerships. They are talking, expressing opinions, and getting to know others in their own community. In fact, I would argue that Memorial Park is being utilized by the public to a much higher degree than it ever was before Occupy Sudbury moved in.

Yet, there remain questions related to by-laws, and I understand that there are those in our community who prize by-law enforcement over Charter Rights. I also understand that Occupy Toronto and Occupy Vancouver both were taken to provincial courts, and argued that their Charter Rights should trump municipal by-laws, and in both cases, lower court judges ruled against the occupiers. That being said, it should be kept in mind that circumstances on the ground in both Vancouver and Toronto were quite different than in Greater Sudbury, given the nature of the occupied space (in Toronto and Vancouver, the entirety of the park was under occupation, and there were a number of health-related issues identified). In Toronto, the City successfully argued that community residents should be able to walk their dogs in St. James Park without the hindrance of encountering protesters. The judge agreed that being able to walk one’s dog was in the greater public interest than the right to freely assemble throughout the day.

In Greater Sudbury, only a portion of the park is under occupation, and the public remains able to use those sections of Memorial Park which are more suited to the public realm anyway, and include those areas where the military memorial is located, along with the splash park (although in November in Sudbury, there’s not a lot of use of that section of the park by anybody). And for those walking your dogs at Memorial Park, the occupiers have been known to provide doggie treats for your pet, if you stop by to have a word with them.

Our Charter of Rights allows for freedom of assembly to protest. I understand that there are those who may believe that the right to protest should be restricted to certain hours of the day, and should not also include the right to erect structures – certainly judges in Vancouver and Toronto came to this conclusion (albeit after a month-long occupation of a public space). It’s not clear that a judge in Greater Sudbury would come to the same conclusion, given the differing circumstances. However if a judge ultimately does so, I’m sure that the occupiers will discuss their options at a General Assembly and find their own way forward. Should they decide to engage in civil disobedience in the face of a judge’s order to the contrary, they will no doubt be arrested, just as a small number of protesters in Toronto were when the police moved in after the judge’s ruling.

Hopefully it won’t come to something like that in our community, given our City’s demonstrated desire for tolerance. I personally question what is truly motivating many of those who have taken issue with the occupation of a part of Memorial Park in our community, given the under-use of the Park at this time of year, and indeed at many times of the year. That it may appear that protesters are breaking the law has not been determined. I would expect that if our Police Service believed that laws were being broken, action would have been taken before now.

Public Discourse

Municipal by-laws are a different story, of course, and it does appear that there may be some infractions taking place. Of course, every municipality has a different set of by-laws, and engages in enforcement in slightly different ways. I note that when the City was intent on enforcing its zoning by-law during the recent Vale labour dispute, the lands being occupied by Vale replacement workers were still available for the habitation of those replacement workers while the enforcement matter worked its way through the court system. That the labour dispute ended before a court hearing could determine the validity of the City’s enforcement powers was immaterial. The point here is that there is a process to be followed for by-law enforcement, and the automatic eviction of premises simply because they have been deemed “undesirable” isn’t part of the process. Where health and safety are in jeopardy, well, that may be another story, and different action may be required. Right now, though, I have not heard that there are any health and safety related issues which have been brought forward, except by the occupiers themselves, who are reasonably asking the City for permission to maintain a chimney for the purposes of keeping warm throughout the ongoing protest.

Yet, clearly there are those who believe that it’s time for the occupation to end. The fact is that it’s probably time that the City host a public discussion about the future of the Occupy Sudbury site in Memorial Park. That’s what we do in democracies. The occupiers don’t have a monopoly on public discourse. Let us all then be a part of the decision-making process regarding the future of this Movement within our community. I say if Council wants to open public hearings on this matter to determine the will of Sudburians to support the Movement or not, by allowing for a by-law exemption to facilitate a chimney, what could be a better outcome for our community than that?

And that’s where I have to disagree with Brian MacLeod, who in his editorial has called for the City not to facilitate the continued occupation of the park. I note that MacLeod has not called for a unilateral effort to begin the process of removing the Occupiers from the Park, although some who have commented on the online version of his article have done so. A better approach in this circumstance, an approach in the interests of democracy, would clearly be to now call for a public discussion about the issue. Recently, MacLeod did just that in an earlier Point of View editorial when he called for a discussion regarding the disposition of public infrastructure (Pioneer Manor) through a sale to private interests (see: “Let’s have the debate about Pioneer Manor – Point of View”, the Sudbury Star, November 26 2011). Publicly discussing the way forward on issues important to our community seems to me to be a sensible approach for our decision makers to engage in.

The Interests of the Public and the Interests of Democracy

I understand that we elect our municipal council to make the tough decisions on our behalf; that’s the way our representative democratic system functions. That Council should make decisions after receiving input and advice from the public is often a luxury of time which they can not afford to partake of to a significant extent, I understand that. However, all decisions must be informed by something, even if it is only a gut feeling when a councillor is put on the spot and does not have the luxury of study or time. Sometimes our decision makers simply have to act, and make the best decision that they can make.

With regards to the on-going occupation of a part of Memorial Park, which has been happening for more than a month now, I would suggest that the City does have the luxury of time on its side, and that any decision to be made should be carefully considered. Calls for a unilateral move by an admittedly growing public who wish to see an end to the Occupation should not be heeded out of hand, and no decisions should be made those whom we have elected to represent our interests prior to community consultations on the matter. Those who wish our Council to act in place of listening to the public first should remember that the Occupiers and their supporters are also taxpayers and electors.

Given that the Occupation has continued for over a month now, and all issues brought forward by by-law enforcement have been dealt with in a timely manner by the Occupiers, there is no need to act in haste. In fact, to do so at this time should be considered an affront to our democracy. That Occupiers may be working on alternatives to carry their message forward through other means does not negate the fact that they have chosen to remain physically entrenched at Memorial Park for “as long as it takes” (I believe that’s the time period which has been specified by the General Assembly, but somebody please correct me if I’m mistaken). A more than month-long lack of legal action at this point informs my position that the Occupiers are not engaging in an illegal activity. If the position adopted by the Occupiers ultimately proves to be an illegality through a court challenge, then maybe I would have a different opinion regarding the continued occupation.

But right now, as a taxpayer of the City of Greater Sudbury, I support the Occupiers’ continued use of Memorial Park for the purposes of protesting our economic, social and political systems. I’ll be pleased to share my opinions and reasoning regarding my support with Council if and when public consultations on this matter are held. Which they should be. I note that the City of London is currently under investigation for making a closed-door decision regarding the future of the former Occupy London site. It is incumbent upon all of us to respect our democratic processes.

Our City has a long history of tolerance when it comes to protests and disputes. That the City has taken a measured approach to the current Occupy Sudbury protest speaks volumes regarding this tradition, and a civic understanding that in a civil society, we must be prepared to tolerate dissent. In the case of Occupy Sudbury, the City has tolerated what some have called “an exercise in civil disobedience” by continuing to allow the protest to occur in the form of the occupation of a portion of an under-used public space for more than a month. This isn’t facilitation on the part of the City – but it has been an expression of tolerance. And I can say that I am proud of Greater Sudbury’s continuing tolerance of an on-going peaceful protest in the heart of our community.

The Occupy Together Movement has been in the process of changing its tactics for some time now. That the physical occupation of Memorial Park might yet come to an end through a decision of the Occupiers remains a possibility. That the Greater Sudbury community may ultimately determine the need for an end to the occupation through a democratic process also remains a distinct possibility. Whatever the outcome, it must be in the form of a democratic expression of the people. We are all stakeholders in this process – Occupiers, Supporters, the homeless, downtown residents and those who Dissent to the Occupation. Let’s have an open discussion about the future of the Occupation. There’s no reason for haste here, and no reason to circumvent an adult conversation about the future of our community.

That we will all surely learn more about many of the issues to which our mainstream media remains largely aloof will also be a positive outcome for those who choose to involve themselves in the process.

(opinions expressed in this blog post are my own and should not be considered to be in keeping with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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