(This article was originally published in the November 6, 2012 edition of Vice Versa Online)
Judy Rebick is a well-known social justice activist, writer, educator and speaker. She is the founding publisher of Canada’s web magazine rabble.ca, author of Transforming Power, Ten Thousand Roses, and a regular on CBC Radio Q’s media panel. Vice Versa’s Elvira Truglia conducted an email interview with Judy Rebick about her new book Occupy This!
“The idea that we could create alternative communities as a way of resisting the existing culture is not new but doing it in the middle of big cities, in the belly of the beast is new and was a major reason for the power of Occupy.” Judy Rebick
ET – How can we understand Occupy in a broader context of social movements? How is it different, or is it?
JR – Well I’ve written a book on this called Occupy This! Occupy’s focus on economic inequality is different than social movements in the recent past, like the women’s movement or the civil rights movement, which have focused on excluded groups. Occupy focusses both on protest against existing institutions like Wall Street and on creating or dreaming of alternatives. In this way it is similar to the women’s movement but different than the anti-globalization movement, which was mainly a protest movement. One major way that Occupy was different than previous movements was that it focused on the local while creating a global movement. This is something quite new. We had the lingo, think globally, act locally, but this was the first time that a movement actually did that. In its’ political focus, it is most like the early labour movement. In its’ mode of organization it is most like the civil rights movement or the women’s movement. The most remarkable new thing about Occupy to me was the love and compassion that was so clearly present in the encampments. The idea that we could create alternative communities as a way of resisting the existing culture is not new but doing it in the middle of big cities, in the belly of the beast is new and was a major reason for the power of Occupy.
ET – What’s the link between the Occupy movement in North America, The Indignados in Spain and Latin America, and the Arab Spring in the Middle East?
JR – In my view, they are elements of the same movement in the same way that the movement in Saudi Arabia asking for the right of women to drive is part of the same movement as the Slut Walk. Led by youth, we are seeing an uprising of people’s that vision an equalitarian global movement to create another world. All of these movements are part of that. In addition, because of social media, they are communicating with each other and learning from each other. That is the remarkable part.
ET – When you talk about the importance of the Occupy movement, you refer to the way that it is creating different models for democracy – what does democracy look like for an Occupier?
JR – The most important institution is the General Assembly. This is also true for the Quebec Student Strike. The idea of a mass meeting of participants as the primary decision making body is a major new innovation. For me it is advancing the ideas of participatory democracy. Ordinary people can and should participate in the decisions that most affect their lives. The other important democratic innovation of Occupy is their idea about leadership. It’s not just that there are no leaders, it is rather valuing all kinds of skills as leadership skills. There are many leaders not just a couple. The Quebec students identify their leaders as “spokespeople,” making clear that their job is to speak for the movement not to make decisions for it. Finally, the valuing of people for who they are not for what they can do is a profound democratic idea, which is at the heart of Occupy.
ET – Some Indigenous communities have critiqued the Occupy movement for using exclusionary language – in particular, the use of the term occupation which is associated with colonialism? What`s your take on this – is the 99% represented under Occupy?
JR – On the one hand the use of the term Occupy without acknowledging that we are already on occupied land is problematic but most Indigenous activists and groups that I know are satisfied as long as the Occupy movement does acknowledge this. On the other hand, Occupy is a very powerful meme. The idea is that we don’t have to wait for others, for example, government to change things, we can change it ourselves. So we can talk about Occupy Education, Occupy Health Care etc. with the idea that the workers in these systems can start making changes themselves.
ET – In your book, you also refer to taking back the notion of community as one of the important elements of Occupy – can you elaborate on this?
JR – Occupy is all about creating community. The feeling people describe in the Occupy encampments is one of joy in feeling the connection with others, some would call this love. Neo-liberalism creates divisions amongst us through competition and fear. Occupy created an open inclusive community, everyone was welcome and encouraged to participate. It was an amazing thing even though it’s the most human of behaviour. This is harder to achieve without an encampment, which is why they were evicted.
ET – Is Occupy creating a new model of leadership?
JR – I am not sure about this. I think Occupy Wall Street is doing that by experienced leaders refusing to do a lot of media and/or becoming stars. When you think of Occupy, you don’t think of any individual as a leader and that is something new. I am not sure it is a new model of leadership. That remains to be seen.
ET – How do you respond to the critique, often by the mainstream media, about Occupy`s lack of a vision?
JR – I have heard the criticism that they don’t have demands. First this is not true. Their demand is to end economic inequality. There can be a discussion how to do that but it is a demand and a vision. A world without economic inequality is a vision as clear as Martin Luther King’s vision. They also go further in creating a vision of the world they want than many other movements by creating it in the encampments. They do this through collective participatory decision making and a gift economy, from each according to their ability to each according to their needs.
ET – Has Occupy changed mainstream discourse?
JR – Yes. For the first time the mainstream is talking about the 1% and extreme economic inequality. We can also talk about the problems of capitalism now. Believe me as someone who does a fair bit of mainstream media, that wasn’t possible before.
ET – You visited various Occupy encampments, was there a moment in one particular encampment that stands out the most?
JR – Of course Occupy Wall Street stands out. It was far in advance of the Occupy sites in Canada. I think this is because there were more experienced activists involved. In Canada, a lot of experienced activists walked away from Occupy because they didn’t have the patience for it.
ET – You call Occupy a cultural revolution; revolutions tend to have peaks and valleys – now that the encampments have come down, are we in the valley?
JR – I am not sure it’s true that we are in a valley. As I mentioned I think Occupy is part of a broader uprising. So I consider the student strike in Quebec part of that uprising, the movement against the Enbridge pipeline as part of that movement. People are continuing to organize. It is too soon to say whether there is valley. I don’t see it yet.
ET – What was the logic of publishing an e-book – was it an attempt to democratize information? Were you hoping to make the book more accessible and target a broader audience? Did it work?
JR – Not really. Penguin asked me to do it. I asked them to issue Transforming Power (my last book) as an e-book at a cheaper price since it explains the elements leading into Occupy. They asked me to write an e-book on Occupy. I thought it was a good idea because it would come out quickly and be cheap but it hasn’t worked that way. People who might not buy a more expensive book might also not have an e-reader or be willing to download the program needed to read an e-book online. I think it was a mistake to publish an e-book with a mainstream publisher since they are so obsessed with copywrite, they made it difficult to get. Also the media doesn’t review e-books so fewer people find out about it. At this point despite the $3.99 price, Occupy This! has sold fewer copies than my other books. Also Penguin did zero promotion around it. I am starting a US promotion campaign now through twitter. We will see if that works.
To download the book from Penguin: http://www.penguin.ca/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780143184096,00.html
Elvira Truglia is a Montreal-based freelance journalist and social justice advocate. She has worked for various non-governmental organizations, as well as community, public and independent media outlets.