“The Occupy movement is a love movement… Justice is what love looks like in public.”
- Cornell West
Imagine you are being stalked by an invisible enemy. This enemy dogs you everywhere you go, pushing you at every opportunity. To everyone else it looks like you are jerking wildly about because they can’t see the enemy shoving you, pushing you, standing in your path. You fall because the enemy shoves you, and it appears to others that you just can’t seem to keep your feet under you. You flail around trying to keep your balance, and others begin to think that you must be crazy, and give you a wide berth. You begin to wonder if maybe you are crazy, since nobody else seems to see the enemy that’s attacking you. Eventually, you can’t take it any more: you stand your ground, you refuse to be pushed around any more. The invisible enemy tries to stop you, and you shove back, intending to keep moving forward. To those around you, it appears as if you are shouting at nobody, lashing out at thin air. Now they are afraid. Okay, they say, we were willing to tolerate that person when they were just crazy, but now they’re being violent for no reason. We need to do something about them, we need to stop them from behaving this way, we need to punish them, we need to remove them so they don’t hurt anybody with their craziness. And the invisible enemy wins.
Occupy has an invisible enemy. Worse yet, we are fighting this enemy on two fronts: on the one hand, between our movement and the dominant culture that we seek to change; on the other hand, between those within our movement who are fighting their own invisible enemies and those who don’t see, who can’t see. The rhetoric of the 99% is a powerful place to start, and it has brought us together in ways that many of us might not have dreamed possible. At the same time, in seeking to find our commonalities, we have forgotten about the very real effects of our differences. Our different lived experiences, our different positions within the social hierarchy that prefigures our emergence as a movement, mean that we move through the world differently, have different invisible enemies. Entrenched divisions of race, class, gender, language, ability, and many other factors of identity and position effect how we each move through the world, and mean that the structures that we are all fighting against act on each of us differently and with greater or lesser degrees of violence. We must acknowledge that we have come together from the dominant culture that we started from, and we have brought our invisible enemies with us.
Like many Occupies, and many social movements around the world, Occupy Vancouver is struggling with the emergence of bullying and oppression within our community that mirrors what we see in the society we are nested within. This bullying has taken many faces, from male violence against women, to the dominance of white and middle-class voices, to the spread of ideas that certain acts, positions, or views mark a difference between who is a legitimate Occupier and who is not. Witness the media narrative that dominated in the fall that claimed that it was not legitimate protestors, but “just” homeless people who had “taken over” the camps, or that those with more staunch anti-state and anti-capitalist views were simply “provocateurs” there to make trouble or divide the movement.
Inevitably these conflicts will erupt, because we can only come with what we have. The mettle of our movement will be proven in how we respond to these conflicts. When we, as Occupiers, stand up for our right to public space and for a say in how our lives are governed, there are those who dismiss us as violent, as lazy, as troublemakers. Often this dismissal comes from those who think the system is working just fine, because they think it is working just fine for them. Their perspective is the only one whose existence they are aware of, and from their perspective, we are fighting an invisible enemy. And so we orient our movement in part towards revealing the invisible enemy to those dismissers. We understand that this is a vital part of the work, and yet when those inside our movement try to set boundaries against the invisible enemies within our community, often we respond to them in the same way that those outside of Occupy have responded to us. We blame the victim, we locate the violence in the act of defense, and not in the invisible attack. We forget that just because we don’t see the enemy that person is defending against doesn’t mean that the enemy isn’t there.
As a movement, we have a responsibility to create within our community what we want to see spread outward from its boundaries. We cannot paint bullying and oppression within our movement as an interpersonal conflict between two equals when clearly it is not. It’s true that it takes two parties to be in such a conflict, but the two parties are not the person being bullied and the person doing the bullying. The two parties who make such a conflict happen are the person doing the bullying, and the community that allows it to happen by not standing in solidarity with the person being bullied. Our response to internal bullying must be the same as our response to the bullying of the state against us: to stand in solidarity with each others’ struggles, to reveal the invisible enemy.
If our response to these scenarios of internal violence is to try to make rules to prevent them from happening, we are not doing the real work. The real work is in learning from our different lived experiences and building solidarity and support in order to level the playing field between those being bullied and those doing the bullying. The invisible enemy is the power-over dynamics that are entrenched in the culture we are coming from, and our responsibility is to investigate and then eradicate the systemic violence and oppression that is almost always the first punch in any of these conflicts. We must learn to understand what violence actually means, and where it is actually located. We can’t fall into the same trap that the state falls into, making rules against unwanted behaviours without addressing the reasons why those behaviours happen. Male violence against women doesn’t happen because one individual man is a bad person, it happens because we live in a culture that condones and supports that violence by blaming the victim when it happens. Police violence against protestors doesn’t happen because a protestor breaks a window, it happens because police are there to protect the interests of property and capitalism from the capacity of people to set boundaries against their own exploitation; it’s the system that is violent, not the protestor. It’s those systemic causes we must address, both individually and as a collective, not simply try to make up a rule to prevent every possible situation of violence. Rules can be used by abusers to discredit those who call them out, because the rules assume a level playing field between people, a community free of systemic inequality, and that is not the reality. Rules can’t account for oppression, and too easily become a distraction from undoing it, a detriment to our ability to see the invisible enemy as it moves among us. We use our rules as an excuse to shy away from conversations that make us feel vulnerable and unsure: we don’t need to talk about your experience of oppression, we say, we have a rule for that. And in the end, rules also just plain don’t work. To quote Utah Phillips, “the good people don’t need them and the bad people don’t obey them, so what use are they?”
The real solution is much more challenging: to listen to one another, to understand the mechanisms of power-over in our culture and how they effect us all differently based on our different backgrounds, experiences, and idenitites. Harder still is to learn to see the behaviours and assumptions we’ve all been taught to internalize that reproduce that power-over structure, and begin to refuse to participate in it. The catch here, of course, is that we need to listen to those who do not share our experience, and trust them that the invisible enemy they are describing really does exist. While for some the enemy is ephermal and abstract, difficult to grasp, for others it is present and immediate, imminently and intimately real. These two different realities are both true, and to explore them both and learn to understand how they relate to each other is our work as a movement. These are difficult conversations, but they must be had if we are to sustain our ability to Occupy and to hold our lines against the forces that will try to edradicate us.
The conversation we must have between ourselves is in fact the same conversation we are trying to have with the larger culture. It is the conversation between those who see the invisible enemy and those who do not, and the message is clear: we are under attack. We are not the troublemakers. We are not the instigators. We are not, in fact, the occupiers. An engine of death has occupied these lands, sought to exterminate or assimilate the people and ways of life that stand in the way of its domination and consumption of land, water, people, life. This is not an exaggeration. The colonial state exists to clear the way for capitalism, which values only dead things, commodities. Lumber, not trees; meat, not animals; labour power, not people. It creates scarcity by its destructiveness and then leaves us to compete for what is rightfully the common wealth of all to share in. The resulting hierarchies of race, gender, class, language, ability, and other systemic oppressions create privilege for some by marginalizing others. We learn, and rightfully so, to fear the violence and dispossession that comes with being marginalized, the lack of access and choice that marginalization creates. From within the prison that is this false choice of “oppress or be oppressed,” we learn to confuse privilege with freedom.
This act of occupation, upon which all else in the dominant culture depends, is an act of violence. Those who have relatively greater privilege may not see it, and certainly have been taught to live in ways that perpetuate it, to assert or assume power over others without even knowing it. When someone with a different experience points out that power being assumed, they are revealing the invisible enemy. If we listen, and learn, we beat him. If we do not, he wins.
The violence of capitalism and the colonial state that supports it is, for many, an invisible enemy. They are pushed around by it without realizing it is there pushing, it shoves them down and they blame themselves for stumbling. When another stumbles, they blame the stumbler and the invisible enemy gets off scott-free. Those who begin to see it, who get sick of being pushed and stand up to hold their ground appear at first to be instigating, to be making trouble. And whether it is occupying a bank or calling out a bully in our midst, we must learn to love and respect these troublemakers because they show us by their courage where our invisible enemy actually stands and how to hold the line against him. We cannot hold that line alone, we can only do it through our solidarity with each others’ struggles. The invisible enemy works to keep us fighting each other over his scraps instead of standing together to insist he give back what he has taken. Our capacity to support each other is his undoing, so our first task is to expel him from our movement through unlearning how to use his tools of power-over against one another. This task will never be “done;” it is a process of constant learning, unlearning, relearning. With each step we take down that path we build alliances and grow stronger. We each see a piece of the invisible enemy from the vantage point of our diversity of experiences, and if we listen to and stand in solidarity with each others’ struggles, we can reveal his shape and dismantle him together.