Occupational Hazard

Or, Occupation au Hasard

It’s the dawn of November 12th, and Occupy Montreal has been going for almost one month now. The rough, east coast winter is licking its chops and getting ready for fall to let it off the leash. You might not feel the bite on your cheeks just yet, but there’s a distinct chill that rattles your spine, reminding you of the cold season ahead.

Take a walk through the Montreal camp and you’ll be left wondering what exactly they’re protesting. There are feminists, anti-corruption crusaders, hardcore environmentalists, weekend anarchists who think owning a Guy Fawkes mask and a pup tent makes them Heroes of the Underground, philosophy majors desperately trying to recreate the spirit of the 60’s, anti-capitalist hippies, McGill and UQAM students upset about tuition fees, veteran activists scuttling about trying to organize discussion panels, and, as a more recent development, the city’s homeless who came running when they heard there was free grub to be had.

Despite this menagerie, the camp is surprisingly well maintained. A cursory glance at the schedule reveals that regular cleaning and maintenance is pretty much enforced; that’s one of the reasons why the city hasn’t tried disbanding the camp. Occupy Montreal organizers know very well that they have to watch their collective asses. Warnings about safety and cleanliness are posted everywhere.

It doesn’t hurt that several local businesses are lending a hand. A nearby café shares its wi-fi connection with the camp, a boon for spreading the (mixed) message and coordinating with other Occupy chapters. Food donations come from restaurants and independent citizens alike; people respond well to the vague populist agenda. “It’s great because we’re getting people that aren’t directly involved that heard about us, and they recognize there are problems we all need to look at,” says Richard Tessier, a second-year Med student at McGill.

Keeping the camp in peace and order has really helped. The last thing OM organizers want is for the municipal government to follow in the footsteps of other Canadian cities pressuring the Great Unwashed from their public parks. Police in London, Ontario took a hands-on approach to the problem by simply disassembling the camp and standing around ominously in riot gear until the dismayed crowd dispersed.

The mood at camp OM seems tepid. It’s as though they’re just now asking themselves what the fuck they’re doing, a month after they started. They’ve settled into a routine of wake up anywhere from ten in the morning to one in the afternoon, swing by the kitchen tent for some soup or an apple, back to the tents for chatting amongst themselves, back for more food, then maybe take in a free concert from a third-rate local folk singer riding on the patchy coattails of this global initiative, or perhaps attend the screening of a movie related to the cause, then back to the tents. Watch out, Wall Street Fat Cats.

Sensing a general void where the purpose should be, OM organizers have begun scheduling discussion panels in the hope of reaching a direction and lending their group some much-needed credibility. It remains to be seen whether that will happen.

One thing all 99% protesters seem to agree on is that, financially, the deck is stacked against them. Government, Big Business, and Banks (the three-headed dog that’s tearing society apart) set forth policies that make the future appear bleak at best for the common person. The protesters believe that it’s time to eliminate the ways of the past and pave the way for a new, glorious future. Such romanticism is needed to sustain this camping trip in the months ahead.

OM pitched its tents in Victoria Square, the closest place Montreal has to a Wall Street. “It’s perfect,” says occupant Leo Druzzi, sipping tea from a plastic cup, pointing at each surrounding building in turn. “We’ve got the World Commerce Center, the CIBC, the National Bank, the TD, and even Québecor Media! This is the scene of the crime.” The crime, apparently, being the trading of stocks, the managing of people’s personal income, and the broadcasting of television programs such as Elvis Gratton: Ma Vie My Life and Des Kiwis et des Hommes.

That’s OM’s strategy: fling rhetoric at the wall until something sticks, and, in the event that something does stick, repeat it ad nauseum until the words lose all meaning. Such meaningless rhetoric includes the “We Are the 99%” tagline. This PR gem was cooked up in New York because of Wall Street’s admittedly shady tactics. The movement purports that, with the vast majority of wealth and opportunities resting on a select few who have made it their life’s work to accrue vast amounts of money, the society we live in is therefore skewed in favour of the richest 1%.

And so, the protesters took it upon themselves to speak for 99% of the population. Sounds like a good backing. I mean, who’s going to cross someone who speaks for 99% of us? Of course, if you look at the number of people attending the Occupy rallies and living at the camps, you’d get a figure that looks more like .0099%. The truth is, while a decent chunk of the global populace agrees today’s world is a little messed up, that chunk would rather earn a raise or save up for a new car than start a revolution.

In Montreal, the 99% revolutionaries are looking for specific ideas and plans to implement. “We’re hoping to use this amazing energy we’ve been cultivating and help create some lasting changes,” says Anne Pellerin, a philosophy student at Concordia. “This is happening all around the world. No one can deny that a lot of people identify with us.”

Fair enough, but for every reasonable response like that one, there’s two or three guys that go on for ten minutes about the Illuminati, or how the National Bank logo looks sort of like a swastika if you fold it like so, or how all the world’s monarchs are shapeshifting, reptilian extraterrestrials that have been the secret chiefs of the Earth since time immemorial.

One phrase I heard and saw a lot of was “We want a piece of the pie.” On one hand, they’re sending the message that we must make huge changes to the way the global markets and governments operate, Viva la Revolución and all that, but why are they asking for these things? For justice? For equality? Or is it that they simply want to have more disposable income to go out and buy the latest iDevice and/or their favourite narcotic? Without working for it, of course. If these protesters, who are mostly younger people in their twenties, went out and worked, they might actually get to enjoy a piece of the proverbial pie.

Better still, if they focused on education rather than protesting, they might be able to get a bigger piece of the pie, afford newer iDevices and better narcotics, and even reach a position to create some lasting changes in society. We’ll have to wait and see how many changes OM can create by squatting in a public park and knitting colourful blankets to wrap around street-lights while hiding their resentment and disgust for the homeless who have infiltrated their ranks.

The early morning chill of November 12th gave way to clammy, rainy dampness in the afternoon, and the protesters of Occupy Montreal started shuffling around, setting about tasks for themselves, and maintaining their little slice of delusion on some prime downtown real estate. Their second month is rolling around. Even if the city does nothing to pressure them out, how long will they have the resources to keep this up?

As I asked myself this question, I looked up at the CIBC building. There, on the third floor, I could see two guys in suits approach the window overlooking Victoria Square. They appeared to be laughing, sharing a little joke, presumably at the expense of these misguided protesters. Only for a moment, though, before going back to their desks to tear apart the fabric of society and rob us of our humanity.

By Adam Roussel