Archive for November, 2011

Dear Occupy Toronto: I am sorry for misjudging you

Monday, November 28th, 2011

I have to admit it, I had preconceived notions about Occupy Toronto.

I made assumptions about who would be taking part, how they would be engaging in dialogue and what sort of topics would be central to these discussions.

Whenever possible, I had participated in large scale acts of resistance. I was surrounded by police officers for five hours while I attended the G8 protests in London. I witnessed the showdown between the riot police and protestors during the G20 protests in Toronto. However, the ongoing existence of the Occupy Toronto movement diminished any need for immediate participation. Instead, I told myself, I would eventually visit St. James Park, the location of the tent city that was the basis of the occupy movement.

Then I read an email proclaiming that tent dwelling participants of Occupy Toronto had received eviction notices, commencing at midnight. The urgency arose, as it seemed it was now or never. I had to go see the Occupy Toronto site before it followed in the image of Occupy Wall Street. I grabbed my camera and with my assumptions in tow, headed to St. James Park.

The village within a city: Occupy Toronto in St. James Park

The first site I stumbled upon was at the entrance of the encampment and was one I was familiar with. It was a circle of people involved in a participatory decision-making process. As I had seen through various news clips, a facilitator would call on a participant to speak, the speaker would voice their opinion while the rest of the circle of individuals would repeat the speaker’s words. On screen this process was rather irritating, in person it was invigorating.

As I approached the circle, a middle-aged man, who appeared to have spent the past few weeks devoted to the Occupy movement, turned around and offered myself and the surrounding individuals food from a Tupperware container. I politely declined but that simple act allowed my guard to be lowered. I began to wonder if my assumptions were unfounded.

The decision in question was regarding how to approach the impeding eviction notice. There was a debate brewing about the suggestion of a midnight dance party. I scoffed a tad at the protester dance party cliché, but then I began to listen to the participants as they attempted to reach a decision. Well articulated arguments emerged from both sides:

  • Playing loud intrusive music would give the police a justification to forcibly remove protesters;
  • Art and more specifically dance is considered a form of cultural resistance, participating in these art forms would illustrate non-conformity to the system they were all trying to challenge;
  • Having a dance party would allow media sources to frame the eviction as the fault of the protesters.

The debate went on and I witnessed a form of decision-making I had never seen before. Raw participatory decision-making. While the topic of debate may seem redundant to some, the process in which anyone could join and contribute to the decision-making was moving. As I stood in the circle listening to the different sides of the debate I even found myself repeating the words of the speaker. It was that easy to join the movement, to feel like a contributor and it felt good.

The sign making section.

After the dance party was squashed through a group vote, I was off to explore the sprawling tent city that had engulfed St. James Park. My assumptions were that a few tents would be scattered throughout the park. I was very wrong. A mini village had been constructed in the park. There were dozens of tents, all home to Occupy protesters, many guarded with carefully crafted signs proclaiming various grievances pertaining to the current economic and political system. There was a free food tent, a free store, an art display section, a large sign-making section, a yoga yurt, a library yurt, and a sacred fire.

Inside the library yurt

I was amazed by the sophistication of this microcosm and ashamed that I had perhaps almost missed the chance to witness the movement. People were generally friendly and welcoming. Food was being offered generously. I was approached by a woman asking if I wanted to “show my solidarity by eating a Timbit?” As I ate my solidarity Timbit, I saw two young protesters joking with journalists about how they actually were the 1 per cent.The journalists were jovial as they interacted with the young protesters, as were the firemen, city workers and police officers that I saw.

Midnight, came and went with a court injunction allowing the protesters to remain in St. James Park. However, On Nov. 15 Justice David Brown ruled the eviction notice was constitutionally valid. The last traces of occupiers’ tents were taken down on November 23rd. Protesters are currently deciding how to continue the movement.

Whether the protesters decide to occupy another location such as Queen’s Park or to continue the movement through online tools, I feel privileged to have seen the Occupy Toronto protest for myself and have been aptly reminded that when possible to experience highly mediated events for yourself. More importantly, I am reminded that there is no single method of action or knowing, and to keep yourself open to new possibilities. Occupy Toronto, I must graciously apologize and thank you for greatly exceeding my assumptions.

This article first appeared on rabble.ca.

One person’s junk is another person’s…junk

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Stuff we don't want: your used knickers

Listening to CBC last week, I caught development economist Charles Kenny discussing his article in the November issue of Foreign Policy magazine. The title really says all you need to know: “Haiti Doesn’t Need Your Old T-shirt.” Neither, for that matter, does any country with its own apparel industry and developing economy. And they don’t need your surplus grain — or Pop-Tarts! — either.

Using the example of the thousands of shirts donated to World Vision after every Super Bowl by the NFL (it prints “Super Bowl Champions” shirts for both contenders in anticipation of post-game merchandising, then has to dump the losing team’s), Kenny argues that while such “gifts in kind” may be given “with all the right intentions,” they do more harm than good. (A common theme in “development,” no?)

How can gifts be harmful? Well, there are a few notable ways:

  • Whether we’re talking t-shirts, teddy bears for kids in refugee camps, yoga mats for Haiti (WTF?), or panties for Sub-Saharan Africa, it would be much cheaper for a charity to buy these items locally, from local producers. As Kenny says, “When you buy that shirt in Africa rather than getting it in the United States, you help the local clothing industry.” Kenny admits that in some cases it’s hard to source needed items from local markets — e.g. tarpaulins in an emergency — but even in those cases the needed item should be purchased as close as possible to the site of the emergency.
  • They may decrease donations of money, which are especially needed to provide assistance in the case of humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters. If you’ve already donated your old shoes (and feel good about yourself), well you’ve done your part, haven’t you? As Kenny says, “What they really need is money, frankly, and the ability to buy the goods and services that they are in a much better position to know that they need than we are.”
  • Most importantly, people in “developing” countries do know what they need. As Kenny says, if you ask people what tops their list of priorities, “rarely would come back the answer, ‘You know, what we really need is an NFL t-shirt.’”

Even more nefarious than gifts in kind is food “aid.” The US Food Aid program, for example, dumps surplus crops — and sometimes, literally, Pop-Tarts — on recipient countries, a practice that has a huge impact on local farmers who must now compete with free food. American rice exports devastated Haiti’s own rice market.

We’re not advocating that you should not help people who are truly in need. We’re just asking that you consider and respect the needs — and dignity — of the intended recipients. The best way to do no harm with your best intentions is to ask people what they need. When we film with sustainable community initiatives, we ask how viewers can help. The Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights (CEPEHRG) in Accra, Ghana, for example, told us they need:

  • Female sexual health stats/fliers/articles/literature
  • Donations of female/male condoms, lubricant and dental dams
  • Support for the provision of HIV testing kits (rapid response) — actual kits, money or contacts
  • Support for local volunteer outreach and training — logistics, money or contacts
  • Support for STI treatment, medical drugs for the Drop-in centre — medical drug donations, money or contacts
  • General support for office activities
  • Portable stereo with batteries for community outreach
  • You can hold a CEPEHRG awareness event in your neighborhood!

Let’s deconstruct this list. The material goods — safe-sex materials, HIV testing kits, medicines, and the portable stereo — would ideally be sourced locally. Notice how many times money is listed. Notice the requests for information, contacts and general support. Most importantly, notice that CEPEHRG wants you to spread awareness of its community-based work.

Here’s another example. The Parkdale Tenants’ Association (PTA) in Toronto, Canada, asked us to invite you to:

  • Encourage governments to adopt policies that help tenants secure safe and clean living conditions.
  • If you live in Toronto, join the Parkdale Tenants Association’s building maintenance campaign.

The PTA’s wish list reminds us that we must speak out and get involved if we want to undermine the systems that cause poverty and injustice. “Giving” people stuff they don’t need or want won’t do anything towards eradicating either.

If you’d like to donate to or get involved with the community initiatives we’ve filmed with, find out what they need here. If you’d like to get involved with Good Evidence, see what we need here. Thank you!

You can read Kenny’s Foreign Policy article here, and listen to his interview on CBC Radio’s Q here (scroll down to the November 2 show; Kenny’s interview runs from about 06:15-17:25).