#VacateVictoria 17 Oct 2011
Prologue (feel free to scroll past this):
Saturday, October 15th, 2011, was the day that cities around the world showed their solidarity with the plight of the Americans (the plight being, for starters, how exactly to repair the indescribable and dastardly damage sustained from years of ruthless, violent buggery on the part of the corporate elite). Many cities did it. Rome did it. Vienna did it. Lisbon and Berlin did it. London, Bucharest, and even Sarajevo did it. You know who else did it?
Victoria did it. Victoria and its bigger, brawnier, better-dressed younger sibling, Vancouver, did it. #OccupyWallStreet was propped up and exalted by hundreds of thousands of people around the world after a rising action that was heavily supported by Facebook.
I was there. I took part in the worldwide display of solidarity for the USA, raging against the Machine and praying that the proletariat revolution was just around the corner, at last satisfying my first-year-college indoctrination to socialist theory. Not a politically-savvy person by any stretch of the imagination, I still had a highly romantic version of anarchy played out in my fantasy life, one which also includes what I will say if I ever meet Madonna, and the sorts of scholarships I will set up when I at last start pulling in millions of dollars.
I had been looking forward to it for a few weeks.
Ever since the news trickled down in my direction that an entirely fed-up group of people in the USA—on Wall Street, for heaven’s sakes, in New York City, a place that just never seems to be able to shut up, and consequently a place I know I will love if I ever actually get there—were staging a non-violent sit-in as reaction to the godforsaken economic climate in their country, I had been intrigued. The movement was not and, to my knowledge and as of this writing, heavily or regularly covered by the mainstream news channels in North America, so it was no wonder that links and references made to this event were not in heavy rotation on Facebook, our collective master and overlord. (I actually believe now that Google +, absolute blank expanse of untilled prairie soil that it is, was deliberately created to be the polar opposite of Facebook simply to show people that such a low-key, personal-boundary-acknowledging social media site is possible. Unfortunately, we are all accustomed to and quite comfortable with the unstoppable Ferris wheel of Facebook’s information flow and privacy rape, unable to imagine a life where we don't report details of it to a colossal number of strangers, and Google + will remain a strange little internet experiment, an unnecessary notion and failure in a year where, it can be argued, the downright bizarre finally became the norm.)
I became increasingly thirsty for knowledge about the topic, about exactly what was going on in New York: when it began, how it began, and how it was being received. I wanted to know what some of my favourite thinkers were thinking about it, thinkers such as the peerless Chris Floyd and the hypnotic Arthur Silber. The few internet sites I visit daily that regard themselves as being “alternative media” and the like were offering surprisingly little coverage of the event, though with enough frowning and clicking about, one could connect the dots and gradually piece together a satisfying collection of tidbits that formed a coherent whole.
Words, sentences, articles, images began to fill up the Facebook news feed...quite splendid timing, actually, for the swelling public consciousness, since Facebook had once again decided to revamp its own features and structure, predictably sending half of its users into a psychological tailspin, and yet motivating users to spend even more time on the site to methodically unearth all of the newly-introduced features that caused users the most pain, thus boosting membership and page views even higher into the stratosphere. Interest in #OccupyWallStreet began to gain speed, chugging along like an earnest locomotive. I actually encountered very little vocal objection to the movement on Facebook, with the exception of one or two social / community activists who believed that the term “occupation” was disrespectful to the aboriginal communities in North America who actually had been, in the truest sense of the word, occupied by hooch-endorsing, disease-sharing Europeans way back in the day. They most certainly had a point, but I didn’t quite see how one matter was connected to the other.
(Enraged readers of this piece are absolutely at liberty to painstakingly dissect my various degrees of ignorance.)
For the revolution-starved, some fabulous news revealed itself a week or so ago: no matter where we lived in the world, we would have our own opportunity to raise a pitchfork over the hellish, deteriorating economic climate in the United States. On October 15th, #OccupyWallStreet was going to be a shared experience, a collective outcry against thieving, ransacking, sociopathic Wall Street types. Since most of us weren’t fortunate enough to be in NYC, clutching hands with identically cross-legged neighbours and refusing to budge despite the taunts of police officers, we could have our own outraged sit-in no matter where we were in the world. Sounded like a good idea! The objective didn’t matter; the fact that we all cared about something more than hockey did (though I adamantly and arrogantly count myself among the very few people who pay more attention to congealing liquids in their refrigerator than to overpaid, heavily-perspiring, stick-wielding ruffians pushing a piece of rubber around on an ice rink).
…and since I discovered #OccupyWallStreet a few weeks ago, I have been the first person to sniff and sneer at anyone who opposed such a movement. How could anyone criticize citizens of a country who have been maliciously betrayed, lied to, robbed, fleeced, sacrificed, and cheated? If the American people wanted to sit at the foot of the beast and let the big boys know that they know, they now know, how on earth could this be a bad thing? Rather than continuing to ride in the clown car of falsehoods that is the American Dream, people were not having any more of it; they wanted things to change (and since the type of adversity they are facing is like battling the hydra, locating a precise starting point has been their biggest challenge), and the sense of promise seemed to loom large with each passing day.
Most astonishing to me, at least, was the fact that people were sitting there. Just sitting there! Oh, certainly there were speeches and chants and marches, but there was no violence! No violence in the USA!! A country that peddles inappropriate and / or violent imagery at nearly opportunity; a nation that champions aggression, intimidation, fear, and bloodshed as the only feasible courses of action no matter what the issue is at hand! A gun-obsessed, country-invading, war-causing, interrogation-camp-owning country has citizens just sitting in to show that they’re not happy with being royally screwed over by the people in charge of their lives. Perhaps we have not given American people enough credit; not enough, not whatsoever. Leave them to their own devices, and they actually eschew violence, do they? What an astonishing, unexpected revelation!
As a pacifist, this approach flooded my being with hope, faith, and all the other delights that go along with those two. As a realist, I was perhaps dismayed that Americans were not resorting to total blitzkrieg when it seemed to be the most logical, reasonable occasion to do so. Three decades of Hollywood saturation were clearly taking a toll on my common sense and innate pacifism: why were people not storming into the high-rises and dragging out the Montecristo-chomping thieves by their lapels and monocles, setting up kangaroo courts and meting out whatever version of justice they saw fit to apply?
In addition, a perusal of a few of my most beloved conspiracy-unraveling websites showed that the entire event at Wall Street was actually orchestrated and was being carefully choreographed by the Illuminati, a theory that I cheerfully accept as being entirely plausible: what further atrocities are being committed beneath our collective noses as we are distracted by this latest chunk of feel-good entertainment, this boost to public morale? Despite Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky chiming in with their support of this passive demonstration, who really knows if it’s all fabricated poppycock?
Up until last Saturday, my answer to that question was, Who gives a two-dollar toss? People's eyes are finally starting to open.
#OccupyVictoria--The Main Event:
So there it was, #OccupyVictoria, all set to go on October 15, just like it was all around the world. As I had a Brazilian houseguest occupying my living room for ten days, I thought it would be a terrific idea to continue the theme and have him accompany me to Centennial Square to show him how things would be done in his chosen Canadian destination. Such a cultural, folksy experience it would be, participating in a public protest against...something! Well, whatever. The point was to show support for NYC, was it not?
Saturday revealed itself to be a rather gorgeous autumn day, the sort of pretty, invigorating October afternoon that temporarily makes all the limitations and passivity of Victoria seem acceptable. My guest and I made our way down to Centennial Square for the planned noon festivities, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
The atmosphere was, unsurprisingly, modest, contained, and polite. There were approximately two hundred people standing about, some holding handmade placards and signs, others dressed up in face paint and costumes that didn’t overtly reveal a theme or concept. Dreadlocks and multicoloured fabrics were the dominating sartorial preference. On the stage area, a P.A. system was set up and ready for use. Everyone was, quite simply, gathered there to have a savoury lick—a driblet—of what was taking place 2,500 miles away on a much more vibrant, cosmopolitan, expressive, charismatic coastal city.
With a cheerful, semi-amused perspective, I glanced around at my surroundings, and raised a brow upon spotting a covered area marked with a handmade sign that declared “SAFE AREA”. Safe area? Four poles and a tarpaulin to protect Victoria’s assembled citizens from...what, exactly? Were the organizers of this event anticipating police brutality, suppression of verbal dissent, physical force, university students attempting to recreate the 1960's and falling to pieces from ingesting too much LSD?
Behind me were a couple of folding tables spilling over with food: salad fixings, vegetables, bread, and cheese—actual artisan cheeses and handcrafted loaves.
“Yum,” I said between mouthfuls of cherry tomatoes and Balderson cheddar piled atop a multigrain dinner roll. “Is all of this free?”
“Totally free,” grinned the hippie who appeared to be assisting with general management of the food station. “All by donation.”
“Don’t…mind…if…I….do,” I muttered, helping myself to more cheese, which I rarely eat but which seemed to be the right thing to do. I motioned to my Brazilian companion to join me in an impromptu midday repast, which he did, though with far less greedy, grubby behaviour than I demonstrated.
A speaker took the stage and began to talk about things I couldn’t understand, thanks to the mediocre sound system, though I do recall something being mentioned about preservation of the Juan de Fuca Strait, which prompted a jubilant cheer from the gathered citizens…again, perhaps two or three hundred in total.
It wasn’t that great, frankly; the atmosphere certainly wasn't buzzing with electricity and anticipation. Also, we had plans to hit the Royal BC Museum. So we abandoned the lackluster meeting and walked down Government Street, stopping in at The Bay so my friend could peruse a selection of expensive watches that he wanted to purchase as gifts, and so I could locate the perfect shade of lip colour from the M.A.C. counter. It was not lost on me whatsoever that we were planting our hard-earned dollars into the pockets of the companies that we were apparently supposed to be railing against. Or was it just the banks who were the villains?
After thirty minutes in the department store, we were back on Government Street, where—to my surprise—the #OccupyVictoria event was in motion. Drum beats and megaphones and raised placards and chanting!
“OFF THE SIDEWALK AND ONTO THE STREET!” screamed a couple of serious-faced young men at those of us who were standing there, watching the spectacle with innocent curiosity. This command somehow flooded me with feelings of guilt and apathy, as I had genuinely wanted to participate in this day’s event and show my support, but something about it all had struck me as…as…I couldn’t quite locate the appropriate word. So I nudged my companion and we began to walk with the crowd, directly at the front of the procession, though this simply was a matter of timing, not intention: I happen to walk at a legendarily brisk pace, and shuffling along the streets with strangers at roughly the speed of a glacier is something I try to avoid as often as possible.
The march from Fort Street to the legislative buildings is a brief one, and as we moved at the head of the parade towards the shimmering, flawless Inner Harbour, a few key participants armed with bullhorns urged the crowd along in a few cries, the most frequent and oft-shouted being This is what democracy looks like! I did not scream along, mostly because I was starting to develop the most unexpected sensation of embarrassment.
I was embarrassed.
Totally and unstoppably embarrassed. As I coaxed my Brazilian comrade to stand on the steps of Parliament next to me—since we were at the forefront of this cavalcade, we were easily able to find a choice vantage point from which to regard the remainder of the people who were approaching. The number of bodies appeared to have swelled from a few hundred to what seemed to be nearly a thousand, although this could have simply been an optical illusion due to the fact that Victoria’s streets are generally never bustling with a substantial quantity of human energy.
"This is what democracy looks like!"
I stood and watched, I did, and I listened to the slogans, and I hoped to everything holy that I was not going to appear on the front page of any sort of local publication. I did not take photographs and I would not talk about this on Facebook. I did not join in with the cheers and I felt absolutely no sense of accomplishment, solidarity, or progress, much less revolution.
"Whose streets? OUR STREETS!"
What was the problem? Why did I want to just smoke the fresh joint I had in my bag and wander agog throughout the impeccable museum dioramas (which I did, not five minutes later), rather than participate for a moment further in this farce? Why was I finding myself with rolling eyes, a smirk, a totally out-of-left-field sense of judgment and disdain?
…perhaps it was the sight of (what really looked to be) a thousand Victorians taking to the streets on a majestic October afternoon, flanked by the timeless elegance of the Empress Hotel and the sparkling waters of the Inner Harbour, with yachts and sailboats and doormen and valets serving as attractive accessories to the spectacle. It was the rows and rows of tourism and souvenir and jewelry shops along Government Street, the clean and well-maintained restaurants, the manicured greenery, the click of cameras, the Starbucks-clutching citizenry (myself included), the chalk sentiments scrawled on the asphalt that amounted to nothing more than “Yay!” and “Revolution!” and “We Are Here Now”. The police officers on the sidelines, stifling yawns, watching a selection of well-nourished locals doing everything in their limited power to create a revolution where absolutely none was required.
This perfect little city on a quiet little island, simply aching and longing for something. Something. Something! What could break up the tedium of such perfection, such contentedness? A protest! A protest against something that nobody here could possibly ever, and will never, comprehend so long as they cling tightly to the nearest Arbutus tree! What could cause a ripple in the fabric of total complacency? A protest! An alignment and alliance with the plight of millions of displaced, unemployed, bankrupt Americans living in a police state who cannot afford a medical checkup because their government prefers to funnel trillions (trillions!) of dollars into overseas invasions, assaults, and wars!
The participants and organizers of this event were emulating what they had seen on the internet, down to the egalitarian method of leaderless communication that required the crowd to repeat en masse whatever message or update a speaker had to announce. Our show of solidarity was nothing more than playing Pretend, nothing more than a collection of comparatively wealthy, freedom-enjoying, dispassionate, isolated individuals making believe that the sort of social dilemmas that plague the USA (and elsewhere) were possible to comprehend and sympathize with in this corner of the most boring country in the world. It was downright embarrassing.
Victoria, you pathetic little charmer, so smug and safe on your chunk of granite, the greatest threat to your security being the earthquake / tsunami that is guaranteed to occur within my lifetime (and, if my beloved, histrionic websites are to be believed, may well be the result of ongoing HAARP experimentation, yet again a possibility that can always be pondered). Victoria, you boring little pretty thing, all Darth Vader fiddlers and maple leafs and flower baskets and double-decker buses and no news. No news. None. Not a thing. You’re desperate for a revolution. You’re desperate to have a crumb of what real desperation looks and feels like. Desperate for desperation, but only when it's organized and scheduled and only if there is a happy conclusion, when everyone can return home, self-satisfied for having not made one whit of difference whatsoever, for having not made one substantial sacrifice.
Later, that evening, during a debriefing:
“What problems do you have here?” wondered my Brazilian comrade aloud, genuinely mystified by the sight of hundreds of privileged Canadians protesting things they know very little about, much less are experiencing in their day-to-day lives. After all, he is from a complex country where the majority of the existing social systems—economic, financial, political, educational, even judicial—are in such a state of precarious imbalance, it seems that most of the people are simply waiting for an opportunity to safely and collectively exhale.
“I don’t know,” I said. “The ferries? The ferries. They’re too slow and expensive. People aren’t taking their vehicles onto the ferries anymore and there are more walk-ons than ever.”
“No, seriously,” he replied.
“I am serious!” I thought silently for a solid half-minute. “Ah, yes. I thought of another problem here in Victoria.” And, with the aid of a dictionary and arm gestures, I explained Victoria’s lack of sewage-treatment facility, how all the shit goes straight down a pipe into the open ocean, and how there will probably never be one properly installed in this capital city, this flower-festooned city, as nobody wants one constructed in their neighbourhood because of the certainty of rank odour emission. That's that. "It goes to the USA anyway" has been a very common, half-joking reaction to my mortification over this situation.
I then mentioned how this town prides itself on being such a bastion of political correctness and environmental awareness, yet there is no accessible way to enjoy any feature offered on this island unless one is in possession of a vehicle, thanks to the non-existence of affordable and convenient public transportation. Of course, these two issues--sewage in the ocean and pollution from vehicle emissions--are hardly at the forefront of people’s thoughts here; residents of Victoria are vainglorious enough to believe wholeheartedly that they live in the greatest city in the world, that there is nothing to criticize.
(I must also add that my own now-discarded article for a local website addressing social / environmental issues was deemed “too opinionated” by the website's editor this past summer, as I had strung together enough creative adjectives to describe the intolerable reality of people riding their bicycles on the sidewalks here. Offering forth a criticism of the way of life here in Victoria is akin to treason and will quite often render you a social pariah, if being from Vancouver weren’t enough to do so in the first place.)
Soon enough, we abandoned the ridiculous gathering at Parliament and went into the museum for some fun. Twenty minutes later, as we stared out the windows from the top floor at the aesthetically stunning vista below, I was stunned to find that the front lawn of the legislative building was vacant. Completely, totally, fully, thoroughly, undeniably devoid of a solitary human being. Nothing, not a scrap of litter or abandoned stick of chalk, was left behind to indicate that some people in the city had been publicly outraged about the American banking system for two hours.
Also, as I left the museum, I crossed paths with an odd man I dated a few months back who had been great at sexual foreplay, horrible at sexual intercourse, and simply atrocious at communication. I pretended not to recognize him, and felt victorious that I was running into him--for the first time since our falling-out--with a tall, cute Brazilian man in tow. I then bought some saltwater taffy and proceeded to ruin whatever was left of my fillings.