MONDAY IN VANCOUVER members of Occupy Vancouver and other activists participated in a sequence of marches on the entrances of the Port of Vancouver. This action, “Shut Down the Ports,” was part of the united response to the call by Occupy Oakland (one of the flag-ships of the global movement) for a coordinated occupation of all west coast ports on December 12th.
Just the Facts, Mam
Occupy Vancouver’s GA was not able to reach consensus on this action (in part due to disruptions in the frequency of GAs), but the majority of the approximately 100 demonstrators gathered at Callister Park at noon were Occupiers, and the Occupy Vancouver banner was prominent. (There were two other actions this day, early in the morning and later in the afternoon, both at the Clarke Street port entrance; I was only at the mid-day Callister Park action, and will for the most part only comment on that action here.)
In advance of this action, Occupy Vancouver’s Direct Action Committee consulted with local unions, whose leadership had publicly opposed the port shut down (while continuing to voice general support for the aims of the Occupy Movement). As a result of these consultations, and out of respect for our union brothers and sisters (and a desire to not overly inconvenience working people), it was decided that in Vancouver we would support the call to action with a slow down, as opposed to a full shut down. Thus, while delays were caused, no one should have been prevented from getting to or from work—and getting paid—by this action.
The group at Callister Park, after some rousing speeches, marched down Renfrew Street, onto McGill, and finally onto the bridge to the port entrance. We marched slowly, halting traffic as we passed. Several trucks exiting the port greeted us with horn blasts, with two truckers rolling down their windows to voice support for the march and to speak to the media.
At the port entrance we were met by a wall of police. There was no port blockade by activists this day, please note—the blockade was put up by the VPD. After spending some pleasant moments at the police barricade, marchers slowly returned along the route they had come in by, arriving back at Callister Park around 2:30 (all-in-all, traffic at the port was slowed for approximately an hour). On our return to Callister, we were escorted by the VPD, who became increasingly aggressive in their response to our slow progress.
I would propose three reasons why the ports might be a target in our “movement for social, political, and economic change.”
First, the port action was called for by our brothers and sisters in US cities. The situation in the US is currently more dire than here in Canada—but as most statistics show, we are headed in their direction (excessive public and personal debt, growing income inequality, bleak job prospects)—very quickly. When a call comes for global/transnational support—and we see ourselves as a global movement—then we need to respond in kind. We, the 99%, are indeed in this together. It is a global economy, run by a global elite. We need to close ranks. We need each other—everywhere.
Second, the ports are one of the crucial pathways through which capital flows: resources (such as coal, oil, and timber) leave Canada though our ports and consumer goods enter the country through our ports. Economic inequality is being built, in very real and material ways, through this circulation of capital. The gap between Canada’s richest and poorest citizens is growing faster than in the US, and faster in BC than anywhere else in Canada. If we want to send a loud and clear message that this disproportionate, unequal, and currently in crisis system is not working towards the common good, then the ports are a perfect target.
Third, we absolutely must take a stand against environmental degradation. The science is completely unambiguous: climate change is happening, and human activity is driving it. Pollution is reaching extreme levels, oceans are dying, and we have little luxury to “wait and see.” Tanker traffic through Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, carrying dirty Tar Sands oil, is on the increase. Port expansion adds pollutants directly to our local environments (truck and ship traffic), contributing to climate change via these emissions and through the port’s role in distributing Tar Sands oil and coal. The ports are a key part of an environmentally unsustainable economy.
No You Di’nt!
The arguments I have heard against the port action—and against direct action in general—fall into two basic categories. First, such actions inconvenience regular working people and will not win us much support amongst the 99%. Second, you can’t tamper with peoples’ jobs, as jobs will always trump other social/ecological issues.
I will be brief. It’s true direct action causes inconveniences. We can’t imagine, however, that social, political, and economic change won’t cause some inconvenience. It definitely will. In fact, our addiction to “conveniences” is at the very root of the problem. Personally, I find the loss of our wild salmon “inconvenient,” I find downsized and outsourced jobs “inconvenient,” I find degrading job prospects, an unaffordable housing market, and austerity measures “inconvenient.” Need I go on? We have to get over this. It is a non-argument. People should be mad. But let’s talk seriously as to what we should be mad about.
The history of social movements shows that direct action/civil disobedience is a crucial part of change. We would not have a 40-hour work week, medical and unemployment benefits, the right to vote, an end to state-sponsored racial segregation, or the very concept of “human rights” if not for past acts of civil disobedience. We need perspective here. A little disorder will be necessary in achieving ends that can and will benefit us all.
As far as jobs are concerned, they are clearly a priority, socially and economically. But protecting jobs can in no way be an excuse for maintaining the status quo (when the status quo means so many lack jobs, and so many jobs are destructive—both for workers and the environment), nor can it excuse unsustainable and environmentally destructive economic practices. We need to work, but we need to work safely and sustainably. Our jobs today should not be bought at the expense of jobs—and indeed, general livability—in the future.
With every action we learn something new. Here we learned that we still need better communication within our movement, and better communication outside our movement—but we are working on just this. We need to plan our actions carefully and slowly, and find ways to engage as many people as we can with the issues our direct actions are intended to address. We need to find ways to better collaborate with our potential ally organizations. We have reasonably wide support, in principle: we just need to figure out how best to engage that support, without giving up what we are actually trying to do: change a broken, unequal, and unsustainable system.
What this tells us is that we also need to work on our vision of an alternate system. We need pictures of a future society that a wide spectrum of people would want to be a part of, that many would support, despite the unavoidable “inconveniences” and “messiness” of change. We need imagination.
What we don’t need to do—what we absolutely cannot do—is dispense with direct action and civil disobedience as a tactic. There will be conflict and tension—but we can work to make such conflict and tension manageable and non-violent. The fact that there were arrests yesterday afternoon (though there were no charges) should not overly alarm us. That we work in this movement with people employing a variety of tactics, and bringing different levels of pressure to bear on the existing system, should not overly alarm us. This is what activism—this is what democracy in fact—looks like.
We have maintained our non-violent principles. The police, yesterday, chose to forcibly remove non-violent protestors from public space—notably, some of our livestreamers. This, we might want to be concerned about. But we will not stop until there is a better world.
Images courtesy of Vancouver Media Coop.
Video clip: Port Action at Clarke and Heatley