Friday, December 2, 2011

Occupy Saskatoon may have been evicted, but this battle has just begun

By Ashleigh Mattern
Planet S
December 1, 2011

The tents are gone, but the Occupy Saskatoon movement is just getting started.

Occupy Saskatoon was evicted from Gabriel Dumont Park on Nov. 14, but a week later about 60 people involved in the movement gathered in a general assembly to discuss the future of Occupy Saskatoon. They’re planning workshops on anti-oppression and direct action training on Dec. 10, for UN International Human Rights Day; they’re looking for a free, public space to hold their general assemblies; and they’re continuing to help those members without homes.

This local focus separates Occupy Saskatoon from some of the other movements in Canada and internationally. Originally, Saskatoon’s movement started in solidarity with the wider Occupy movement, but as the group coalesced, it became clear that there were a lot of important local issues that members were concerned about.

“What came to the forefront pretty quickly is the homelessness issue in Saskatoon,” said Jayme, an individual involved in the movement who asked that her last name not be used in this article. “We gained a lot of members who are without homes, who are looking for homes, and within our local context it became very apparent that it was a big problem.”

The mainstream media has pretty much limited the discussion around the movement to the fact that people were sleeping in the park, and the fact that people without homes joined them there. The general tone has been that the addition of the homeless to their ranks was a failure of the movement, but the Occupiers see it as a success.

“The people without homes, they’re our friends, they’re our family now,” said Occupier Chelsea Guest. “They could be any of our parents, our children, our brothers. Lots of us have close ties with them now and they’re just as much part of our community.”

They’ve been working hard to help members without homes, and they’ve made a difference in more than one case. Some of those members came at first for the free food and warm fire, but are now active members, attending assemblies and getting involved.

“So many of the people who’ve become a part of our community have never had a voice before,” said Occupier Grace Schenher. “One of the main things that’s missing from things like shelters and those short term fixes is that you don’t really have a place, you don’t have a community, and we’ve built that.

“When the camp was evicted, there was a real sense of losing a community where they felt not only safe, but loved,” added Jayme.

The camp originally began at Friendship Park (at the base of the Broadway Bridge), but after local radio host John Gormley made a joke on air about blowing air horns near the park at 3 a.m., they started to fear for their safety. People apparently listened to him, honking and revving their engines as they drove by the camp, and they say someone even drove up onto the lawn, into the camp.

“A public figure directly putting in danger people who were down at the camp, it was irresponsible and ignorant on his part to say, ‘go harass these people’,” said Jayme. “We had kids down there! It was scary at the time.”

Kudos, John — you must be very proud.

The group also made a decision by consensus for the camp to be a drug- and alcohol-free site, but a few people who were joining the camp disregarded this decision. Finally, when the fire department came one morning and put out their fire, they decided it was time to find a better location — which led them to Gabriel Dumont.

Since being evicted from Gabriel Dumont Park, one of their most pressing short-term goals is to find a public space where they can hold their general assemblies, said Jayme.

“The City and the police made it clear when they evicted us that we don’t have a public space where we can do that under our charter rights, to gather in peaceful assembly and talk about our issues that concern us and affect us,” she said.

They have a website, Facebook page, YouTube account, and Twitter account. They have working groups dedicated to running these pages, which anyone can join. The group is diverse: middle-aged people, grandparents, youth, students, blue collar workers, kids and war veterans. Many of the members are new to activism.

The group is just over a month old, and they’re still in the process of defining themselves. They have working groups dedicated to a variety of issues, and no issue is denied discussion at their general assemblies. They’re also looking to join forces with as many other local groups as possible. So far, they’ve connected with Cinema Politica, which hosts evenings of political documentaries and discussions, and they hosted a day of action with the Saskatoon Anti-Poverty Coalition.

Because they don’t have one goal, but are just generally looking for an alternative to the current economic and political system, the group is hard to define. But this process of creation is what the members I spoke to are most excited about.

“I don’t remember the last time I was so excited to see what’s going to happen,” said Schenher.

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