Organizing an Occupation

The Nuts and Bolts of Victoria Square’s Protest City

Photos Pierre Chauvin

At first glance, Occupy Montreal is a ramshackle series of tents, people and supplies. Chaotically spread out in Victoria Square, the center of Montreal’s financial district, it appears to have no rhyme or reason.

Of course, first glances can be deceiving. Like anthills, beehives, and the Montreal Canadiens’ defence corps, what appears to be random insanity belies the structure underneath. Over the past three weeks an infrastructure has began to take shape in Occupy Montreal.

Although the movement challenges many of society’s established principles, they are still governed by similar organizational ideas—there’s a daily schedule that’s posted on a large, white bulletin board, a sign that time still holds sway in the square.

The Occupiers realize that in order to achieve the change they want, organization is a must, and to that end, a widespread assortment of committees has sprung up, including, among others, a Security Committee, an Action Committee, a Propaganda Committee—even a Philosophy Committee.

When movements happen in a public place and encourages the free exchange of ideas and dissent against the status quo, argument is unavoidable. Thus was created the Occupy Montreal Security Committee, whose job is to deal with confrontations between Occupiers, which on a few occasions have resulted in violence.

“There’s a difference between liberty and respect,” said Security Committee member Felix St-Laurent. “A lot of people in the camp don’t understand that. […] For a lot of people, liberty means doing whatever you want, even if it doesn’t respect the environment of someone.”

The Security Committee’s work is compounded by the fact that some who take refuge in the tents at Victoria Square suffer from mental health issues. St-Laurent said that while most conflicts have been resolved peacefully, severe cases are proving more difficult to deal with.

“Now, we’re stuck with a couple of cases that are kind of difficult to move. We’ve got a couple of schizophrenics and [people with] psychosis that are not taking their medication.

“We’re going to ask the population, if you have any kind of [background] in psychology, can you come and help us out, because we’re not [trained] for that. Even in our ideal society, you still need people to deal with that,” said St-Laurent.

It seems counter-intuitive that a protest movement largely based on the rejection of top-down authority would require committees to run things. But while there are anarchists in their ranks, according to St-Laurent, Occupy is not solely based on anarchism, but about finding a new philosophy and way of living.

Committees alone can’t run the camp, however. There is another important element: the willingness of people to give. Much of the necessities are donated, from the generators that run the lights and kitchen, to the Wi-Fi that keeps them updated on the Occupy movement worldwide, to the ingredients that make up the free meals that feed them.

Even dessert is on the house. As his young children Joey and Sophie distributed free cookies near the General Assembly, Lawrence Oberfeld explained that it’s important for people who can’t stay at the camp to come help out.

“These people are doing good stuff. This is what we can do to express our appreciation.”

As he chopped an enormous amount of garlic, volunteer Rick Zaidi explained that food is prepared by whoever wants to help out, though he noted that there were four or five regulars. As for where it comes from, he said it’s all donated.

“It’s different every time,” he said. “We get food throughout the entire day. Some people bring just a small bag with a jar of peanut butter, some people bring boxes of fruits and vegetables. It can really be anything.”

When asked about a recent report printed in The Gazette that food was being diverted to Occupy Montreal from food banks, Zaidi’s colleague William Ray jumped in and called the article “absolutely untrue.”

“That’s a bunch of horseshit. We give food to food banks. You can see our storage facility here,” he said, pointing at the messy stacks of appliances, spices and ingredients. “Not exactly hi-tech. We get more food than we can use, so we give it.”

Cookies and spaghetti sauce are a necessity for survival and for keeping the morale in the camp high as temperatures drop. They are not the point of the camp, however. All the infrastructure and organization that’s going on doesn’t count unless it’s coming from a collective mentality.

“People view the committees at the moment as a form of authority, but as I’ve said to people, if you get in the movement, you should be in a committee, so you can have your say,” said St-Laurent.

“If you’re not in a committee, you’re not implicating yourself. That’s the problem, that’s what we’re saying to society.”