2011 Villain: Occupy Toronto
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2011 Villain: Occupy Toronto

Nominated for: squandering a rare opportunity.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past twelve months. From December 12–23, the candidates for Mightiest and Meanest—and new this year, a reader’s write-in option! From December 26–29 you’ll be able to vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year, and we’ll reveal the results December 30.

Although some new movement may phoenix from the ashes of the sacred fire in St. James Park, this round of Occupy Toronto has failed. However, failure alone doesn’t qualify it for villain status. OT is a villain because while the issues it raised matter, Occupy’s ham-handed tactics and absurd overconfidence will make it tougher for next-gen protesters to gain traction with the public.

The global Occupy movement has already been parsed ad nauseum and deemed everything from catalyst for global revolution to soon-to-be-forgotten fizzle. In fact, it’s a bastard child of the internet age and Warhol’s dictum—of the idea that it’s enough to be seen, to be celebrated, to make the leap (however briefly) from Twitter and YouTube to CNN and CBC.

But it’s not enough. “Friday” made Rebecca Black famous; it did not make her talented.

Occupy was good at generating the kind of memes and catchphrases that draw clicks; if they’d invested in some photogenic kittens, bongo beats would be echoing through our parks yet. But by eschewing rational organization, and replacing leadership with crowd-sourced decision making, Occupy undermined its own foundations before the cement had even dried. The invention of the hyperlink didn’t change the human dynamic that evolved on the Serengeti plain and that has shaped human achievement ever since. Achieving goals takes more than tents and goodwill; it requires planning and a place for the buck to stop.

All the excesses observed in Occupy globally were evident in Toronto. No coherent message ever emerged from the movement, in spite of frequent, self-important updates that often verged on parody. The occupation’s dirty laundry was (figuratively) aired in public, with aboriginal and anarchist splinter groups marching off to the beat of their own drummers. And, as elsewhere, the public dialogue eventually devolved into a debate on the “who” and the “where” of the occupation rather than the “why” of it.

Granted, Canucks had a harder row to hoe than some. Unlike the original Occupy Wall Street movement, which could focus its outrage on the criminal actions of U.S. investment banks, Canadian protesters faced off against a banking system that had behaved relatively benignly during the financial crisis. And while the Occupation bete noir, income inequality, has increased in Canada, it has yet to achieve the banana republic levels seen in the U.S.

But by relying on tired sloganeering about “corporate greed” instead of promoting a path to practical change, the self-styled 99 per cent alienated what could have been their core constituency: the disenfranchised middle class, watching the world lurch from one crisis to another and wondering how to hold onto their their jobs, their homes, their identity.

Polls showed this group as generally well-disposed to the occupiers, but that sympathy never translated into retro Adidas on the pavement, let alone a Winter Palace moment. Ultimately the disgruntled bourgeoisie were unmoved by the sideshow of yurts and port-a-potties that came to symbolize the occupation.

And hence the villainy. No matter what the alt-press told you, the robber barons never broke a sweat worrying about the park-dwellers, and the media-friendly spectacle that got the Occupation attention wasn’t enough to give it credibility. And that’s an opportunity squandered, and an important message discredited with those who should be embracing it.

See also:

Occupy Toronto as Hero