Occupy Vancouver

Habonim-Dror at Occupy Vancouver

You could not have asked for a more beautiful morning for an outdoor gathering – whether it was a protest march or a sunny sukkah celebration.

My day started at the Or Shalom sukkah and continued at the protest in downtown Vancouver.

When I arrived downtown at about 3:30 pm, the streets and sidewalks were filled with people. In front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, crowds nearly hid a closely packed field of small dome tents. Some protestors would be “occupying Vancouver” by living indefinitely in these brightly colored nylon huts.

You could hardly see the tents because so many people were in the park.

Everyone faced the steps of the VAG, where the PA system sat, typical for a rally in this park.

A young woman was telling inspirational stories about Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The stories were not factual, but I appreciated her attempt to bring an interfaith spiritual message: we must “drop into the heart.”

Another speaker, dressed in a red-and-white Canada jersey, announced that he usually spoke about the legalization of marijuana but he would shift topics for the day. “There is only one kind of bullsh**,” he said, “Christian bullsh**, Muslim bullsh**, Hindu bullsh**, Jewish bullsh**, Sikh bullsh**, Buddhist bullsh** …”

Did he mean to be dissing the previous speech? Or was this his best strategy for energizing the crowd?

At that moment, my son and his friends found me.

“Hey!” they yelled. “What do you think of this speaker?”

They told me about the march that I had missed. They showed me their handmade cardboard protest signs and offered me one that said, “People over profit.”

As I stood in the shifting crowd, several passers-by read the sign and agreed.

One man stopped and told me about the evolving legal definitions of the word “profit.” “There is no such thing as profit,” he added, “only what you receive and put back into the universe.”

He commented on every speaker and seemed quite knowledgeable about politics, from the tar sands protests to Margaret Thatcher.

For this reason, I only heard fragments of each speech, and didn’t catch the name of a single speaker.

One young man called us to awareness of our role in the consumer culture. We lose ourselves in shopping as others reshape the world to their advantage. “This is a deliberate political strategy that has been in place for 30 years!”

Yes! I thought. Thirty years ago I read critiques of this strategy written thirty years earlier.

Several grade 12 students spoke. One read two beautiful poems: a metaphorical description of a deadly economic monster, and a simple celebration of the protestors and their work.

The talkative man asked me what I do for a living. “I’m a rabbi.”

“I thought you looked familiar!” he said, “My brother goes to your synagogue. Do you have time to talk to people during the week? I’d like to ask you some questions about the Torah.”

He flagged down a few cousins and introduced me.

Somehow a speaker’s words got us talking about interest free loans. One of the cousins told us about a radical nonprofit organization making interest free loans.

Yes! I thought. My grandfather founded one of those in New York in the 1920s.

“That’s what I wanted to ask you about,” said the talkative man. “Doesn’t the Bible say in some places that all loans are interest-free and in other places that you can charge interest to a foreigner?”

Yes, it does. And I struggle with the passage about charging interest to foreigners.

“All political parties are in bed together,” one speaker said, “Let’s vote for ‘none of the above!’”

“Join the NDP,” the next speaker said, “We are the only party with a democratic process that gives all members a say.”

“Hey everybody,” another speaker said, “It’s 4:20!”

The MC stepped in. “No smoking! There are children here.”

Many people carried hand-lettered signs. Most said things like “Democracy includes the 99% majority.” One man had a piece of tape over his mouth with the word “scream.” One woman taped a twenty-dollar bill over her mouth and wrote on it “Occupy.” My favorite sign, carried by a man wearing a suit, said, “Relax, corporate self-regulation works.”

Many people greeted one another and started conversations.

One young man told me he hopes to design an iphone app called ivote. ivote would collect information on important issues, organize it into charts, and offer continuous feedback to politicians.

One woman said the organizers were not equitable.

Another man thought the message was a little disorganized. Over time, he thought we could perhaps develop a clearer message, like Occupy Wall Street has done.

Yes! I thought. Though Occupy Wall Street is also a political salad.

It’s true that the message today was not precise.

But it was powerful.

In recent years, the rhetoric of the political left wing has been criticized. “It’s weak,” our critics say. “You haven’t been able to articulate your values in a simple, engaging way.”

Today in Vancouver the contemporary left started to speak in a simple, engaging way.

The protest showcased a coalition of people with overlapping ideas and goals. The speakers did not all agree, and yet they shared with one another.

Older people, raised in the strong clear language of 1960s protest movements, stood in solidarity with young activists groping for a language.

Together, everyone attempted to articulate the values that brought them together.

The event was organized in only a week, but 4,000 came together, for a web of reasons.

The language may not yet be clear, but it certainly reached a lot of people.

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