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BLOG: A community takes shape at Harbourside

By: Justin Brake | October 19, 2011

Days 2, 3 and 4 from the grounds of the Occupy NL protest

I wake up to the sound of Donald’s voice: “It’s eight o’clock, wake up everyone!” and, just four hours after finally falling asleep, feel guilty as I consider skipping the 8 a.m. meeting that was talked about last night. There wasn’t a vote on it though, so I’m not sure if it’s going ahead or not. My next thought is of the spontaneous group gathering we shared at late into the evening, which turned into an hours-long conversation among 30 people, mostly strangers. So after about a minute of the usual drab early morning thoughts about the things I don’t want to do today, that sense of belonging I was feeling last night returns. I sit up, get dressed and emerge into the morning sunlight, which is casting a golden hue on the 10 or 12 tents at Harbourside Park, and on Terry, who’s boiling eggs and making toast for everyone.

There’s only a half dozen or so people floating around, some hanging their sleeping bags to dry and others wandering off to find a washroom. Up on the Water St. sidewalk a couple protestors, Craig and Adrian, are holding up signs to the morning traffic that read “We are the 99 per cent” and “End Corporate Greed”.

It’s day four of the protest, which some are now instead calling a “peaceful assembly,” and discussions seem to be shifting more toward provincial and local issues like affordable housing, food security and the closing of the House of Assembly. At 8 p.m. the first seemingly “official” general assembly gets under way on the dock. Many new faces have turned out and the group is too big to fit in the canopy where we met last night. So we stand, about 45 of us, in a big circle and the meeting begins. Aida, one of the campers, was nominated and elected to facilitate the discussion. Topics put forth and voted to the agenda are community outreach, communications strategies, refining the group’s message about restoring democracy, and the creation of specialized committees to deal with all of these. A consensus was reached that general assemblies will be held at 8 p.m. every evening, and at 9:30 a.m. daily to address housekeeping issues for the camp, like keeping the park clean, preparing and sharing meals, developing bulletin boards to post news, messages and a list of things we need, and on how to make park visitors and passersby feel welcome. “Everyone is welcome here to these meetings, and to join us in practicing democracy,” one person shouts out.

About a half hour into the meeting we’re interrupted by moans and a cry for help from a bench tucked away in the corner of the park behind us. It’s a man curled up and shivering. He is drunk, cold and dangerously underdressed for the climate. A few console him but the man accuses them of wanting to rob or hurt him. One of the responders knows what it’s like to be stuck out on the streets at night and so, as the meeting continues 30 feet away, sits beside the man and shares his own story. Donald offers up his spot for the night and the man is helped to the tent, where he gets in to a sleeping bag and falls asleep.

The meeting is long and, though someone shows up with hot coffee and pizza for everyone, people are getting cold and restless. But almost everyone sticks it out ‘til the end and, as cheers and applause for the felt success of the first assembly fill the air, people quickly gather into their respective committees to sort out plans for their own meetings and actions. The next meeting, I hear one person say, will be more refined, and so will the next and the one after that.

Why We’re Here

On Monday I sent an email to friends and family to share the first Occupy Newfoundland blog update. Yesterday, when I retreated to my tent to begin writing the second, I found a reply in my inbox from Father Richard Salas of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Gander, my hometown. He ended it with the advice, “Just manage the whole journey in a way that everybody joining understands the principle why. God bless.” I read his words and then found myself in the middle of a deep breath, eyes closed, and a with stronger sense of unity than ever before. Because while protestors don’t have the answers to all the problems, we do have an understanding of why we’re here.

In just four days, you see, people from all walks of life have come together to share. Given the diversity of backgrounds and ideas here, we don’t know precisely how to achieve the city, province, country and world we want to live in, but there is an understanding that we share a weariness of the things that are eating away at the fabric of our communities and society. So the group is making that the foundation on which it plans to build from the ground up. What we do know is that whatever form change may take, it will best come when we all share a greater sense of community, embody compassion, and foster a spirit of acceptance and equality.

We have a blank canvas, and we are creatively exploring the brushes we will use to paint it and how they can be utilized. Right now we’re exploring the whole spectrum of colours that exist between black and white. We know they’re there, but many of us aren’t used to seeing those outside the ones we’ve become most accustomed to in our lives. These colours represent our values, beliefs and perceptions of the world and of other people, and I get the sense many are ready to begin mixing them and shaking things up through creativity, compassion and in the spirit of community.

As protestors sat beneath tarps under a dark, wet sky Saturday night, the first post-rally questions surfaced: Will today’s momentum continue into day two and three and four? Or, like most protests, will the energy expended soon fade into the past and leave us with a felling of helplessness? There is a fine line between healthy optimism and the reality of our challenge. Believe me, the people down here are walking it.

The Coming Days or Weeks

Whether or not we see a common set of goals emerge from people’s frustrations in the coming days or weeks doesn’t seem as important to me as what is actually unfolding down here at Harbourside Park. What this movement is all about for me was exemplified last night when a few people, though strangers, helped one who has fallen deeply through the cracks. How is it that one ends up cold, delirious and, saddest of all, alone on a park bench by the sea on a night when the temperature hovers barely above zero? Whatever his problems, they will never be addressed in a way conducive to his needs in a system like the one we have at present. This is not the city, province or even world that I, personally, want to live in. If we fall victim to despair, apathy or ignorance and lose our hope, compassion and determination, then we cannot honestly say we want a better world for our children and for all future generations.

After seeing the embodiment of true compassion, from one human being to another, it’s becoming clear to me that this movement is about a shift in human consciousness, with respect to the political and economic systems we live under, of course, but also with respect to the awakening of the human spirit. It is in us all, one protestor said when I shared this sentiment earlier this morning, but many of us have lost sight because we think that competitiveness and “getting ahead” are fundamental to our well-being and survival. No one can argue that some do get ahead when this attitude and belief are embraced. But then others are inevitably left behind. It’s time not only to stop, turn around and reach out to those who’ve been left behind, but also to address the structures we’ve built that help sustains the process. If we believe that all human beings have equal intrinsic moral worth, then it becomes painfully difficult to support an economic system that thrives on exploitation and inequality. When this endures and perpetuates not only inequality, but through its unfolding also the common belief that humans are inherently greedy, then we begin to see the erosion of individual, familial and societal values. The man on the bench last night — his response to a couple compassionate, caring people who wanted to help him tells an entire story. Think about it.

The Present Tense

It’s now 7:30 a.m. of day five and most are still asleep. There’s a flock of birds nearby and they’re many and loud. Those camped out in their tents are real people who have families, some who have jobs, others who don’t, university students who do their homework on the park benches or in the canopy we have set up (we are building a library in there), and so forth. But their spirit is indomitable. And while many might experience anger and frustration over how our system works, there’s also a shared belief that the kind of change we want and need will come. As the birds act as our alarm clock, I hear one camper announce: “At least the birds are up!” I smile. Another camper, awakened by the comment, from his tent calmly and wittily mumbles the first words of his day: “Open…the…House! Open…the…House!” Democracy can’t happen if the politicians we elect aren’t meeting to address the concerns and represent those who elected them. Down at Harbourside, however, the most pressing issues are being discussed democratically, transparently and with equal opportunity for all to have a voice.

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