Why we can’t seem to get it right with Occupy Calgary

As I have watched the last two months unfold, seeing the controversy surrounding Occupy Calgary develop from the first meetings to the ongoing injunction drama, it seems the last thing this city and its media is prepared to do is face the occupiers on their own terms.

This protest has been, first and foremost, about a conversation.

During planning meetings for what would later come to be known as the Olympic Plaza Camp, setting an agenda was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

After Paul Hughes left the group to champion the homeless issues on St. Patrick’s Island, the organizers stayed committed to their original ideals.

Indeed, what impressed me more than anything was the unwavering belief shared by all remaining members that, while everyone had their own cause to fight for, open discussion was the only true goal.

Public support and interest was an integral part of the Occupy Calgary plan from the beginning. In many ways, that was the group’s undoing. It was assumed by those involved that, while there would always be a few rabble-rousers, openness and a will to talk would prevail.

What they did not anticipate was the cynical resistance levelled at them by the local news media.

The Olympic Plaza protesters were repeatedly portrayed as intruding on the Muslim Heritage Day celebrations, despite reassurances from both sides that there would be no obstruction.

Claims of property damage are constantly brought up in articles, despite a statement by Police Chief Rick Hanson calling these “just not right.” A post about sexual health on the group’s Facebook page was taken as a call for free condoms. Like clockwork, these issues are brought up in the face of the protesters as evidence against their cause.

Opinion pages are clogged with senior journalists calling the occupation an abuse of freedom of assembly. The protesters are constantly called “aimless,” as if this lack of aim is somehow an accident, or evidence of their ignorance.

The municipality, after relaxing bylaws to accommodate the protest, fell prey to the same ire. Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s decision to allow the continued occupation is depicted as cowardice — he is following a clear need to allow free expression, while justifying this against the press’ claims of indulgence and favouritism.

For a journalist, the Olympic Plaza Occupation presents a difficult narrative. With no coherent, unified message to get a hold of, it becomes hard to tell the story in an interesting way. Conversely, the St Patrick’s Island cause is an easy angle to tackle. It offers a quick and resonant message — who wouldn’t be for helping the homeless? Mainstream media has treated Occupy Calgary like a circus on display for the audience, diverting attention from the need for a very real and serious conversation about the state of affairs in our country and around the world.
Photo by: Connor Bell.

Another good thing about quick and resonant messages is their tendency to have quick solutions. At least, that’s what it seemed like in the pages of our local newspapers.

After the Calgary Homeless Foundation’s offer for housing was taken by the St. Pats protesters, there was an air of finality to the rest of the rest of the Occupation coverage. After all, what’s the point in keeping the story going once everyone’s had the happy ending?

This kind of classic heartstring story, contrasted against the relative murk of Olympic Plaza, makes for simple narratives — the homeless protest is seen as direct, honest and goal oriented, while the plaza one is aimless, selfish and ultimately unproductive.

“The issues of inequality are real,” a Calgary Herald editorial intoned on Nov. 2. “But squatting in a public park isn’t going to solve them.”

On its face, this statement seems obvious. Of course such a simple act couldn’t do anything in the way of progress. Its real effect lies in the public awareness, in our willingness to recognize the occupier’s need to simply talk with Calgary.

When the city whose attention you tried to grasp turns its back on you, what else is left to do but hunker down and cling to your rights of assembly?

What the occupiers are trying to achieve is a dialogue, to assume anything otherwise insults not only ourselves, but the culture of openness we strive for as a country.