Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Ethical Price of Farmers Markets, and Supermarkets

It is safe to say that the local food movement is currently going strong in Toronto, and in other regions of North America also. Things are going quite well, the level of organization is impressive, and access is starting to become very significant. Communities and local farmers alike are really starting to believe that this tranformation is a real possibility in the not-too-distant future. What is important when carrying out these chapters of social tranformation is to set up and organize the required foundations, and in this case for the Toronto area local food movment, the alternative structures are in place. There is still some way to go in terms of volume and capacity, but the alternative structures are in place and well defined.

One important issue that needs to be addressed in the face of this growing movement is the financial accessibility of farmers markets and local food. One common claim is that farmers markets are simply too expensive. Intimately tied with this question however is that the price of local organic food is a reflection of justice, equality, and horizontality from community to community. Unrealistically cheap supermarket prices are a reflection of abuse, exploitation, and wage-slavery. Before we start making black and white simplifications of these prices, however, we have to understand what they mean, and where they come from.

Of course, it is a central issue that a single mother, or a multi-children low-income family seems to be able to afford only supermarket prices, and these families should never be morally pressured or bullied to make a consciuos local choice that is not accessible to them. But, there is a misconception in the popular belief, farmers markets are not financially innaccessible as we are led to believe, and we need not abide by these fabricated standards. The reason why poor families fall into this pattern is partly because of misinformation, partly because the industrial system creates and imposes an unethical and exploitative status-quo. All families should never have to make a choice between the supermarket and the farmers market, and no one should be dependent on the industrial system; local, organic, sustainable, and community-driven horizontal food systems should be absolutely accessible to everyone, everywhere. It is the systemic and structural injustices that need to be transformed.

Before saying that farmers markets are expensive, or if we think supermarket prices are fair, we have to understand that industrial production prices do not represent the true cost of production. Without getting too deep into the nature of social relations within wage-labour and industrial production, take for example when you buy a sweater at Wal-Mart and you pay only $15 for it; the reason why you get it so aritificially cheap is because someone is paying the real price for it in Bangladesh with a miserable life. This is called externalising costs. In the North American food system, a very similar social relation of privilege and exploitation recreates itself on a local level, and while wage-labour conditions are not as exploitative, the true costs are instead more heavily outsourced and concentrated through devastation to the environment.

Furthermore, the financial inaccessibility narrative is overblown, and in many cases not properly examined. Firts of all, fruits and vegetables have similar prices at farmers markets and supermarkets; local organic fruits and vegetables can vary greatly in price depending on who and where you get it from, which is the same with supermarkets. Certain dairy products can be slightly more expensive, but even this is occasionally, not always, and the price really underscores the quality of the food you are buying and consuming. The price of bread is also relatively the same; at the farmers market, artisan bread is more expensive, which again is the same situation at the supermarket.

White bread and the generic whole wheat kind are less expensive of course, but they are more akin to paper and foam than actual bread, and eating artificial products is not healthy for anyone. This bread melts in your mouth like styrofoam melts in the microwave, that is not normal. This bread is white, bright snow-white; let`s bleach our food, let`s bleach all the natural colour out of our food, and try to make our food to be as unnatural as possible, that`s a great idea. So yes, food can be cheaper when its not real food, when its processed and broken down, but that should not be an incentive for anybody. A lot of it comes down to the fact that you`re either buying food that is healthy, vs. food that is not healthy.

And, selected cheaper items do not mean cheaper grocery bills. Cheaper grocery bills at the supermarket? Let`s think about this for a second. Most people who shop at the supermarket are not just running in to grab the essentials. You have the chips, and the ice cream, and the cookies, the Fruit Loops, and the chocolate milk, and the six different kinds of sugar-loaded juices, and the extreme fajita pizza-poppers, whatever that stuff is. I`m not saying that everybody rampages on junk food and rings up $200 grocery bills, but I am saying that most people don`t save money when they go to the supermarket with twenty thousand items to choose from, they just buy more stuff. Splurging at the farmers market involves buying a specialty cheese, those bright-orange beets that you didn`t really need, and a couple selections of wild garlic. Besides, it`s a good thing to spend a little bit extra at the farmers market because you`re supporting and sustaining a good, natural, positive food system, versus one that is destroying the planet wholesale, no pun intended.

And, for argument's sake, if we're really counting dollars and cents, let's take time to rethink our general spending habits in this money-sponge consumer society. Starting with kids, absurd amounts of lavish toys, super-wardrobes, and the brutal and exacting world of video games. And then the adult world of leasing new cars every four years, expensive clothing, the service and entertainment industries, and modern electronics and technology that is so amazingly advanced with sufficient depth and variety to substitute life itself. This 21st century consumer society is insanity. I am not advocating a consumption-less idealistic fantasy world because I know that is not possible, nor am I against technology as long as it is used for the right reasons and for practical, productive purposes, but there are countless dozens of useless consumer products that we could easily do without, and subsequent hundreds and thousands of dollars wasted that could be spent on far more valuable things. If we factor that into the cost of living, then spending a few extra dollars on food seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do. The future requires a radical realignment and reprioritizing of our consumption habits.

Here's to squashing the rumour that farmers markets are too expensive, or in most cases, even more expensive. And, even if they are sometimes slightly more expensive, maybe its time we start paying the true cost of production of the food we eat. Say hypothetically we pay 3 dollars for potatoes instead of 2, and in exchange we get small-scale, local, organic production that keeps the planet sustainable and the ecological systems safe and healthy for generations to come, which allows us to maintain our ability to grow food well into the future. I think thats a pretty reasonable trade off, one that is difficult to argue against.

With these growing methods, we also get an opportunity to operate horizontally in the spaces of everyday life. Horizontality exists first on these local farms where the food is grown and produced small-scale, organically, and sustainanbly, with a small group of workers who work together along collectivist principles; these micro-farms, workers, and cooperatives are creating an alternative non-hierarchical work model, a people-centric model that embraces creativity and food diversity. Second, horizontality takes place at the market level where people get a chance to talk to their farmers, and to obtain information about who makes the food, where it comes from, and how it is made; a relationship is built with transparency and dialogue through the exchange of food. Community is cultivated through an inclusive and reciprocal process.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Not Time to Sleep on the Keystone XL

As 2011 comes to a close, we can look back at the deepening of the economic and ecological crises, and one of the most socially and politically explosive years in the history of humanity. Most will remember the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring as the defining moments of 2011, but lets take a moment to reflect on the first chapter of the saga that will occupy the attention of the Environmental Movement in the coming decade; the Keystone XL Pipeline.

In the last few months there has been a lot of activitiy surrounding the Keystone XL, a mega-extraction infrastructure project with invetsment slated to come from Transcanada corporation. The proposed 1,700 mile-long pipeline would transport Tar Sands oil from Northern Alberta to Texas refineries in the U.S, a distance that covers two-thirds of North America.

What the Tar Sands consists of is not conventional crude, but a thick, dense, and difficult to extract and process bitumen. The primary method of extraction for the Tar Sands known as SAGD (steam-assisted gravity drainage) is extremely energy intensive, wastes 3 to 4 barrels of water for every 1 barrel of oil produced, and this extraction is devatsating the Athabasca River system, the third largest watershed in the world. The Tar Sands is the most environmentally destructive extraction project in the history of humanity.

Furthermore, the sheer size of the Tar Sands makes it the biggest carbon pool in the world, and James Hansen, the U.S` top climatologist at NASA, has stressed repeatedly that tapping the tar sands via this cross-continental pipeline to bring it to U.S markets, would effectively mean "game over for the climate."

An important aspect to note is that the route of the Keystone XL pipeline, as it was originally proposed, would cross through the Sandhills region of Nebraska, an ecologically sensitive area that supports the Ogallala Aquifer and water system for millions of people.

In late August, early September of this year, a campaign against the Keystone XL mobilized for two weeks in Washington, targeting the White House to put pressure on President Obama. Participation was high with a good turnout, siginificant numbers, and hundreds of arrests were made. Then, in early November, ten thousand people gathered to form a human chain, and encircled the White House several times over, again calling for the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline project. The action was very successful and drew impressively large numbers. This action came exactly a year before the 2012 U.S presidential elections, and the pipeline was shaping up to be a major political issue.

During this time, Obama announced that the final decision on the Keystone XL would no longer rest with him, but with the State Department instead, and then shortly thereafter reversed his position and said that the decision once again would be his to make. Most significant of all, about a week after the climate justice action that encircled the White House, President Obama made another important announcement in regards the Keystone XL pipeline; that there would be a new environmental review on the pipeline, and that the final decision would be postponed until at least 2013.

Some of the Environmental NGO reaction and narrative was as follows: Obama and the U.S administration have felt pressure due to the actions and campaigning to make a decision in favour of the environmental community. President Obama and the U.S government have postponed the decision in order to allow the environmental assessment to be done fairly and properly, and the delay will give the administration time to do it right. Surely, the delay will mean a more thorough scientific review and a truly public input process, free from oil company influence. This development sends a powerful message to the oil industry, and they now understand who they are up against. This is a tremendous victory, and we should all take a moment to applaud this decision and to send President Obama a letter thanking him for his leadership.

Technically, the Obama administration`s announcement was simply for a NEW environmental review of the Keystone XL, to reevaluate the ROUTE of the pipeline. Five days after the postponement was announced, TransCanada announced that it would agree to reroute the pipeline around the Sandhills region of Nebraska. In response, Bill McKibben made a statement saying "we`re offly happy that the Ogallala Aquifer is going to be safe and the Sandhills, that only leaves the entire atmosphere of the planet to worry about." This perceived victory was predictably shortlived. Why were we being told to celebrate?

Putting too much faith in that the U.S government will make the right decision on an environmental matter, and being under the illusion that the decision will be subject to a thorough scientific review and a `truly public input process` would be a mistake. Celebrating a perceived victory which is actually closer to a setback is not a good idea. We have seen for decades with the U.S government, and especially in the last year and a half with the BP Oil Spill that this administration also is far more likely to side with industry than it is to side with people and the environment. And finally, the only reason why the Keystone XL decision has been postponed is because Obama and company don`t want it to be an issue come election time in 2012. It doesn`t matter if the decision is made in 2013, 14, or 15, it is the outcome that matters, and sure as the sun will set, this pipeline is coming.

Those from the ENGO community overeacting to the Keystone XL postponement as a victory, misinterpreting the situation, are actually doing the Climate Justice movement a considerable disservice. "Game over for the Climate", lights out for the planet, whatever you like to call it, this is THE environmental battle of the 21st Century, and way too important an issue to be off our guard, even for a moment.

Republished from Rabble.ca, Dec.30th, 2011.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Biophilia, n. 1. An instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.
2. A psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital.
3. "The connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life" - Fromm. 4. The deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology.
5. Philias are the attractions and positive feelings that people have towards certain habitats, activities, and objects in their natural surroundings.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The People`s Assembly/Occupy Movement

"If there`s going to be any kind of society worth living in, we`re going to have to create it ourselves." Those are the words of University professor and community organizer David Graeber, who is participating, at the time of writing, at Occupy Wall Street in New York City. Sometimes an impactful statement can help you analyze something from a different angle; when Occupy Wall Street first happened, it got me thinking about people`s assemblies from a renewed perspective. A recurrent and increasingly familiar idea is behind this week`s Occupy Wall Street. We have been reminded over and over in the last eighteen months how People`s Assemblies have emerged on the tide of a paradigm shift, quickly becoming a very relevant and important form of community organizing, and how they have captured the imagination and enthusiasm of grassroots resistance in various parts of Europe and North America.

Why have so many different struggles turned to people`s Assemblies as their chosen form of effective organizing and resistance? Does the emergence of this movement signify a new paradigm that transcends differences and competing ideologies, and puts the process of consensus and the resilience of unity in its place? The collective response to a crisis has attracted people towards a model that seeks solutions and alternatives, instead of simply criticizing the monster and politely asking it to treat us better. There are identifiable reasons why the status-quo left has been despaired and unsuccessful for so many decades. Under hierarchical organizational structures, diversity and varying ideologies are smothered because core values, strategies, and principles are imposed from the top down. When people find no traction for their ideas and beliefs, they simply move on to the next organization where the universal line of thinking matches their`s. Institutional structures are divisive and exclusive. With collective and horizontal organizing, diversity and ideologies have now discovered a space and a process where they can work together.

Starting in Greece, 2010 and 2011 was a turning point in the country`s political history with massive popular organizing and street resistance. The popular anti-austerity movement broke ground with new forms of horizontal organizing, and paralyzed the state for several months. People`s assemblies in Syntagma, Athens` main square, took place over the summer of 2011, and quickly spread to other parts of the country, where they formed into impromptu gatherings of community members voicing collective concerns; a simple and straightforward collective formation. These assemblies, knowingly or unknowingly, operated along the principles of horizontality to ensure equal voice and equal opportunity for everyone. People wishing to speak are given a number, and then numbers are drawn to determine who gets the podium and the microphone for strict two-minute time slots. An Al-Jazeera editorial describes well the character and mandate of the Assemblies: "everyone at these gatherings is allowed equal time to speak, and issues range from organizational matters to resistance politics and international solidarity….. nothing is beyond proposal or dispute. People from different strands of life, political affiliations and ages are rushing to squares across the country to hear - and be heard - without mediation, external supervision, or internal force."

These principles of autonomy reflected in the methods of the Greek organizing illustrate a grassroots reaction against hierarchical structures and institutional politics, and have led the Syntagma participants to adopt a complete rejection of political parties. The community base has clearly identified the ills of the system, and has gone the opposite direction. This approach of organizing community resistance, the way that the people of Greece have chosen to organize themselves, signifies an intuitive break from the political establishment. The movement did not come out with any clear goals or aims, and it was not planned that there would be massive street resistance for several consecutive months; communities simply responded to a crisis, and the collective will led them in this direction. An organizer with Via Campesina has said that "the way we organize reflects our goals." The Greek Assemblies are a perfect example of how the form of organizing that ultimately takes shape, is a result of what instinct has produced.

In June, 2010, Toronto held its first People`s Assembly as the G20 imposed itself on an unwilling and uncooperative city. Even before it arrived, the G20 was seen as an intolerable offense against the dignity of the city and its inhabitants. One of the responses, through the people`s assembly, was to set in motion a collective creative process where the community could take ownership and make decisions for itself. Presented with the prospect of the biggest political standoff in its history, the grassroots of Toronto and Canada identified that’s its strength would come from the ground, from the street, from people, from community, and so it put together the most horizontal and participatory response possible. This was reflected also in large part through the convergence space for weeks leading up to the G20, a rented warehouse space for action and strategy building that served as home base for the G20 resistance in Toronto`s grassroots-oriented neighbourhood of Parkdale.

From the beginning, the People`s Assembly on Climate Justice, now the Toronto People`s Assembly, has stressed the need for the process to be completely open to its participants, with no concrete agenda set by the organizers. The message has been for the focus and the process to be guided not by leaders, but by the community and participants. Because of this wide-open horizontality, some have even criticized that the Assembly has been ineffective at making decisions. Lack of insight by the mainstream media is now directing very similar criticism towards the Occupy Movement, accusing it of lacking direction and having no clear demands. Still, the Toronto People`s Assembly persists as a space and a process, rather than a body or an organization; its focus has been, and remains, a mechanism or a channel through which a mutual dialogue can be processed. The role of the Assembly, in a way, is that of a tuning fork for the community. Through the second, third, and fourth assembly, the focus of movement building has inter-oriented towards workshops, empowerment, and autonomy, and the ever-changing complexion of the assembly is a reflection of its elasticity in motion.

This is only to give an example, but even the Anarchists who often organize and promote this model of horizontal organizing, can sometimes be frustrated with the lack of radical focus because of the mosaic of political orientations that is characteristic of the assembly process. And equally, some can get frustrated with Anarchist politics or otherwise. But that is ok, because that is the nature of People`s Assemblies, and that openness and inter-political dialogue are one of its main features.

Important to note is that the Toronto People`s Assembly was influenced by two events in particular. One was the World People`s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where over 30,000 people from all walks of the social justice spectrum, from NGOs, environmental activists, community organizers, and people from social movements all around the world, came together to share ideas, build solidarity, and attempt the resurgence of a global climate justice movement. Cochabamba took place in April of 2010. Second, the Assembly drew inspiration from Reclaim Power which unfolded during the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, in December 2009. The aim of Reclaim Power was to create a direct alternative model counter the undemocratic, institutional, and hierarchical process going on inside the UNFCCC. If the international top-down show with the agenda and results dominated by the 8 or 9 major powers was everything the people couldn`t stand for, then the intuitive response would be to do the exact participatory, horizontal opposite. With people huddled in a Danish squat the idea behind Reclaim Power was born; to occupy a space inside the UN grounds, and to form a People`s Assembly within. If the institutional state process was bankrupt, then the most disturbing attack, the most effective strategy it seems, was to expose its failures with a direct alternative.

In Wisconsin, in February 2011, the Republican state government attempted to create a law to make public employee strikes illegal. The austerity-driven cuts also threatened wages and health insurance, and even proposed a measure that could hand over control of "disfunctional" municipal administrations to `corporate management.` The people of Wisconsin saw this as a clear violation, and as a direct attack not only on social security, but on people. For two weeks, hundreds and then tens of thousands of people, on the biggest days some estimates go as high as 200,000 people, converged on the legislature in Madison, the symbolic and physical center of the state, occupied the space, and held people`s assemblies inside.

The Wisconsin people`s occupation of the state capitol was as follows: Inside were walls covered with letters, over 10,000 letters and emails of protest against the anti-union bills and in support of the occupation. While tens of thousands were outside, and inside, protesting for days at a time, sleeping quarters were created inside the capitol where hundreds of people semi-permanently slept overnight for consecutive days. A media center was organized, referred to by organizers as the information station, with the motto of `Got info, Need info, Share info; Knowledge is Power.` Also created was a white-board dubbed a low-tech twitter for information updates to be posted, for all to read and stay up to date on developments as they unfolded. The group coordinated bedding and food donations of support. Even if only for a short time, they were living and relying on the resources of the community. They also maintained a food station to satisfy the food needs of the encampment community, organized a lending library, and operated a medic center. In a lot of ways, it looked like the Wisconsinites were building a small village, and that`s exactly what they were doing, with collective contributions from a community, slowly envisioning and creating the alternative they would like to see.

In late September, 2011, at the time of writing, a community mobilization in New York City is carrying out the Occupy Wall Street action, with the intention of establishing a long-term encampment, occupying space in the city`s financial district. On Saturday, September, 17th, participants prepared themselves for an ongoing occupation with the intention of holding the space for as long as possible. After a short lived presence on Wall Street itself, police pushed protestors out, and the occupation relocated to Zuccotti Park, where hundreds have spent subsequent nights occupying the space. A lot of the inspiration and energy behind Occupy Wall Street came from the People`s Assembly Movement which has strong roots in Europe. David Graeber, a participant and organizer explains how "…all of the political parties have basically bankrupted themselves….. There is no possibility of there actually coming up with a solution, and essentially you have to start over." That is why there is no pre-set agenda or specific demands, because the movement is starting fresh, recreating from a blank slate, and everything is created as we go along. Graeber goes on to say that "people have to go into their public squares, meet each other, start talking to each other, and start brainstorming about ideas. Essentially the idea is the system is not going to save us, we`re going to have to save ourselves. And, so we`re going to try to get as many people as possible to camp out in a public space, and start rebuilding society as we`d like to see it." What Graeber explains here is simply a human reaction to a crisis, to a system that has completely failed, and that reaction has often taken the form of People`s Assemblies. What do we do when there is a problem or a crisis? We converge, and talk about it, and we figure it out, we find answers together. This comes to show that all the examples illustrated here are natural collective reactions, and that what is behind people`s assemblies is simply a rigorous application of logic.

Even the APPO, the Popular Assembly of the People`s of Oaxaca, during the 2006 uprising in Oaxaca, Mexico, was a response to an intolerably corrupt, violent, and abusive state government in a time of crisis. In that they are all responses to crisis, perhaps they are the purest form of community organizing.

In the financial district in New York City, on October 12th, Occupy Wall Street was still going on, nearing a month, and entering its 26th day of existence. The location, still Zukady Park, now renamed Liberty Plaza. Organizers were still stressing the importance of the horizontal process. Justin Wedes of Occupy Wall Street elaborates on the internal dynamics of horizontal organizing and consensus; he explains, "..it was always understood that the process was going to rule, the process of building consensus, and arriving at our demands, at our action plans, that has always been the driving factor here, and so we are still constructing every night in our general assemblies, still constructing that consensus." Justin Wedes then elaborates on the concept of the general assembly: "A general Assembly is an open, horizontal, leaderless process by which we can arrive at decisions…… and it`s consensus-based which means it`s not just up or down vote; when 51% of people vote on something the other 49% are suddenly sort of silenced in a way. Consensus works differently, it says that we can, if we are trying to, work together and come to agreement that everybody can feel good about. And so that process which is very powerful, when you have good facilitation, when you have people who want to agree, who want to find unity and solidarity, that is the process that`s guiding it." It is amazing because this is exactly what we were trying to achieve through the Toronto People`s Assembly, exactly what we were talking about several months before, and it is fascinating and rewarding on a local level to see that this is the process, a process that struggled to get traction here in Toronto only six months ago, that is now guiding an international grassroots movement.

Justin Wedes goes on to explain the people`s mic: "The people`s mic is basically a people`s amplification system, no power, no electricity, I say something or somebody says something and then it`s repeated by the people around you. So, it`s amplified, your voice is amplified, and in a way it`s the most democratic way to amplifiy sound because the power of the message, the gain of that microphone is actually determined by the power of that message. So, when people say things that are powerful and really move our movement forward, they are amplified literally, physically by the people around us." He elaborates on why the people`s mic has become so important and relevant, just another piece of this movement that has come together unexpectedly.

Ellie Kirzner of NOW Magazine also has an analytical take on the people`s mic. She writes, "Like slow food, slow meetings are meditations; you focus, take in and chew every phrase. It also means everyone is perpetually participating; it`s impossible to doze. And most important, this broadcasting system is an antidote to rhetoric and surges of pumped-up oratory (everyone talks in short, clipped phrases) and completely in keeping with a movement that doesn`t want leaders, charismatic or otherwise." Without really knowing or intending to, the people`s mic ends up being a very participatory, horizontal, and efficient means of communication, very much in line with the movement that it represents. It is not my intention here to go at length about the people`s mic, but it is important to make a small note of it.

One of the defining features of the Greek Assemblies was that they had no specific demands; other assemblies have operated along similar lines. In the status-quo left, when campaigning for specific issues, a slogan set of demands is often determined and projected by unions and NGOs. The wave of people`s assemblies that has risen in the past eighteen months has been unique because it really allows a natural process to take its course, for openness and horizontality to guide the process. A people`s assembly does not take its messaging, its demands, its aims, its structure, or its tactics or strategy from the top down; instead those are generated internally, self-articulated from within. This is a central feature of horizontal organizing, that there is no imposed pre-set agenda or demands. The only thing that is certain is a collective understanding that change is necessary, and that a gathering of people has formed with the intent to discuss and create solutions together. Everything else is left to the process itself.

And so its fine here in Toronto to ask federal, provincial, and municipal to stop the cuts, and in Europe to ask governments to reverse austerity, but asking your oppressor to save you, or to do you a favor, is madness. It doesn`t matter if these are the types of slogans that get people involved; if their focus is incorrect and they`re leading people in the wrong direction, then they`re a waste of time. What I mean is that the Occupy Movement is expressing vividly that we need to create the alternatives for ourselves. Of course we have to protest our governments and the financial crisis, and of course we have to mobilize and come out onto the streets by the thousands, but we must do it in the spirit of rejecting the system and creating the alternative, rather than asking our governments to do a better job and treat us with benevolence. It`s one thing to draw people into mainstream campaigns, and that their politics then get radicalized through that process, but there is a fine line between that, and making people believe that asking the government to give us things is the right thing to do. We have to make a clear distinction between the latter, and a complete rejection of capitalism, the industrial system, and the political establishment. Institutional politics are a complete failure from the state to political parties, and the only hope lies in building up from the community. It is by ourselves and for ourselves that we are going to save ourselves, and it is through creativity and through community-grown ideas that we`re going to find the solutions that we`re looking for. The People`s Assembly movement in a lot of ways, is a reflection of that.

Another central feature of the now People`s Assembly/Occupy movement is its insistence on establishing or creating a community. Seeing the recurrence time and time again of social media teams, food committees, medic centers, message boards, direct action groups, workshops, and the list goes on, is not a coincidence. This clearly demonstrates not simply a protest, but a movement that is genuinely interested in building and creating. By this, the movement recognizes that if resistance and the creation of the alternative are to be sustainable, that it must engage in the "spaces of everyday life and survival, putting in motion an increasing number of social networks." This movement is not simply criticizing the system, it is putting forward an alternative, and what is becoming clear from this horizontal/create-as-you-go-along form of organizing is a realization that "we must have the courage to ask the questions we don`t have answers for"; that is what creating is. Anyone can talk about the problems of the capitalist system, we know what`s wrong with the system, we have analyzed it time and again. But without answers to the crisis you can only go so far; this new method of organizing identifies that it must be a creative and solution-based movement if it wishes to be successful.

When I toured Occupy Toronto on Tuesday, November 15th, I saw that the encampment had grown to more than 200 tents and structures, covering almost literally every square inch of St-James Park. I witnessed a volunteer tent and a sanitation committee. There was a Free School set up for classes and workshops, including a permaculture teach-in, queer discussion, and a talk on solar living. A media center with solar panels nearby which powered some of the I.T capability. In a small yurt (round circus tent) was the Toronto Open Library with children`s books, Atlases, Dictionaries, Hermann Hesse, William S. Burroughs, issues of Iconoclast and NOW Magazine, Chomsky, and No-Nonsense guides to name a few. They had organized a post office with paid-for-postage and postcards printed with pictures of Occupy Toronto. They kept a music area, and a sacred space and medicine lodge. Another yurt was erected as a yoga space and secondary medical center. They had a banner and placard making station, a legal support tent, a logistics committee and tent with washroom supplies, fire extinguisher, condoms, pillows, blankets, and the administration of donations and finances. On the other side of the Logisitics tent was a Free store with deodorant, socks, clothing, and shoes, there was a storage area, a safe space for people in recovery, and the official Medical Yurt. Last but not least, a firewood station. Enough said.

The concept of general assemblies and consensus organizing has been difficult for the mainstream media and political establishment to process and analyse because their line of thinking doesn’t allow them to even perceive something different. This is not about making changes to the system or making it better; this movement is reinventing politics and creating a new form of community organizing and decision-making. And, the misinterpretation of `lack of decision-making` and `no clear demands` indicates an inability to imagine, and a lack of understanding that true and meaningful democratic strategy building and decision-making is a process of collectivity and give-and-take dialogue that takes time.

What could be more exciting, more inspiring, than the challenge of reinventing society? That is what people are tasked with today, to reinvent society as we`d like to see it, to start all over again. And, that is essentially what we are being forced to do; the system of political and economic dominance, and industrial production, and over-exploitation, over-consumption, over-production, and waste, has destroyed all social foundations, has obliterated self-reliance and self-sufficiency, and has decomposed empowerment, autonomy, food sovereignty, and community. This movement has identified that we need to regain all these elements that are essential to life. What this movement is doing is akin to going back to prehistoric times, finding some of the first Homo Sapien or Cro-Magnon communities, and saying "here, create society." Ours is a unique and challenging time in history because we have been left with a giant, toxic, heavy, cumbersome, hierarchical, ecologically destructive, undemocratic, industrial, violent, oppressive pile of rubbish.


On the night of Monday, November 14th, the first eviction took place at Occupy Wall Street as the New York Police Department raided and trashed most of the occupation encampment. As I was rolling up to Occupy Toronto at around 12pm the following day, the alternative community at St-James Park had also just received its first eviction notice. As I was thinking about what this meant, I realized that this is not the end, and in fact marks only the beginning. Whether or not New York or Toronto, or any other city in North America or around the world evicted from their encampment are able to retake the same space, or if they simply reset and start anew in a different park or plaza, what matters is that this initial phase has happened; this introduction that needed to happen for people to understand what they need to do has happened. So whether this initial wave of Occupy persists for one year or two years, or whether it fades loudly into the winter months and small, self-reliant, autonomous communities in different parts of cities and countryside start to spring up in its place, the seed has been planted, and people now know what they have to do. The realization has come that the possibility is now an actuality.  

Capitalism, and the industrial system, and the vertical political establishment have given us a crisis, and the crisis has created a blank slate, and the blank slate translates to a canvas where creativity can begin to take shape. The Occupy Movement has been a great practice space, and it has given people a chance to begin creating and designing what the alternative world will look like. The struggle, the challenge, will be difficult, but people now understand that the formula is fairly simple: go out there and take a space, occupy it and make it yours, and begin to build the alternative. And, we should make it clear that you can just as well occupy your own home, and occupy your neighbourhood with your friends, and family, and neighbours, and we all must do this, and we have effectively taken those spaces out of the jurisdiction of the capitalist system, when we have clearly chosen to reject and boycott the system and have started to build the alternative structures in its place. Those spaces then become our space. The most important thing moving forward is to take what we have created together in 2011, and to reapply it to our neighbourhoods everywhere, because when horizontality is applied to the spaces of everyday life, it becomes not only resistance, not only an occupation, not only a general assembly, but it becomes alternative governance.

Friday, July 8, 2011

July 24th Call-Out First Draft

In june of 2010, the G20 imposed itself on the city of Toronto. The resistance, mobilizations, and mass arrests were unprecedented, and the community response marked a turning point in Canadian political history. Two days before the arrival of the G20, on June 23rd, 2010, Toronto held its first People`s Assembly with a focus on Climate Justice; close to 300 people participated. Now, a little over a year after, and three successful assemblies later, the time has come to reflect, evaluate, analyse. The Toronto People`s Assembly has continued to evolve into a dynamic community process, and we call on everyone to come together for a One Year Anniversary discussion.

Join us on July 24th, outside the 519 Church st. at 12 noon, to share food, paint a community banner, and exchange ideas. We request your participation and contribution on this day as we seek wisdom and direction through the collective horizontal process that the People`s Assembly has come to embody. We hope to see you there.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Reclaim Power, Cochabamba, and the G20 Convergence - A Story of Grassroots Organizing and the Toronto People's Assembly in 2010


Dec 15th, 2009. Copenhagen. The day before what CNN referred to as “the most hotly anticipated action of the summit”, nearly a thousand activists huddled together in a Danish squat - which became the focal point of grassroots mobilization against the United Nations’ annual Climate Change Conference [COP]. Lisa, an American activist and veteran of Seattle, gave a final pitch for the plan of action:

“We will use the combined mass of our bodies to push through the police lines and then break through the fence. Once we are inside the U.N. grounds we will secure a safe space where delegates coming out from the conference can join us and together we will form a People’s Assembly.”

Maps were distributed. Blocs were in the final stages of formation. There was one last heated debate over the adopted consensus of 'confrontational non-violence'. Participants filled with anticipation at the thought of being part of a plan to change the course of history.

These actions in Copenhagen were the beginning of the Toronto People’s Assembly. As much as has been written and said about the day of Reclaim Power, it was the two weeks of frantic meetings, alliance building, and constant striving to create an inclusive and horizontal process which created a new model for organizing that could be exported around the world.


Next, seeds were sown for the People’s Assembly in Cochabamba, where Bolivia hosted the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in April of 2010. Toronto activists in Cochabamba observed a conference that, while engaging the grassroots participation of 30,000 activists from across the world, was largely implemented from the top down. The People’s Assembly drew much inspiration from Cochabamba, but the conference also acted as a compass for the Assembly to be critical of its own process.

The main development which came out of Cochabamba was a collective understanding of the beginning of a new effort based on the principle that the best way to answer the international call is to build your local struggle. One of the lessons drawn from Bolivia, was the need to put in place impactful structures and formations to maintain and build a movement that is more substantial, consistent, and long-term. The call from Cochabamba was to begin the building of a worldwide climate justice movement.

Back in Toronto, the weeks in May immediately following Cochabamba, and in June prior to the G20 were a crucial and transformative period for the social and climate justice community. Talks and discussions were ongoing to evaluate which elements could be drawn from Cochabamba. Raul Burbano, an organizer of the June 23rd Assembly, explains how “the People’s Assembly is an extension of the dialogue, organization, and mobilization that took place in Cochabamba. It’s an instrument through which local activists can create new spaces, and generate new possibilities.” As conferences, panels, and report-backs raged on, local organizers, young and old, converged with a fresh and renewed sense of purpose; an understanding that we needed to start building. Consciously or not, the People’s Assembly kept evolving through new and different channels

Toronto G20

In Toronto after the COP, during the early months of 2010, post-Copenhagen burn-out was a factor for many organizers, and initial attempts to reconstruct the People’s Assembly process never materialized. This was due partly to the need to convince Toronto-based organizers that an Assembly needed to be a priority, that one organized around a completely horizontal process could be successful, and partly because many organizers shifted their efforts to that other summit on its way to town, the G8/G20.

As June and the G20 grew closer, a call was put out through the Toronto Community Mobilization Network for a day of resistance for climate and environmental justice. Responding to this call, a circle of non-aligned CJ and environmental organizers started meeting weekly in a park outside the 519 Community Centre. Two plans for action emerged. One was a rally that would become known as the Toxic Tour. The other was the People’s Assembly on Climate Justice.

Together with allies as part of the growing community mobilization against the G20, the first People’s Assembly was formed on June 23rd, 2010.

The G20 hit Toronto like a storm, and in the aftermath the organizing community suddenly found itself in a new environment, with new conditions. The collective response in Toronto was quick and widespread, and the resounding call to establish new relationships was not only heard, but understood. In July and August with the intensity of organizing remaining high, with action camps happening across the country, and with various groups in Toronto together stressing the immediate need for movement building, there was no longer any doubt that a second People’s Assembly would take place.

The People’s Assembly on Climate Justice

Enter the Toronto People’s Assembly on Climate Justice (PACJ). Taking elements from Reclaim Power and Cochabamba, the Toronto manifestation of the PACJ has since held two successful Assemblies, one immediately before the G20 summit, and another on the December 4th, 2010 Worldwide Day of Climate Action. The first focused on defining the meaning of Climate Justice, while the second focused on the collective work of building a stronger movement for Climate Justice in Toronto. For both Assemblies the starting point was the 'Framing Question', a direct importation from the Reclaim Power Assembly. The framing question is simply a general suggestion for direction, a starting point from which participants can begin to generate ideas.

The main innovation introduced in Toronto was an additional round of breakouts, which allowed more space for the Assembly’s horizontal process to both generate ideas and to orient itself for action. Beginning with the second Assembly, Toronto activists took the working group model that emerged from Cochabamba and re-framed it as a series of permanent action-oriented bodies known as People’s Councils. During the December 4th Toronto Assembly, People’s Councils were created on Movement Building, Outreach & Education, Group Coordination, Building Alternative Spaces, Mass Action & Political Pressure, and Personal Development. Both assemblies generated more than 200 participants, and over 40 endorsements from community groups in Toronto.

Radical Horizontality – Inside the People’s Assembly

The movement inside the Assembly is an open collective dialogue which organizers have termed radical horizontality. Within the Assembly, radical horizontality is a two-pronged process which allows participants, through two rounds of break-outs and intermittent plenaries, to first generate ideas, and then to develop and form them together in order to establish mandates for the People’s Councils. This concept of radical horizontality also extends to everyday life, beyond the Assembly, and seeks to establish shared responsibility and accountability in the entire community, in order to make local resistance and organizing more sustainable.

From the beginning the Assembly stressed the need for a point of convergence inclusive to a wide range of organizations, from women’s groups and anti-poverty, to environmental justice and food security, cyclists, migrant justice, co-operatives, collectives, etc. To effectively transform communities, the Assembly posited a lack of separation between activism and everyday life. Raul Zibechi, a Uruguayan socio-political theorist, explains how “in the new pattern of action... mobilization starts in the spaces of everyday life and survival, putting in movement an increasing number of social networks or, that is to say, societies in movement, self-articulated from within.” The People’s Councils were modeled on the hope of facilitating the establishment of this sort of organizing on a permanent basis; to make the leap from simply activism to organized communities.

The post-G20 realities of community organizing in Canada presented us with a challenge, and a dynamic that calls for activists to develop, out of necessity, new methods of organizing. This requires ingenuity, responsibility, and a long-term willingness to sculpt a new grassroots paradigm. Small beginnings of creative examples were observed in Canada during the following months.

Various action camps took place throughout the country during the summer of 2010 themed around climate justice, indigenous solidarity, non-violent direct action, and Tar Sands/pipeline resistance. Organizers worked to build links between cities and to strengthen regional networks. Simultaneous people’s assemblies were held in December, 2010, throughout the country, organizers in Montreal began to develop the idea of a climate justice co-op, and the climate justice community in Toronto started establishing the People’s Assembly on a permanent basis. Climate Justice organizers have used the momentum coming out of the G20 to create their own grassroots infrastructure.


The People’s Assembly in Toronto emerged on the tide of a paradigm shift towards popular assemblies as an alternative to the complete failure of international institutions and nation-states to address the urgent global threat presented by the climate crisis. At the same time, a global Climate justice movement has grown organically; determining its own shape through horizontal structures and differentiating itself from mainstream environmental voices through a deeply rooted anti-capitalist analysis.

The year 2010 also presented the organizing community in Canada with two major mobilizations to mount, one in Vancouver for the Olympics and one in Toronto for the G20. Toronto organizers took this confluence of factors as an opportunity, and the People’s Assembly was one element of the outcome.

By eschewing traditional hierarchical forms, the open and inclusive process of the Assembly is an invitation for community members and organizers to come together in an effort to build solidarity, share skills, and develop increased coordination. The aim of the People’s Assembly in Toronto is for the climate justice community and its allies to utilize it as a vehicle or a space through which it can operate as a movement, a self-articulated space that will allow it to remain a movement.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Opening Address to the December 4th People's Assembly on Climate Justice - Toronto

by Julien Lalonde

In April of this year, Cochabamba, Bolivia hosted the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which saw a convergence of 35,000 participants; workers, farmers, students, peasants, activists, and people from all walks of life. Beyond instilling a prevailing sense of international solidarity, this summit brought forward a sense of duty, and the sense that perhaps something new was beginning to take shape. The message to come out of Cochabamba was to pass from simply understanding the reality of the climate crisis, to implementing the agenda needed to reverse it, by positioning ourselves strategically as communities, and by arming ourselves with the capacity to effectuate the systemic change that is required. That is what this Assembly will attempt to do; to move from information, to theory, to action. The inspiration from the powerful social movements of Bolivia, and the voice of the peoples of the world, called for and initiated the construction of a Worldwide Climate Justice Movement. Climate Justice because it is no longer only people who are under attack, but Mother Earth herself.

This means that international chapters of this giant movement building exercise must be started all over the world, and the slogan of think global act local suddenly becomes very relevant. Speaking on international solidarity, Marcos of the Zapatistas has said that “the best thing you can do is to build the struggle in your own country, and when we’re done here we will go help you over there.”

Today’s Assembly is in response to international calls. When we think of Community organizing as a response, we can think of People’s Assemblies = rich history of People’s Assemblies tied to social movements around the world and predominantly in Latin America. And when you think of People’s Assemblies an example that comes to mind is the radical south-west region of Mexico; the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Oaxaca in 2006, in response to state repression and injustice, formed the insurrectionary Popular Assembly of the People’s of Oaxaca which comprised social movements of sectors, shades, and sizes from all across the state of Oaxaca, and with grassroots control, community empowerment, and neighborhood councils, dispersed the state and entirely took control of their land and their cities for several months. The Zapatistas, for their part, in the state of Chiapas, have controlled for more than a decade large rural areas, and have persisted through their communal modes of living, resisting constant harassment and violence by paramilitary and state forces. And most recently, in Honduras, following the June 2009 military coup that put the country in the hands of dictatorship, the people formed the National Coordinating Committee of Popular Resistance, a strategy building space which operates like a People’s Assembly.

Clearly, these examples are not comparable to our process of movement building here in Toronto, and in Canada, but what is worth noting is that all these examples I’ve mentioned of community organizing and people’s assemblies are all still operating today. This comes to show that grassroots community organizing, often manifested through Popular Assemblies, if carried out with the right process, intent on continuation, and true to principles of horizontality, can be very powerful, effective, and enduring.

Post G20, the social and climate justice communities in Toronto began increased discussion on the need for a more unified movement in Canada. The elites and the forces of capitalist globalization had once again thrown more money and more violence at us. They were elevating their attacks, we had to respond by continuing to organize still more effectively. In Toronto, we became cognizant that there were so many different groups doing so much great work, but that most of them were operating largely separate from each other. From that, the present day idea for the People’s Assembly took shape as a mechanism through which the entire community could operate together toward collective dialogue and community empowerment.

Over 40 different groups have endorsed the People’s Assembly, faith-based, cyclist groups, food groups, social and climate justice of all sorts, migrant justice, anti-poverty, and all realize that protecting our planet is a duty we all share by necessity. They all bring varying experiences, resources, and knowledge. The presence of so many different groups here today and the collective manifestation of this unique feature of the movement illustrates the power of diversity.

We want our community organizing to create the capacity to effectuate change in all aspects of our everyday lives. Shopping at farmers’ markets, riding your bicycle, or growing your own food, for example, these acts in themselves don’t make a measurable difference, but when many people do this, and when we combine our organizing efforts on all levels, we will eventually begin to see results. That is why we have organizations here today from all spheres and orbits, to provide knowledge and resources, in order to facilitate the possibility of changing the way we run our community in Toronto. I read recently, and I’m quoting from a book; “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment....but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” That’s a quote by Howard Zinn. What we’re saying is that we can rebuild and recreate our city and our world, today, by carving out community spaces, by building urban gardens, by nurturing a culture of life, by reclaiming our communities library by library, community centre by community centre, block by block, and neighbourhood by neighbourhood. The belief and the vision is that People’s Assemblies can be a vehicle or a channel through which we can give life to this process of empowerment. We also want to stress that the People’s Assemblies, and the building of a movement, are both linked to process, and that process takes time. This will be an ongoing and long-term project.

There is a saying that ‘you must first be organized in your own life if you wish to organize in your community, and internationally. Well, it is clear that in this system of overproduction, overconsumption, overprice, overwork, and overstress, people don’t have much freedom to nurture and to practice the things that matter to them. With the Assembly we want to create a situation where there is one element of organizing to match every one aspect of everyday life. We need to begin the building of collective networks of support, so that we can start relying on ourselves and on our communities, to empower through self-sufficiency, instead of depending on the state and the system that aim to make us compliant and dispensable. To do this we must identify that the chains of oppression, but also the keys to self-determination, are omnipresent in the way we live. There should be no division between our community organizing and our everyday lives. We have to stop wasting our energies into the system that blanks us and drains us, and instead release and invest our creative energy into the community infrastructure and ideas that can empower us, with the potency to resist, and the capacity to create our own world.

The state aims to cut down and to commodify our spaces. That is less space for leisure, less space for education, less space for cyclists, less space for growing food, less space for culture, less space for people. That is why we must organize ourselves in a way to retake these fundamental elements of our community, and to rebuild them if they have been slashed.

The Assembly is placed at your disposal today to become a collective expression of the community, as one unified yet diverse voice. We are presenting the Assembly as a hollow shell to be filled; the content, the inspiration, the substance, the ideas, and the flesh of the Assembly, have to come from you, have to come from people.