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.