Building a Mass Movement? Learning from the Occupy Sudbury Experience

By Chris Dixon, March 2012

Like many longtime radicals, I was skeptical about Occupy Wall Street when it first started. Some of my friends were more far-sighted, but I thought it would be a short-lived action. I was wrong, thankfully. I first began to understand this when I went by Liberty Plaza in New York during the first week of the occupation and saw a thriving encampment with lots of determined, newly politicized people. Even then, it was clear that they had managed to tap a surprisingly large reservoir of public outrage about inequality. As I then traveled to the west coast in fall 2011, I encountered people enthusiastically engaging in or preparing for occupations wherever I went.

But it wasn’t until I returned to where I live, in Sudbury, Ontario, that I realized exactly how wrong my initial assessment was. Known for its giant smokestacks and ecologically devastated landscape, Sudbury is a small mining city located about 250 miles north of Toronto. Although it has a distinguished history of militant labor organizing, Sudbury isn’t an easy place to build movements these days. The few working-class organizations that have survived the last three decades of neoliberal assault are barely holding on, most people struggle to make ends meet, and there is a pervasive sense of resignation. As in many smaller cities and more rural areas, forms of radical activism from big urban centers don’t tend to get very far in Sudbury.

And yet, almost from out of nowhere, a motley crew set up an Occupy Sudbury encampment in October 2011 and kept it going for more than a month. The encampment offered meals and tents to the large local houseless population, held regular general assemblies, and hosted well-attended educational events. (And even after the encampment ended, Occupy Sudbury has continued to generate new kinds of political activity.) But this experience wasn’t without its challenges: responding to immediate human needs while also engaging in protest activities, facilitating genuine participation from people who are traditionally marginalized, reconciling very different political ideas and priorities among occupiers, and developing structures and a culture of direct democracy. Still, it was an instructive experience for all of us who participated and it raised important questions.

For me, the most pressing question is about what it means to build a mass movement with a deep working-class character in North America today. Unlike many self-identified radical efforts, the people at the center of Occupy Sudbury’s activities were predominantly poor or working-class; they were unemployed or working low-paid service jobs, and some were community college students. Most were white, though there were a number of consistent Indigenous participants too. Coming from these backgrounds, people brought energy, fresh ideas, deep roots in the community, and impressive resourcefulness. They also didn’t have much previous organizing experience, which meant that some people held to astoundingly far-fetched theories, collective decision-making was frequently frustrating, sometimes people acted in racist or sexist ways, and there was a lot of organizational clumsiness.

These aspects of Occupy Sudbury were very difficult. However, they also made me realize the extent to which I – and I think many other people on the left – have become accustomed to not working in mass movement contexts. So much left political work happens in radical bubbles in which people share very similar backgrounds and vocabulary and are largely disconnected from broader layers of working-class people in all of their diversity.

The occupy movement – with all of its messiness and dynamism, contradictions and possibilities – has presented us with the opportunity to step onto a much more vast terrain of struggle. Let’s not waste this chance.

Written in the midst of the occupy upsurge, this short piece was included in the collection We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy From Occupation to Liberation edited by Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, and Mike McGuire (Oakland: AK Press, 2012).