Analysis and reflection on “Occupy McGill” campaign at McGill University.
In 2022, I was an active anarchist in the two week occupation of McGill University. In the months prior to the occupation, I was part of the meetings that discussed the idea of pitching up tents in the Arts building. Back then, we were just 6 people at a picnic table. I witnessed the successes and failures of the occupation (and of its offshoots at Concordia and UdeM) but until now have not written anything on the subject.
Earlier this month, an international call to action was launched: “End Fossil – Occupy.“ In a *Guardian* opinion piece, students are urged to “occupy our campuses to demand the end of the fossil economy.” This call seems to follow the example set by McGill, which has received somewhat broad attention. However, it fails to take key lessons from the McGill experience. By explaining these lessons, I am hoping to influence people who are thinking of organizing an occupation (which I still strongly encourage), and to challenge dominant notions of what a movement needs to be. Above all, we are past making End Fossil’s demands.
Purely and simply, the success of the McGill occupation was rooted in two guiding principles: 1) it refused to just be about the climate, and 2) it refused to make demands. Without a doubt, the occupation was successful. Up to 25 people a night slept in the lobby of the Arts building. Our public assemblies surpassed one hundred attendees. Audiences were often several dozen at film screenings, workshops, reading circles, and discussions which happened on a daily basis.* Every day you could show up, no matter who you were, and be fed breakfast, lunch and dinner. A few days into the occupation, several crews ran riot with spray paint through McGill, tagging up security vans and walls with slogans like “Occupy Everything” and “Students: Remember your Power.”
People showed up, not because of the specific issues we brought up, but because of the insurrectionary energy that was created. We printed and handed out hundreds of zines on pretty much everything but the climate. Educational sessions were also hardly-ever climate-related. Instead, the ideas being discussed centred around anarchist pedagogy. People’s worldviews were not just being reemphasized (as they are when listening to yet another droning rad-lib environmentalist speech), but challenged or developed.
As a student movement, it was important that we did not make demands or centre on any specific issue. We were a place to locate people with a variety of concerns. Some of the most loyal comrades at the occupation were not there because of climate-related anxieties. Participants in assemblies often discussed issues under the sun that touched on anything-but. We cast a broad net, and created a broad base. This wider focus allowed us to then bring to bear a radical critique of all hierarchy, all forms of domination, and to propose revolution, not reform (no matter how green).
I am going to be honest here. If I were to see another purely narrow environmentalist occupation – I’d keep walking. Most working class people also rightly distrust this messaging. From Occupy, Shut Down Canada, to the George Floyd uprising, it is clear that people want insurrection. You still want reforms? Fine. But let’s not ask for reforms. Let’s build a revolutionary movement and allow politicians to panic and try frantically to slow us down with concessions. That is, let’s not be ineffectively boring.
I do not want to pretend that every participant in the McGill occupation was a born-again anarchist. In fact, many campers complained that our intentions were outwardly vague. Some raised concerns that people were not participating because, without demands, they couldn’t understand what was going on. First, it’s worth saying that virtually everyone who claimed not to understand what we were doing were more conservative or liberal students who would never have participated anyway. But more crucially, we fail to bring people into our movement not because we lack demands, but because we are not effective enough at illustrating to others why joining our projects will change the world. This is harder to do: it takes good discussions, fun actions, effective assemblies, clear strategy, strong zines, and organizing. But it is possible.
It is certain that some of our camp organizers did not have a strong enough grasp of radical politics to explain convincingly why we don’t make demands but struggle for insurrection. However, this is not a barricade; it’s a small hurdle that one or two deliberate group conversations could have fixed.
The experience of Concordia’s short occupation was entirely different. The occupation at Concordia was quickly co-opted by the student union. Power and responsibilities became increasingly concentrated in a small set of vocal elected students who, already burdened with union responsibilities, could hardly carry out the tasks they took on. Union representatives began asking opponents to leave the occupation. Other students left by themselves — fed-up by the union or not at all enchanted. Any initial radical insurrectionary energy was sapped out by narrow syndicalist politics. I briefly attended the University of Montreal occupation. From what I observed (although more pleasant), the singular focus on the school’s fossil fuel investments had become hegemonic; and the occupation concentrated in an offshoot of Greenpeace.
There was, of course, a core limitation to Occupy McGill’s strategy. The occupation was only powerful as an attractive / communal symbol of resistance and rallying point for radical ideas. To break past this point, it would have had to go on to actually shut down the university, spread into a strike, create new combative student organizations, practice new tactics like property destruction, or spill into neighboring communities. These are also training, coordination, and mobilization tactics for revolutionary action. They go further and rally more people. We do so until we hit a moment where we finally revolt – and start winning.
We have a world to win. Not just the end of the fossil economy, but a whole society that could be created from solidarity. The landlords, police, capitalists, politicians, machos, and anyone calling themselves “authority-figures,” will be abandoned and replaced by cooperation. The university will not just be green but be transformed beyond the alienation, the work-to-death ethic, and the careerism that infects it today. Unless we take direct control, we will be lied to, taken advantage of, and used for others’ political ends. We don’t have patience for the piecemeal reforms that have failed us for hundreds of years. There is so much to do and so little time to do so. It is time we strike.
That is our only demand, not to authorities, but to one another.
Films viewed included Street Politics 101 (by Submedia), and two documentaries on the Rojavan Revolution. Reading circles read a selection on revolutionary education from Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan, and Autonomous Education in the Zapatista Communities: Schools to Cure Ignorance. Discussions included a discussion on anarchist pedagogy, a discussion on anarchism, a workshop on the just transition framework, a workshop on accessibility, and a talk by a long-time Mohawk activist. Zines included “Education for Liberation not Corporation” (by Divest McGill) “Anarchism: Towards a Revolution in Montreal,” “Blockade, Occupy, Strike Back,” and “A Recipe for Nocturnal Direct Action.”