Feature: The Great Occupation

In our January End of the World Issue, we take a look at the Occupy movement that swept across the world in 2011. In Malaysia, a small but passionate group bandied around Occupy Dataran, and we were there to see the movement, and how it compared with the other movements we saw in New York and London. An excerpt:

Dataran DBKL, Kuala Lumpur, December 4

The Occupy Dataran movement is, compared to New York and London, a far more challenged protest movement. For one, the attempt to occupy Dataran Merdeka has had limited success due to the authorities restricting access to the square, only the first one on July 30 was able to convene protesters into the night. “We had almost a hundred that night, coming and going of course, and many people stayed until 5:00 A.M.,” Kia Meng, one of the protest organisers, tells me. Since then, police have been posted around Dataran Merdeka, tasked to stop anyone from trying to squat on the square on the weekends. But amazingly, like Sisyphus, they keep trying every week to take the square, cognisant that more than likely they won’t but brushing that obstacle aside.

On this night they’ve tried and are now gathered under the monorail near Dataran DBKL, a small band of twenty or so. A young man named Fahmi Reza is leading the discussion as a multicultural gathering of Chinese Malaysians, some Indian youths, young Malay girls (chaperoned by their father who has a look like he’s taking his daughters to a Justin Bieber concert), and even a few deaf people. It’s an interesting process of debate and deliberation as anyone can begin a discussion with various arm gestures (a pair of crossed arms indicates disagreement, an arm raised from the elbow means increase your volume, etc.) taking the discourse forward. It can be painfully slow to the outside observer. “So let’s take a vote on if we stay here and conduct our business or we make a plan B on where to go if the security kicks us out,” Reza begins, a discussion that will take almost ten minutes to resolve and leaves me thinking: since they’ve been doing this every week for months, it would have been decided long ago. But that would be missing the point.

“We want to give everyone a chance to have their voices heard, to be part of this kind of democracy,” Kia explains, telling what the heart of the Occupy Dataran movement is really. “Yes, one of our aims is to occupy a space where we can discuss our ideas. But I think if we confront the state directly at this point in time, strategically it’s unwise. For us it’s more of an awareness building model non-hierarchal participatory democracy, and when people ask for what we stand for I feel that best way to answer is like what Marshall McLuhan said, ‘The medium is the message’. You wouldn’t really know what Occupy Dataran is until you come here and see it for yourself.”

That advise bears fruit as the assembly is convened, as various voices are heard and votes taken, be that points of process of actual business. The participants, young, mostly students, are getting a taste of a democratic discussion that they may never witness again. There’s a conversation of the recent walk on parliament that Occupy Dataran joined in on, a protest where a thousand lawyers marched to protest a new bill that would they say tighten gatherings and peaceful protest. It was of course almost a given that Occupy Dataran would participate as its main struggle is the right to peacefully gather in public spaces. “What connects us with all the other occupy movements in New York, London, and other cities is our structure and our process. We are connected by our application of horizontal, anti-authoritarian, and non-hierarchical structure or ‘horizontalidad’, and also our commitment to consensus decision-making using direct participatory democratic processes through popular assemblies,” Reza, a self-taught graphic designer, a D.I.Y. documentary filmmaker, and a People Power activist, tells me about the similarities and differences of the disparate Occupy movements globally.

Before long, the security of DBKL comes along and asks them to leave, and along with their principle of non-confrontation they abide to the action as it was voted on at the beginning of the meeting. They won’t announce where they’re going to, a secret haven that they can reconvene and continue their democratic dialogue. How can anyone look at this pure form of democracy and inclusive discussion and not be inspired for a better way to live in this world. Practical? No. Beautiful? Undeniably. 

Read more about our visits to Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London in our January End of the World Issue, out now in newsstands. Words by Sam Coleman.

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