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Dispatches from the Occupation: A History of Change

by Stephen Collis

When poet and professor Stephen Collis sat down in 2011 to write a book about how political change happens, he had no idea his plans would be broadsided by the Occupy movement. Enticed to become an “embedded academic” in Occupy Vancouver’s tent city, Collis found himself engaged in the day-to-day struggle of sustaining a diverse community of the 99 per cent while also blogging about the debates, joys, and tragedies of the group.

Like the movement that provides its title, Collis’s book is a pastiche of inspired moments that sometimes lacks focus. That Collis is a thoughtful and perceptive writer is beyond question, and it is refreshing to read someone who feels so deeply about his topic. But the book’s three distinct sections, which explore everything from reclaiming the commons to demanding a sustainable future, suffer from a fair amount of overlap.

An introductory section, about resistance to injustice over the past 50 years, leads into a series of blog posts written during the course of the Occupy Vancouver encampment and its eviction. Unfortunately, when reprinted in book form, such posts can lose their immediacy and become repetitive. And although Collis deals honestly with many challenges the Occupiers faced – sexism, discrimination, and sectarian infighting – he glosses over the most divisive issue: the “diversity of tactics” approach many of the protestors advocated – an approach that thrives on property destruction and demonizing opponents.

It’s unclear who Collis’s intended audience is. While he tries to be accessible, he also reverts to the language of the academy, jumping from diads to dialectics in a manner that may leave many of his fellow Occupiers scratching their heads. His final reflections about the fate of democratic states, written as though the author were surveying the ruins of Rome, read like half-finished thesis sections, and are no less frustrating with the inclusion of a preface stating that what follows may be idiosyncratic and non-linear.

Very much like the Occupy movement itself, these dispatches capture the feel of history on the run, but fail to add up to the sum of their parts.