This is the second in a series wherein I will try to write all I can on the complex dynamics, feelings & challenges which led to the fracture of the Occupy Boston General Assembly on Monday eve. Part 1 is here.
This piece is sort of a interim piece. There are a few thoughts swirling in my mind after having interactions both in-person and online. So, these may not flow like a narrative and it may not lead us to any meaningful transitions or conclusions. Please bear with me.
I spent yesterday having exchanges on Twitter, going to the first Community Wellness gathering and then spending the evening with comrades who are both upset about what had happened and really struggling to figure out how to move forward in a way which doesn't allow us to repeat the dysfunctions we seem to keep repeating. I want to note something:
I absolutely affirm that each of us is coming from our own principled place. While, I may even believe that some behavior is provocative, I don't really care to question people's motives. It serves no purpose. We are struggling with conflicts of principles and that's hard to do without people taking criticisms as a personal affront. The first step to finding resolution is to be open to hearing how someone else experiences your decisions quite differently than you intended. It doesn't mean that they invalidate your intentions or judge you as a human being.
Let me start by naming one of my own bad judgement calls. (We all have them. We are not failures as human beings because we do. We simply learn from them.) I'm sure there are those who think I have myriad of them, but I'll be kind to myself and only highlight this one, for the moment.
On Saturday, I went to the Women's Caucus meeting. There was, of course, discussion of this proposal. Toward the end, my friend had the idea that it might be helpful to have a backup proposal ready to go, in case this one failed. Something simple. A declaration that Occupy Boston has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct of any kind and would commit to developing a protocol for addressing sexual misconduct. I was in support of this and even offered a bit of editing help.
That proposal - with some amendments - was passed after the 30 people walked out of the General Assembly.
Those who walked out felt offended in two ways by this: 1) how does the General Assembly justify taking votes in the name of Occupy Boston when over 1/4 of the people present have just walked out of the room? 2) It felt condescending to fix the problem that the people walked out over without their participation. Fixing it for them rather than with them.
In retrospect, I can see how they would feel this way. While I fully support the spirit of the proposal, the walkout changed the nature of the General Assembly itself. While I can understand the feelings which would drive the people present to want to continue and do something, anything, which made things feel better, I don't think it turned out to be the wise decision. Especially since someone came out to them worried about quorum and asked if they were okay with considering who was left 'quorum' and the group said, "no." The very fact that all the people who walked out are saying they are hurt by the vote, says it was a mistake. Not a malicious mistake, simply not, in the heat of the moment, thought through clearly enough.
It was a mistake on my part to support the bringing of the proposal at that moment. I don't think I realized how many people would walk out and the resulting community dynamic. When such a dramatic moment occurs, it simply isn't going to help to keep moving forward as though everything is normal. The operating procedures we have in place aren't supposed to have a tyrannical hold on us. We can be human. We can recognize that an extraordinary event has occurred and that we may need to take a break, give things some more thought and reconvene at a later time.
Again, it's perfectly understandable that a lot of emotions were flowing and people really struggled with what they thought was the best thing to do. No one is attacking anyone's character over this. People are strongly disagreeing with resulting decisions, because their feelings were hurt. They felt ignored and invalidated and that their presence wasn't really important to the decision-making of Occupy Boston. It was like, "oh, you're all leaving? Oh well, we can handle this for you."
Something similar had occurred the previous night. It was announced, mid-proposal processing, that one of our own had died. He had lived in the camp and had serious health problems. When the camp was raided, he was homeless. He went unconscious while outside at night and was not found for hours. By that time, hypothermia had set in and his body couldn't recover.
This was profoundly shocking and sad for some. We took a moment of silence. Then some people moved off to the side to begin mourning together. Meanwhile, the remaining people voted to continue processing the proposal. I did not "uptwinkle" that vote, but neither did I leave. I don't feel good about that. We excluded all those who were too upset to keep going from the decision at hand. It felt disrespectful. I wish I had had more resolve about my gut feeling in that moment. I'm still not sure why I didn't say something and/or leave myself.
People later expressed to me feeling hurt and confused by that. Did we not care enough? Someone died!
Please forgive me. I am ashamed that I stayed in the General Assembly on Saturday.
So, two nights in a row Occupy Boston experienced an extraordinarily emotional moment and the choice was to simply keep going. Both times, many people were hurt and confused by that choice. We need to learn together. We need to prioritize tending to each other.
When we work in the world together, when we have relationships, one of the keys to building trust isn't that we make the right decision in every moment. It isn't that we have to never do anything which offends anybody else. The key is being able to say, "oh crap, I thought I was doing the right thing and I can see that it was hurtful to you, I'm so sorry." There are always going to be moments in life where we feel pulled by different emotions and different principles and we have to make a judgement call. Most of us understand that. Most of us can accept that this can lead to conflict and people's feelings can get hurt. What's far more hurtful than the original offense is the refusal to hear that it felt offensive. The refusal to consider that it might not have been the best decision. We compound the original offense by invalidating the responding feelings. Now there is even more to reconcile.
Ok, more to reconcile. Let's get on that. Keep talking.
Yesterday, some talking began. We had our first Community Wellness gathering. It was a circle where everyone could speak whatever was on their hearts and minds. Quite a bit of it made me very uncomfortable. This may be a subject matter, or a depth of crisis, which requires skilled people to help us navigate, because some of what was said was only pouring salt into wounds.
Again, it was clear that everybody in that circle - about 10 men & 5 women - is coming from a principled place. Still, there are places where real listening and actually connecting to what someone is saying is not at all happening.
I can hear, for instance, when someone says that he really had to support the block because there was something in the proposal which he could not reconciles his principles with. He really wanted to support it for the sake of those who needed it, but he couldn't. I hear that. I hear the dilemma.
I hear that some felt that they were being painted as rape-apologists and that galvanized them. I hear that. I haven't talked to anyone who believes that, but I do think some heated things were said and people feel that got labeled that way.
I hear that the amendment process, in the hands of proposer, meant that some things which might have brought us to consent, prevented those amendments from being included, even though they may have reflected the will of the General Assembly. I so hear that.
But, I didn't feel heard by several in the circle. My words were twisted into something I didn't mean at all, at one point. No one spoke to that. And several times, nefarious motives were ascribed to those who supported the amendment. There were also a few cringe-producing moments of misogynistic expressions.
I'm going to be a little harsh here, perhaps, but I need to get this out before I can go forward on a more even keel. I find it very challenging, so challenging I had to leave the room, to listen to a man who was laying across the stage in front of everyone, during a discussion about how to manage sexual misconduct, with his hand in his pants. To have this man twisting my words and accusing people who brought forth this proposal of being emotionally manipulative is simply too much for me. Hey, other men in the room, you need to say something.
So, yes, there was an accusation that bringing the proposal forward as an "emergency" was emotionally manipulative. Apparently, if you don't have an encampment, you don't have to worry about sexual misconduct. Moreover, tell that to the mother whose 6 year old son was being "groomed". She hadn't been told the history of a certain person at Occupy Boston. This person befriended her and her son. Paying a lot of attention. Then asked to be friends on Facebook, whereupon a lot interest in her son's photos was expressed. This person is still going to working group meetings, as of last week. Yes, she thinks it's urgent that we figure out our protocols so she can decide whether she can continue to participate. She's a single mother. If she can't feel safe bringing her son, it inhibits her ability to come at all.
But, you know, she's being emotionally manipulative. Because that's what oppressed groups are always told when they stand up and demands that their needs be met. Grrr.
At one point, I had spoken about how we respond to people in need. I mentioned that if I just came up and said, "I propose you give me $100." You're not likely to be open to that proposal. But, if I was tearful and said, "I lost my home. My daughter and I have been on the streets for two days and I need $100 to get some food and a hotel room for the night. Will you please help me?" You might be more open to helping me. You might have other ideas about how you can help me. Maybe they are better. But, whatever the final offer is, I have to determine that it meets my needs. I would hope that my desperate need and my own sense of what can work for me - because you have not walked in my shoes, so you can't make that call - would be more important than what works for you. That in that moment, some of your own principles may take second place to the principles of compassion and generosity. Now, of course, if I'm asking you to so something so vile, like murder, well, there are limits. But, the point is that the only way I can remain responsible for what happens is if I am the final arbiter of what is or is not done on my behalf. I may need to get my needs met by others, but it is still my responsibility to get them met. If you override me, then you bear responsibility for the outcomes. It infantalizes me and puts an undue burden on you.
This was reflected back to me as "I'm sorry, I don't think the person in need can dictate to me how I meet their need. If I feel that it would make the situation worse or if it goes against my own principles, I can't do it."
I never said, "dictate". I also never said anyone should have no principles of their own. I suggested that there can be a hierarchy of principles. I suggested that the two people in the interaction would look for a solution which worked for both of them, but that help someone in need, you might be able to compromise some of your principles in order to assure she was tended to.
Another man in the room claimed that he supported the block because he was worried that people would use a policy about people with past sexual misconduct convictions for "witch hunts." (I just love how witch hunts used to be what men used to oppress women who didn't conform and now the term is being used to accuse women of victimizing men.)
Yet another man in the room claimed that, because "he's seen it before", women would use the policy to go after people who politically disagreed with them. And that one side of him supported the protocol because he's always been over-protective of his sister, but thank goodness, she now has a husband to protect her.
Can I even begin to address the layers of offensiveness in that? Does he only care about sexual misconduct around his sister? Are women only safe if they have a husband to take that burden off the big brother? What about community responsibility for looking out for one another? Are single women or women who don't have relationships with men just asking for trouble?
Moreover, did I miss that chapter in the history book whereupon societies were torn apart and destroyed due to epidemics of false accusations of sexual misconduct? I was a good student. Well, I got good grades, anyway. Perhaps, I'm in denial and forgetting that chapter. All the books were written by men, so I'm absolutely certain that if women had ripped the fabric of society with all these false accusations, we would have heard about it. Send me some citations, if you have them, thank you.
Pardon me, but, what the fuck? "Witch hunts" and "emotional manipulation" and "political tool"? Seriously? Are you that afraid of women?
Women have lived with the horrors of sexual misconduct since the beginning of history. It is the only crime, which when reported, the victim is suspected of making it up, on a regular basis. If I call in a robbery, the police don't question whether it happened. I'm not an "accuser". I'm a "victim". Rape is one of the hardest convictions to get. The burden of proof is high and the victim is forced to relive the trauma and face the very person who has damaged her, likely for life. Her character is often put on trial. She is pummeled with every possible way in which she must have "asked for it" or "wanted it".
Yeah, women make false accusations all the time, because it would be such a successful and personally fulfilling option in life. C'mon folks, women don't report what they do experience!
But, I didn't hear another man in the room confronting these notions. Perhaps, after I left. But I was there for nearly 2 hours. The closest it came was one man saying he was uncomfortable with some of the things being said. He didn't identify the "things". So, we women - who were in far smaller numbers - have to speak out ourselves. But, you know, when you've attacked my character by ascribing nefarious motivations to me, you have attempted to invalidate my voice. So, now when I speak, you've made sure to have reasons you don't have to listen. And you've tried to influence others to apply the same filters.
I framed the discussion about what happened with this proposal as a cry for help. I suggested that we ought to have prioritized offering help over holding onto to other principles, in that moment. I understand that the process was flawed and that those asking for help blocked some amendments from being implemented. Still, nothing in the document was permanent. It was an offering.
What I heard back were denials that the help was even needed, accusations of malicious motives and clinging to other principles over giving aid to the wounded. In short, there was no movement, yet, and I didn't feel connected to as a human being. Many of the responses felt detached.
Not all, of course. I could see that others in the room were struggling with what was being said as much as I was.
I'd like to tell a short story:
I once met two young siblings. Little Brother and Big Sister. Little Brother was very high energy and seemed to have no boundaries. Big Sister was more introverted and sedentary and seemed depressed. I sat in a living room as Little Brother began climbing all over Big Sister. Big Sister was newly menstrual and was in great physical discomfort. She tried to get Little Brother to get off of her. She cried out for Dad to help. Little Brother climbed onto her back. She couldn't get him off. Finally, she body slammed in into the wall and he let go and fell to the ground.
Little Brother was not wounded. Still, he cried out to Dad, "Big Sister slammed me into a wall!" From the other room, Dad yells out, "Big Sister, apologize to Little Brother!"
At this point I intervened. I said, "Well, Little Brother owes the first apology, since he was not leaving her alone and was climbing on her back. She did the only thing she could do to get him off." Dad hears this and tells Little Brother to apologize. He is indignant and cries out, "but she hurt me!" He refuses. So, Big Sister refuses to apologize. Dad sends them both to their rooms.
I didn't think that Big Sister should have been punished. Do you? She actually took the most measured steps she could to protect herself. Little Brother was not injured. He was simply angry that he couldn't do whatever he pleased; that she forced him to honor her boundaries.
I see this dynamic play out all the time. Person A offends Person B. When Person B is upset and says so, Person A now acts as the offended one. So often, when people witness the interaction, they insist that Person B empathize with Person A. "Can't you see how hard it is for Person A to face how bad he feels?" or "Can't you acknowledge that Person A didn't mean to hurt you?" Where is the accountability? Where is the empathy for Person B? And where is the acknowledgment that once someone is hurt, their actions after that are coming from a place of hurt or fear or anxiety? Experiencing a breach of trust with someone throws off your ability to navigate with them. The pointer in your compass of expectations starts whipping around wildly. That needs to be re-calibrated before you can set a course together again. We need to stop blaming the victim for the offender's resulting suffering.
It's not that I don't care that Person A now feels so badly. Person A should feel badly. That's called empathy. It's one of the mechanisms for demotivating repeat behavior. "Oh damn, I hurt your feelings, I feel badly about that. Please forgive me." It's not the end of the world to feel badly for a bit. That's called accountability and the first step to redemption. When you commit the first breach in a series, it is incumbent upon you to address that. To recognize that all the steps of the interactions which followed were directed by that first breach. You both would have been on a completely different path without it.
And it's not that Person B doesn't also have to own any resulting offenses, either. It's simply that the foundation of putting the trust back together has to be the primary offense. That offense cracked the foundation and there is no solid ground without fixing that. In fact, the cracks become fissures and the foundation crumbles if that can't be acknowledged and feel truly settled, first. Even if Person B does feel badly about something which ensued, it won't matter because the relationship has no foundation any longer. It's pointless.
Regardless of the Supreme Court's ruling, an organization is not actually a person. Any organization, be it a business, a church, a club or a political movement, is made up of people. The foundation of the organization is the relationships amongst the people. There is no point to loyalty toward an abstract notion of an organization if you don't prioritize healthy relations with one another. So, if people you know are telling you they are hurting and that trust is being eroded, the organization can't successfully pursue much of anything without addressing that.
You're always going to feel better about yourself for keeping your friendships and working relationships intact than if you prioritize an institution over those relationships. Isn't that exactly what this political movement is about? Or are we going to repeat our societal ills by being more loyal to "Occupy" than we are to each other?
Anyway, I left the Wellness Circle feeling that it wasn't the best methodology to tending to our needs right now. Everyone meant well, but there are some gaps we may need help bridging. We need someone who is deft and can challenge us to actually hear each other and to hear the biases and fears and anxieties driving what we're saying and how we're behaving.
So many more things on my mind.... but I really have to go... I hope, at some point, maybe next diary, to talk about the spirit of consensus and how both our attitudes and our process are impeding us.