I left New York, sadly, on Wednesday and took the bus back to Boston. I came home exhausted and inspired and, apparently, invaded by some virus. I had intended to immediately involve myself in #OccupyBoston but had to wait until I was well enough on Saturday. I'll report on experiences in the context of how things were similar and different from #OccupyWallWtreet, the lessons learned from each thus far, and how I imagine myself participating.
Upon arriving, the first glaring difference is tents versus an open space full of people and things scattered everywhere. The Boston Police Department and the owners of the property, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, have allowed the occupiers to put up tents.
(please note this is a long piece getting to an object lesson. If you get a little discouraged, read the final two paragraphs and then return back to where you left off.)
#OccupyBoston is situated in Dewey Square on Atlantic Avenue. This is convenient for travelers or commuters, as it is across the street from South Station, a major bus and train terminal. It is symbolically powerful as it is also across the street from the Federal Reserve Building.
It was impressive to see a small village of tents on a public square in the financial district of Boston. It immediately gives the impression that something very unusual is happening. It's not a festival or a farmer's market. People aren't just hanging out, they're camping out! In a public square! A rainbow of nylon canvasses creates an upbeat color scheme in contrast to the gray of Liberty Square.
The grass makes for a softer environment than all of the marble and concrete of Liberty Square. However, it also means that rain leads to mud, which leads to a grimy cardboard walkway. (see below for photo of infrastructure upgrade!) Muckier than NY due to the mud, but less cluttered and more contained due the tents.
When you arrive at #OccupyWallWtreet you see everyone buzzing around. You get an immediate sense of intense activity. The energy is abundant and compelling. In Dewey Square, it seemed subdued, at first. I had to walk around to see that there were people preparing and serving food in the Food Tent and people working at computers in the media tent, etc. There were a few people milling about, but most of the activity was happening inside tents, so the energy was partitioned. Now, I had arrived at #occcupywallstreet a week after the encampment began, so some of this may be the difference between how established the occupations were. Also, there was a march ongoing when I arrived in Dewey Square, meaning that a lot of people were off site. Still, even when marches were underway in New York, there were lots of people scurrying around.
Another notable difference between #Occuppywallstreet and #Occupyboston has to do with a focal point for the protest aspect of the movement. In NYC, the encampment is a few blocks away from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Twice a day, at opening bell and closing bell, they march from the square to the NYSE and back. Its not a long march, but it has several important aspects to it:
- If nothing else, there are two actions per day for anybody and everybody to participate in,
- People like to make signs for marches, which:
- gives people something creative to do, and
- inherently communicates to the rest of world why they are doing it,
- and it creates a structural framework for the day.
These marches focus everybody on action rather than pontification and ideology formation. If there are other activities, such as marching to meet up with the Postal Worker Union's marchers, that's great and maybe one of the NYSE marches won't happen. But, if nothing else comes up, you always have this.
#OccupyBoston, from what I could tell, lacks this. When I arrived, there was a march underway but, people seemed confused about why this particular march was occurring. The target of that march was a college fair at the Hynes Convention Center. Nobody I spoke to was even certain of exactly the event was or the purpose of targeting a march to it. It lacked clarity. It was long - 3 to 4 miles round trip depending on the route. It was also a one-off target. There doesn't appear to be a fixed target for ongoing marches or demonstrations. There was a demonstration in front of the Federal Reserve building on Friday night, but I haven't seen that repeated.
There is a cascading effect of having no regular action planned. First, outsiders have no idea when to come and immediately engage. They now think that this is what the General Assembly is for. People are seeking a venue through which they hear rallying cries and express their own anger and frustration at the mess our country has been dragged into. However, a General Assembly is not for that purpose. A General Assembly is for constructing solutions to problems via a consensus process. That is, it's a group decision-making forum, not a speechifying forum. There is a lot of confusion at #OccupyBoston about the function of the General Assembly. For those who attended the three General Assemblies where the planning for the physical occupation occurred, they might notice a difference between how well those General Assemblies went versus how challenging the post-occupation General Assemblies have been.
There are no set actions to participate in and very little work outside of camp subsistence and media interaction taking place. People feel undirected. The frustration at broken systems which compels them to come here isn't channeled into anything. The frustrations is then directed at the occupation itself, which is manifested in an unruly, uncooperative crowd at the General Assembly because there is little understanding of the General Assembly is for and how to conduct one.
The direct, participatory democratic process which has been modeled in Tahrir Square, the encampanadas in Spain, and beyond, is about being active, not passive. It is not about speechifying solely for the sake of evoking emotions or venting or making sure everyone knows what you think. The General Assembly, therefore, is not a pep rally. That model, which dominates our current system of governance, is grounded in a shepherd and sheep approach to addressing societal needs. The consensus building model is grounded in a collective problem-solving approach wherein a specific need is put in front of everyone and together they determine how to address it. Collective thinking to build solutions together rather than individual thinking where we choose a winner who builds solutions for us - which means there are losers.
This concept has been documented by Commission for Group Dynamics in Assemblies of the Puerta del Sol Protest Camp (Madrid). Here they disuss the value of collective thinking:
Open Reflection on Collective Thinking
To our understanding, Collective Thinking is diametrically opposed to the kind of thinking propounded by the present system. This makes it difficult to assimilate and apply. Time is needed, as it involves a long process. When faced with a decision, the normal response of two people with differing opinions tends to be confrontational. They each defend their opinions with the aim of convincing their opponent, until their opinion has won or, at most, a compromise has been reached.
The aim of Collective Thinking, on the other hand, is to construct. That is to say, two people with differing ideas work together to build something new. The onus is therefore not on my idea or yours; rather it is the notion that two ideas together will produce something new, something that neither of us had envisaged beforehand. This focus requires of us that we actively listen, rather than merely be preoccupied with preparing our response.
Collective Thinking is born when we understand that all opinions, be these opinions our own or others’, need to be considered when generating consensus and that an idea, once it has been constructed indirectly, can transform us.
Do not be discouraged: we are learning; we’ll get there: all that’s needed is time.
Here, they define what a General Assembly (also knows as a People's Assembly) is:
What is a People’s Assembly?
It is a participatory decision-making body which works towards consensus. The Assembly looks for the best arguments to take a decision that reflects every opinion – not positions at odds with each other as what happens when votes are taken. It must be pacific, respecting all opinions: prejudice and ideology must left at home. An Assembly should not be centered around an ideological discourse; instead it should deal with practical questions: What do we need? How can we get it? The Assembly is based on free association – if you are not in agreement with what has been decided, you are not obliged to carry it out. Every person is free to do what they wish – the Assembly tries to produce collective intelligence, and shared lines of thought and action. It encourages dialogue and getting to know one another.
Notice the key defining phrase, "decision-making body", and a key aspect of the decision-making process, time. The overall citizenry of #OccupyBoston don't hold this understanding. There doesn't seem to be a critical mass of the citizenry who do and who can protect the process so that the General Assembly can function as such. At the General Assembly I attended on Saturday night, I saw very few actual decisions made. There were a lot of announcements, a lot of camp logistics discussed and then a discussion on "messaging" which was done via people breaking into groups and then having groups representatives report out their group's thoughts about messaging. (I'll write another time about the "messaging" meme.) This was the only time when people seemed engaged and had energy about what was being said. It ultimately fell flat, though, because it was unclear what the process was leading to. There weren't any proposals on the table or decisions to be made. There were a few "rah rah" moments, but once that cheering dissipated there was nothing of substance left.
Since there isn't a clear understanding of the purpose of the General Assembly or the full, timely process of consensus decision-making, there is confusion and agitation amongst the participants. (I'm going to write another diary about how Assemblies work.) With no agreed upon structure to set expectations, each participant is left to self-generate an expectation. With a few hundred participants, you get a few hundred expectations and likely zero of those will be met. What ensues is discontent, which gets aimed at the "facilitators". I put that word in quotes, because this is another structural issue for #OccupyBoston. They don't have people fulfilling the different roles that need to be played in an assembly. Their "facilitators" are actually doing the jobs of Moderator, Vibe Checker, Floor-Time Team, and Coordinators. In fact, they are being denied the power to faciliate. There even seems to be confusion about what the word facilitation means. The job, as it's being defined right now, would be an overwhelming undertaking in a setting where the Assembly process was owned by all the participants. It's an impossible task when you don't even know what you're facilitating and the participants seem to think your job is simply to call out the names of the next person to come to the microphone.
I watched, both in-person and via livestream, several "facilitators" get completely knocked down, dragged out and dis-empowered in Assemblies. It was painful.
When in New York, I had a purpose for being there. I didn't just go to shout and march. I had a "job". I was helping them set up mental health services for the campers, since they were living under the stress of tensions with police, living in a concrete outdoor public space, and getting, or witnessing others getting, arrested and sometimes brutalized. I went straight to the Medic Working Group and dove right in. By having work to do, I immediately felt connected and productive. I had no interest in doing the same job in Boston. The dynamics here are different and I had received personal requests for help in New York. It was a temporary fill in role to get real professionals on the scene and I was done. I'm a mom at home. I don't need to mother anybody else. Still, if I'm to support the movement here, I need to be doing something.
Having sat through several General Assemblies and Working Group Assemblies in New York and being a person naturally interested in group dynamics and how to work together, I did some research to get a better understanding of the Assembly consensus process. I decided to join the Facilitation Working Group to offer my limited experience, what I had learned, and to learn more. I thought I was attending a training, yesterday, when I arrived at 5pm. It turned out that schedules were in flux. There was a 6pm meeting. I was asked to join that. Only it wasn't a training. It wasn't even a regular Facilitation Working Group assembly.
There was a bit of panic in the air about General Assembly (GA) and facilitation, at that moment. The people who usually generates the agenda had all been occupied with other activities. At 6pm, there was no agenda and no plan. Usually, there is an agenda presented to facilitators who plan how to facilitate. (Well, really they decide who is facilitating. I think they offer strategies to those selected, but since there is no buy in to empower the facilitation team, they can't really make decisions with any sense that this is how things will happen.) So, the Facilitation Working Group meeting became a combined agenda creation/facilitator choosing meeting. The GA team informed us that they usually take two hours to create an agenda. Facilitation then usually takes an hour or so to get their act together. We had to do 3 hours of work in under an hour.
There really was no time to deeply consider the best construction of an agenda. From some previous discussions there was a proposed agenda template. We simply worked from that even though we knew it was flawed. We filled in the template, which included a time slot for "A BIG TOPIC". We had hoped that a big topic would come out of proposal ideas from working groups during their report out period. We had to have a back up plan, though. So, it came up that there had been a lot of discussion throughout the camp about the oppression of marginalized voices. This is an issue that our society as a whole faces, so if we could model ways to rectify that, we'd both address an issue in the camp and offer something to the greater society watching us. Setting the agenda took up all of our time. We ended up with about 2 minutes to select facilitators.
We needed two "facilitators", a time keeper and a stack manager. Four people out of a group of about 10. Almost every person had other obligations which precluded them from volunteering. Two people then quickly volunteered for the relatively easy roles of time-keeping and stack management. That left two of us sitting there who hadn't said we absolutely couldn't do it: : myself and a lovely man named Chris. We also happened to be a woman and a black male, representing two classes of marginalized voices. There was excitement about that. By default, we were the volunteer facilitators. In less than 2 minutes, both of us, without any training, were to "facilitate" a General Assembly. I didn't even have time to tell people that I have a disability which may interfere. The time was upon us and the job simply had to be done.
Right off the bat, I was uncomfortable. I knew that the people congregated didn't have a unified understanding of what an Assembly is and how it works and that they continually challenged the idea of empowering anybody. There seems to be confusion between the concept of empowering someone in a role versus someone wielding power oppressively. There just didn't seem any way that things could go well
After opening remarks and coming to consensus on the agenda, working groups announcements were up. It had been stated that announcements and proposals at this point had to be items that extended beyond the logistics of the encampment itself. Camp-related items would come at the end. As is always the case, people had their own interpretations of that. They also didn't adhere to time limits. Yet, when we as facilitators tried to filter both content and time, we were met with vocal objections from the participants. The objections were couched as though we were being too controlling over people's speech and what could and could not be said. There was zero appreciation for the need for structure and enforcement of structure. We still managed to a little process management, but it was far from perfect. We went about 10 minutes over time, I think. Perhaps more.
Next up was The Big Topic. None of the working groups had put up any proposals. We had explained during the consensus of the agenda that if no proposals were presented we had a topic planned. We presented the topic. Immediately, a man yells out, "who decided that?" So, our topic is to gather ideas on how to include marginalized voices in the decision-making of the occupation and a white male wearing a camouflage jacket and a military-style beret starts to agitate against it. It just so happened that it started to sprinkle rain at the same time and a few other voices rose up saying that they didn't want to do break out groups in the rain.
At this point, I utterly failed as a facilitator. This is partly because I wasn't skilled enough. It was also because there is no infrastructure in place to empower and protect the facilitators. For instance, throughout the entire Assembly, when I would step back while my co-facilitator was front and center, there were people approaching me with their personal criticisms of me and their suggestions of how to run a General Assembly. A couple of them were quite aggressive. Often the critiques were diametrically opposed. "You're too aggressive!" "You need to be more aggressive!" I quite literally had to put my hand up to create space and repeatedly tell them that this was not the time, I was a little bit busy! There was zero infrastructure in place to stop this from happening. There is also no critical mass of people amongst the participants to affirm the process or the role of the facilitators. The facilitators are left to do mob control. If the mob refuses to engage the agenda item on hand, you can't force them. At this point, I thought the Assembly should end, but I did not get agreement from the team, so we pressed on.
We wasted the time in which we would have productively started to address something, talking about what we would talk about. There was never really a consensus on that. At one point, it was so comical that there was some energy about a topic and the suggestion was that we break out into groups. I actually chuckled into the microphone. As that entire time slot was used up in a mild chaos, I proposed that the next evening's big topic be a discussion of what a General Assembly is and is not and how you conduct one. There was a clear consensus to go ahead with that. In an odd way, I felt like that was some kind of community victory. They can't move forward without addressing this. Doing it publicly may help more people gain an understanding of the process and it's value.
I was beyond my energy capacity at this point, too. Sensory overload had set in and, at one point, I wandered off the stage, leaving my co-facilitator up there alone. I was having a seizure, but no one there would have known that, since I don't have convulsive seizures. Later, in a debriefing meeting - which lasted 3 hours! - I was convulsing and that was obvious. But, during the GA, another member of the Facilitation Working Group saw me wandering and finally got my attention and asked, "Aren't you still facilitating." I regained my senses, literally, and stepped back in. (I'm a mess today and am resting, hoping I might make the planning meeting today, though I will come right home and not attend the General Assembly.)
What the participants at Dewey Square really wanted was a rally. They were most excited about the "individual stack". Again, this is not used as it would be in a proper General Assembly. Individual stack is a place for non-working group proposals to be made. For these folks, it's an open mic. Given that they had no other outlet for that energy, it was what it was. What we saw unfold was that during the whole debacle of rejecting The Big Topic agenda item, many people walked away. Those left were those who had agitated against the agenda as set and who pushed to get to the open mic section. Would you be at all surprised to learn that what my co-facilitator and I saw was that after those sitting in front disappeared, we were facing a wall of white males? Yes, there were other people. They were literally on the margins of the group. Standing front and center were all these white males who came off as domineering . At one point, one of them even asked to speak in able to make a suggestion that we didn't need to make decisions via consensus. We should just do a straight majority vote. A consensus process is designed to ensure that marginalized voices have avenues to get their perspectives and needs included in a decision-making process. Can you say, "irony"?
We were using a tool called "progressive stack". This allows the stack manager, who normally calls out people to speak in the order in which they asked to go on stack, to bump up someone who represents a voice not being heard from. Still, the stack ended up with very few people who were not male and most of those were white. It was sad. We let it play out and the meeting ended.
There was, as I noted above, a 3-hour debriefing meeting to critique the process and suggest improvements and to plan for how to prepare for the next night's GA and Big Topic. We agreed that the working groups needed to generate the agenda, that the GA needed to be more about proposals and less about non-essential announcements and open mic and that we might model this by presenting proposals the next evening about how to conduct a GA. It was to be announced this morning that working groups needed to send representatives to a 5pm meeting for agenda creation and then the facilitation group would plan how to manage it.
If I can make it, I plan to bring with me documents which establish a baseline for what Assemblies are understood to be and how they are usually conducted. I will propose that they start with that model and modify as befits this group's needs. I hope others have proposals. We'll see how it goes.
I know that what I've presented here can read as though #OccupyBoston is a hopeless mess. It isn't. That is only a conclusion you would reach if you don't have faith in process which takes time. I found myself feeling that the very public nature of struggling, in this microcosm, with how you get from our traditionally ingrained approaches to governance and politics to something completely different, could be a very meaningful exercise. In New York, we got to see some of the successes of collective thinking, because there was large enough base of people who owned the process already. Hopefully, their successes lead to a little faith in the process or at least some open curiosity. #OccupyBoston hasn't had to live with the serious tensions of the overbearing police presence in NY, which acted like a super glue bonding them as a community. Struggling to bring people into the consensus process may be the bonding experience here. We are the 99% and the people involved in #OccupyBoston are all united in their deep dissatisfaction of the status quo and the utter despair it has generated. They just don't yet know how to channel it into something transformative. If they can persevere and get from a vague sense of this "General Assembly thing" to a strong commitment to the collective thinking and consensus decision making of the participatory direct democracy model, it could be a powerful object lesson for us all. I'd love to see someone document it on film so that it could be an inspiration shared over and over.
So, I'm going to hang in there with them. I have a lot to learn and I'll share as I go. I hope you'll tune in and see what you might learn, as well.
#OccupyBoston is centered in Dewey Square across the street from South Station:
You can watch their livestream here.
If you'd like to support the occupation, they update a list, daily, of the supplies needed.
I think they're still working out the proper channels for accepting monetary donations.
Hey, look! The cardboard pathway was upgraded to a boardwalk:
crossposted at Plutocracy Files