Monday, October 24, 2011

A Point of Process: Occupy Dame Street Moves into its Third Week

In Occupy Dame Street practice, we indicate a point of process by making a letter “T” with both hands (like time out in basketball, for instance). We also call it a technical point. It is a very powerful gesture because it allows you to cut into the list of speakers and thus it should be used only if a person wants to make a comment directly to the facilitator. They may remind the facilitator that he or she forgot to ask for clarifying questions at the beginning of the consensus process or they may want to correct any information that they know is misguided. In many of the General Assemblies that we have had in front of the Central Bank in Dublin since October 8th when the occupation began, people have been using the technical point for many things but rarely for what it is meant for. This only testifies to the fact that the process is a learning curve for us all. This text is meant to make a point of process on Occupy Dame Street and, more generally, on the occupy movement worldwide. I will try to do my best not to abuse this right and wish to say that the views expressed here are mine only and are inspired by but do not represent the thousands of beautiful and courageous voices of the people who have come to participate in and support Occupy Dublin.

As Occupy Dame Street (ODS) enters its third week and the encampment is getting ready for the unpleasant wetness of an upcoming Irish winter, it is perhaps a good moment to suggest some time out so that we can think about the opportunities and needs of the process that keeps people involved in this movement and draws many more to it every day in many distant corners of the world.

We have to realise that what we are witnessing is the greatest struggle of our times unfolding before our very own eyes. Across the world, people are standing up in solidarity with one another, bringing their own very local and personal concerns to influence significantly the decisions that they make and actions that they undertake collectively. There should be no doubt that the scale of this movement (spanning across continents and places as remote as Madrid and Sydney, Toronto and Seoul, Sarajevo and Tokyo and a myriad of others) as well as its character is very unique.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media has treated ODS with benevolent scepticism and a good measure of distance. They have described the protesters as well-behaved and asked if they were more than just crusties. Media all over the world seem to be groping their way in the dark (or perhaps they are so dazzled by the new movement that they cannot see?), completely incapable - or unwilling - of grasping or even imagining what the scale and importance of this movement is. The mantra about the lack of clear demands that has been unquestioningly repeated by the mainstream media around the world makes a mockery of both the (supposedly) public and commercial channels. Angered and fed up with the ‘normal state of crisis’, people have finally turned off this breakfast television and took to their local streets and plazas. They have soon found out that they can make their own media. The use that they make of them shows that this movement is not only or even mainly about acting out their anger and frustration. There are trying to find collective and creative ways to live together in the camps and in wider society that would be geared towards the interests and needs of the 100 percent.

The process of arriving at collective decisions is obviously not easy mainly because consensus decision-making is not something that we are all familiar with. It is rather lengthy and more often than not - conflict-ridden. ODS has decided that it is going to use consensus decision-making in the working groups’ meetings as well as the General Assemblies (GAs). Soon it became apparent that we do not really share a common understanding of what consensus entails and many people felt frustrated that things were being discussed but no decisions following those debates were being made. Some were also upset that there would be times when a person or a group of people in a GA almost single-handedly decided if a consensus was reached or not. “So it seems to me that we have a consensus” - became for me a catchphrase of this attitude.

We were learning and we all knew that but we also realised that something had to be done about this quickly; otherwise our goals of a participatory and direct democratic process could be jeopardised by the no doubt good but still too impatient intentions and hasty conclusions of some individuals. We organised two meetings about consensus decision-making, and one of these meetings resulted in a proposal being put forward before the GA about the structure of the consensus decision-making in Occupy Dame Street. We mainly followed the experiences of other Occupy groups and our common sense of what may work in our circumstances. The Facilitation Group (most of whom are wonderful and powerful women) has also done a great job by organising workshops and making volunteers sensitive to the impartial role of the facilitator. The consensus process, however, is still far from perfect. It remains inoperative because as yet it is rarely used in the GAs on Dame Street.

One of the great opportunities that the process of the GAs offers is that everybody’s voice can be listened to and heard and every person have a profound and direct impact on what is decided. However, it is difficult to exercise this right if things are seldom decided during the GAs. More often than not, the assemblies are used as radically open fora which foster collective and equal debate among the participants, but again no decisions are made. This has a number of consequences. The decisions that are agreed upon during any of the working groups’ or in-house meetings do not have a broader legitimacy among anybody who is not staying overnight but can for example contribute a limited number of hours during a weekend. The working groups (media, security, food, arts and culture, facilitation, talks and workshops, construction) are not given the incentive to think beyond the immediate needs of the camp and its inhabitants (which are, by the way, really urgent and numerous). This issue can, however, be addressed by enhancing communication among the working groups, between the working groups and the GAs and between anybody involved in ODS and those who have not yet had a chance to get engaged.

The lack of communication has been discussed at many of the meetings and it seems that the demand for more transparency and better relations has resulted in or at least coincided with a qualitative change in the approach to the entire process. Minutes from all in-house meetings and GAs are now posted on the #OccupyDameStreet website. The immediate question that emerged together with this decision was, naturally, how to write the minutes. It would have been defeating their own purpose if the notes from the meetings were simply transcripts of ‘who said what’. This is why the facilitators concentrated on decisions and proposals. This, in turn, made the facilitators think about the meetings more in terms of decisions and proposals. A question that will now need to be thought through by everybody engaged in the movement is then perhaps how can we make our assemblies places where concrete and practical decisions are made, commitments are undertaken and avoid a tendency to turn GAs into little battlefields centred around various ideological issues? The latter can of course produce really interesting discussions but they do not necessarily take the movement forward. And it is precisely the question of moving our struggle forward that has now become central to us, as was clear after the GA that took place on Saturday, 22. October (just after the second ODS march from the Garden of Remembrance, attended by around 2000 people).

Garnering support for the movement will be a difficult task but we already have a number of proposals on the table: arrange focused GAs, form a separate outreach group, draft an open letter to unions’ memberships, I would add: organise, if we can, student walk-outs and similar displays of solidarity, encourage university faculties and departments to endorse the protest. As soon as (and if) we start doing such things and the assemblies begin making concrete decisions, a whole range of new issues will become relevant. There has been reduced Garda presence around the camp and at the two marches but we know that all it takes to change this all in all supportive attitude is one indiscriminate decision by some official; it would not depend on us and our behaviour. In such case, we would probably need help from people who would like to volunteer for a legal working group so as to make sure that everybody knows their rights and the laws regulating our activities.

And the last point of process is, I guess, having a process in place and making sure that it is used in an open and democratic way. Many of us are still unsure what consensus means: is it unanimity? What if one person disagrees? Does that stop consensus? A good way to overcome this problem is to help people familiarise themselves with the process. No, consensus does not have to mean unanimity. One person disagreeing with the proposal does not have to stop the consensus. Consensus decision-making means a collective reworking of the original proposal so that everybody’s concerns are addressed. A short introduction at the beginning of each GA may be all that is required to clarify these issues as well as the more formal procedure of the consensus process. It would have also helped if it was often stressed and people knew about the living nature of all statements agreed on in ODS. This makes the process open and truly responsive to the needs of people who may be only beginning to join the struggle. While the movement is growing and spreading to other Irish cities: Cork, Galway and Limerick, we have to continue working on its democratic processes so that its momentum is not forfeited by the temptation to concentrate on our immediate camp needs for food and (dry) shelter. We should also stay wary of any attempts to settle in for anything less than real and participatory democracy for the camp, the GA and the wider society in Ireland and abroad.

When you talk to people, listen to their stories about why they have become involved in this movement, a pleasurable feeling of unison emerges - the movement is not about a fixed and predefined group of people with ideals that they want others to follow. ODS and the occupy movement worldwide is about the process of coming together, using our voices to speak for ourselves, our family and our community. Importantly, it is about creating something collectively in a spirit of sharing and in spite of the fact that sometimes the only things that we may be sharing is the struggle itself and the will to win it for ourselves and everybody else. We are not trying to change the world. We are already changing it.

Anna Szołucha

The text has also been published in Irish Left Review.

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