Thursday, October 13, 2011

Down at the Occupation

Every once in a while, someone gets upset about seeing Anarchy symbols at OccupySacramento, so much so that they are frightened enough to ask that they be removed before there is trouble. And I counter that Anarchists are the ones who have made the space for the Occupations to flourish. There is nothing to fear from them and there is much to praise.

Went down to the Occupation (that isn't quite an Occupation yet) in Sacramento this morning and then again this evening. There was supposed to be a General Assembly this morning. It didn't happen.

Since we do not really have an Occupation here, but instead have been coming-and-going (with arrests each night), the camp has to be set up each morning and torn down each night and a GA scheduled at 10am is a little more than folks can handle at this point. So I made the recommendation that early morning General Assemblies not be scheduled -- not even tentatively -- if there is any likelihood that they won't happen. Nevertheless my morning at the Occupation was not wasted time at all.

There was a visitor just in from OccupySeattle, and he brought with him a fellow who had just arrived from San Diego who was a strong supporter of the Occupation there. They had not know each other before, met in the airport here, found common interest, and came over to see what was up, attend the General Assembly, and see if they could help with process or any other matter having to do with OccupySacramento. This is one of the really extraordinary things that happens in connection with these Occupations. It is really a network of Occupations, but not in a formal sense. Participants are traveling all over to see for themselves what other people are doing, offer to help any way they can, stay for a day or a week or whatever time they can, and then go back to report on what they found and say: "Here's an idea I picked up in (name your place), why don't we try this?" Or, just as often, "I helped the Occupiers in (the other place) through this problem they were having and learned that pretty much everybody faces the same challenges."

In itself, that's a kind of magical thing. People are always doing this sort of networking and information sharing on a professional level, all very scheduled and routinized, but this is very informal and essentially serendipitous. I went to the GA this morning to speak a bit on process, but the GA didn't happen. Shon arrived from Seattle and wanted to discuss process in great detail and make recommendations on best practices.

So we talked. And talked and talked. It's kind of what you do at these impromptu gatherings and consults. I was picking his brain a lot because he said he'd was in New York for the first week of OccupyWallStreet where he saw how they developed and adapted the General Assembly framework from the Spanish model (which is in the Quick Guide) and how difficult it was -- but how rewarding in the end when it actually started to click. Then he went to Seattle where he's been since -- until today -- helping to develop and implement an adaptation of the model suited to Seattle. And one of the most interesting things he shared with me was that he had been in Zagreb during the occupation of the University there in 2009, and that it was a very inspirational experience for him. It was when he realized how important occupying was -- persistence, insistence, refusal to be moved, constant agitation, organization and demand were the keys to success. And the student occupiers were successful. They were able to remove the corrupt and incompetent University administrators and now they are in charge of the university. It took time and patience and determination, but it was done, so don't anybody say that Occupations are futile. They are not. They are an essential tool for instituting real change, establishing social -- or in the case of the University, academic -- justice.

The Occupation itself is a first step. The Sacramento Occupation is not yet a "real" occupation in that the Occupiers pack up every night and most of them disperse at Plaza closing time. Those who don't disperse are arrested and spend the night in jail. So far, approximately 50 Occupiers have volunteered in Sacramento for arrest. It has happened every night since the Occupation began. The objective here is to raise the issue of first amendment rights of assembly, free speech and petitioning for the redress of grievance, and the persistent arrests seem to be raising some consciousness about how little the People's voice is heard and how little it counts in the halls of power and money.

Without a "real" Occupation, though, we don't have territory that we are defending. We are still in the process of acquiring it, through an almost baroque process of sacrifice and appeal. The matter of allowing the Occupation to stay overnight at the Plaza is now in the hands of the City Council and the City Manager. The City Manager is perfectly capable of acting on his own, as is the Police Chief. They have the independent authority and the discretion to decide not to arrest anyone and allow the Occupation without further incident. But they won't do it.

The situation in Seattle is quite different. In Seattle, the Occupation claimed a very public space, Westlake Park, in the heart of Downtown Seattle, pretty much the hub of civic life. They claimed it, they moved in with tents and tables and they refused to be moved. Thousands came out to support them. The police have repeatedly harassed them and have on occasion become violent, tearing down the tents, pepper spraying Occupiers, using physical pain compliance tactics in arrests and so on. There have been a number of arrests, but not as many as here in Sacramento.

The Mayor initially declared the Westlake Occupation had to go. In fact, he put his foot in his mouth many times, eventually declaring his support for the Occupation, but still insisting that the Occupiers had to leave Westlake -- in part because there were other things, like anti-war rallies, planned there. He seemed insistent on making himself out to be the fool. He did offer an alternative space at the City Hall, where, after much discussion, and repeated votes to stay at Westlake, about half the Occupation moved. Then I learned that the rest of them were dispersed from Westlake this morning by police, something Shon didn't know.

His main concern, in any event, was establishing and securing the direct democracy process in Seattle and anywhere else there are Occupations because it is the process that maintains the Occupation over time and that protects the Occupation from hijacking and co-option.

I absolutely agree with him on that matter. But it is proving to be almost as difficult to make that point as it is to establish an effective direct democratic process. It takes time, patience and much practice to establish an effective process, and Shon was very open about how difficult it was in Seattle, in part because there were so many people intent on disruption.

I found that interesting because the stories of disruption he told were very similar to the ones I've heard in Austin and read about in other places. And yet, they do not seem to be happening here. At least not among those who are participating in the Occupation.

Shon described well-dressed people who would essentially try to disrupt through demands at General Assembly that were inappropriate or off topic or simply daft. Initially, I thought he was talking about the homeless mentally ill that are denizens of Westlake Park just as they are here in Cesar Chavez Plaza, but he said they weren't. They had very little problem with them. It was these people in "Brooks Brothers suits." He suspected they were police (or even DHS agents?) sent specifically to disrupt the General Assemblies, make it impossible for them to function and force the dissolution of the Occupation; the way to counter it was to reinforce the Assembly process and maintain the procedures that focused on the needs of the Assembly as a whole and which devolved authority as much as possible.

It seemed to be working when he left, but he mentioned the split that happened over the requirement that the Occupation vacate Westlake, despite the votes to stay. I suggested that was an inevitable outcome and that not too much should be made of it. Resistance is fine for those who can do it, but many people are afraid of the official reaction to resistance -- especially in Seattle given some of the incidents associated with the WTO protests and afterwards.

It hasn't come to that in Sacramento. There are arrests, but there is no police harassment, nor is there any overt threat of force. There is an effort to maintain good relations with the city and with the police that so far has kept the peace. But at some point, I think the necessity of an actual Occupation is going to take hold, and what will happen then, who knows?

We're seeing the ratchet of authority tighten all over the country. Step by step. Whether it is about "cleaning" the Occupation space, or offering alternative sites, or juicing up the police to conduct raids and mass arrests, or what have you, Occupations are under increasing pressure to cease and desist -- or become absorbed by the Borg and serve as little more than any other grassroots (or astroturf, as the case may be) lobby. That's the pressure more and more Occupations are under. It's not co-option, it's conformity. The resistance to that is strong right now, but how long it can be sustained is anyone's guess at the moment.

I returned to the OccupySacramento site this evening during the General Assembly, which was essentially a freeform presentation by committee (Working Group) representatives, requests for information or help with duties, and public speakers with positions they wanted to press. I spoke on the need to establish a more participatory democratic process in Sacramento's Occupation and mention my discussions with Shon this morning. I proposed a Working Group to study and report on best practices; there was no objection. So.

That's my assignment.

I have resisted volunteering as a facilitator or moderator -- and at this GA it appeared that there wasn't one -- due to the fact that I am a trained mediator and meeting facilitator. Those skills are simply not right for the moderating or facilitating the process of direct democracy. But interestingly, the first person who spoke up about being part of the process working group was another mediator!

So, this is going to be interesting.

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