Monday, October 17, 2011

Non-Violent Communications

Yesterday got kind of interesting for a while down at the Occupation. It's always interesting, but yesterday was somewhat exceptional.

After coming off the high of the day before, the much larger crowds, the marches, the rallies, the camaraderie and spirit that seems to infuse all these efforts everywhere around the country and the world, yesterday's get-together and gab-fests (yak-yak-yak all the time until nobody has any voice left any more!) was mellow and more sparsely attended.

The arrestees from the night before weren't released until almost noon. They are being kept longer at the jail, and while so far as we know they aren't being physically abused, some say they have witnessed physical abuse of other prisoners -- not Occupiers -- and they have been kept in conditions of extreme discomfort for many hours -- typically more than 12 now -- with no food or water. It's not a pleasant experience for anyone, and the fact that so many of our participants are volunteering for jail every night has been an inspiration to everyone else to keep going. Going to jail isn't cheap, either. I'm told that each Occupier/Prisoner is assessed $575 in costs each time they are arrested and jailed. But there is no lack of support. And they all have excellent pro bono legal representation.

The current sheriff used to run the jail, and he's well known for having made a number of important reforms while in charge of the jail. The number of suits for abuse was growing year by year, and the reports out of the jail about brutality, neglect, and generally appalling conditions were scandalous. It was costing the County a lot of money in settlements as well. The situation may not have been as bad as that which is now being exposed regarding the Los Angeles County detention facilities, but it was bad, and something had to be done.

And something was done, one of them being the replacement of the jail supervisor with one of the department's most capable officers. There were still problems at the jail due to the nature of the officers assigned there -- new officers, generally, just getting their feet wet in law enforcement -- and the fact that no institution in our society, especially not incarceration focused institutions, changes quickly, nor necessarily positively, but the number of complaints declined, and the outrageousness quotient was reduced.

One of the teach-ins I attended yesterday as an observer dealt with Conflict Resolution and Non-violent communications, attended by about 20 participants and two "teachers." One teaches conflict resolution at the community college, the other is a conflict mediator in the private sector. As a side note, as I've previously noted, I am a certified workplace conflict mediator and have been a meeting facilitator perhaps hundreds of times. One loses track after a while! I have not engaged in meeting facilitation for at least five years, nor have I mediated workplace conflicts for almost ten years, which is quite a relief in many ways, for it takes a great deal out of you to do it and do it well. And I think I have mentioned previously that I would not volunteer to facilitate any level of Assembly or working group activity at this or any other Occupation for the simple reason that I know all too well that my training and experience in the field is simply a wrong fit for this kind of participatory democratic endeavor. I even hesitate to offer advice. The kind of mediation/facilitation skills that I learned and practiced are something like riding a bicycle. You never forget them, and they kick in automatically when the environmental cues are there. I would revert to the way I used to do it without even being conscious of the reversion. Those ways are superficially egalitarian, but they are actually very hierarchical and authoritarian, and they have a tendency to reinforce the "dominant paradigm," of course without meaning to. Of course not...

So it was interesting to observe how these two teacher/trainers approached the topic of conflict resolution and non-violent communication in the context of the OccupyTogether movement. Which, in fact, they didn't. There was hardly any mention of it, and what there was had mostly to do with how its objectives aligned their concepts of non-violence and conflict resolution... except... they don't. It's quite different.

Luckily, before I had a chance to open my big, fat mouth about it, I saw a man striding down the walk into the Plaza toward me. It was someone I haven't seen in nearly 15 years, a man who wrote two of the plays our theater produced back in the day, and who is now living and writing in Oakland. It was a remarkable reunion. He was with a musician friend, and he said he was in town briefly for a poetry reading and an exhibition of some of his paintings, which was even more delightful. His musician friend was accompanying his poetry reading on saxophone. This was getting better and better. He said he'd come down to check out the Revolution. He said he'd been arrested at the protest in San Francisco, not an experience he expected or wanted to repeat. We were shortly joined by another old pal, an old chum from the anti-war movement, and we chatted and carried on for quite a while reminiscing and bringing one another up to date, and exploring the nature of the changes we were witnessing and were a part of right now. There are plenty of activists from the Old Days, and artists, and civil rights and social justice workers and supporters from the Old Days involved if only peripherally in this revolution, and I think to most of us, this is quite a different thing than we have ever known before; it is fully a creature of the young -- as it should be -- and yet it is consciously inclusive, not exclusive at all. Every one of us who can do so is welcome to become part of it, contribute what and how we can, even if it is only attention from time to time. Come see for yourself, get involved, join us! The Revolution is here!

I can get pretty emotional about it, as can others from my generation. Most of us recognize that no matter how far we thought we had come, we didn't come far enough. No matter how much we thought we had won, there was still an enormous amount to do, perhaps a greater mountain to move than any of us had ever consciously thought of. The youth are taking on the challenge absolutely fearlessly, and I have nothing but the highest admiration for them.

I want to help, and I do what I can, but I know they have to do it themselves, and they are doing it, day in and day out, and we should all be proud and confident that what needs doing will be done.

So we talked and chattered until it was time for General Assembly, and we went our separate ways, now knowing the connections between us are much stronger than ever before.

The GA was... difficult. I will not detail what happened, because it is still a work in progress, and there are a few more mountains to climb before it is working smoothly. It did demonstrate how non-violent conflict is actually a positive element in the whole Occupy movement, and how disagreement is as important as, if not more important than, consensus as the movement grows and the nature of this Revolution is clarified. Consciousness was raised. It was tough, but it happened.

And your correspondent wound up part of the Facilitation Working Group/Committee. Yikes! Well, hail, we do what we can. It was, perhaps, inevitable.

We need more facilitators who are willing and able to work with and through the General Assembly process. The same five people have been trying to do it all from the beginning, and quite naturally they are reaching their limit of endurance. Us old farts are amazed they can keep it up as well as they do. So I expect that my role, such as it is, will be to help recruit and accustom new facilitators to the General Assembly process. It's not really a matter of training. It is more a matter of watching and doing, and being willing to make mistakes.

And what I might have said to the Conflict Resolution and Non-violent Communications teach in is that "non-violent communications" is already being used by the power and money elites as a weapon against us and as a way to disarm the movement. Learn to recognize it when it is being used as a weapon rather than as an aid.

When the 1% starts talking to us directly, watch for their use of confidence and trust building language that actually serves as a mask for what they have in mind -- which may be quite nasty and potentially violent. Be alert to the use by the 1% of conflict resolution techniques. They will do it. They are already doing it in some cases.

The reason to watch out for it is that when they do it, it is a trap. Don't fall into it. They do not have our interests at heart. Hold out. Be firm. Do not yield to their blandishments.

Thank you!

Thank you!

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