Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Simplicity, Intentional Community, and Infiltration -- or zOMG!!1 UR doinit wrng!!!

This post is prompted partly by my experience watching a good deal of the Austin, TX General Assembly and its aftermath last night on the Livestream (btw, all props to John, I think it was, who was handling the internetcast with aplomb and good humor and stuck with it throughout.)

ZOMG!!! Those poor people. Oh, my, fucking, god.

All right, now everybody who's tried it acknowledges that the General Assembly process, the participatory democracy that's at the core of the Occupations, is a BITCH (in a completely gender neutral way, btw) to learn and to do. It goes against every level of conditioning most of us have had most of our lives. Ideally, there is no hierarchy and there is no leadership in a General Assembly; there is a format, an agenda, moderators (sometimes with assistance), a recorder, and participants. That's it. Consensus must be achieved to move forward, and we're talking about consensus in the purest form. In the models from Europe and North Africa, there are no votes. Oh really? Nope. Consensus is achieved when no one objects to -- or blocks -- a proposal. Consensus doesn't mean, in other words, that everybody agrees; it means that no one is in sufficient opposition to block the proposal.

This is a concept of democracy that I doubt many people have ever heard of. There is grounding for not taking votes, but I'm not going to get into that here. Instead I'll link to the Quick Guide on Group Dynamics (pdf) which is the basic operating manual for General Assembly. Getting access to this document was not easy in the early days of #OccupyWallStreet. I found it through the Stimulator, and I wouldn't have found the Stimulator if I wasn't watching the balky and often offline Livestream from New York which sometimes used Stimulator clips as filler when the media team in Liberty Plaza was having yet another crisis.

The Quick Guide is now available at the Occupy Together Wiki site where you can also find a lot of additional helpful operational information, but to find it, you pretty much have to have a key. I got it from this post at Corrente. This difficulty of accessing the most basic operational information has meant that many of the Occupations are spontaneously arising but then they are flying blind. They may have seen the operations of a General Assembly and/or Working Group on the New York Livestream -- or maybe not. Not everyone involved can sit in front of a computer all the live long day and night absorbing Occupation information. And a lot of those who spend more time in front of a computer than I do have no idea this information even exists.

So it's no wonder many of the Occupations are having severe operational problems and some are floundering badly.

Back to those poor people in Austin. They have the format down, pretty much, and the basic structure is in place for General Assembly, much more so than is the case in Sacramento (which I'll try to get to before the end of this post), but they wound up not at a good place. That was so for several reasons that I could spot right off:

  • The Assembly space was set up outdoors on the steps of the City Hall, but it was arranged like a nightclub. There was a sort of rostrum or stage on the left where the moderators held forth and the audience (they were a passive audience, not active participants) sat quietly (well, until they wouldn't put up with it any more) in a semi-circle listening to the speakers who were using a club-caliber PA that was as loud as what you would expect at Open Mic night at the Comedy Room and which literally overwhelmed and overrode any other discussion or comment whatsoever.

  • The moderator said he was trained in conflict mediation, and yet was constantly trying to assert authority over the General Assembly, telling participants what they could and could not do or say and how -- or whether -- they could present their proposals or participate in discussion, interfering constantly, and otherwise ratcheting up the tension and animosity toward him and toward the process itself until it nearly reached an explosive level.

    I'm a trained conflict mediator and meeting facilitator, too, and because I am, I will not, under any circumstance, volunteer to moderate or facilitate either a General Assembly or a Working Group, for the simple reason that I know, no matter how much I try to suppress it, my professional training and the skill set I have in mediation and meeting facilitation is going to emerge, and it is simply wrong for this process. I even hesitate to give advice. What I know how to do is not how this process works or can work, and even if I try not to, any advice I offer will have inappropriate elements that simply don't work and can't work in this kind of process.

    Basically it boils down to this: while seeming to be "neutral," the mediator or facilitator is always in charge. At the core, mediation and facilitation are aspects of Authority. The Working Group and the General Assembly are supposed to be democratic bodies that eschew authority over others on an individual level. The Authority of the Working Group or General Assembly is that of the whole reached through discussion and consensus and not guided to a conclusion by a leader. *

  • They seemed to be trying to race to decisions or conclusions without adequate discussion or buy in by the Occupation participants. This led to more conflict, more attempts at "conflict resolution" -- rather than open discussion and development of ideas. This led to more hostility and conflict and so on. I was watching from 2000 miles away, and I could feel it in my bones. It was not pleasant, nor was it productive because people wound up focusing on individuals and their hostility toward them. I could spot what was going wrong but there was no way to intervene, and I doubt I would have done it anyway if I had been there. Each group has to work this shit out for themselves, and it's hard to do.

  • Much of what I was witnessing sounded like a group therapy session or even an AA meeting. Yikes! They seemed to recognize they were off track, but they couldn't get back on the right track on their own, and the moderator was not much help -- partly because he'd already inspired so much hostility among the group and because it seemed like he was on this therapeutic/recovery track too. Some of the others did try to intervene, but they didn't know quite what they needed to do to move the group back in the right direction without causing even more upset.

  • Finally, the Assembly was adjourned by the moderator -- who was quite huffy by this time. He acknowledged that the process was a problem for many of the people there and that the primary complaint was that it was taking too long and there were too many extraneous items; and, further, he acknowledged that many of the participants had a problem with his moderation of the General Assembly.

    So, the Assembly broke up into Working Groups and Affinity Groups and the Livestream stayed with them. Some people were really angry at what they had just been through, but others seemed to take it in stride; things would work out in their own time, etc. That tends to be my attitude, but still... it is really tough emotionally. It is wrenching when you are so worked up and so angry at what is happening and you can't seem to do anything about it. You've got to get rid of this fury somehow or you're going to drown in your own venom. Oh how I know that to be true!

    Some seemed to recognize it was misplaced anger, to boot. The source of the anger is outside the Occupations; it's found in the utter powerlessness of the People to affect the ruling elites through any conventional means, and what they were experiencing in the GA was an example of how what was driving the generation of the Occupations was being transferred directly into the Occupation itself. It was a very frustrating recognition.

    The cameraman then went down the street to a coffee house where the Facilitator Working Group was meeting, "chaired" by -- facilitated by? I don't know -- the moderator (I think his name was Josh) who had just adjourned the General Assembly. There were moderators, facilitators, and other interested people in attendance, maybe fifteen or twenty altogether, and one just lit into this Josh fellow with a verbal chain saw. He took the floor, he would not yield, he was going to have his say no matter what Josh wanted or didn't want, and neither Josh nor anyone else could stop him.

    He was furious, he was absolutely furious at what he had witnessed at the General Assembly; it took too long, he said it shouldn't take any more than half an hour, he was proposing that the time limit be a half an hour, and he seemed to be saying that he tried to make that proposal at General Assembly, but Josh wouldn't let him. From that point, he got pretty incoherent, but it seemed to be most about how manipulative and controlling Josh was trying to be, and how he would not let people state their case, he would interfere, he would restate, or he would simply refuse to allow someone to speak, and this guy just would not take it any more. Others were more subdued about it, and they tried not to make their criticisms personal, but it was clear that at least half and maybe more of those in attendance at this Working Group meeting thought that Josh had really screwed up. After a good deal of intense discussion about what had happened, Josh announced that he had a yoga class in the morning, he was tired, and this was not something he thought he could do any more. In effect, he quit. Many of those in attendance applauded.

    As soon as he left, the remaining Working Group participants got down to business, discussed what needed to be discussed regarding future plans and moderating General Assemblies, came to tentative consensus on some issues, saved others for later, and basically ended the meeting on good terms.

    After Josh left, nobody was officially chairing the meeting, nobody was leading the discussion, yet they were able to work through the matters they needed to, set others aside, and then go on with their lives.

    The contrast between the hierarchical/authoritarian "leadership" model of running a meeting and the more free form leaderless model could not have been starker. It doesn't mean that one form is objectively better than the other. It means that one -- the hierarchical model --is not appropriate for this kind of endeavor.

    I should point out that everyone I could see and everyone who spoke up in the Livestream of the Working Group was white and non-female-identified gendered (terminology can get a little baroque, eh?) Few were older than 35, most seemed a good deal younger, though there were a couple of old coots there for spice. I noticed, too, that at General Assembly, almost no one "talked Texan" (I hear more Texas-style talking in New Mexico than I heard at this General Assembly) whereas at the Working Group meeting, there was far more Texas talk. That got me thinking, too. Josh did not "talk Texan" but many of those who were challenging him did. The fellow who started off the litany of complaints, however, did not have a Texas twang. And I wonder if part of the issue with Josh was an identity thing: did the native Texans, in other words, see him as an outsider -- or even worse, a turncoat? People can get these notions in their heads and they can be especially corrosive when they're not conscious of it.

    Yet despite all the internal dissension and turmoil in Austin, it was clear this was a highly cohesive group determined to make a positive difference in their own lives and those of others through the establishment of an Occupation and the intentional community that the Occupation inspires. I don't know how many were in total attendance, but I'd guess a hundred or so, and for the size and nature of the city that's pretty darned good. Many of them intended to stay the night on the City Hall steps. They would not be moved. It seemed to me from a distance that most of those in attendance were young and white and possibly from UT. There were a few people of color and of age, and some seemed to be old-line lefty activists, but it was not entirely clear that that was the case. I'm sure there was an anarchist or two, and there were probably members of other political factions -- at least one was a Ron Paul partisan, at least judging by his tee shirt. But it really doesn't matter what faction you're from unless you're trying to promote that faction unduly -- ie: it has nothing to do with the topic at hand. Otherwise, it's all good.


    In Sacramento, the Occupation is developing differently. Quite a bit differently, in part because of the Principal Issue: the arrests. There were none last night, I read, but I wasn't able to discover why before I started writing this. I suspect there was a decision at the GA that no one stay in the Plaza after 11pm, or whenever, and be subject to arrest. But I haven't found confirmation that was the case yet. Part of the problem with communications that afflict all the Occupations is that there is a super-abundance of information chaotically thrown out there in multiple fields and formats, and finding what you're looking for can be like searching for a needle in a haystack.

    Last night, I was also following some of the action in Boston on the Livestream as their sub-camp was raided and destroyed by police while a hundred or so activists were arrested, some violently. There is so much going on. It's impossible to keep up.

    Last night was the first night since the Occupation began in Sacramento when there were no arrests of Occupiers. There are plans tonight to ask the City Council to direct staff to cease and desist the arrest of peaceful petitioners for redress of grievance, or however they choose to word it. Talk about "baroque." They are about to be introduced to the utterly opaque and Byzantine operations of Sacramento city government. I haven't been closely involved with it in about 15 years, so maybe things have changed, but I doubt it. I know that some of the Occupiers are relatively familiar with how it works, but for others, the operations of City Government will come as a real shock. For example, they may think that the City Council or the Mayor have authority over city staff. For all practical purposes, they don't. They can direct staff, but they can't compel. The City Manager is actually in charge and is actually the decision maker. He is accountable only to the City Council, not to the public, and the only thing the City Council can do if they don't approve of what he is doing is fire him; but that can only happen if a super majority of the Council agrees. There have been reports that the arrests have been ordered by the City Manager, and the police are merely complying with what they are told to do. That's pretty obvious, but a couple of things arise: the Council can say whatever they want, and the City Manager can blow them off, and nothing will change. Second, it seems like the police are really tired of this nightly ritual, and they would very much like to defuse the issue. So my suspicion is that staff is working out some sort of quasi-accommodation such that the Occupation can continue without further arrests, but without official permission to "camp," and the city officials can get back to their important business of serving the interests of the NBA and other billionaires.

    Sigh. That's how they used to handle these kinds of things; whether they will still do it this way, I don't know. There has been a lot of hostility between the City Manager's office and the Occupation.

    As for process here, only the very basic outlines of the General Assembly and Working Groups are being implemented. There is a General Assembly at least once a day, and there are active Working Groups which report to the Assembly. This Occupation is not using the Quick Guide model of operation, however. Instead, they are using an informal version of Robert's Rules of Order. At least they were as of Saturday. I haven't been down to the Occupation since then. They're using it, I assume, because it is familiar -- and an agenda can be processed through real quick, lightning fast if need be. I got real nervous about doing things that way, it's gonna cause trouble, as it already has, over "leadership" issues, but so far, the Occupation has been able to keep modifying the rules so that no one person is The Leader, all are Leaders. The advantage I can see for this course is that things can stay pretty spontaneous, decision-making can be quick when need be, participants aren't discombobulated by a totally unfamiliar process, and the need for moderation and facilitation is limited, so people who are trained to do it aren't in a position to force issues or "agreeance." (A term heard at many Occupations. It is a Bushism.)

    The focus shifts inevitably toward "doing something" -- events in other words -- rather than the process that leads to doing something. There are typically several marches a day, for example. There is a growing intentional community that is very simply arranged but which works very well. Of course it has to be set up and torn down every day because of the restriction on staying in the Plaza overnight, but the only real problem with that is that it is not an "occupation." It is a coming-and-going. Many "Occupations" are actually comings-and-goings and periodic events rather than taking ground and holding it. There has been no real conflict with the police, but there is -- at least as of Saturday -- no real liaison with them, either.

    The arrests are frankly Agit-Prop Theater. They are staged and choreographed events, all very carefully worked out in advance with the legal team, volunteers for arrest, and whoever is in charge on the police end. From what I've seen, the police are actually using them as training opportunities for how to deal with civil unrest and demonstrations. They are varying their approaches and modifying their actions, apparently to try out different methods, and they have largely restricted witness access to what is going on and how they are doing it (which may be a violation of rights, among so many others.) The volunteers, the police, and the demonstrators are all playing their roles in a kind of nightly pageant focused on securing First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly and the right to petition the government for redress of grievance. Very straightforward.

    No one has yet produced an ordinance, rule or regulation that authorizes closing the Plaza to the public between the hours of 11p or 12m and 5a. And no one has been able to justify the prohibition of an overnight demonstration or protest, when in fact the "public protest" ordinance is clear that public protest is a protected activity that does not require permits but is only subject to a fairly limited set of rules of conduct. That's all.

    There have been some fairly intense personality clashes and people storming off in huff during the first few days of the Occupation, but really surprisingly little of it, and most of the tension that has arisen has had to do with "leadership" issues (as far as I can tell) -- most of which have been more or less temporarily resolved. Of course just bringing this very simple and yet very functional intentional community into being at all has been a major accomplishment which participants are very pleased about -- as they should be. The Sacramento Declaration of Occupation is still being modified, though I'm hearing there are efforts to rush it to completion for presentation tonight. I'm leery, but it's not my decision, and what I'm personally learning to do is to trust other people's decisions about the correct course of action -- and to let it be. This is an Evolution Revolution, and no one is in charge of it. No one has to be. It takes care of itself.

    The question of Infiltration has come to the fore after the story of the American Spectator editor who infiltrated the protest demonstration at the Air & Space Museum and helped provoke the overreaction of the museum's security staff, which in turn led to the pepper spraying of over 50 demonstrators, as well as some of the museum staff, and -- apparently -- the provocateur himself.

    All I'd say is that infiltration and provocation by police and by political opponents is to be expected. The question is not whether it is happening, it is. The question is what you do about it, if anything. One thing I've noticed about almost all the Occupations I'm following is that there is no fear. They're really not afraid at all. They may want to think about being more on guard and more alert -- for example, I'm really uncomfortable with what happened on the Brooklyn Bridge. That was too much like "leading the lambs," and it would be good to find ways to counter that kind of thing before it happens or while it is happening rather than just letting it happen. The passivity I saw in the videos was alarming. But then, I'm old and I have memories...

    I have said many times that as long as there are no secrets from one another the Occupations have nothing to fear from infiltrators or the police.

    On the other hand, more and more alarm is being generated over the potential of "hijacking." Noises are coming out of the White House, for example, in "support." Sure. Right. Whatever. Democrats in Congress are cautiously exploring the possibility of potentially offering their "support." Whatever. Meanwhile, Republicans are hotly denouncing the whole thing. Whoa. Who'd a thunkit, eh? Media is cleaving in twain on self-interest and partisan lines. But the clearest signs of political infiltration and influence ("hijacking") are not from the Democrats, not by a long shot. Or by the unions. Or by the Marxists (ha!).

    The most obvious -- and pretty successful -- efforts at infiltration and influence I've seen are from Ron Paul supporters, libertarians of all stripes, and something I'd never heard of before: The Zeitgeist Movement. And all I can say after looking at some of their material and watching a video or two is "WTF???!!!" This is a cult. You become a member of the cult when you can parse the complete gibberish its Leader spouts and then can Spread The Word. These people seem to be everywhere, and their gibberish is winding up in all sorts of Occupation documents and discussions. It's insidious. But then I've never been easily swayed by cultic nonsense. The closest I got to it was attending a couple of talks by a would-be cult leader who had been a follower of Ram Dass back in the day (he was still Baba Ram Dass back then). Gurus and cult leaders can be positive for people who need that sort of thing, but I'm not one of them, as anyone who's followed me around the internets has seen. I reject hero-worship and discipleship utterly.

    Consequently, I'm attracted to a Revolutionary - Evolutionary movements like the Occupations almost instinctively. As I've said periodically, this IS the Revolution, whether we like it or not, whether we even know it or not. Once started, something like this cannot be stopped -- as many dictatorships have discovered to their surprise. On the other hand, where it will lead, no one yet knows. Not here and not abroad.

    Everything's all in flux.

    *Frequently, there is no conclusion, there can't be. The matter isn't settled. This is one reason not to take votes and why a single individual can block consensus. In New York they've modified the process so that there sometimes are votes (90% rule for example) and they characterize a block as something so serious you really don't want to do it unless you absolutely cannot bring yourself not to. Someone who feels they have to block a proposal that is otherwise supported by consensus, and who still blocks even after extensive discussion and modification to suit the needs of the blocker, will generally face the 90% vote, and if the proposal is adopted, the blocker will have to leave the Occupation.

    But in other cases, if the there is no consensus on a proposal, it will be tabled and be sent back to a Working Group or wherever it came from to be reconsidered and reworked. And it may then go back to General Assembly over and over until consensus is reached or the proposal is dropped.

    It is a very slow and inefficient process for most items. Given the iconic use of the Human Microphone to communicate in New York, it also takes two or three (or sometimes four) times as long to state the proposal and conduct the discussions as it would if someone were using a PA system to address passive listeners.

    And yet, the Human Microphone, as many observers have noted, is actually one of the keys that makes for a functioning intentional community at Liberty Square. The Human Microphone is a participatory tool par excellence. There's really nothing else like it. It is used in some other Occupations, but many do not use it, preferring to use bull horns and PA systems if they can, or to speak unamplified to a relatively close in audience.

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