Why Occupy? An anarchist’s experience in an evolving, consensus-based movement


Like many anarchists, when the Occupy Movement first appeared last fall, I was skeptical. What can it really mean for our future that some white people have taken over a square in lower Manhattan? Of course, I had been inspired by the Arab Spring and was certainly curious about this spontaneous global appearance of outrage and activism. Then I read some of the things coming from OWS; what I read didn’t inspire confidence. There seemed to be very little analysis of imperialism, of colonialism, of male supremacy, and so on. And the rhetoric about “reclaiming our country” doesn’t do much for me.

So when I went to the first local assembly here in Gainesville, I was prepared for it not to lead very far. I signed up for a couple working groups, but the chaotic nature of the whole thing had me thinking, “Oh well, that’s that.” I went to a couple general assemblies after that and made some tentative suggestions about the consensus process they seemed to be trying.

Apparently OWS and Occupy Oakland use something they call 90 percent consensus, which seemed like a contradiction to me: a 90 percent voting system is super-majority, while consensus is a whole process, not simply a way to make decisions.[1] More about the consensus process below, but here I’ll just say that in Gainesville, at the first assemblies, even anticipating a painful mess of learning consensus in this new group, I was totally unprepared for what happened.[2]

What was most surprising to me about those assemblies, and what keeps me going to Occupy Gainesville assemblies and organizing meetings, is the quick open-mindedness of participants. This open-mindedness is expressed in many ways, but two of the most obvious are a willingness to explore new ideas despite an occasionally chaotic meeting process, and an attitude of intelligent skepticism toward the spin-du-jour from corporate media. We could call this simply a tendency toward critical thinking.

For a while I’ve been organizing in anarchist circles and writing music. I’m used to seeing certain kinds of activists, having certain kinds of discussions about the work we’re doing, and sharing a certain kind of enthusiastic futility in the outlook.

Let’s face it. We are a fairly small and marginal community, trying to draw the attention of people to circumstances they have been socialized their entire lives to ignore. And time may not be on our side. I have serious concerns for the potential of a rise in fascism in this region, and for the well-being of vulnerable populations, human and non-human, if/when there is a collapse in our food/fuel systems.

So I expected to see the usual suspects at Occupy Gainesville, or for the group to be hopelessly mired in a liberal, authoritarian attitude along the lines of “if we just elect our own people everything will be okay.” I was wrong on both counts. The folks that have remained active in OG since last fall are mostly not folks I’ve worked with before, nor are they easily described as electoral activists. Some of the things we’ve been working on are: encouraging support of local economies, organizing regional coordination with other occupations (including a Southeastern Regional Convergence in Gainesville, March 23-25), feminist consciousness-raising, organizing on how to address foreclosures through direct action, and exploring in general what a consensus-based strategy for systemic change might look like.

My view of the importance of full consensus has changed since I started working with the Occupy Movement. In the past, consensus has mostly been a democratic way to run small meetings, for example, of an affinity group preparing for a mass action. Even in the spokes councils I’ve been part of (like in Seattle’s WTO actions), I saw this decision-making process primarily as the best way to include the voices of all participants.

Recently there’s another part of it that seems really important to me. It’s the part that people who are new to the consensus process often find very frustrating. When a meeting or assembly is run on full consensus, it becomes crucial that everyone understands the agreement being reached. This part of social justice organizing, the necessity of consciousness-raising within groups, is often overlooked, or its importance is minimized (except, notably, in the feminist movement). I think this may be because we find it easier to focus on an external enemy than on ourselves: it’s easier to talk about the corporate state than about the dynamics and attitudes within our groups. And this limits us, I think. So, for example, we tend to think of ourselves as anti-racist because we are conscious in our use of language.

I obviously don’t mean that revolution is only about self-transformation. But intervening effectively in the machinery of the global economy and developing sustainable local systems means effective self-organization. And I think effective self-organization requires collectively honest self-appraisal.

In other words, consensus forces us to be more accurate about not just what we want, but where we are right now, because with full consensus, it isn’t okay for a handful of people to “understand it later” or whatever. We all have to at least be able to live with it.

Consensus is the collective expression of transformative consciousness.

For example, a couple of months back, an OG participant belligerently refused to leave an action, despite stumbling around, apparently high, talking mumbo jumbo to cops. Then there was news of an overdose and death at Occupy Burlington.

Knowing some of the history of how substance abuse has decimated people’s movements, and being a recovering drug addict, I wanted to see OG embrace an agreement to support folks who speak up when someone is wasted and disruptive, to create a safer space. I wrote a non-judgmental amendment to our agreements about substance abuse at OG events, specifically stating we don’t care what drugs people do, but that if they are creating problems they might be asked to leave.

To me it was a very low standard, and I thought we would easily reach consensus on it. I was wrong again. Several people who don’t usually come to GA showed up to argue against it. As I understand it, they saw this new agreement as further ostracizing drug users, who are already embattled by the so-called war on drugs.

Anyway, it didn’t pass. I realized we need to do more educational work on how we see substance abuse, which is pretty normalized in our subcultures, and also educate one another on the ways that drugs have undermined activist work for decades. In case it needs stating, I don’t give a damn what people put in their bodies, any more than I care how they explore sexy fun in consensual ways. I do want the people I love to live long healthy kickass lives.

This idea of addressing honestly where we are today is a key piece of building any movement. It has something to do with the spiritual principle of acceptance, which I want to write about briefly here. Being an atheist, I am not comforted by an idea that futile struggles for justice and sustainability will be rewarded in the after-life, nor do I believe that some cosmic being is guiding us all to some  inevitable unity in consciousness and peace. In fact, I think those beliefs can be especially dangerous in these times.

To me the improbability of our existence, the mad coincidence, tragic stupidity and arbitrariness of the evolution of oppressive hierarchies and the absurd hilarity of the way it all works, these are all reasons to work and fight and sing and play enthusiastically for a way of human life that embraces other life.

I have great hope and great faith that we can win, because what else could I have? It’s the healthiest and most fun reaction to an intolerable world condition.

So what does this have to do with Occupy? Everything, of course. For reasons that no one understands, last fall, people all over the world who had previously not been very politically active, came out in public and found others like themselves who wanted to find new ways of organizing their societies. Some of those people were so-called white North Americans.

We white North Americans have occasionally found ways to act simultaneously in our own interests and as allies with other communities struggling for justice and sustainability.

This strategy, of recognizing how our interests and those of other communities are intertwined, hopefully seems obvious to readers of the Iguana. But decades of propaganda hav successfully convinced many working-class North Americans that they must protect their privilege (called “freedom” by the corporate media) against threatening and illegitimate assaults by other cultures and communities.

This defensiveness is held in place in part by a kind of survivalist, scarcity, model of existence (“got to take care of me and mine”) that we’ve been fed for so long. So the spectrum of mainstream politics only ranges from “we should help them/send them money/give them a loan” to “they should just work harder /let’s bomb them/we deserve this luxury anyway.”  As the reader knows, there is another way, encapsulated in one word: solidarity.

My experience of organizing with the Occupy Movement in the last few months suggests that at least some white North Americans are ready to look beyond (around? beside?) this patriotic, patronizing and ultimately self-defeating view to embrace the communities we live in now, here today, and to see the ways the global economy pits communities against one another for the benefit of a few. At least some of us are willing to figure out what it means to be allies as participants in a global movement for justice and sustainability. In short, the Occupy Movement provides us an opportunity for anti-racist organizing.

I’m not saying that the Occupy Movement  in this country is prioritizing this kind of coherent strategy – of a North American movement of global solidarity – in any meaningful way yet, nor that I’m sure it will (whatever “it” is; in fact, the Occupy Movement is nothing if not a bewildering array of activist tendencies, from disaffected liberals and tea-partiers, to those who want to hitch-hike with a purpose, to retirees who have been waiting for this opportunity for decades, to cynics hoping to create a lucrative business opportunity from an emerging meme, and on and on).

But with an attitude of looking for concrete ways to mobilize from our outrage, and this willingness to experiment with new ideas, the Occupy Movement may offer the first opportunity to build a mass movement since the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 marked the end of the last period of widespread anti-authoritarian organizing in the United States.

And part of the reason for this is consensus. Consensus offers a process of exploring ideas and finding agreement, rather than proposing, counter-proposing and voting, which leads to factions and, necessarily, an over-ruled minority. By exploring what we all want (with an awareness of where we are right now), we can create a space for marginalized communities (and despite our spectrum of various privileges, we are, finally, marginal) to join the narrative in ways that haven’t been possible for a while.

The process is not fast. And ecosystems are already collapsing. But i’m convinced today that there are no short-cuts. We need to build consensus. We need to do the consciousness-raising. We need to show people the power, health and long-term viability in decentralized self-organization. We need to build these anarchist models, community by community, to build networks that will help vulnerable populations and historically targeted communities to survive fascism and collapse.

The Occupy Movement needs your involvement. Participants in Occupy Gainesville, who are organizing the first Southeast Regional Convergence of Occupations (SERCO) March 23-25, need your support in building and strengthening the network in the southeastern U.S. and the Caribbean. Visit http://occupysoutheast.org for more info or write to serco@occupygainesville.org.

[1]  Much of the confusion about consensus seems to be rooted in the fear that a minority might stymie, out of ignorance or malice, the work of an assembly. To me, this is evidence of a misunderstanding of the process, unfortunately more than I can describe in a footnote!

[2]  Occupy Gainesville has evolved an effective consensus process that I haven’t seen used elsewhere, where the stack keeper is more active, calling on each speaker, while the facilitator only helps move the meeting along the agenda and helps reflect the sense of the group back to itself. Our facilitators are (mostly) very careful to keep their own opinions out of discussions.

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