by Margaret Rossof
As I write this in April, 2013, the General Assembly of Occupy Oakland is still meeting every Sunday afternoon. A couple of dozen people, sometimes more, show up. They may be in their twenties or seventies, or anywhere in between, with occasional children and teens. There is an evident diversity of cultural heritages. As far as I know they include people identifying as anarchists of different stripes, members of Trotskyist organizations, Green Party activists and recovering Maoists. Many, including some of the baby boomers, were never politically active before Occupy Oakland (OO).
These days, the General Assembly (GA) announcements track on-going activities that include opposing police brutality, supporting foreclosed homeowners, organizing debtors, protesting climate devastation, struggling within a progressive radio station, suing to prosecute Bush for war crimes, learning the history of counter-insurgency tactics and more….
It’s a far cry from the days when hundreds attended GAs that were held several times a week. And many times I head to the GA thinking I am done with this straggling group. But always something happens that keeps me returning to the GA—a lively discussion of patriarchy by 15 men and three women, a heartbreaking personal narrative of the suicide of a Vietnam veteran, a collective revisiting of the issue of “non-violence” in response to a question from a visiting student.
I write here about my own experiences in OO beginning in December, 2011, through 2012 and into 2013. I am well aware of how much I missed (not to mention how much I have forgotten). I never camped out and attended few of the GAs before December, I’m not on Facebook to participate in that virtual OO, I don’t follow Twitter, I have had to miss many activities I wanted to support (there’s not enough time for all of them!) and I’ve kept away from some I found problematic. This is the perspective of one woman in my mid-sixties, Jewish and middle-class, who has been politically active on the left for much of my life and has found OO to be an astonishing phenomenon. So much happened! I am focusing here on the General Assemblies, because they represented a brave attempt at direct democracy, because their challenges are instructive of the weaknesses of the movement, and because this has been a major focus of my OO activism (although not the only one).
SUNDAY AFTERNOON GA: DECOLONIZE
Although I had participated in many of the marches and demonstrations in the fall, including the stunning shutdown of the Port of Oakland, my involvement really began December 4, 2011. That week, the Sunday GA moved from the evening to 2:00 in the afternoon. We met in Oscar Grant Plaza (OGP), the Oakland civic center previously named Frank Ogawa Plaza. It was renamed when it was the site of the OO encampment, which was violently evicted; it was now tenuously claimed by an ongoing 24 hour vigil and the GAs several times a week.
There were a lot of people at this GA. I had no idea that we would be considering a highly contentious proposal. A group of Native people were proposing renaming Occupy Oakland—to be called “Decolonize Oakland.” A term describing colonization and expropriation was not one they wanted to claim for our movement, and they wanted their history acknowledged.
GAs began with an introduction, including the hand signals of approval (twinkling fingers), disapproval (limp fists nicknamed “Quan hands” after our mayor) and impatience (rolling arms to signal time to wrap up a rambling or off-topic speech). Then we separated into smaller groups for the “forum discussion.” The topic this week was “What does Occupy mean to you?” This turned out to be ambiguous and led many groups to focus on the proposed name change. There were many groups of about twenty people each. In my group the participants were diverse, respectful and lively.
What was supposed to happen next was report backs about forum discussions, with people summarizing what went on in different groups. It soon became clear that dozens of people were lining up “on stack” for a chance to speak for or against the motion. It seemed impossible to maintain the GA agenda structure. As I remember it, the facilitators took a straw pool to check in about changing the sequence, although some were disgruntled by this procedural move.
I was impressed by the diversity of speakers, the range of opinions, the level of passion and the skill of the two young facilitators. At one point one of them slowed things down by reminding us all of the emotions expressed at this GA—anger, pride, anxiety, conviction, excitement—I don’t remember the specifics but I remember thinking, “I’ve gone to political meetings for decades and I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone speak explicitly about the feelings in the room.”
The defenders of the Occupy “brand” spoke about the national impact of the shared name, but I remember thinking, “if we can’t even change our name after four months, how can we change the world?” I even got on stack to say this, but there was a very long line ahead of me and I had to leave before getting a chance (by then the GA had lasted more than three hours).
At that time the operating rules of the GA considered a 90% vote to be a consensus, approving the proposal, and allowed for amendments if 70 to 90% of the group voted in support of a proposal. I found out later that 68% had voted in favor and that the supporters of Decolonize had separated from OO as result. A couple of weeks later, on December 16, the GA shifted to the concept of a “living document” that could be amended on the spot, if the proposers agreed. I wonder whether that GA could have endorsed a compromise hybrid name like Decolonize/Occupy Oakland, and what might have been different if we had–or if we hadn’t been able to even do that.
I was impressed with the GA I attended as a vivid example of “direct democracy.” At the same time, the damage was evident. Some supporters of the indigenous people resented disrespectful treatment of their elders, while some of their allies made accusations of racism against the people who wanted to hold onto the name of Occupy. As I understand it, Decolonize Oakland continued to exist as a separate group and sometimes participated in shared actions with OO, but this GA prevented greater ongoing unity.
(Note: the minutes of this GA can be read at http://occupyoakland.org/2011/12/ga-minutes-12-4-11/ and the proposal can be read at http://occupyoakland.org/2011/12/emergency-proposal-3-on-queue-for-december-4-2011-ga-proposal-to-decolonize-oakland-creating-a-more-radical-movement/)
JOINING THE FACILITATION COMMITTEE
The Facilitation Committee met the following day. I decided to go and was stunned to learn that the two men who managed Sunday’s acrimonious GA with such agility were facilitating their first GA. At that point I began to participate in the Facilitation Committee. Within a few weeks I was helping at GAs. Occasionally I was a “stack balancer”—monitoring the line-up of people who wanted to speak and occasionally shifting the order to diversify pro’s and con’s or move speakers forward who were women or people of color. More often I was a “crowd advocate”—counting the votes on proposals, attending to people’s concerns about process.
I was a co-facilitator for the first time with one of the young men who had facilitated that Sunday afternoon GA, although this was a dark, cold night meeting. We did have a sound system that night, and at one point a woman jumped on stage, grabbed the mike from the speaker, flung it to the ground and began a rant about autism and sensory deprivation. My co-facilitator advised me to just let her carry on for a few minutes, and she ran out of steam and left. We then resumed the business of the moment—as I remember, it may have been planning the shutdown of the Port of Oakland, which turned out to be hugely successful.
Like the GA, the Facilitation Committee met outside at OGP, “the plaza,” open to anyone. At one of these meetings, we were approached by one of the folks who stayed overnight at an information table at OGP, maintaining an ongoing Occupy presence after the encampment was evicted. In my occasional contacts with him, he had seemed to me to be struggling with his demons, possibly substance abuse or mental illness. This impression was rapidly confirmed by his behavior at the committee meeting.
He interrupted the discussion of the next GA agenda and insisted on derailing the meeting. He complained that the Finance Committee was refusing to help fund the 24 hour vigil at OGP. Someone explained that such expenses needed to be approved by the GA, which had recently voted against giving them money. The vigil participant began to become agitated. “You’re the Facilitation Committee—you should facilitate this!” As he got more and more angry, others tried to explain the limits of what the committee facilitated, but this explanation was way too complicated for someone that upset. Several other people chimed in, not always helpfully. In the rising frustration, a couple of others exploded and stomped off, with accusations and rebuttals concerning personal privilege.
One of the committee members reminded the vigil participant of the long conversations they had had in their nights together at OGP, and invited him to talk apart from the committee meeting. Fortunately he accepted that invitation and they moved to another part of the plaza together.
Then, to my astonishment, the rest of the group spontaneously stood in a circle and began to process what had happened. We talked about the tensions within OO because of differences—between those who had education and those who didn’t, those who had access to computers and those who didn’t, those who had homes and some money and those who didn’t—and because of oppression—not only racism and class privilege but also the mental health and substance abuse issues most of us attributed to social injustice. I was stunned by the events that afternoon: first by the ability of people in the group to handle the challenging interaction with the vigil participant, and then by this collective reflection on a volatile series of interactions. I imagine this was a glimpse into what went on during the encampment and I felt lucky to have been present.
THE MEDIA COMMITTEE CONFLICT
The momentum in OO, which had been elated after the port shutdowns, changed after “J28” or “Move-in Day.” January 28, 2012, was the date of a planned occupation of a vacant public building, modeled after the anarchist “social centers” in Europe. I thought this was a poorly conceived idea—although the chosen building was supposedly secret, many people knew which it was and others guessed, while others were willing to march to an undisclosed location, only to be met by huge numbers of police in riot gear who were clearly in on the secret. Eventually hundreds of people were arrested, a traumatizing experience for many of them. The aftermath included a great deal of jail and court support organized by our Anti-Repression Committee, which took time, money and energy. I believe it was after J28 that the city issued “stay-away orders” barring some of the activists from the plaza where OO met—which is also the seat of local government. And the debacle of J28 led to questions about decision-making, leadership and accountability in OO. These came to fore in the conflict over the Media Committee.
In February, because of the stay-away orders, the GA moved from OGP to a nearby park. I arrived at the new location on March 4 totally unprepared for the drama, which had been unfolding on Facebook that weekend. The OO Media Committee, in addition to its page on the OO website, had an independent website, HellaOccupyOakland, on which four committee members had posted the accusation that a fifth committee member was either a terrorist or an infiltrator or both. Again the GA was highly emotionally charged. I was relieved to be a crowd advocate and not facilitating that day.
We began the GA with forum discussions. People were screaming and people were crying. The four who had posted the accusations were defensive, speaking to their discomfort with the committee member’s behavior and justifying their on-line research into his identity. On the other side, many people argued that such a claim should not be made in a public forum but should be resolved internally, that a Google search was not research and that the accusations were racist (the man in question had a common Arab name, while at least two of the four who accused him were also people of color). It was vividly clear that there were no real mechanisms for restorative justice or accountability within OO.
At this GA, in a tense vote, the Media Committee was disbanded and told to discontinue the HellaOccupyOakland website (which is still functioning today). A temporary committee was created to develop new guidelines (these would limit the committee to publicizing news rather than creating it). The vote was close, if I remember right. A significant number of people left OO in reaction to this process, which did not resolve the immediate conflict, let alone the underlying tensions around leadership and accountability, race and power.
DIVERSITY OF TACTICS
Another dynamic that the GA was unable to resolve was the tension over behavior at demonstrations. Early on, OO had endorsed “diversity of tactics,” which supported autonomous activities that need not be backed by consensus. This term became the code word for a significant political and emotional divide. On several occasions windows were smashed at banks and other businesses, and there was vandalism such as graffiti. The feelings about this were intense. Those in opposition called for a “non-violent” agreement, while others responded that property destruction, particularly targeting symbols of the 1%, was not violence. Those in opposition said this behavior reduced participation by alienating people with children, disabled or elderly people, the undocumented and so on. On the other side folks argued that these actions were applauded by the poorest and most oppressed people in the city. Was the vandalism the work of suburban teenagers looking for an outlet for their angst, or infiltrators aiming to isolate and divide the movement, or sincere and committed people? If the latter, did they represent anarchists—or a subgroup of anarchists? The faction was called the Black Bloc, but it was never clear that whether this was an accurate label.
My own opinion shifted from the early days of my participation, when I shared the argument about alienating people and particularly appreciated a paragraph by Starhawk, a well-known and respected ecofeminist. She wrote that such tactics privilege “the young over the old, the loud voices over the soft, the fast over the slow, the strong over those with disabilities, the white over those from target groups[,] the citizen over the immigrant, those who can do damage and flee the scene over those who are left to face the consequences.”
As I participated in the OO GA, however, it was increasingly clear to me that we would never pass a meaningful resolution condemning these tactics. At several GAs where this was proposed, supporters of “diversity of tactics” arrived en masse and reacted loudly–forget about the discreet hand signals. Even if a GA had passed such a proposal, they would have brought reinforcements to another GA to overturn it—and, in any case, would have ignored it in the streets.
I began to think about the range of tactics in other movements. The civil rights movement, for example, made effective use of non-violent civil disobedience—but certainly the militant Black Panthers, proudly bearing guns, made a significant contribution; the movement was broad enough for both. In OO, we were all under the same umbrella, but I thought it made more sense to compare us to a movement than to an organization.
The non-violent caucus in OO was created in response to these dynamics. The goal was to create a space within OO for people committed to non-violence. At the outset, it was explicit that the purpose of this caucus was not to change the diversity of tactics approach of OO. Some of the most experienced practitioners of non-violent civil disobedience (NVCD) testified to the support they had received from Black Bloc members, for example at the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization. They genuinely agreed with diversity of tactics.
The non-violent caucus held both a one-day and a two-day training on NVCD. I attended these, finding out a great deal about the philosophy of Gandhi, role-playing tactics for sit-ins and blockades, learning valuable tips including the suggestion to wear Depends at a blockade. The non-violent caucus kept attracting new people, and didn’t do a good job of orienting them to its founding principles. As a result, newcomers repeatedly suggested proposing to the GA that OO disavow diversity of tactics. The founding members had decided they didn’t want to argue with the people who supported diversity of tactics, but instead found themselves arguing with people who wanted to argue with the people who supported diversity of tactics. This tension led to exhaustion and discouragement for the folks who had started the caucus, which dissolved shortly after May Day.
I participated in the nonviolent caucus to a limited extent, largely because of scheduling conflicts. I was particularly disappointed by the number of people of my generation who had identified as revolutionaries in their younger days and greeted this new upsurge of activists with initial enthusiasm, but withdrew over the diversity of tactics question. I tried to lure them to OO, writing in an open letter to one group, “We all know that every movement attracts some extremists, whether infiltrators, emotionally reactive or ideologically committed to their position. And we know that the mass media attempts to discredit the movement by focusing on these extremists. As a result, OO is now publicly identified as a group of vandals. The reality is much more complex and promising.”
In our day, we had experienced the way the media discredits progressive movements with extremes and caricatures—think about bra-burning—and yet people who should have known better allowed the media’s focus on vandalism to excuse them from engaging with OO, sharing their experience, possibly influencing what emerged.
May Day was a major test of the ability of OO to finesse the issue of diversity of tactics. In 2006, there had been a huge national protest for immigrant rights on May Day. A major demonstration was held in Oakland by undocumented people, many in the Fruitvale district, and their supporters. Now six years later, members of the OO Labor Solidarity Committee were working in a coalition with the Fruitvale activists for a “Regional March for Dignity and Resistance.” They came to the GA on April 8 to propose “separation of time and space” for the May Day demonstration.
To respect the needs and politics of others in the coalition, would we agree that there would be no acts of vandalism at the May Day march itself?
This turned into another lively debate, focused on the endpoint of the march. In the past the march from Fruitvale had converged on what was now called Oscar Grant Plaza. There were those within OO who wanted to reclaim the site of the original encampment, and May Day seemed a symbolic day to reoccupy. Others argued that we had struggled for the principle of using OGP without a permit, which would be undermined by getting official approval for the march to end there. A compromise was suggested, ending the march at the nearby Federal Building, but the representatives of the coalition could not promise that the whole group would endorse the compromise.
For me this was a critical vote. I felt that if the GA could not agree to respect the wishes of the coalition, I would not be able to continue participating in OO. Fortunately, several charismatic and respected leaders who initially opposed the compromise agreed to support it (although they ultimately abstained from the voting) and the “separation of time and space” passed. (For the text of this resolution, see http://occupyoakland.org/2012/04/4-for-32812-ga-proposal-for-the-endorsement-and-support-of-the-dignity-and-resistance-may-day-march-and-rally/)
What actually took place on May Day was more complicated. The police cracked down early with tear gas, flash grenades and arrests before noon. Some marchers with handkerchiefs covering their faces, shields and black clothing gathered at the midpoint of the march. Accounts vary. I know they were asked to leave; I know the march back to OGP separated into two routes; I know people didn’t necessarily know with whom they were marching.
RE-IMAGINING THE GA
Meanwhile, at Facilitation Committee meetings, we were discussing how to improve the process at the GA. These concerns predated my joining the committee in December and were underscored by the challenges that were coming up at the GAs and were not getting resolved. The initial structure of the GA was created for daily meetings at the encampment, but this wasn’t the best vehicle for a new stage of organizing.
A major function of the GA was to inform people of the many activities of the autonomous committees of OO, but these announcements were often hard to hear or remember. While it was exciting to hear how much was going on, there was an overload of information in a less-than-useful format.
Proposals were discussed and voted on at a single GA, which many felt did not allow enough time for reflection and discussion. There was no forum to discuss political differences or address disruptive behavior. The Facilitation Committee was well aware of the lingering damage from the decisions over Decolonize and the Media Committee, the split over tactics, and various experiences of racist, intimidating and sexist behavior within OO. We launched an effort to “Re-imagine the GA” (RIGA) to see if we could heal some of these wounds and devise something better.
Instead of limiting the RIGA process to members of the Facilitation Committee, we began to meet in separate, open meetings (at local cafes) so that others could join us in planning. An unintended consequence was that this decision drained energy from the Facilitation Committee itself. Members were already strained by the administrative work involved in facilitating. On top of the responsibilities at the GAs themselves, we were collecting proposals at committee meetings twice weekly in the plaza, responding to emails about proposals and other issues, creating agendas in advance to post on the web site and printing them up for distribution at GAs. I am sure some people left the Facilitation Committee, or never joined, because of the amount of work involved.
As we began discussing RIGA, we thought we would hold a series of gatherings to reimagine the GA. We agreed the initial event should provide an opportunity for those who felt injured or silenced at the GA to speak about their experiences. We thought this might attract those reeling from the unresolved struggles as well as people who found the GA structure stifling.
In preparing for the RIGA (a process that took much too long) we developed a survey that was distributed on line and available on paper. We received about 200 responses, mostly on line, an indication of the vitality of OO in the spring of 2012. Survey results included concerns about the accessibility of GAs, welcoming newcomers, containing intolerant behavior, improving the decision making process, and problems with the consensus/quorum voting structure. Some responses were minor tweaks of the GA process, while others offered varied formats. Should there be separate GAs for information exchange, decision making, brainstorming, education, music and dance? The range of responses included many ideas about how to modify the proposal process as well as opposition to any decision-making at GAs. Some wanted food at every GA, while others thought food attracted people who were not otherwise participants in OO. Class differences and political differences surfaced in so many ways in OO, as we saw in the survey results!
The RIGA organizers agreed that it would be ideal to have the first gathering facilitated by people of color and we found three people who were interested and skilled. One was a woman I had met in the non-violent caucus. I treasured her comment about the Black Bloc types, whom she regarded with affection: “Some of them need prayer and some of them need medication.”
What I didn’t know—and I don’t know if others in the RIGA group knew this—was that two facilitators for the RIGA had close ties with the people from the Media Committee who had been criticized for their public attack on a fellow committee member, the conflict which had led to the controversial dissolution of the Media Committee by the GA. They were holding regular meetings on Saturday at Mosswood Park–which we did not know when we agreed to have the first RIGA event on a Saturday at Mosswood Park. Mosswood had been the site of planning meetings before the encampment at OGP, so we thought this was a fitting location. However, the coincidences—if they were coincidences—doomed the RIGA process. The word went out over Facebook and Twitter that the Media Committee faction was behind the RIGA effort, and despite our attempts to set the record straight, this probably led many people to stay away.
The event on June 16 was well-attended, however, by a large group of people who opposed diversity of tactics. Many of them had not been seen at a GA in a long time, if ever (nor did they return after the RIGA event). The central part of the day was an open mic, with the opportunity for dozens of people to speak about their experiences of the GA. But the RIGA process began with an exercise in the value of collective wisdom and concluded with a guided visualization encouraging images of an ideal GA, which were written on post-its and collected on a large sheet of paper. These activities were very different from the culture of OO and were criticized afterward by people who felt the RIGA did not speak to the core participants in OO.
In response to this, the follow-up RIGA on July 29 was held after a General Assembly and on the site of the GA. Not many people showed up or stayed around, and the process petered out after that. I continue to wonder about what happened to the RIGA. Was it a series of inadvertent mishaps? Or was there actual sabotage of the process? If so, was it by government types who don’t want OO to function well, or by a faction within OO hoping to co-opt the GA, or by another faction fearing co-optation, or all of these?
Over time it became apparent that GAs were not attracting the 100 people required to pass proposals. We had reduced the number of weekly GAs to two in January, but over time far fewer people were showing up at the evening GA on Wednesdays, and gradually the number of people at Sunday GAs diminished below quorum. Enough people were recruited to come to a Sunday GA on July 15 and officially reduce the quorum to 70. Although we carefully considered the optimal new number, this proved to be optimistic. I believe there was only one subsequent Sunday GA with 70 people, when social media gathered people to respond to a crisis involving the Finance Committee. The Wednesday evening GA fizzled out over time and the Sunday GA, which continues, does not approach quorum.
When Occupy began, we had a bright moment of possibility. The concept of the 99% resonated, and leftists of my generation greeted each other saying, “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.” But it didn’t last. I expect there will be another moment—I would like to think the environmental crisis might mobilize us all—but if we are to seize that one more successfully, we have to look at why Occupy didn’t fulfill its initial promise. My experiences with the GA suggest some of the challenges we faced and will face again.