Monday, 17 October 2011

The Occupations: This time it's different

by Joel Hildebrandt

If you know me, you know I’ve been on many, many marches. Let’s be honest – it gets a little boring. You march & yell and sing and chat with fellow protesters on the street. You arrive at your destination and some designated speakers take the mike and – well, it's boring. People & energy fizzle away. And then what?

Yesterday at Aotea Square in the centre of Auckland was different. Way different. Sure, we marched and shouted and showed off for the media and got to the Square and someone took the mike and they said... Welcome to your occupation. From now on you are in control. We will decide everything together.

They passed out a brochure on consensus with hand signals and what they mean: agree, disagree (but not that strongly), disagree enough to block consensus, process concern. Hey, I live in cohousing, we know what those signals mean! Green card yes, orange card not so much, red card no way... I was in the middle of a People’s General Assembly, and something inside me came back to life. Every proposal that the organizers had come up with was approved, via hand signals, by the Assembly. A different person was coordinating each Working Group, and participants were invited to join the Groups: food, medical, legal, town planning, media, etc. Proposals were requested from the Assembly. Where the tents would be set up, approved by the Assembly. I mean, it’s one thing to use consensus in an intentional community of 32 households. Seeing it work so effectively among a group of strangers is really inspiring! Support for Occupy Wall Street, unanimous consent.

Voting at the Auckland General Assembly

If you haven’t been down there, to Queen Street or Wall Street or Sol or wherever, you have to live it to believe it. Naomi Klein says this is “The most important thing in the world right now”. I agree. Here’s why:

#It’s leaderless. No one is in charge, and everyone is. In some cases (Madrid, Barcelona...) this means hundreds of thousands of people are making decisions by consensus.

#It’s inclusive. Everyone is welcome. Everyone can have a say. And unlike so many movements, it is not divisive.

#It is democratic. All decisions are made by everyone.

#It is sustained. It does not fizzle after a couple of hours; it stays there in Zucotti Park, or La Puerta del Sol, or wherever, day after day.

#It is peaceful. The protesters do not break windows, or attack police, or even yell obscenities. They are letting the cops be the violent ones, which garners them support and publicity.

#It models the change that is needed. By being all those things, it shows that people can run things democratically, inclusively, peacefully, and successfully – even in really large numbers.

The media don’t know how to cover this. They keep looking for leaders, and a single cause or demand, and when they don't find them they tell us we are disorganized. But that’s because they don’t get it. It’s not what they’ve seen before and know how to sell – it’s different!

I was even skeptical, until I saw it in action. If you can’t do that, check out this inspiring video from NYC (shot in Washington Square Park): – using consensus at NY General Assembly.

If you want to see how big this is globally, have a look at 120 different occupations are listed around the world; you can peek into any one of them. And that’s nowhere near all of them; Auckland (for instance) is not up there yet. You can check out #Occupy Auckland photos at:

Can we change the world this way? Time will tell. Many of us hope so, for the world cannot go on as it is now. Can the necessary changes be made some other way? I don’t see that happening anywhere, and that is exactly the point. The politicians are busy bailing out the huge corporations while they shove austerity down our throats. I don’t think anyone else has the will or the means to stop it, turn it around. It’s up to us.

Democracia real ya! – Real democracy now!


David said...

Joel makes a good point about people getting bored with the sort of march he describes. I was hearing the same sentiment in an anti-coal mining group I’m involved in. Then a long came Occupy Wall St.

Of course the, the last year’s big march against mining on conservation land was a success, but if the numbers are less than 10,000, people know the politicians, corporations whoever they’re targeting are just going to carry on as usual.

The think (one of the things) about the Occupy movement is that the targets are the politicians, or even the corporations. While some of the occupiers hope they might see the light, most know they just don’t care.

The real target is the rest of the 99% They’re the people we want to pay attention, to hear what we’re saying, to join us.

And an occupation gives them a much better chance to connect with the movement than a one of rally.

David said...

One thing I don’t agree with is that ‘It’s leaderless.’

Talking to a group of occupying students in Auckland yesterday they kept referring to ‘the people in charge’. When I said ‘no one’s in charge’. They explained that really there are leaders, more confident and experienced activists who have comparatively clear ideas about what should be done and how to do them.

A clue to this is when Joel writes: ‘Every proposal that the organizers had come up with was approved...’ A response along the lines of ‘I’ve been in a Leninist socialist organisation for more than a decade, I know about approving every proposal!’ springs to mind.

The reality that there are always leading people who have ideas about the way forward for a movement, is one of the classic critiques that Leninists (and many others) make of any movement’s claims to be ‘leaderless’. The danger they say is that if you don’t acknowledge that you have leaders, how can you hold them accountable? I’m not sure that’s a problem that most Leninist groups ever solved either.

But what ever form of organisation you choose, space for open and respectful discussion, for proposals to be worked on an modified collectively (not simply accepted or rejected) and for everyone who wants to have input are important, if the situation allows. So far the occupy situation and the model seems to do that.

Anonymous said...

The occupation’s over

It's time to call it a day

The new global way of making decisions

must wait until Santa’s sleigh

It's time to wind up, the masquerade

In this case, the piper, need not be paid

The party's over

The hand signals flicker and wane

You blocked some consensus

Now your family’s waiting at home, with a nice roast christmas dinner again

Set down your slogans, you 99 per cent

the occupation's over,

It's all over,

Just be glad there’s no rent.

Binh said...

This is a great report/analysis. I've written quite a few reports that in the same vein.

It's very interesting that all the Occupys are so similar even across such vast geographic distances.

I did a piece specifically addressing why OWS succeeded where the traditional single-issue protest model failed that may be of interest: