Saturday, November 19, 2011

The People`s Assembly/Occupy Movement

"If there`s going to be any kind of society worth living in, we`re going to have to create it ourselves." Those are the words of University professor and community organizer David Graeber, who is participating, at the time of writing, at Occupy Wall Street in New York City. Sometimes an impactful statement can help you analyze something from a different angle; when Occupy Wall Street first happened, it got me thinking about people`s assemblies from a renewed perspective. A recurrent and increasingly familiar idea is behind this week`s Occupy Wall Street. We have been reminded over and over in the last eighteen months how People`s Assemblies have emerged on the tide of a paradigm shift, quickly becoming a very relevant and important form of community organizing, and how they have captured the imagination and enthusiasm of grassroots resistance in various parts of Europe and North America.

Why have so many different struggles turned to people`s Assemblies as their chosen form of effective organizing and resistance? Does the emergence of this movement signify a new paradigm that transcends differences and competing ideologies, and puts the process of consensus and the resilience of unity in its place? The collective response to a crisis has attracted people towards a model that seeks solutions and alternatives, instead of simply criticizing the monster and politely asking it to treat us better. There are identifiable reasons why the status-quo left has been despaired and unsuccessful for so many decades. Under hierarchical organizational structures, diversity and varying ideologies are smothered because core values, strategies, and principles are imposed from the top down. When people find no traction for their ideas and beliefs, they simply move on to the next organization where the universal line of thinking matches their`s. Institutional structures are divisive and exclusive. With collective and horizontal organizing, diversity and ideologies have now discovered a space and a process where they can work together.

Starting in Greece, 2010 and 2011 was a turning point in the country`s political history with massive popular organizing and street resistance. The popular anti-austerity movement broke ground with new forms of horizontal organizing, and paralyzed the state for several months. People`s assemblies in Syntagma, Athens` main square, took place over the summer of 2011, and quickly spread to other parts of the country, where they formed into impromptu gatherings of community members voicing collective concerns; a simple and straightforward collective formation. These assemblies, knowingly or unknowingly, operated along the principles of horizontality to ensure equal voice and equal opportunity for everyone. People wishing to speak are given a number, and then numbers are drawn to determine who gets the podium and the microphone for strict two-minute time slots. An Al-Jazeera editorial describes well the character and mandate of the Assemblies: "everyone at these gatherings is allowed equal time to speak, and issues range from organizational matters to resistance politics and international solidarity….. nothing is beyond proposal or dispute. People from different strands of life, political affiliations and ages are rushing to squares across the country to hear - and be heard - without mediation, external supervision, or internal force."

These principles of autonomy reflected in the methods of the Greek organizing illustrate a grassroots reaction against hierarchical structures and institutional politics, and have led the Syntagma participants to adopt a complete rejection of political parties. The community base has clearly identified the ills of the system, and has gone the opposite direction. This approach of organizing community resistance, the way that the people of Greece have chosen to organize themselves, signifies an intuitive break from the political establishment. The movement did not come out with any clear goals or aims, and it was not planned that there would be massive street resistance for several consecutive months; communities simply responded to a crisis, and the collective will led them in this direction. An organizer with Via Campesina has said that "the way we organize reflects our goals." The Greek Assemblies are a perfect example of how the form of organizing that ultimately takes shape, is a result of what instinct has produced.

In June, 2010, Toronto held its first People`s Assembly as the G20 imposed itself on an unwilling and uncooperative city. Even before it arrived, the G20 was seen as an intolerable offense against the dignity of the city and its inhabitants. One of the responses, through the people`s assembly, was to set in motion a collective creative process where the community could take ownership and make decisions for itself. Presented with the prospect of the biggest political standoff in its history, the grassroots of Toronto and Canada identified that’s its strength would come from the ground, from the street, from people, from community, and so it put together the most horizontal and participatory response possible. This was reflected also in large part through the convergence space for weeks leading up to the G20, a rented warehouse space for action and strategy building that served as home base for the G20 resistance in Toronto`s grassroots-oriented neighbourhood of Parkdale.

From the beginning, the People`s Assembly on Climate Justice, now the Toronto People`s Assembly, has stressed the need for the process to be completely open to its participants, with no concrete agenda set by the organizers. The message has been for the focus and the process to be guided not by leaders, but by the community and participants. Because of this wide-open horizontality, some have even criticized that the Assembly has been ineffective at making decisions. Lack of insight by the mainstream media is now directing very similar criticism towards the Occupy Movement, accusing it of lacking direction and having no clear demands. Still, the Toronto People`s Assembly persists as a space and a process, rather than a body or an organization; its focus has been, and remains, a mechanism or a channel through which a mutual dialogue can be processed. The role of the Assembly, in a way, is that of a tuning fork for the community. Through the second, third, and fourth assembly, the focus of movement building has inter-oriented towards workshops, empowerment, and autonomy, and the ever-changing complexion of the assembly is a reflection of its elasticity in motion.

This is only to give an example, but even the Anarchists who often organize and promote this model of horizontal organizing, can sometimes be frustrated with the lack of radical focus because of the mosaic of political orientations that is characteristic of the assembly process. And equally, some can get frustrated with Anarchist politics or otherwise. But that is ok, because that is the nature of People`s Assemblies, and that openness and inter-political dialogue are one of its main features.

Important to note is that the Toronto People`s Assembly was influenced by two events in particular. One was the World People`s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where over 30,000 people from all walks of the social justice spectrum, from NGOs, environmental activists, community organizers, and people from social movements all around the world, came together to share ideas, build solidarity, and attempt the resurgence of a global climate justice movement. Cochabamba took place in April of 2010. Second, the Assembly drew inspiration from Reclaim Power which unfolded during the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, in December 2009. The aim of Reclaim Power was to create a direct alternative model counter the undemocratic, institutional, and hierarchical process going on inside the UNFCCC. If the international top-down show with the agenda and results dominated by the 8 or 9 major powers was everything the people couldn`t stand for, then the intuitive response would be to do the exact participatory, horizontal opposite. With people huddled in a Danish squat the idea behind Reclaim Power was born; to occupy a space inside the UN grounds, and to form a People`s Assembly within. If the institutional state process was bankrupt, then the most disturbing attack, the most effective strategy it seems, was to expose its failures with a direct alternative.

In Wisconsin, in February 2011, the Republican state government attempted to create a law to make public employee strikes illegal. The austerity-driven cuts also threatened wages and health insurance, and even proposed a measure that could hand over control of "disfunctional" municipal administrations to `corporate management.` The people of Wisconsin saw this as a clear violation, and as a direct attack not only on social security, but on people. For two weeks, hundreds and then tens of thousands of people, on the biggest days some estimates go as high as 200,000 people, converged on the legislature in Madison, the symbolic and physical center of the state, occupied the space, and held people`s assemblies inside.

The Wisconsin people`s occupation of the state capitol was as follows: Inside were walls covered with letters, over 10,000 letters and emails of protest against the anti-union bills and in support of the occupation. While tens of thousands were outside, and inside, protesting for days at a time, sleeping quarters were created inside the capitol where hundreds of people semi-permanently slept overnight for consecutive days. A media center was organized, referred to by organizers as the information station, with the motto of `Got info, Need info, Share info; Knowledge is Power.` Also created was a white-board dubbed a low-tech twitter for information updates to be posted, for all to read and stay up to date on developments as they unfolded. The group coordinated bedding and food donations of support. Even if only for a short time, they were living and relying on the resources of the community. They also maintained a food station to satisfy the food needs of the encampment community, organized a lending library, and operated a medic center. In a lot of ways, it looked like the Wisconsinites were building a small village, and that`s exactly what they were doing, with collective contributions from a community, slowly envisioning and creating the alternative they would like to see.

In late September, 2011, at the time of writing, a community mobilization in New York City is carrying out the Occupy Wall Street action, with the intention of establishing a long-term encampment, occupying space in the city`s financial district. On Saturday, September, 17th, participants prepared themselves for an ongoing occupation with the intention of holding the space for as long as possible. After a short lived presence on Wall Street itself, police pushed protestors out, and the occupation relocated to Zuccotti Park, where hundreds have spent subsequent nights occupying the space. A lot of the inspiration and energy behind Occupy Wall Street came from the People`s Assembly Movement which has strong roots in Europe. David Graeber, a participant and organizer explains how "…all of the political parties have basically bankrupted themselves….. There is no possibility of there actually coming up with a solution, and essentially you have to start over." That is why there is no pre-set agenda or specific demands, because the movement is starting fresh, recreating from a blank slate, and everything is created as we go along. Graeber goes on to say that "people have to go into their public squares, meet each other, start talking to each other, and start brainstorming about ideas. Essentially the idea is the system is not going to save us, we`re going to have to save ourselves. And, so we`re going to try to get as many people as possible to camp out in a public space, and start rebuilding society as we`d like to see it." What Graeber explains here is simply a human reaction to a crisis, to a system that has completely failed, and that reaction has often taken the form of People`s Assemblies. What do we do when there is a problem or a crisis? We converge, and talk about it, and we figure it out, we find answers together. This comes to show that all the examples illustrated here are natural collective reactions, and that what is behind people`s assemblies is simply a rigorous application of logic.

Even the APPO, the Popular Assembly of the People`s of Oaxaca, during the 2006 uprising in Oaxaca, Mexico, was a response to an intolerably corrupt, violent, and abusive state government in a time of crisis. In that they are all responses to crisis, perhaps they are the purest form of community organizing.

In the financial district in New York City, on October 12th, Occupy Wall Street was still going on, nearing a month, and entering its 26th day of existence. The location, still Zukady Park, now renamed Liberty Plaza. Organizers were still stressing the importance of the horizontal process. Justin Wedes of Occupy Wall Street elaborates on the internal dynamics of horizontal organizing and consensus; he explains, " was always understood that the process was going to rule, the process of building consensus, and arriving at our demands, at our action plans, that has always been the driving factor here, and so we are still constructing every night in our general assemblies, still constructing that consensus." Justin Wedes then elaborates on the concept of the general assembly: "A general Assembly is an open, horizontal, leaderless process by which we can arrive at decisions…… and it`s consensus-based which means it`s not just up or down vote; when 51% of people vote on something the other 49% are suddenly sort of silenced in a way. Consensus works differently, it says that we can, if we are trying to, work together and come to agreement that everybody can feel good about. And so that process which is very powerful, when you have good facilitation, when you have people who want to agree, who want to find unity and solidarity, that is the process that`s guiding it." It is amazing because this is exactly what we were trying to achieve through the Toronto People`s Assembly, exactly what we were talking about several months before, and it is fascinating and rewarding on a local level to see that this is the process, a process that struggled to get traction here in Toronto only six months ago, that is now guiding an international grassroots movement.

Justin Wedes goes on to explain the people`s mic: "The people`s mic is basically a people`s amplification system, no power, no electricity, I say something or somebody says something and then it`s repeated by the people around you. So, it`s amplified, your voice is amplified, and in a way it`s the most democratic way to amplifiy sound because the power of the message, the gain of that microphone is actually determined by the power of that message. So, when people say things that are powerful and really move our movement forward, they are amplified literally, physically by the people around us." He elaborates on why the people`s mic has become so important and relevant, just another piece of this movement that has come together unexpectedly.

Ellie Kirzner of NOW Magazine also has an analytical take on the people`s mic. She writes, "Like slow food, slow meetings are meditations; you focus, take in and chew every phrase. It also means everyone is perpetually participating; it`s impossible to doze. And most important, this broadcasting system is an antidote to rhetoric and surges of pumped-up oratory (everyone talks in short, clipped phrases) and completely in keeping with a movement that doesn`t want leaders, charismatic or otherwise." Without really knowing or intending to, the people`s mic ends up being a very participatory, horizontal, and efficient means of communication, very much in line with the movement that it represents. It is not my intention here to go at length about the people`s mic, but it is important to make a small note of it.

One of the defining features of the Greek Assemblies was that they had no specific demands; other assemblies have operated along similar lines. In the status-quo left, when campaigning for specific issues, a slogan set of demands is often determined and projected by unions and NGOs. The wave of people`s assemblies that has risen in the past eighteen months has been unique because it really allows a natural process to take its course, for openness and horizontality to guide the process. A people`s assembly does not take its messaging, its demands, its aims, its structure, or its tactics or strategy from the top down; instead those are generated internally, self-articulated from within. This is a central feature of horizontal organizing, that there is no imposed pre-set agenda or demands. The only thing that is certain is a collective understanding that change is necessary, and that a gathering of people has formed with the intent to discuss and create solutions together. Everything else is left to the process itself.

And so its fine here in Toronto to ask federal, provincial, and municipal to stop the cuts, and in Europe to ask governments to reverse austerity, but asking your oppressor to save you, or to do you a favor, is madness. It doesn`t matter if these are the types of slogans that get people involved; if their focus is incorrect and they`re leading people in the wrong direction, then they`re a waste of time. What I mean is that the Occupy Movement is expressing vividly that we need to create the alternatives for ourselves. Of course we have to protest our governments and the financial crisis, and of course we have to mobilize and come out onto the streets by the thousands, but we must do it in the spirit of rejecting the system and creating the alternative, rather than asking our governments to do a better job and treat us with benevolence. It`s one thing to draw people into mainstream campaigns, and that their politics then get radicalized through that process, but there is a fine line between that, and making people believe that asking the government to give us things is the right thing to do. We have to make a clear distinction between the latter, and a complete rejection of capitalism, the industrial system, and the political establishment. Institutional politics are a complete failure from the state to political parties, and the only hope lies in building up from the community. It is by ourselves and for ourselves that we are going to save ourselves, and it is through creativity and through community-grown ideas that we`re going to find the solutions that we`re looking for. The People`s Assembly movement in a lot of ways, is a reflection of that.

Another central feature of the now People`s Assembly/Occupy movement is its insistence on establishing or creating a community. Seeing the recurrence time and time again of social media teams, food committees, medic centers, message boards, direct action groups, workshops, and the list goes on, is not a coincidence. This clearly demonstrates not simply a protest, but a movement that is genuinely interested in building and creating. By this, the movement recognizes that if resistance and the creation of the alternative are to be sustainable, that it must engage in the "spaces of everyday life and survival, putting in motion an increasing number of social networks." This movement is not simply criticizing the system, it is putting forward an alternative, and what is becoming clear from this horizontal/create-as-you-go-along form of organizing is a realization that "we must have the courage to ask the questions we don`t have answers for"; that is what creating is. Anyone can talk about the problems of the capitalist system, we know what`s wrong with the system, we have analyzed it time and again. But without answers to the crisis you can only go so far; this new method of organizing identifies that it must be a creative and solution-based movement if it wishes to be successful.

When I toured Occupy Toronto on Tuesday, November 15th, I saw that the encampment had grown to more than 200 tents and structures, covering almost literally every square inch of St-James Park. I witnessed a volunteer tent and a sanitation committee. There was a Free School set up for classes and workshops, including a permaculture teach-in, queer discussion, and a talk on solar living. A media center with solar panels nearby which powered some of the I.T capability. In a small yurt (round circus tent) was the Toronto Open Library with children`s books, Atlases, Dictionaries, Hermann Hesse, William S. Burroughs, issues of Iconoclast and NOW Magazine, Chomsky, and No-Nonsense guides to name a few. They had organized a post office with paid-for-postage and postcards printed with pictures of Occupy Toronto. They kept a music area, and a sacred space and medicine lodge. Another yurt was erected as a yoga space and secondary medical center. They had a banner and placard making station, a legal support tent, a logistics committee and tent with washroom supplies, fire extinguisher, condoms, pillows, blankets, and the administration of donations and finances. On the other side of the Logisitics tent was a Free store with deodorant, socks, clothing, and shoes, there was a storage area, a safe space for people in recovery, and the official Medical Yurt. Last but not least, a firewood station. Enough said.

The concept of general assemblies and consensus organizing has been difficult for the mainstream media and political establishment to process and analyse because their line of thinking doesn’t allow them to even perceive something different. This is not about making changes to the system or making it better; this movement is reinventing politics and creating a new form of community organizing and decision-making. And, the misinterpretation of `lack of decision-making` and `no clear demands` indicates an inability to imagine, and a lack of understanding that true and meaningful democratic strategy building and decision-making is a process of collectivity and give-and-take dialogue that takes time.

What could be more exciting, more inspiring, than the challenge of reinventing society? That is what people are tasked with today, to reinvent society as we`d like to see it, to start all over again. And, that is essentially what we are being forced to do; the system of political and economic dominance, and industrial production, and over-exploitation, over-consumption, over-production, and waste, has destroyed all social foundations, has obliterated self-reliance and self-sufficiency, and has decomposed empowerment, autonomy, food sovereignty, and community. This movement has identified that we need to regain all these elements that are essential to life. What this movement is doing is akin to going back to prehistoric times, finding some of the first Homo Sapien or Cro-Magnon communities, and saying "here, create society." Ours is a unique and challenging time in history because we have been left with a giant, toxic, heavy, cumbersome, hierarchical, ecologically destructive, undemocratic, industrial, violent, oppressive pile of rubbish.


On the night of Monday, November 14th, the first eviction took place at Occupy Wall Street as the New York Police Department raided and trashed most of the occupation encampment. As I was rolling up to Occupy Toronto at around 12pm the following day, the alternative community at St-James Park had also just received its first eviction notice. As I was thinking about what this meant, I realized that this is not the end, and in fact marks only the beginning. Whether or not New York or Toronto, or any other city in North America or around the world evicted from their encampment are able to retake the same space, or if they simply reset and start anew in a different park or plaza, what matters is that this initial phase has happened; this introduction that needed to happen for people to understand what they need to do has happened. So whether this initial wave of Occupy persists for one year or two years, or whether it fades loudly into the winter months and small, self-reliant, autonomous communities in different parts of cities and countryside start to spring up in its place, the seed has been planted, and people now know what they have to do. The realization has come that the possibility is now an actuality.  

Capitalism, and the industrial system, and the vertical political establishment have given us a crisis, and the crisis has created a blank slate, and the blank slate translates to a canvas where creativity can begin to take shape. The Occupy Movement has been a great practice space, and it has given people a chance to begin creating and designing what the alternative world will look like. The struggle, the challenge, will be difficult, but people now understand that the formula is fairly simple: go out there and take a space, occupy it and make it yours, and begin to build the alternative. And, we should make it clear that you can just as well occupy your own home, and occupy your neighbourhood with your friends, and family, and neighbours, and we all must do this, and we have effectively taken those spaces out of the jurisdiction of the capitalist system, when we have clearly chosen to reject and boycott the system and have started to build the alternative structures in its place. Those spaces then become our space. The most important thing moving forward is to take what we have created together in 2011, and to reapply it to our neighbourhoods everywhere, because when horizontality is applied to the spaces of everyday life, it becomes not only resistance, not only an occupation, not only a general assembly, but it becomes alternative governance.

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