Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Occupation in Philly, Day 3

Overly occupied with direct democracy, in its working existence in occupied city center in Philly, with all the messy joy of watching thousands of people discover their own power, to do everything from make decisions face-to-face to set up libraries and kids’ areas to cart in food, tents, furniture, & hola-hoops, to the sudden birth of several dozen working groups, and on and on. Can’t believe it’s been just 2.5 days, and how much has come alive. As one person noted, we’re here because we’re united, we’re here because we’re different, and we’re able to be both and create this space by ourselves. I keep marveling, even if it’s only temporary: self-organization works. And best of all is watching the light go on, again and again, in people’s eyes who have never done this before, as they realize their own power to self-organize, not wait for someone to compell, force, or boss them to do it.

I keep thinking I’ve experienced the most beautiful moment at the Philly occupation, and then something else happens that surpasses it, like yesterday’s half-hour “modeling people’s mic speakout” for person after person to eloquently describe why they are here–by and large, because of finding our own power together and realizing we can love & care for each other.

Of course, there are the hard-to-stomach parts of the Philly occupation: When I biked up to main entrance this morning, and the first sign I see today is: “Police are part of 99%.”

It’s funny how sometimes there’s a collective sigh, a collective sense of angst and impatience, as if we’re all so ready, from our differing vantage points, for the world to be utterly different, for it to work “from below” for everyone and everything. We’re all stumbling through carving out a community of our own on a big concrete plaza in city hall, and it’s hard, hard work, with most people having little experience with such do-it-ourselves forms of collective people power. Socialization is strong, from racism and heteronormativity to conceiving of “politics” as a series of requests to those in power. So despite the profound amount of self-organization over the previous two days, based on almost nothing other than 2 big meetings & 1 smaller process meeting beforehand, people seemed to all be frustrated at once that we were still so disorganized, that so many things have seemingly fallen through the cracks, that not everyone feels seen or included or heard, and that our various skills to act for ourselves are, for most, in embryonic learning stages.

And so the noontime general assembly, facilitated by folks new to facilitation, coming on the heels of a difficult general assembly the night before (where folks agreed to accept a “permit” for our already-existent occupation in a way that like concerns got ignored, again due to folks new to facilitation and not ill intent for the most part), brought various concerns to the forefront–most prominently related to racism and directly democratic processes. People of color formed a caucus and met during the afternoon; the facilitation and direct democracy working group tried to grapple with clarifying the glitches in the decision-making process for the general assembly, and then making it much more transparent (via big signs, thousands of printouts, and online explanations of the decision-making steps), but was thwarted by anyone and everyone wandering into the open-air “nonworking group” meeting to rant, ramble, and take us completely off-track. All of us “regular” working group members had to walk away, minutes before the evening general assembly.

I walked away, utterly discouraged, “done.” I wandered around the now-people’s occupied plaza–past the kids’ zone (initiated by a young anarchist, and filled with “fun toys” including a giant playhouse, people coming to do face paint & balloon animals, and from which kids did their own march yesterday, with slogans such as “down with naps!” and “listen!”, into the the library & education tent (largely built and so-far filled by anarchists, with all sorts of rad literature and zines, and soon a schedule of workshops and trainings and classes), past the couch (now centerpiece of the drum circle) and many tables (dumpstered and dragged to the plaza by anarchists) filled with literature, art-making supplies, & food), past the two big banners (made by anarchists the first night), past the cardboard house (built by some young anarchists who are also part of “nonviolent direct action” working group), but also past the numerous mushrooming spaces created by all sorts of people: the people of color caucus, some 60 or more strong, meeting by the library; dozens of tents in a new neighborhood, with homemade signs surrounding them; a phone charging and tech area, and everywhere, signs, words, art, images of a better world.

I wandered back, still feeling discouraged, to that evening’s general assembly. All of us experienced facilitators, who had developed the directly democratic process from the start and were trying our best to train facilitators, explain the process, and get people used to self-governing, had abandoned ship. We stood listening, from the back reaches of the assembly area. I was thinking “How can these spaces offer so much promise, so quickly, and so quickly fall apart,” when I realized that the general assembly had taken on a life, a culture, of its own. Despite all the complaints and anger we’d heard between noon and 7 about the “nondemocracy” and “alienation” of the directly democratic process–which like all good “horizontal” structures, should be open to ongoing tinkering to continually ensure power stays horizontal–people were now using the basic structure to work through concerns and solutions, well-facilitated by new people who focused the assembly and ensured participation. Working groups reported back; the people of color caucus brought some half-dozen or more specific solutions to the body (including starting a poc-only working group and an open poc/racism working group each day–at 1 and 2, respectively, by the occupation library library, I think); and there was time for sharing the “why” of our being here.

A friend reminded me that I too, like everyone else, must be patient. People are so inculcated with obedience, with thinking others will do for them, with representative and/or completely disempowering structures. As the assembly ended, as direct democracy and self-organization bumped its way forward, but moved forward nonetheless, I watched hundreds of people who were thrown together by accident move into little groups to talk, grab instruments to play music together, go off to help set up tents, and begin to forge social relations that are already changing who people are, who they can be, and what they desire. Two kids I just met two days ago ran up to say good night, happily hugging me. A group of us anarchist friends decided to hang out, to touch base on our feelings, role, and aspirations for this newly occupied (needing to be decolonized) community with a city, commune within a state, mutual aid within capitalism. Hours later, we realized how much we’ve shaped this space; that indeed, without us, it wouldn’t be a do-it-ourselves community, because we’re really pretty good at creating collective spaces that, notwithstanding all the ways we’re not good at it, actually do open up possibilities and participation and empowerment. This isn’t to say “we’re wonderful.” But that when people, like us, “learn” over years how to begin to try, in baby steps, to undo our own socialization to hierarchy and domination and oppression, we get pretty good–or better than most–at wanting to offer that same “education” to others, so that more and more people educate themselves into freedom.

We brainstormed a bunch of ways, as anarchists, that we want to increase, hone, or improve our engagement, both “meeting people where they are at” politically but also not losing, nor hiding, our own politics. We kept coming back to those things we’re good at, including opening up spaces of self-organization, self-governance, self-determination; offering up forms of education, media, propaganda; bringing in social critique and social vision, among others. We talked a lot about relating this and our ideas to local issues and ongoing organizing projects, and to “building” our own capacity and relations, so that when the occupation ends, we won’t have lost. Last night, sitting in the grass late into the night, among other anarchists who have put so much of ourselves, nonstop into this “eros effect” movement of uprisings and occupations around the world, who too stumble our way into a wholly new society, as we laughed ourselves silly and excitedly tumbled over one political discussion and idea to another, I moved into the early hours of day 4 knowing that we’ve already won.

This is all part of the process, which is why it’s so incredible–because there is a process, in which social transformation seems to unfold before all our eyes, inside each of us. For instance, Occupied Wall Street seemed, to me, an incoherent, contentless, disorganized mess when it first started; now, some 3 weeks into it, people have stumbled through an accelerated learning curve. Here’s a report on last night’s results from my dear friend Joshua Stephens: “Last night, I was part of a nearly 3hr meeting that involved coordination of direct action trainings, legal strategy education, political education, historical education, support strategies for teachers of color in NYC, skillshares & theater to combat patriarchal behavior in organizing, support for indigenous remembrance in opposition to Columbus Day, and means of putting the struggles of marginalized communities in NYC at the center of it all. This involved management of TWO google groups, multiple schedule tracks of classes, 3-4 web calendars integrated into one web platform, and fuck knows how many twitter feeds. It also involved liaising, federation, and mutual support between no fewer than five thematic working groups and adherence to principles laid out by a directly-democratic general assembly. The next time you hear someone say Occupy Wall Street is disorganized, please slap them.”

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This entry was posted on October 18, 2011 by in Dispatches from Occupy Philly.
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