Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Occupation in Philly, Day 9

My dream is that every occupation crafts its own site-specific way of making directly democratic decisions, and that we each record and share our ideas, and learn from and borrow from and build on all these ideas, until we grow our autonomous experiments into confederated, self-governing spaces. Until we create a diversity of processes that fit local conditions, so when we’re ready to confederate (i.e., coordinate across occupations, while keeping power dispersed and horizontal), we’ll have “a diversity of direct democracies”! So here, NYC style: “Consensus (Occupy Wall Street),” at vimeo.com. And here, “Centralized vs. Decentralized Consensus/Democracy” courtesy of the Autonomous Legion (http://www.autonomous-legion.org). And then there’s the “open consensus process” of Occupy PDX, at Google docs, https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0BxBb1a-d9W3aZDBhMDVhMDEtMjVmYS00M2FjLWFhNGMtNDA1NjZmNWQwM2Iy&hl=en_US&pli=1

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Patience. Things happen so fast at Occupy Philly. The tents, for instance, have mushroomed into what are almost neighborhoods, now filling almost the entirety of the gigantic city hall plaza, with rumors of people wanting to give the pathways between the encampments names like “Solidarity Street” and most of the tents serving as both home & artistic/political/architectural expression. But things happen slowly, too. And I for one need to remember that fast-slow tempo, and remember to be patient. The infusion from birth of the hegemony of hierarchy within all of us is so deep, so “natural,” so nearly “instinctual” for most people, that even if it seems to me that so much changes with each day at our occupation–and it does–I need to remember that remaking self & society doesn’t happen in a week, or even two.

Maybe it was the off-and-on again rain, or blustery fall weather, but I felt this off-and-on again patience-frustration-patience, wondering why it’s so hard for people to see that police aren’t our friends, even if some of them are friendly; that inviting city officials to our general assembly would not be a good idea, because they won’t come as “people” but instead bring the institutional weight of social control with them; that we don’t need to jump when the city sends word through “our” attorneys that we should give up some of our power because it’s making the city nervous (sadly, despicably, tonight “our” attorneys, and an ACLU one in particular, basically acted and spoke on behalf of the city, as if the city were their clients, arguing during our general assembly that we should do what the city wants, because the city is uncomfortable. Isn’t that part of what we want? What we’ve won? The power to make those in top-down power uncomfortable? Ah, but I’m being impatient again!

We’re schooling ourselves in freedom by the day here–freedom, autonomy, mutual aid, self-governance. I just want it to go a whole hell of a lot faster sometimes.

Each time I’m patient, I know it has far more impact in terms of my own hopes and dreams for this space, this insurrection–an insurrection being pushed forward and sustained in large measure by people who mostly don’t even seem to understand they are actually rebelling, by people who are so earnest and caring, and yet so blind to social realities like, say, institutionalized forms of racism, brutality, and power, and maybe more upsetting, just so new to politics and social movements that they honestly don’t “get” that those in power with try to stop us using “whatever means necessary,’ even so-called niceness. I know that most people here–save for the few bad eggs, such as an undercover cop who came into our occupation today to spread rumors to again try to thwart us, or the few folks who think they should be in near-total control of our Web site–have the best of intentions and care immensely about doing good in the world. It’s just so hard to see people the many, miniscule ways in which we’re socialized to behave, obey, comply, give away our power, look to those in power, etc., etc., etc. I have so much more patience for conversations around why police, as an institution, are problematic than I do for the perhaps much more fundamental dialogues around why, in so many tiny but critical ways, at every general assembly there is this subtle assertion of our direct, decentralized power-together and then eagerness to hand it back over to those in centralized power-over structures.

Today during our general assembly, a renewed version of a portion of yesterday’s proposal reappeared in the form of a supposed innocuous proposal that not only negated the good decision we made last night (to respond to a “request” letter from the city by first developing a set of our own demands through a deliberative, dialogic GA process, ending up with a written letter developed and approved by the GA, to then send to the city and post to world, before we meet with any city officials). The city, of course, made a chess move against our decision, called “our” lawyers, and the result was a proposal from part of the legal working group that we, the GA, have a “listening” meeting with the city before our demand letter, since the poor city felt uncomfortable with our process and time frame, and needed reassurance.

In the end, there was widespread affirmation that NO, we need to pull together our own demands in writing first and foremost, before any (if any) meetings, and YES, we know we have power and want to keep it. But that took a couple hours in the chilly-damp night air of trying to patiently articulate, through participating in the “concerns” part of the process, in small breakout group conversations, and mostly, for me, in various one-on-one discussions when people came up to me after I spoke once, to ask me to patiently explain why I was so opposed to inviting the city to meet with us. “They just want to listen.” “Shouldn’t we keep them on our side?” “Isn’t it good for public opinion if we keep the city happy?” “If we’re only listening, what harm can that do?” The subtleties that us anarchists know all too well of how hierarchy and domination seep in, seemingly so innocent at first, grab hold, and grow seem so clear; as my friend, and as someone who exhibited exceeding patience with me, Murray Bookchin, used to always say, “You can’t have a little bit of capitalism. It’s like cancer. It’s structured to grow.” We know that. The history of social movements, revolutions, and all sorts of utopian projects attest to that. Sadly. With much death and heartache. So now that it feels like we’re in the midst of what’s becoming a social force and perhaps something transformative, revolutionary, hinting at utopia, I’m impatient. I don’t want this to end in heartbreak, collective heartbreak, or worse.

And yet patience is exactly what’s needed. This movement is novel in so many ways–which someday soon I hope to lay out in a more coherent, less sleep deprived manner–but one of those ways is how it came before any preparation. The Facebook revolution. Or maybe Tweeter transformation. Create an events page, send out electronic invites to your “friends,” and on the day of the event, you don’t even have to go to the trouble of showing up, even if you say “I’m attending”; somehow those who do gather will know what to do, because it’s all laid out on the Facebook events page. And they did know what to do in the early days of OWS: make a bunch of status updates in the form of cardboard signs, each getting its own space and staying “up” on the sidewalk as long as each person decided to maintain that status; or shout out a tweeter feed to a group of real-live people, at well under 140 characters per shout, and hear them shout it back via the people’s mic. Suddenly it wasn’t a exercise in tweeting from the loneliness of one’s room into a computer but speaking your tweet to living, breathing, loving, caring people who saw and recognized you as a human being, like them, who simply wants to be seen and heard.

At first I thought it was horrific, the incoherent hodgepodge of people so destroyed by the restructuring of already-debased social relations into hollow, ultra-alienating “social networking” that the mere act of saying almost nothing, but doing so in person, was the best people could do anymore. A blank slate of blank people. And thus I tried to think of another social movement or social struggle in the United States since, say, WWII that didn’t involve preparing the ground first, via teaching, training, organizing, capacity building, strategizing, etc., and I couldn’t. So perhaps out of perverse curiosity, I stuck around to see what would happen to this “movement” created from nothing, demanding even less than the “demand nothing” of the insurrectionist anarchist “occupy everything” impulse of a couple years ago. It was patient with itself, and it reminded me of the value of that, so slowly but surely, despite the naivete and vacuousness of much of OWS at first, I started to get drawn into patient engagement, and saw other longtime anarchists, autonomists, and radicals do the same. Slowly but surely, the patience “paid off” on all sides, and when I returned to Philly, I set about–along with a ton of other anarchists, autonomists, and other libertarian left radicals–bringing that patience to bear from the first, to try our best to bring ground in the form of our “technical” skills at collective self-organization and education (educating people to think for themselves). That patience was and is two-way, because all of us are learning, when we listen and dialogue, have empathy and compassion, and as I seem to be writing again and again, each new day brings new lessons, new surprises. And each new GA, with all its frustrations, seem to end, in the end, with a resounding affirmation of our social power from below, our do-it-ourselves democracy.

But damn, I’m impatient. The informers are moving in. Police, unformed and not, are making the rounds, sowing seeds of discord, spreading rumors. The mayor is playing “nice cop” to, say, Bloomberg’s “bad cop.” A few renegade folks within our occupation, who think it’s their occupation alone, are trying–increasingly desperately, and increasingly nastily–to divide us, to take this space and place and time from us. The weather is turning to fall, then too soon winter. And then there’s just the slow, but steady, but slow process of people undoing all the socialization that hinders each of us in so many ways. So yes, I’m completely impatient. I want this to stick. I want this to grow. Now that I’ve tasted what it feels like to practice, with disparate and damaged others, actually existing direct democracy in a way that’s gaining us more social power and a more beautiful social space by the day, I want so much more, even as I fret and worry that it’s going to disappear before it’s had a chance. So I’m losing my ability to stay in tune with the contradictions and let this surprising, inexplicable, mysterious social movement unfold of its own luxurious accord.

Fortunately, this uprising has a lot of sitting, and so on the wet concrete during our lengthy GA, after I’d spoken up with my concerns about the proposal, a young guy pulled up to sit next to me. “Can I ask you why you’re worried about us inviting the city officials to one of our GAs?” he said, quietly, calmly, with seemingly endless patience. We chatted in hushed tones amid the clamor of the people’s mic conversation (our donated amplified system was needed for the night by our donors, the Stage Hands union!), and my patience returned. He was ready and eager to hear my reasons, and I was finally, for once this evening, ready again to calmly share my thoughts, starting from his starting point (not mine), as others have done for and with me, and still do, when I’m ready and eager. I’m pretty sure I changed his mind, planting the nagging suspicion of hierarchy in his head, for him to then apply to all sorts of other situations. I’m pretty sure he ended up voting against the proposal, which would have limited our direct democracy and social power. Plus I know others around us were listening in, taking in new ways of “reading” what seem innocuous friendly gestures on the part of city and police. What I’m absolutely sure about this rainy autumn evening is: I need patience for myself, for others, for this movement that came before there was any ground beneath its feet, or it will falter before it really begins.


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