Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Occupation in Philly, Day 13

At a time when many in Philly lack health care, adequate heat or housing (or a lack of both), a sense of safety, and a host of other material/emotional supports, “the Center City District has retained Gilbane to serve as the owner’s representative for the $50 million transformation of Dilworth Plaza.” Fortunately, many hundreds of us are now transforming Dilworth–FOR FREE–into a self-governed space that’s attempting to truly care for each and everyone of us. No need for fancy contractors or wasted dollars; everything for everyone, via people power. Join us!

* * *

Tonight I’m a crushed out on the people inhabiting the occupation here in Philly–well, most of them. I’ll write something another day about the one, two, or three folks who have delusions of controlling this uncontrollable movement, and have used a variety of tactics to try to assert this control, from lying and spreading lies, even dangerous ones; to commandeering or monopolizing the various media from Web sites to Twitter to the Facebook page for the occupation; to turning certain people and projects in our newfound community into the police; to trying to demonize anarchists and me specifically. But let me save my anger for another day, another post; there will always be a person or two (or a small group) who try “by any means necessary” to contain, squash, and doom outpourings of self-organization and popular power.

And hence my heartthrob this evening, for all the many, many, many other people at this occupation–pretty much the 99.99% here at Occupy Philly, much as I hate the 99% slogan (yet another rant for yet another day)–who are doing precisely the opposte. As we near the two-week mark, I can only stand back and gaze lovingly at this thing we’ve all created: a social fabric of people power, each with their own quirks, viewpoints, contributions, strengths, and failings. Our imperfections, as both a direct democracy and as humans, is night by night, making us closer, forging the ever-strong sense that this is not only our space, our imperfectly beautiful new world, but also one that we don’t want to lose, that we want to sustain, build on, expand, and if it comes to it (which in my wildest fantasies, I dream that it won’t), resist when the powers-that-be try to take it away from us.

This evening I’m in love with our general assembly (GA). We’ve gotten good at this! Listening to each other, intently. Changing minds and hearts, in a compassionate way. Being OK when someone speaks for the first time–indeed, encouraging them to do so–and being kind when they stumble with their words, often applauding them afterward. And mostly, taking our task seriously: that we are making decisions, important ones, together. That our decisions matter.

So concerning the relatively minor decision tonight about whether our assemblies should be 1.5 hours each night, 2 hours, or go on ad naseum, people tinkered at the original proposal until we generally agreed that 2 hours seemed good, with a check-in by the facilitators at 8:45 if it seemed like our discussion wasn’t nearing an end, to potentially vote to extend the GA a bit. Such “logistical” questions could have quite easily simply been decided by the facilitation working group, or our Coordinating Council (the CoCo, consisting of 1-2 delegates from each working group per night, meeting before our GA to set the proposals for that night’s assembly). But here in our social fabric, most everyone has become a staunch defender of transparency, openness, inclusiveness, and directly democratic decisions–almost to a fault. (A couple nights ago, we also debated and decided that proposals should indeed go through the CoCo–something that had been “standard” practice from the start, but something that the whole GA had never discussed.) As one young woman who’s been one of my barometers of this occupation movement said to me tonight, when we were talking about a subcommittee tasked last night with drafting a letter that the entire GA has been setting the content for, together as a group, for the past three nights: “I know you think it’s OK to set up this subcommittee simply to draft a letter to bring back to the GA for debate, revisions, and decision making; but I think everyone should always be able to join anything here, so wherever wants to write that letter, should, even if that means a 100 people or more.”

When we faced what could be seen as a more substantive issue this evening–a proposal from the “message working group” to write a letter from Occupy Philly to Occupy DC asking that they call for a national day of general assemblies on “black Friday” after Thanksgiving, that would bring GAs from the whole country to DC–we engaged in this pretty remarkable group process of what were allegedly “friendly amendments” that, in the end, completely reframed the proposal into something that elicited great joy and pretty much full agreement all around. Person after person offered “amendments” that built on each other’s, and then folks ran over to each other to craft combinations of amendments, while numerous wonderful side conversations created even further ideas. The facilitators masterfully further combined ideas for a series of votes that, one by one, transformed the proposal into: Occupy Philly will write a letter to send to GAs all over the world, calling for regional gatherings of GAs on a worldwide day of “general assemblies of general assemblies,” with the time, date, and location to be determined by the regions, as a way to grow our movement, and create face-to-face relations between occupations of solidarity and sharing, as directly democratic bodies. (Ah, echoes of the commune of communes notion!) And of course, this letter has to come back to us, the GA, tomorrow night before we send it out.

My crush this evening was for how we’ve gotten so relatively good, in such a relatively short time, at something we shouldn’t be good at–self-governance. Meaning, we’re good enough to almost improvise together, with the structure of direct democracy we’ve created and committed ourselves to, voluntarily, as people who are starting to recognize each other as individuated human beings, so we know we can increasingly trust each other, that we have the interests of our “community” at heart, and yet we’re all able to maintain ourselves as diverse people. From there, we can and do make expansively beautiful decisions. Who knows if our general assembly of general assemblies notion will get picked up by other GAs, or will even happen. But we dreamed together tonight.  We want to see our occupations encircle each other–like the ripples in the water when you toss a few stones in–and help each other and offer aid when one occupation is attacked by police, or another has too few people, or another needs ideas on how to organize conflict resolution, or maybe, just maybe, we gain enough confidence in ourselves as general assemblies to know we can do this all the time.

My crush, too, is for the people themselves who I’ve met and am getting to know and am struggling with through hard stuff and humorous stuff and joyful stuff and all the stuff that makes life worth living. It’s for the young guy who I barely know, but who I’ve said hello to and a few words every single day of this occupation, who ran up to me to exclaim, “Hey, it makes me feel good to see you here each night!” followed by a big hug. It’s for another person who I’ve only spoken to once, a week ago, and then didn’t have a great conversation, but tonight, standing side by side at the GA, after both of us expressed our concerns about a proposal, he turned to me and we got in a super conversation, he as a marxist and me as an anarchist, about the concept of “alienation”–all the while trying to also keep track of the proposal being debated. It’s about watching a longtime friend do an incredible job of facilitating along with people, other good facilitators, I didn’t even know two weeks ago, now bonded together as a working group, doing the good work of helping our GA make decisions smoothly, agilely, savvily, and in 2 hours. It’s about the acquaintances who are now becoming friends who are also amazing organizers and principled, dedicated people who, this evening, ended up going to bat for each other, and for me, over one of those folks I mentioned at the outset–one of those control types. It wasn’t about disliking or being mean to that individual; in fact, if anything, people have probably been too nice, too patient–again, a “fault” ‘that also underscores the joy of this occupation, in that people are trying to think the best of each other, are trying to stay open. Nonetheless, an exhausted group of people took turns trying to reason with this one person, much more adamantly than ever before, but all in the name of preserving this space for everyone, in a way that keeps it open for us all to have an equal share of the power to create.

Through it all this past long, short almost-two weeks, we’ve unfolded as people to each other. Not just what’s nice and good about ourselves, but also who we truly are, through fights and conflicts, misunderstandings and poorly stated comments during GAs, lack of skills and disorganization, sleeplessness and impatience. I looked around this evening, at the many faces of people I didn’t like at first, who I share little in common with, who I’d never in a million years be friends with. I looked around and realized, I like them. I am friends and/or friendly with them. Quirks and all. Because I’m starting to know their quirks, and goodness knows, they certainly know mine. We’re turning into what people label “one big, happy family,” where you know that means, “Yeah, your uncle kinda rambles on too long, but we love him anyway” or “Your cousin is a bit wild, but they are a good kid.” And certainly that’s true, with the fondness as well that underlies that sentiment of familiarity, of family you never asked for, but when push comes to shove, you’re glad you have around. More than that, though, we’ve turned into the stuff, on a micro level, of what might begin to feel like “one big, happy community,” where our imperfections are what fondly bind us, allow us to make and keep promises, give us the desire to be there for and with each other, through thick and thin, without compulsion.

“This is how direct democracy works”: an imperfectly perfect social fabric that we ourselves are weaving, lovingly, tighter by the night.


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This entry was posted on October 19, 2011 by in Dispatches from Occupy Philly.
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