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Semiformalishmaybe

Silence at Carnival

Last night's GA at Occupy PHL was quite an experience. Four hours and fifteen minutes in the cold, in the most packed and most passionate assembly I've seen so far. Pretty much everyone had a strong opinion coming in, everyone wanted to make their opinion known, and there was difficulty maintaining respect between the factions. There were a few incidents with batshit crazy people trying to disrupt the GA or impress others around them with their personality ("No, I will not sit down because I am awesome. I will play harmonica while everyone else is trying to talk because I like expressing myself in ways that get me lots of attention"), but eventually those people were grumbled out of the assembly (or nudged into behaving).

The issue:
*Currently OccupyPHL is camped (literally) right in front of city hall in a nice park structure. The city has barracaded the passage into a courtyard with actual entrances to the building (which is hugetastic and crazy). There are two sets of steps leading below the plaza down into the fairly substantial underground shopping-and-transit parts of downtown PHL.
*I am not sure if OccupyPHL had a permit initially, but eventually someone (I believe the ACLU) filed one on their behalf, and that permit was granted with an end date of TBD.
*There was an existing plan to renovate the plaza, based on a federal grant
*There's a nearby plaza across the street which the city has indicated willing to allocate to OccupyPHL (permit, etc) provided they give up the city hall space

The proposal initially was to spread to both sites, housing the more-legally-vulnerable in what would hopefully be a with-permit camp in the new space, and housing people more keen for direct-action/symbolism-of-city-hall/protests-should-not-be-accomodating action would remain at city hall.

I went down there with the following preferred outcomes, from most to least desirable:
#Move entirely to the new site
#Remain entirely at the old site
#Split the camps

The third option was shot down surprisingly quickly; people made the realisation that two camps would be more vulnerable than one, that it would damage solidarity, etc. (The famous Franklin quote was used a few times).

To my surprise, over the course of the debate I found myself swaying between moving and staying; the arguments for both were stronger than I thought. Safety of Occupy members and solidarity with the union labour that would do the construction and increased handicap-accessibility of the renovated park, traditions of non-violent resistance and symbolism of city hall; these cases and more were all discussed at length. After many hours of concerns and comments, only the decision not to open the floor again for another (likely unending) round allowed anything to get decided.

I didn't vote. I was pushed enough onto the fence on the issue that while I certainly took part in the discussions (and was, as usual, someone who spoke up a few times), I didn't feel strong enough either way to vote. At this point, removed from the meeting, if I had to make a snap decision for the whole group I probably would've decided to move, but even still I think not voting was sensible given how I felt/feel now. The assembly decided to stay put.

It adjourned immediately afterwards; there was general happiness at having reached a conclusion, some concern for people who still wanted to move rather than block the renovation/confront the police, and a general tiredness. There was a surprisingly active number of old people who came to the meeting, many of whom didn't look like they were in the habit of being awake and outside at 23:00 on a cold night ("Grannies for peace", etc). By the time of the end of the meeting I was starving (didn't eat nearly enough before the meeting), freezing (because of starving), and needed to use the restroom. I grabbed some pasta from the food tent and joined parts of the facilitation committee and some other GA-goers at a bar (that I'd been to before, surprisingly; I think with my cousin while she was still in town), missed the last train back to Haverfardmore (schedule wrongness in GoogleMaps), and took a taxi back with an old driver who was once a (pretty good, as far as I could tell) singer who told me about his life as a jazz musician. I did briefly think about sleeping at Occupy as an accidental-but-swingable experience, but I had my laptop with me, I didn't have my tent, and while I was willing to sleep under the stars in Schenley Park in PGH (did it a few times), doing so in front of city hall in full view of such a random group of people felt unwise.


I've been thinking about the things that came first in these movements; they are broadly democratic, but the facilitation committee has to push very hard to keep the structure needed to let them work, and even then there are always a few people who manage to bring them off-track for a bit, either in GAs or in the smaller committee meetings. The latter are more easily consensus-based; when people vote against something, the group usually stops, asks them to explain their point, and then they might re-vote. This isn't so workable on the large scale. There is a bootstrapping problem; the facilitation committee presumably either decided on this by fiat (even if internally they were democratic and open, using unknown procedures before deciding on this one), or there was some earlier consensus mechanism for the GA as a whole to decide on the current facilitation committee's practice. I'm not bothered by this; being a systems geek and thinking about this like how computers start up gives me the inutuition that bootstrapping is hard. The other "thing that came first", largely unacknowledged by non-wall-street occupiers, is Adbusters. I've mentioned them before in my blog; they're an artsy anti-consumerism magazine, full of mixed messages and poetry but often an interesting read. It was their call that started all of this. I have no idea if they still have any involvement with it; it fits with at least some of the messages they've suggested for radical democracy, awakeness (which only moderately overlaps with the philosophical/mental awakeness idea that I sometimes talk about), and capitalist-values-being-the-wrong-values, but as far as I can tell they were content to just be a spark; the movements are largely self-managing, although I've come to see a bit of the inter-movement networkstuff (might join the inter-movement committee, as that stuff seems seriously jurisprudentially interesting). One thing I really like about the movement is how secrecy-phobic they are; if you want to know something, you know you can either ask at a general assembly or join a committee and get involved. The trust that that kind of engagement is welcomed is heartening. The skeptic in me keeps insisting that there will be people trying to manipulate and control the movement, but so far (to my surprise), I haven't seen any of that (except insofar as people do it through arguments, in public and in committees anyone can join).

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