Monday, 31 October 2011

We shall all be heard, someday

We are on this patch of dirt for a reason,
But the point is not to hold on to this patch of dirt.
The point is to hold on.
We shall overcome, someday.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome, someday.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome, someday.

We shall all be heard, we shall all be heard,
We shall all be heard, someday.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome, someday.

We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand, someday.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome, someday.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace, someday.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome, someday.

We shall all be free, we shall all be free,
We shall all be free, someday.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome, someday.

We are not afraid, we are not afraid,
We are not afraid, today.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome, someday.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome, someday.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome, someday.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Sleep is for the weak, the weak who would like to become strong

Too busy to blog.  I have a wife, a job, a domestic mess to keep clean and an occupation to participate in.  I am a lucky man.

I've had some amazing experiences among the occupiers.  Remind me to write these blog posts:

- Ian proposes, the Elders dispose
- Where are the Christians!?
- Advice: if you have to burn out, do it among old friends who love you (or, how to get the weight of the world off your shoulders)
- Sneaky First Baptist Baptists: they actually have been as innocent as doves and as quiet as snakes
- Personal: my brother's having a baby!  (either my sister-in-law is pregnant or he got picked off by a facehugger)
- Could land swaps end the occupation one square foot at a time?  e.g. If that private landowner down the street will rent us x square feet for $1/mo (all we can afford) to store our media gear, we will agree with her to remove our media tent and de-occupy the x square feet on which it had stood.  We in Vancouver have demonstrated that we can keep our word when we say a tent is off limits in that zone.  We have a good working relationship with the VPD if someone tried to invade that space against the consensus of the general assembly.  Work for the legal team...formal contract laying out the cleanliness/noise/security/other conditions under which we would have broken faith with the landlord.  We can de-occupy inch by inch without the city even getting involved.  COMMENTERS: tell me why this is a bad idea.

Here's Springsteen sings We Shall Overcome, because we shall all be heard, we'll walk hand in hand, we shall live in peace, we shall all be free and we are not afraid, that's why.  Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.

Occupy doesn’t mean we hold on to this dirt, it means we will hold on.  We shall overcome, someday.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Wait, I'm in charge?

I decided to go to the Art Gallery over lunch, my second time ever visiting.

I went for the 1:00 Open Forum.  It was raining heavily, and people were milling around in little groups under a few giant tarps that had been hung up to keep the rain off.  I sidled over and I talked to a few people for a while.  The start time came and went.  Time passed.  Knowing that I'd have to go to back to work eventually, I wondered when this was going to get started.  Who's in charge, here?

I think someone dropped the ball, or was called away on an emergency basis.  Maybe it was just that a lot of the regulars were kept away by the rain.  The implications of there being no formal leadership slowly sank in for me.  If someone needs to do something, that someone may be you.  In this case, me.

I asked the people I was talking with if they wanted to start and got a slightly confused maybe.  Good enough.  Then I went over to another little knot of people, asked if they were here for the meeting (yes) and said that those guys over there are ready to start.  A bit passive aggressive, but it worked.  The little knots of people slowly rolled up Katamari-style into one big circle.

I somehow I became the facilitator after a while.  This was the second meeting I'd ever attended -- I didn't even know all the hand signs.  I was scatterbrained and overapologetic.  Possibly too shy and too brash at the same time.  I hope I did the right thing stepping up.  I kept trying to give the job away.

Anyhow, there was some good conversation in spite of evrything.  No one was taking minutes.  My notes below might be the best record there is.

Notes from memory on the Oct. 28 Occupy Vancouver Open Forum, as I saw it
(you may notice that I'm terrible with names - I would have included them if I could remember them)

We started with a bit of a trainwreck.  Some people were talking about the world being transformed when seen from a spiritual perspective, etc.  Another person, speaking from what I think was a new-Atheist perspective, said that he was interested in the real world.  It was a bit more pointed than we usually like, and there was a need for them to get back to common ground.  A gentleman intervened and became extremely upset about this, seizing the floor and raising his voice.  This was particularly a problem because he was our facilitator at the time.  He said he had been disrespected.  I sought consensus to take over as facilitator to mediate.  There was consensus on that without objections, and I thanked the gentleman.   mediate, I was made facilitator, and I tried to show respect for him by hearing how he had been disrespected.  He pointedly insisted on having new-atheist guy leave with him for a private conversation.  New-atheist guy was quite alarmed.   In the end, the gentleman left abruptly.*  The rest of us were a bit stunned.  Three points of ceasefire consensus:
1) Inequity is real problem in the world that doesn't go away if you stop looking
2) Coming to see the world from a new perspective can be transformative
3) Let's not talk about theism/atheism/spiritual things for the next hour

Everyone had the chance to talk about why they came and what they hope to see.  The cheerfulness was infectious.  People have wildly different and possibly irreconcilable things in mind, but they're working together. The common ground is there.  People want to get from the common ground to action.

A note about the law: there was a claim from a seemingly well-informed guy that the law about the tents is more ambiguous than it might seem.  If it's said that bylaws are being broken at the Art Gallery, we should question which bylaws specifically we're talking about.  Not something I'm clear on.

There was discussion about disruptive behaviour and how it discredits us.  There was consensus on an idea to be proposed to the General Assembly (GA). The idea was that GA should provide to the media a daily list of those activities which have consensus support from the GA.  Those and only those events are being done in our name.  By taking responsibility for the activities we agree on with full consensus, it becomes easier to say to the media that we are not responsible for disruptive behaviour that we never agreed upon or have condemned.  People who appropriate the Occupy name without building consensus at the GA are misrepresenting themselves.

[note: those of us present at this open forum may not be close enough to the relevant committee members to be in synch with their strategy on this point]

When things were winding down, we dissolved the Forum into informal discussion by consensus.

* Sir, if you should happen to read this I would very much like to speak more with you about what went wrong.
Comments would be appreciated on what went wrong/right

Three Goals

Diagnosis, amplification and popularization

Short Version:

Diagnosis: A direct-democratic assembly should be a network of people who can trust each other to provide information about what's wrong
Amplification: A direct-democratic assembly should give instant advice and sustained support to people who can imagine practical courses of action.
Popularization: We are pursuing broad consensus in our society on a few common values

Very Long Version:

1) Diagnosis
The issue that prompted OWS was inequity. We sound like we're all over the map partially because we aren't as organised in expressing consensus as we should be, but primarily because there is no single cause of inequity. Problems with the Bank Act? Student loans? Rent control? X? Y? Z? Yes. Each of those is part of the problem. No one person sees the whole picture, and many of the things that went wrong over the past few decades happened unnoticed. That's true partly because some of the issues are obscure (read the Bank Act lately?) and partly because some people are hit harder than others (esp. various forms of discrimination).
The situation is bad enough that here in Canada it can be attacked from any political perspective. (Outside of Canada your mileage may vary) Conservatives don't like to see radical change in society; they should be wondering why hardworking lower-middle class people aren't becoming upper-middle class as they might have a generation ago. The Progressive Conservatives must still be out there somewhere. Greens should be mad that companies are profiting from dropping externalities on the rest of us. Libertarians should be angry that government policy is distorting the market to the benefit of those with the best lobbyists. NDPstas are watching the labour movement get ground down year after year. I don't know what specifically would bother Liberals and Bloquistes the most, but take your pick! On some issues we might get consensus. On other issues, I think it would be great to see our political parties fighting <i>in good faith</i> over who's got the best solutions. We have enough common values to work together, and we need to get better at listening and working across party lines.
It's time to pull out into the open the ways society is invisibly unfair. What's it like to be a single mother? Are the laws stacked against small business owners? All voices should be heard, especially the voices of people who have been marginalized.
It's also time to hit the books. We need to have small, disciplined groups of people rigorously informing themselves about particular issues -- what the law is and how institutions work. It would be all the better if those groups include certified experts. Economist? Lawyer? Yes please, committee's over there. In my limited experience, general assemblies are good at focusing attention on people who know what they're talking about, and at making sure that people who have questions get answers.
Diagnosis: A direct-democratic assembly should be a network of people who can trust each other to provide information about what's wrong with our society.
2) Amplification
Even if all you know about Occupy is what you've seen on the news, you've probably seen the human mike trick, used where actual microphones have been illegal or inconvenient. If a person can't be heard on the far side of an assembly, the people nearby will repeat her words in a loud voice. Consider it a metaphor.
One person who writes a letter to the editor is a crank. One hundred people who are threatening to drop their subscriptions get taken very seriously. One thousand?
Have you been suffering discrimination? A large, diverse audience wants to listen. Is there more we can do than listen?
Have you carefully researched payday loansharking? Explain the problem as you see it. Suggest a solution. Listen to feedback, get backup, pass the torch if you need to. It may take time to build consensus (complex issues are complex), but there is strength in numbers.
Maybe you shouldn't wait for consensus. Don't use the Occupy name if you don't have consensus support from a general assembly (that’s fraud), but if you’ve made the connections you need, consider going in your own name. However, why not pitch it to all of us – why not have all the support you can get?
Amplification: A direct-democratic assembly should give instant advice and sustained support to people who can imagine practical courses of action.
3) Popularization
We need proclaim our common values. I don’t mean we should advertize the values of those of us currently protesting. Our society has been divided-and-conquered for too long. If we can dig through cultural differences and the us-vs.-them mentality we might find common ground in surprising places. Those folks consuming hard-right news don’t speak our language, but they too have experienced injustice and inequity. They too are part of the 99%. We need to hear their voices. (and, ahem, vice versa)
They’re the hard target. Easier to reach are people who are confused by us or generally apathetic. We need to convince them that we will listen to them and that we are capable of successfully fighting inequity. How do we keep growing? If they won’t come to us, how do we in a spirit of openness go to them?
Popularization: Society-wide consensus on a few common values is almost as impossible as a massive spontaneous wave of peaceful assemblies springing up overnight without central leadership in cities around the world.

Who said this is just about government?

The media's asking for a list of demands.  Who said this is just about government?

e.g. 1
Select specific metrics along which one or more of the major banks are exploitative (or credit cards, or...).  If you find a problem, identify which is the worst.  Obtain consensus (incl. fact checking and legal advice).  Then picket with nice precise numbers on your signs.  Call "Steele on your side."  The average person on the street who might not move to a credit union might at least move from BMO to RBC or vice versa if its was to their advantage.  Make a bad number public and the worst of the worst will improve themselves or lose customers.  Pick a new metric, repeat.  

e.g. 2
Student loans?  You could start by going after the people raising the bill.  Check out all the nice new greenspace at UBC.  Look up how much it cost, divide by the number of undergraduates enrolled.  A handful of picket signs saying "this walkway raised tuition by $x" would make the news and apply pressure.

Government isn't the only institution that needs to be held accountable.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Why not go where people are?

Most Vancouverites will never visit the Art Gallery site, and even fewer will participate.  People are busy.  Culture clashes can be an irrational barrier to working together.  Given what's happened in some cities, there's reason for people to fear arrest if they attend.*  Those people who do protest cannot speak in the name of the 99% when the vast majority of Vancouverites have not made their voices heard.

Most Vancouverites will never go downtown to stand out in the cold, but does that mean they can't get involved?

Why not go where people are?  We should ask ourselves what a general assembly-style meeting would look like in a retirement home, or a church basement, or a neighborhood community center.  Three assemblies a day is absurd for most people, but many people can spare one or two hours once or twice a month.  That's enough time to stay informed, to be heard and to plan action.  Do not underestimate the political power of Grandmothers who have the time to socialize, write letters and vote.

Would an occupy-inspired meeting in a community center really have anything to do with what's happening at the Art Gallery or would it just be appropriating the name?  It's a question of what our core principles really are.  Can we get around culture clashes by transposing those principles into a new key?

If there were little assemblies all over town, how would we hold the movement together without abandoning direct democracy?  I think co-attendance might be enough, but this is a big worry that I'd want to consider carefully.

I seem to be using the words we and our.  I'm not sure exactly when I joined.  Huh.

* I should not need to thank public officials for respecting the charter right of peaceful assembly, but given the violence seen in other cities I would like to give credit to our Mayor and to the Vancouver Police Department for doing their jobs competently.  Mayor Robinson would like to see the Art Gallery site dismantled, but he has not resorted to force or fraud.  Kudos to him for renouncing threats and ultimatums.  Credit for minimally decent behaviour should also go to the VPD.  In the wake of the Canucks hockey riot one might have expected them to be on edge, but as far as I've seen they seem to be keeping cool heads.  Thanks for your professionalism.

Notes from a General Assembly

So, I worked up the courage to wander on down to Occupy Vancouver's Art Gallery HQ for their 7pm general meeting.  It's an odd environment, but I found myself feeling more at home there than I'd thought I would.  Here's what I saw.

There's a psychological barrier to entry.  I came in at night through the east side of the site, which is packed with tents.  Some of them are from the Mountain Equipment Co-op, some seemed patched together out of blue tarp.  Walking in from that angle, at night, it felt like post-apocalyptic chaos.  Once I reached the center of the site I could see that things had been laid out in accordance with some careful planning had gone into the layout -- shelter here, services there.  Like the TARDIS, it's friendlier on the inside.

Here's a picture of the center of the site.  That concrete space between the fountain and the stairs is left open for assemblies.  The neo-classical architecture in the background is perfectly appropriate because the assemblies they're holding are neo-classical experiments in direct democracy.  This isn't news, but it was the first time I'd experienced it.

The way they run a general assembly is fascinating.  There's a facilitator who keeps track of who needs to speak next, but there's no chair and no fixed agenda.  I'd seen some of the tricks used to coordinate discussion on TV.  They looked campy and artificial there, but in person I found them to be surprisingly natural.  Hand gestures are used to indicate moment by moment whether the assembly wants to hear more from a speaker, and this focuses attention efficiently on people who ought to be heard.  The human microphone trick looked ridiculous  to me when I saw it on TV, but it works.  Suddenly that little old lady at the back of the crowd can be heard across the square.  Speaking in unison is strangely powerful.  Without central control you'd expect the meeting to turn into babbling chaos (and sometimes it did) but the assembly as a whole proved able to snap itself back into attentive silence on a turn of a dime.  People just don't get this engaged at meetings conducted according to Robert's rules of order.  I was sorry that I had to leave as early as I did.

The thrilling subject of this evening's meeting was...a report from the finance committee.  This drew rapt attention from a large crowd.  They've received a few thousand dollars in donations (to be spent on their medical tent, porta-potties, etc.).  Discussion covered the legal difficulties around opening an account for an informal group, who would have signing authority, what accounting procedures should be used and how this information should be publicly reported.  Some prominent members of the finance committee (open to anyone who wants to join) held the floor for most of the discussion, not as leaders but as voices worth listening to.  The assembly seems to be fairly good at focusing attention on people who know what they're talking about (in this case, people with enough expertise as bankers to know the details of how the system works).  They were bombarded with demands for accountability.  One suggestion was that four signatures should be required for every check!  The man currently responsible for the bookkeeping took this in stride.  Accountability begins at home.

At one point a clearly disturbed man wandered through the center of the assembly holding a sign that read "your voices sound hollow to me."  That did not disrupt the meeting.  After a few minutes a person led him aside to talk to him.  It turned out that his immediate concern was that he was looking for was a sign language interpreter.  This is a community that is very, very good at listening to marginalized people.

I can see some serious challenges that need to be overcome.

First, it's being held together by a few people who are clearly in danger of burnout.  Generating consensus and mutual respect takes attentive listening, creativity, raw determination and a good sense of humour.  People who can do that are rare, and some of them are apparently working onsite 20 hours/day.  The woman in the gray coat who so joyfully facilitated the assembly (called attention to the rules of order) was doing hero's work but it was clearly exhausting.  They need relief, but where will it come from?
Second, there were some problems keeping people on the same page in the financial debate.  Questions were sometimes repeated.  I get the sense that complex topics need a consensus ratchet, some visual cue that sub-topic A has been resolved so that we can move on to sub-topic B.  One woman was experimenting with taking point form minutes on sign.  That might work.

Third, a woman in a gray knit cap who spoke with some authority pointed out that there is tension building due to disruptive behaviour.  Some people have gone off on their own to disrupt municipal debates or block traffic.  That discredits the everyone else, but what can the rest of us do to prevent this?

Fourth, the woman in the gray knit cap warned that the Art Gallery protest might come to be self-serving.  The goal cannot be to benefit the people encamped there -- it's to get the rest of society involved.  I think she's right in thinking that this will grow or die.   

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Looking in from the outside at Occupy Vancouver

I don't enjoy protesting in the streets.  That's one reason why I've hardly ever done it.

Prior to now, the only event I've ever marched at was a march organized by Renters at Risk.  It took a direct threat to my home to get me involved.  My corporate landlord had become notorious for evading rent controls through the practice of renoviction, evicting tenants on the pretext of making renovations and allowing them to return only if they were willing to pay a far higher rent for their purportedly beautified apartment.  So I went to community information sessions, did a little furtive flyering and in the end I hit the pavement.

It was more stately than most protest marches.  I'd guess that the median age of the protesters might well have been over fifty, not surprising since long term renters were the most threatened.  It was non-partisan.  Our MP and both our MLA candidates marched with us, either in support or for self preservation.  Media coverage was entirely sympathetic.  It was a tightly focused rally on an issue which I could wholeheartedly support.  In spite of the fact that it was as safe and conservative as a protest march could possibly get, I still felt like a fish out of water.  I was feeling shy and nervous, treating it like a grim duty, and I'm ashamed to say that I felt a bit irked at people for not feeling as glum as I did.  Why would anyone be happy at seeing the neighborhood as a whole rally around common values to change things for the better?

I can't see myself ever becoming comfortable at protests, but I think that's true of the vast majority of Canadians.   The average Vancouverite is not going to join the camp at the Vancouver Art Gallery unless the situation in Canada gets as bad as it is now in Greece.  Partly it's a matter of a culture clash between how Vancouverites see themselves and how they see the occupiers, and there's more to be said about that, but I think the main concern is time.  Most people don't have the option of joining a tent city, or going to a general assembly every day.  Many people have jobs and children.  Protesting is costly, getting arrested more so.

Democratic change happens when people who don't like protesting get involved.  Change wouldn't get started without a determined few raising awareness, but it doesn't become irresistible until middle aged folks in suits who have places they'd rather be get swept along after them.  Democratic change is risky for the forerunners, becoming safer and safer as community consensus gets broader and broader. 

Well here I am, getting swept along.  I've been thinking about how the Occupy Everything protests might matter to me.  If there's a place for uptight nervous introverts like me, it's a movement that's going to keep growing.