Thursday, 27 October 2011

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.   

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