After two days of monitoring OccupyBoston in the media, and on Twitter, I decided it was time for a trip to Dewey Square. I went to the General Assembly on Monday. It was damp and threatening more rain, but given the weekend storms they’d been camping in, it seemed certain the weather would have little effect on attendance.
As I arrived, the facilitator was finishing up a quick review of communication protocol, which consisted of a series of hand signal that allowed the facilitator to “take the temperature” of the crowd. I moved toward the front and found a place to sit as she was finishing up the review. “Opinions and feelings,” she said, and the crowd chanted in response, “OPINIONS AND FEELINGS.” She continued, “are not,” and then the crowd “ARE NOT.” “Points of information.” A rumbling chuckle accompanied, “POINTS OF INFORMATION.”
It seemed odd, the call and response. But it turns out, that wasn’t what they were doing. It was the “peoples’ mic” whereby the people helped to amplify an individual whose comments and questions would not otherwise be heard by the crowd. I’d missed that part of the review.
The first item on the agenda was announcements, and representatives from each committee came forward with their updates. First up was Media. It had been an exciting day, as the spark had taken hold and coverage of OccupyBoston was growing exponentially. After a brief celebratory moment, the speaker added, “But remember, this is not an exercise in entertainment for the main stream media!”
A tall thin man, reminiscent of the tin man from the Wizard of Oz, took the stage next. He was modest in demeanor but clear in his task. He represented “Legal.” He encouraged anyone planning on doing something that might get them arrested to stop by the tent and fill in an intake form. This would let others know what to do should they end up in jail.
The Medical staff members, identifiable by their red crosses, were next. There was a brief review of general hygiene and then, “We are not telling you to wear shoes at all times, but PLEASE wear shoes at all times.” Another rumbled chuckle from the crowd.
The representative from Logistics was a young woman with a small frame and a focused presence. “There is no more room in Dewey Square,” she said. She asked that people wait for a cohesive plan, rather than planting themselves willy nilly around the city as occupiers in other cities has done.
It started to rain a little bit and there was shuffling and rattling as people pulled out donated ponchos or opened up their umbrellas. Some left, but not many. It was time to move onto the next agenda item, but something had started to shift in the crowd.
The process, remarkably smooth and efficient given the number of people present, became destabilized by a few people who were unable to understand that their actions, and it is in no way inappropriate to say their selfish actions, were causing a great deal of damage. The facilitator, being the one with the microphone, came under fire. The process began to wobble as a few more gained control. Others became giddy with the ill-gotten power. The next 20-40 minutes were spent trying to corral those blindly wandering around bumping into everything. And though there was a gradual cohesion re-established, the topic for discussion was abandoned.
This is the point at which many people might throw up their hands as say, “It’s never going to work.” But they would be wrong.
The occupiers are attempting to create a model of democracy that has never had a chance to flourish. It is a messy process, but it creates solutions that are multi-dimensional, because they are the result of many blended voices. It is the process of non-linear thinking. Educators currently refer to it as divergent thinking. The occupiers are applying that this way of thinking to governance. It hasn’t been done before.
I spoke with someone involved with facilitation after the meeting. “Did they eat you alive, too?” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “So what are you going to do?” I asked. She went on to explain her plan, whereby the agenda is posted and Tweeted about in advance of assembly so everyone has time to review it. The first 10 minutes of the next meeting would be spent on amendments posited by the crown. After that, the topic is closed. No challenges, no more discussion.
It’s a good start.
On the train ride home I reviewed the contents of my head, and I was struck by the irony of what had happened. The topic for discussion had been to find ways of protecting the disenfranchised voices from the whims of the vocal few.
It is not a small task that has been taken on. It is by no means easy, nor is it intended to be. Challenging the power structure is particularly difficult when your allies have been trained to follow the power structure. Success depends not on overturning the few already in power. Success depends on empowering the many despite the resistence of the few.
About this blog: Fourth-generation JPer Lisa Hiserodt blogs observations of Occupy Boston, currently occupying Dewey Square in the Financial District to protest financial disparity and lack of a functioning democracy, and part of a movement that is blossoming into hundreds of nationwide protests modeled on Occupy Wall Street.