Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupy Toronto; Why I could not participate in a movement to restore democracy

I am currently working on a more theoretical piece about the occupy everything movement, including issues around the ideas of whether this is a reform or revolutionary movement, that I hope to post in a day or two, but this one is about a few specific issues that I encountered while trying to participate in Toronto this past weekend.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend occupy Toronto. A group of students at the university I attend managed to get funding for a school bus and 18 of us set out to participate in this movement. I have been following Occupy Wall St for a while, and was thrilled to be participating in what I hoped would become a revolutionary movement. I had these romanticized notions of what it would look like and who would be involved. I do not have such notions anymore, and I will try and describe some of the reasons why, but I do still have hope that the occupy everything movement can work through these problems.

When we arrived in Toronto, we were among the first to set up the tent and we were full of anticipation about what exactly was happening and how it would work. The first problem I encountered was called the people's mic. Basically, how it works, is when someone wants to get a message out to the group, they yell "mic check" repeatedly, and the people around them echo the words in fragmented sentences to get the message to the entire group. This was incredibly difficult for me... the first time it happened, the chorus of voices coming from all sides (to announce a general assembly taking place in a few hours) was so loud and overwhelming that I actually found myself cowering... I was literally crouched on the ground in a ball with my hands over my ears and I was shaking.

I tried to find out more about the people's mic. Apparently, it is being used in New York because voice amplification is illegal. It is not necessary in Canada because there are no laws restricting the use of megaphones; at least not in Toronto (I'm not sure if other municipalities have such bylaws). It is also used because it does not require any power; amps require generators and megaphones have batteries. Still, I spent the next 18 hours trying to find someone who was part of an accessibility committee that may or may not have existed at the time, and in that process encountered 4 other people with the exact same issue as myself (3 of whom packed up their tent and left on the first day) as well as dozens of people who had trouble hearing and understanding what was being said.

I have no knowledge of what happened at Saturday's meetings because I was unable to participate... actually, I have very little recollection of the meeting at all, other than having met one of my favourite writers, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and my absolute favourite blogger, although the stress from the noise around me was such that I can't even remember what he looked like, nevermind what was said.

When I eventually did encounter someone who was part of the accessibility committee, they brought the issue to the beginning of the next General Assembly. A few people argued vehemently for abandoning the people's mic in order to make the meeting accessible to everyone, providing that everyone present could hear what was happening through the megaphone. Others argued that we continue to use the people's mic until we get to the part on the agenda (I don't know who came up with the agenda or how) where we discuss motions. This seemed contrary to they had just finished making about how any form of discrimination including racism, sexism, heterosexism and ABLEISM would not be tolerated. In the end, they decided that the people's mic would be used from now on and if anyone was not able to participate, they could self-identify and watch on a live feed from a tent on the other side of the park.

This felt like a form of segregation to me. I will not be returning to that park until/unless I can participate in the meetings... if people could not hear the megaphone, that would be understandable, but I cannot comprehend their reason for keeping it (partly because I couldn't participate in the discussion on whether or not to use it, as the discussion was done with the people's mic) other than it being some kind of tradition-based thing brought from New York. If someone has a good argument for keeping it, please let me know. Also, how was this decision made as a "consensus" when those it was affecting most were unable to participate in the discussion?

As for the issue of consensus more generally, I believe they really were trying. Still, it seemed as though those who were facilitating the assemblies were almost entirely white men. I do not blame this on the movement, but on the current climate where certain people are given more authority. Now, I'm not one to site Weber very often, but notions of his idea of charismatic authority kept coming to mind when these leaders-who-are-not-leaders spoke. It also brought to mind a quote from Marx's A Critique of the Gotha Program;
What we are dealing with here is a communist society [not really- at least not yet], not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society, which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges (1981).
I am not sure what the answer is to avoid the leaders-who-are-not problem, or to encourage people from marginalized positions into these facilitating roles. I know that the group encourages minorities to get involved as much as possible, but when the meeting was attended by a sea of young white university students, it might be hard to find people to fill those spaces. So, the question becomes, how do we reach out to them and include them, and how do we move past the notions of privilege and authority that are so entrenched in our minds that these movements often participate in them while actively trying to reject them?

Also, while I was walking around outside of the park in the evening, I noticed homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk near the park. I think we need to figure out why they weren't in the park itself, because this should be their movement. How do we get the people who are most in need to participate?

While on the topic of consensus, there were a lot of issues figuring out exactly what consensus meant. An example was with regards to Sunday's march. The action committee decided to propose that we march at 3:00. Someone proposed that we march on the sidewalk and obey traffic signals. Other people, myself included, were opposed to this idea; we are marching on public streets - OUR streets - we should not do so following their laws. Some debate ensued. It was suggested that we postpone the walk until this discussion had been figured out. Someone else suggested, in the name of consensus, that those who want to march did so, and those who did not want to march stayed behind. This is not consensus. I had to leave at this point because of the people's mic issues, but the discussion went on for several hours and a march did take place, I am assuming based on a decision that I am assuming was made on a consensus basis (by those who were able to participate). It is a minor issue, but these are the types of things that, if handled in an appropriate manner, would probably work themselves out over time as the group got accustomed to the idea of consensus organizing. Still, if we don't have full participation, than even a unanimous decision isn't really a consensus.

It is very early in the organizing process. There are so many possibilities. And I believe that the problems within the movement are easier to talk about now, while it is still new, as opposed to later, when things become more entrenched and the social relations become hidden in routine processes.

So, the question I continue to ask myself is whether this movement represents my own beliefs as an activist and as someone who engages in Marxist/anarchist social theorizing... and the answer I keep coming to is not quite... but it could be. I am supportive of it, and will continue trying to be involved in any way I can.


  1. It was great to meet you on Saturday, and I'm glad to read your thoughts on the matter. Your points about the peoples' mic are apt, especially if we connect them to the notion of "consensus": I think one of the ideas this method of communication is fetishized is because it supposedly encourages consensus––if you don't like what is being said, then you don't repeat it.

    Unfortunately, there is no way to tell whether certain motions or ideas are being consented to (some people can't hear what is being said, and there is no way to know how many people are not repeating what is being said [or just repeating without agreement because everyone is doing it]), and I for one don't agree with consensus models in the first place. (As a side point, one of my friends/comrades who went to the first organizing meetings told me that the consensus model was adopted without consensus.) Personally I don't think there can be any principled consent/agreement when you are involved in a nebulous movement that is not entirely anti-capitalist and is filled with social democrats and even libertarians. And by making structures of decision-making informal and invisible, there is no accountability: hence an informal leadership's rise to power.

  2. Thanks for posting a summary of your experience. I also find the "consensus" model troublesome, and wonder if people are work shopping at the site different models for better mass decision-making processes.

  3. Thanks JMP! I was having these weird images of television shows that make fun of mind control tactics by having people repeat everything the leader says... I wanted to look up psych studies on that to see if it actually does lead to more consent, despite the fact that I think the group had pretty good critical thinking abilities as a whole.

    You can tell if someone is actively not agreeing because they make a block sign with their hands, which is recorded by the people creating speakers lists (all white men, just as a sidenote).

    I love how you write "and even libertarians" as though they are evil trolls or something! I just had a discussion with a libertarian yesterday who informed me that feminism is irrelevant because we have to take things on a "case by case basis". I told him that argument was common among middle to upper class white men.

    Also, hopefully accountability and transparency will become important issues within the movement as the criticism (with underlying support) grows... maybe?

  4. Mao, the facilitation committee (i think that was their name) was working on a model where there would be break out groups that could have more nuanced discussions... there is a committee rethinking these models, but I also have comments about the way that it was run (the speakers list seemed somewhat arbitrary, and the facilitator was making decisions on his own about the agenda and whatnot). Still, they had some great discussion within that group on Saturday night about some of the issues around consensus and how to better the process.

  5. One other thought connect to your report that I forgot to add above... You mentioned how you noticed that homeless people were sleeping outside of the occupation site and I meant to point out that this extremely important. St. James Park is generally the "home" of the Jamestown homeless, a place where the homeless usually sleep––this is one of the reasons it is usually the launching site of OCAP marches. Sadly, it seems as if Occupy Toronto has evicted the population that normally occupies the park. The fact that they did not feel welcome in the space where many of them normally camp out is a tragedy.

  6. I am also pretty troubled by the consensus model and the people's mic business. I see that it's a necessity in New York, but not here. Actually, I was present at the beginning of Saturday's events, and an amplification system was used to announce that there would be a general assembly - and then the people's mic was suddenly employed (which made me very confused).

    The idea behind it is that it seems to offer an opportunity for everyone to participate in a discussion. I think it actually does the opposite, for a number of reasons. As you pointed out, it presents an accessibility issue for many people. Second, I think it really slows down the process so that fewer people are actually able to speak [for themselves, not just repeating] because it takes such a long time. Finally, do we really want to define participation as simply repeating what someone else is saying?

    As for consensus - I was at one of the first organizing meetings, and there wasn't consensus about consensus at all (which I thought was a little funny, but more frustrating than anything else). It seems that any disagreement to what is being proposed isn't actually taken seriously (i.e. singing the national anthem when many people oppose it, using the people's mic even though it presents an accessibility issue for people, using a consensus model when at least half the people present at a meeting are against a consensus model, etc.).

    Also, I am troubled by the fact that at these meetings, we're told to use the block sign only if we really mean it -- Does this mean I have to consider my level of disapproval on a scale of 1-10, only holding up the block sign when I real an 8-10? Or maybe only 9-10? I don't know - maybe i'm just crusty!

  7. Mr.Awesome says: We have had the chance to talk about plenty of this in person so I wont get too into it.

    I do feel the need to say that in my own opinion, if people aren't willing to put up with a little frustration or a non-perfect model, why the hell are they attending? I'm pissed off that a few people left over the people's mic issue. I found it annoying, frustrating and downright boring but really? You're going to leave over that?

    I'm going to get chewed out for saying this but if you were willing to leave over that then clearly it was just a matter of time before some other detail pissed you off and made you not want to stay.

  8. Xtina, I heard the same thing about the consensus meeting, but it might have been through a mutual friend who was referring to you being at the meeting!

    As for the people's mic, I feel like it is harder to get complex ideas and nuanced discussion through the broken sentences and repetition than it would be through a megaphone... however, I do have a friend that suggested that the megaphone is militaristic and that the people's mic is brilliant because it speaks to people's creativity, an idea that I do not disagree with, but I am still all about the megaphone or some kind of sound amplification system.

  9. Mr Awesome, if it were just a little frustration, that would be understandable, but it goes far beyond that for some people. I have still been on edge around loud noises... last night, it was so evident that I was uncomfortable (from my kids making usual kid noises) that my daughter kept asking if I was ok and even tried to let me win at a board game because she thought I was upset because I was loosing!

    I almost want to write a whole new post describing what goes on inside my head in this kind of situation, because it is far beyond frustrating, but I'm not sure if I have the words to describe it. My mind shuts down, I can't process a coherent thought, every time there is a new noise a feeling of panic grows to the point where I feel like I have to leave or else... else what? I'm not sure, but in the past I have had full breakdowns over such things. My body has shut down and I have actually lost consciousness in public spaces. Is this what you mean by frustration?

    I don't know how exactly it affects the other people I spoke to as they packed up... I really don't, but I can guarantee you they weren't packing up because they found it "annoying, frustrating, and downright boring".

  10. I have not yet been able to make it to any of the protests, but I have been watching the youtube clips and wondering about some of those same issues.

    I'm glad to read discussions about this. I think all these things need to be argued out.

  11. Ms. Marx,

    Thank you for sharing your experience.It seems that the Occupy Toronto movement was started by a few people. I have a recent very unfortunate encounter with this 'democratic consensus process'.

    There has been one recent protest which is a controversial issue for it impacts an ethnic community group under the name of enviornmental jargon. While I do support many envrionmental initiatives, I also believe in respect and thoughfulness towards each other's culture. Despite I have posted some concerns, the group did not post online their hidden protest action only after it was taken place (since all actions have been posted ahead of time). After that, the announcement described a consensus vote of 43-3 (I was not there at the GA for this discussion and vote). The real issue is that because this action they decided to do and tell later would potentially impact on a people of colour cultural group, it should have more discussions or dialogues, or at least held off until dissents are understood ie. why there is a this concerns), otherwise this defeats this 'democratic consensus process'.

    How? As the matter evolved, not only the announcement was after this covert action, it even made excuses as to why they were at the City Hall that day, and it was sort of just happened that they were there and since they all agreed on this matter the day before, so they protested. It is even crazier, they refuse to post my comment/response to this action on their announcement section. I have used lifestreams and emails to ask them to rectify this undemocratic action. They did not.

    What concerns me is that, there are something not quite right about this movement, although I have supported them by contributing many encouragement and ideas to them.

    1) Clearly there is a team behind who are at liberty to exercise their veto power to censor voices. Not leaderless.

    2) They seems to be very much interested in their perception in the public, politicians and media.

    3) There are already classes being set up, the posters serious concerns are not taken into consideration despite it risks its own legitmacy. Even the issues of First Nation is still to be acknowledged (who consider Canada is already occupied). Homeless people around were a late consideration. Issues of whiteness/racism was brought up in a post and apparently at the GA - was ignored.

    4) By hiding behind these "leaderless" 99%, there is no discipline, nor accountability.

    5) In Canada today, due to is make up. We really need to forge alliances across cultures but respect each others' practices. For the least to have true dialogue. The all white or middle class movement would simply fail miserably.

    6) For a leaderless movement to have leaders who are want-to-be activists does not sit well with people.

    To state the least, my friends and I are very disappointed, but again, who is behind this movement (which I have seen some posts), we can never be really sure.

    Perhaps as you all seems to indicate, the consensus model is never really useful for a movement does not know its own history (ie. all the work activists have done already) or knows its nature (of no sure political alliance), therefore no ck point.

    What truly disturbs us is that: since the dubious protest took place October 25, 2011, there have been many hate speeches flying around the main stream media in regards to the issue. On cultural group in our society is again demonized. This is why we wonder who these people really are? They seem to function no different than right and neo-liberalists.

    I hope you can accept this post, as a critique of this strategy of (swarm of people vs. alpha dog leading the pack) with true intentions of leaders obscured. This can be its own demise, and may be this is part of the capitalistic scheme.

    Thank you and I wish you the best. And my friends and I share your concerns. We will come back and visit your post again