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.