Dispatches from Occupy Philly: Week One by Cindy Milstein

From Outside the Circle

Day 1

First autonomous action at occupied city hall in Philly: we brought a couch, chatting “occupy the couch” and “there’s going to furniture working group!” Some folks replied, “our home!”

And now, an hour into Philly occupation, there are probably about 1,000 to 1,5000 people already. I never thought I’d be able to say this, at a space that instantly become a do-it-ourselves community: it’s working; we’re working; this us really what direct, confederated democracy looks like, in actuality. Or as one sign declared, “This is real!”

As the occupation began, a bunch of us anarchists hung banners, painted the night before: “Commons Not Capitalism,” read one; and another (my favorite, because it’s true today) proclaimed, “We’re Occupied with Direct Democracy.” Our occupation engaged in two general assemblies on this first day of occupation—where thousands worked though proposals and made decisions together—and implemented the “CoCo”—the coordinating council for all the working groups, which daily will send delegates (rotating regularly) before each general assembly to work out issues and send proposals to the general assembly, for decision making by the GA. Confederation works! Direct democracy works! And among so many folks who have never, ever done it.

The general assembly structure involves the basic agenda of welcome, shared guidelines, process, working group reports, proposals (1-2), and housekeeping announcements. During the proposals section, basically: someone explains the proposal, we take clarifying questions, then take concerns, and then test for agreement or not. If not, we break into small groups to talk about it, return for more concerns, test again, maybe revisit a bit more, and then do a more binding straw poll. Each time, people stayed utterly focused, expressed wide-ranging and thoughtful concerns, listened to each other. and changed their minds in thoughtful ways–or tonight, decided to move one proposal to a working group and revisit tomorrow (permit or no permit).

Besides the twice-daily general assembly as the key decision-making body, each working group is its own “direct democracy,” figuring out how to self-management everything from a kids space to comfort, tech team to legal, medics to fun, and each working group sends one rotating delegate to the coordinating council (CoCo) 1 hour before each general assembly, to generate which proposals will be discussed and decided at the general assembly. We also (the facilitation and directly democratic working committee) set up a “people’s mic area” that is exclusively for people to simply talk to each other, about their hopes, issues, fears, dreams, aspirations, ideas, life, etc. Alongside that, we’ve set up a “people’s wall,” where people can start visually and verbally posting “why they are here.”

Oh, and we’re using amplification, ’cause direct democracy means people need to hear each other so they can dialogue, deliberate, and decide. General assembly 1 (us four facilitators) was a megaphone; general assembly 2 this evening was professional amplification courtesy of the Stage Hands Union!

Longtime friend Wispy and I, along with two new great people, facilitated the first general assembly—as part of the facilitation and direct democracy working group. We split up the agenda items, and I got to facilitate the part on process and direct democracy. For those who know me, this is about the closest to a dream come true as I can imagine, especially because it really worked to let hundreds of people make this place their own. One guy came up to me afterward, saying: “Thank you for making this protest feel safe and making me feel included; I never come to these things.” I responded, ‘But it’s not a protest; we’re creating our own community and making our own decisions.” His eyes light up, and two hours later, I saw him still in the occupied square, starting to pitch in to make it his own.

And to that pesky question that those, blinded by the status quo of this world, keeping asking, “What do we want?” the answer is in the occupation itself, on the ground: spaces and places make our own world, which is basically what it felt like today.

Ended my 14-hour day at our do-it-ourselves occupation by, first, seeing some 50 people circled up for what looked like a meeting at 10:30 p.m. When I went over to ask what they were discussing, someone said: “People, decided to spend time talking and getting to know each other.” And second, by helping to gather comfy chairs and more tables (supposedly with desks, armchairs, and maybe more couches on the way) to bring tomorrow, as part of the autonomous “furniture working group.”

Soon, once I bike the half-hour trip home, I’m going to happily occupy my bed.

Day 2

At Philly’s occupation, we’re not doing full consensus or consensus minus one, but rather confederated direct democracy, striving to get as many (or all) of the people involved and impacted to decide things are a good idea and also to implement them, through a process of setting our own goals/agenda, making clear proposals, clarifying them and raising concerns through focused dialogue, thoughtful deliberation, and decision making, when ready. Last night, the general assembly ended up deciding not to decide on “permit vs. no permit,” but to create a temporary working group (which looked like about a 100 people) that met right afterward; that group is going to bring its discussion back to the assembly today.

We’ve been doing a consensus-seeking process, and if needed, we will vote (simply majority for most stuff, but super majority if it’s really crucial–although we haven’t had to do either); the fact that we seem to be able to create a space where people really speak and listen well, stay on focus, and have substantive conversation about the decisions has, so far, allowed for pretty clear decisions through a series of “testing for consensus” using straw polls. We often incorporate breaking folks up into small, self-chosen groups for deliberation before & after testing, and that has done wonders to help all of us come to better decisions that more of us agree on. The core of all this is, first, directly demo working groups (I think 15-20 at this point!), which each send a delegate (we encourage rotation) before each general assembly to a coordinating council; the council determines the content of each assembly, including proposals; the general assembly then hears from each working group briefly (and folks can join them afterward), and then the general assembly discusses and decides on proposals, or sets up a process to deliberate more (which we’ve done 3 times now, coming to a decision at a later assembly, when folks are ready to decide).

On another note, two of the folks who thought up the brilliant idea of bringing a couch to open the Philly occupation thought up this idea, day 2, of broadcasting the Phillies game, DIY style; city officials tried to step in and do it (& take credit); then a local arts group ended up making it up. Anarchist direct action gets the goods, even if the anarchists didn’t actually have to do the work of making this happen in the end!

Day 3

Overly occupied with direct democracy, in its working existence in occupied city center in Philly, with all the messy joy of watching thousands of people discover their own power, to do everything from make decisions face-to-face to set up libraries and kids’ areas to cart in food, tents, furniture, & hola-hoops, to the sudden birth of several dozen working groups, and on and on. Can’t believe it’s been just 2.5 days, and how much has come alive. As one person noted, we’re here because we’re united, we’re here because we’re different, and we’re able to be both and create this space by ourselves. I keep marveling, even if it’s only temporary: self-organization works. And best of all is watching the light go on, again and again, in people’s eyes who have never done this before, as they realize their own power to self-organize, not wait for someone to compell, force, or boss them to do it.

I keep thinking I’ve experienced the most beautiful moment at the Philly occupation, and then something else happens that surpasses it, like yesterday’s half-hour “modeling people’s mic speakout” for person after person to eloquently describe why they are here–by and large, because of finding our own power together and realizing we can love & care for each other.

Of course, there are the hard-to-stomach parts of the Philly occupation: When I biked up to main entrance this morning, and the first sign I see today is: “Police are part of 99%.”

It’s funny how sometimes there’s a collective sigh, a collective sense of angst and impatience, as if we’re all so ready, from our differing vantage points, for the world to be utterly different, for it to work “from below” for everyone and everything. We’re all stumbling through carving out a community of our own on a big concrete plaza in city hall, and it’s hard, hard work, with most people having little experience with such do-it-ourselves forms of collective people power. Socialization is strong, from racism and heteronormativity to conceiving of “politics” as a series of requests to those in power. So despite the profound amount of self-organization over the previous two days, based on almost nothing other than 2 big meetings & 1 smaller process meeting beforehand, people seemed to all be frustrated at once that we were still so disorganized, that so many things have seemingly fallen through the cracks, that not everyone feels seen or included or heard, and that our various skills to act for ourselves are, for most, in embryonic learning stages.

And so the noontime general assembly, facilitated by folks new to facilitation, coming on the heels of a difficult general assembly the night before (where folks agreed to accept a “permit” for our already-existent occupation in a way that like concerns got ignored, again due to folks new to facilitation and not ill intent for the most part), brought various concerns to the forefront–most prominently related to racism and directly democratic processes. People of color formed a caucus and met during the afternoon; the facilitation and direct democracy working group tried to grapple with clarifying the glitches in the decision-making process for the general assembly, and then making it much more transparent (via big signs, thousands of printouts, and online explanations of the decision-making steps), but was thwarted by anyone and everyone wandering into the open-air “nonworking group” meeting to rant, ramble, and take us completely off-track. All of us “regular” working group members had to walk away, minutes before the evening general assembly.

I walked away, utterly discouraged, “done.” I wandered around the now-people’s occupied plaza–past the kids’ zone (initiated by a young anarchist, and filled with “fun toys” including a giant playhouse, people coming to do face paint & balloon animals, and from which kids did their own march yesterday, with slogans such as “down with naps!” and “listen!”, into the the library & education tent (largely built and so-far filled by anarchists, with all sorts of rad literature and zines, and soon a schedule of workshops and trainings and classes), past the couch (now centerpiece of the drum circle) and many tables (dumpstered and dragged to the plaza by anarchists) filled with literature, art-making supplies, & food), past the two big banners (made by anarchists the first night), past the cardboard house (built by some young anarchists who are also part of “nonviolent direct action” working group), but also past the numerous mushrooming spaces created by all sorts of people: the people of color caucus, some 60 or more strong, meeting by the library; dozens of tents in a new neighborhood, with homemade signs surrounding them; a phone charging and tech area, and everywhere, signs, words, art, images of a better world.

I wandered back, still feeling discouraged, to that evening’s general assembly. All of us experienced facilitators, who had developed the directly democratic process from the start and were trying our best to train facilitators, explain the process, and get people used to self-governing, had abandoned ship. We stood listening, from the back reaches of the assembly area. I was thinking “How can these spaces offer so much promise, so quickly, and so quickly fall apart,” when I realized that the general assembly had taken on a life, a culture, of its own. Despite all the complaints and anger we’d heard between noon and 7 about the “nondemocracy” and “alienation” of the directly democratic process–which like all good “horizontal” structures, should be open to ongoing tinkering to continually ensure power stays horizontal–people were now using the basic structure to work through concerns and solutions, well-facilitated by new people who focused the assembly and ensured participation. Working groups reported back; the people of color caucus brought some half-dozen or more specific solutions to the body (including starting a poc-only working group and an open poc/racism working group each day–at 1 and 2, respectively, by the occupation library library, I think); and there was time for sharing the “why” of our being here.

A friend reminded me that I too, like everyone else, must be patient. People are so inculcated with obedience, with thinking others will do for them, with representative and/or completely disempowering structures. As the assembly ended, as direct democracy and self-organization bumped its way forward, but moved forward nonetheless, I watched hundreds of people who were thrown together by accident move into little groups to talk, grab instruments to play music together, go off to help set up tents, and begin to forge social relations that are already changing who people are, who they can be, and what they desire. Two kids I just met two days ago ran up to say good night, happily hugging me. A group of us anarchist friends decided to hang out, to touch base on our feelings, role, and aspirations for this newly occupied (needing to be decolonized) community with a city, commune within a state, mutual aid within capitalism. Hours later, we realized how much we’ve shaped this space; that indeed, without us, it wouldn’t be a do-it-ourselves community, because we’re really pretty good at creating collective spaces that, notwithstanding all the ways we’re not good at it, actually do open up possibilities and participation and empowerment. This isn’t to say “we’re wonderful.” But that when people, like us, “learn” over years how to begin to try, in baby steps, to undo our own socialization to hierarchy and domination and oppression, we get pretty good–or better than most–at wanting to offer that same “education” to others, so that more and more people educate themselves into freedom.

We brainstormed a bunch of ways, as anarchists, that we want to increase, hone, or improve our engagement, both “meeting people where they are at” politically but also not losing, nor hiding, our own politics. We kept coming back to those things we’re good at, including opening up spaces of self-organization, self-governance, self-determination; offering up forms of education, media, propaganda; bringing in social critique and social vision, among others. We talked a lot about relating this and our ideas to local issues and ongoing organizing projects, and to “building” our own capacity and relations, so that when the occupation ends, we won’t have lost. Last night, sitting in the grass late into the night, among other anarchists who have put so much of ourselves, nonstop into this “eros effect” movement of uprisings and occupations around the world, who too stumble our way into a wholly new society, as we laughed ourselves silly and excitedly tumbled over one political discussion and idea to another, I moved into the early hours of day 4 knowing that we’ve already won.

This is all part of the process, which is why it’s so incredible–because there is a process, in which social transformation seems to unfold before all our eyes, inside each of us. For instance, Occupied Wall Street seemed, to me, an incoherent, contentless, disorganized mess when it first started; now, some 3 weeks into it, people have stumbled through an accelerated learning curve. Here’s a report on last night’s results from my dear friend Joshua Stephens: “Last night, I was part of a nearly 3hr meeting that involved coordination of direct action trainings, legal strategy education, political education, historical education, support strategies for teachers of color in NYC, skillshares & theater to combat patriarchal behavior in organizing, support for indigenous remembrance in opposition to Columbus Day, and means of putting the struggles of marginalized communities in NYC at the center of it all. This involved management of TWO google groups, multiple schedule tracks of classes, 3-4 web calendars integrated into one web platform, and fuck knows how many twitter feeds. It also involved liaising, federation, and mutual support between no fewer than five thematic working groups and adherence to principles laid out by a directly-democratic general assembly. The next time you hear someone say Occupy Wall Street is disorganized, please slap them.”

Day 4

Occupations, unoccupations, de-occupations, reoccupations, and the creation of wholly new spaces, from Wall Street to Market Street (here in Philly), from Buffalo to Sarajevo, from Portland to China, from Detroit to Amsterdam….

Just stumbled across the FB page “Occupy Judaism,” asserting, “Finally, an occupation progressive Jews can get behind,” underscoring that with all the contradictions of “occupying everything” as a phrase, there are millions who understand it more as a placeholder for us to question & resist spaces that are coercively, brutally occupied and assert & practice how we might potentially do it differently.

And today here at the occupation in Philly, some autonomist/antiauthoritarian folks brought a bunch of pallets, and turned the pallets into housing, with cardboard siding, mostly for folks who have already been living on the nearby streets or plaza, homeless (now if only the city would open up the nearby bathrooms in city hall or bring in port-o-lets; many of us many not have voted for not taking the permit for our occupied space, but now that we have it, the city needs to meet some of our needs–and especially those who are forced to live on the streets).

Anarchists also kicked off the first nonpermitted march, with a “Decolonize Philly” banner to contest Columbus Day. A bunch of folks who had never done a nonpermitted march joined us, after we first all chatted about what it meant to do something without the police’s permission. And though it was technically not illegal for us to walk down the street while in motion as a group, we all touched base about how people felt, before doing so. Maybe not the most exciting march, but about 100 or so people enjoyed their first nonpermitted march; many got to make up their own slogans, which we all then chanted eagerly, such as “500 years of stolen lands; put power back in the people’s hands”; and we kept stopping, to figure out together where we wanted to march and when we wanted to end. At one point, the police decided we needed as escort. They sidled up to me and a friend, saying, “Can we help you?” “No, we’re doing just fine,” said my friend. A few woman marching next to me, who had never done a march without police permission, asked me, “Shouldn’t we take their help?” I smiled at her, and replied, “You know, I think we’ve been walking just fine without them.” She thought about it for a moment, and joyfully nodded her head: “Yes, we have been!” Our march ended at the people’s mic area, back on our occupied plaza, and several folks spoke up–one to read a moving statement by an indigenous person from Occupy Wall Street; another person talked about the people who lived on the land under the city hall before William Penn and the Quakers, how they were communal, and how we were trying to bring such communal practices back, while remembering those who came before settlers and occupiers; and a third person talked about Puerto Rico’s occupation.

Day 5

A simple little cardboard sign, hand-lettered with “G8 GA” with a slash crossing out the “G8,” kind of said it all for me today, in what felt pretty close to utopia on the newly transformed city center plaza this evening under a misty full moon while films of uprisings from all around the world were broadcast on the side of city hall. So much shifted today, only a handful of days into this quirky, near-spontaneous experiment in building a society in microcosm from different, disparate, often-atomized people throw together by their fears, immiseration, and maybe some hopes too. Yesterday, racial tensions flared, snitches were lurking around, people seemed to be angry and on edge, and everything felt like it was falling apart. On day five, amid hundreds of tents, actually working working groups starting to bond, the first unpermitted march to decry Columbus Day and share stories of how peoples have struggled to make spaces and places their own, something shifted. Direct democracy worked.

Our evening general assembly (GA) seemed to suddenly recognize its own self-constituted power, and seemed to suddenly be adamant about using and preserving it. We grappled with a really tough, divisive proposal from the day before, related to whether we wanted a police liaison. It a question of transparency, accountability, and us determining, as a GA, when and if we wanted to talk to or engage with the police. As at most of these occupations, many people think of the police as friendly, and issues of, say, racism or brutality are neatly ignored. But tonight, through a focused, well-facilitated dialogue, where people not only spoke but really listened, not only the process of confederated direct democracy but the substantive content of it shone as bright as the moon. In the end, hundreds of people who started off at this GA trusting the police and a police liaison near-unanimously voted (only 5 against) to disband that police “working group.” And suddenly, out of this school of way-too-fast learning by doing that on day five is really truly working, on the heels of our vote, cries of “this is what (direct) democracy looks like” suddenly rose up. I plopped down on the cool concrete under a perfect night sky, with anarchist friends and new friends of all types & political perspectives circled all around in groups, chatting away happily, and I marveled that the hard, frustrating, exhausting, dispiriting work of crafting self-governance and self-organization in a mere five days had, almost unbelievably, forged something beyond & maybe bigger than any of our dreams.

We may have lost the vote on whether to accept a permit for the space we’d already occupied (downside of day two, I think, of our occupation), but anarchists decided to take the high road, accept the directly democratic decision-making process, learn from our mistake (i.e., next time we need to participate in the conversation, which we did tonight re: police liaison committee or not), and put out a thoughtful piece on why the mayor isn’t our friend, even if he offers a permit; “The Mayor and Police Are Not Your Friends.” Here’s a link to the piece and a PDF version:


The link, by the way, is on the Web site called RadOccupyPhilly that a bunch of us anarchists pulled together–one in particular, so kudos to her! http://radoccupyphilly.wordpress.com/

Day 6

Alert! New “friendly” police strategy, being tested out at the occupation in Philly: a divide-and-conquer strategy to break apart solidarity among occupiers while chipping away at what we’re building with various alleged “health and sanitation” issues. We need to ignore their demands, and instead assert ones of our own, since we have the social power now–say, an end to the curfew, housing the homeless, divert the $40 for city hall plaza renovations to pressing Philly neighborhood needs, etc., etc. Spread this letter far and wide! Come to the Philly occupation general assembly and let’s craft counter demands, and stay strong & in solidarity with each other! Here’s the link: http://www.scribd.com/doc/68492348/Letter-From-City-to-Occupy-Philly.

My friend & political comrade here in Philly, Alex Knight, wrote the following: “This letter was received by the Legal Team yesterday at 4:30pm. The city has begun to make DEMANDS on Occupy Philly. They want us to take our signs off the sidewalk, they want our structures for the homeless to be moved, etc. If we are to negotiate with them, we should issue our own demands on THEM! Some ideas: 1. access to the City Hall bathrooms which are usually public but which have been blocked to the occupation, 2. no undercover cops in the occupation, 3. permanent housing for every homeless person at City Hall. what other immediate demands would YOU make?”

And another Philly friend and comrade, Chris Mullen, eloquently remarks: “So it seems the city is making demands of the occupation. As far as i am concerned it should be the other way around.”

Many of us are interested in dismantling all types of hierarchies and forms of social control, not simply some of their institutions. My target, and that of many others, is capitalism (including corporations and banks) as well as the state (including city governments and mayors), along with things like police and prisons and the military, all related to various forms of oppression, particularly in their systemic and institutional manifestations (racism, heteronormativity, etc.). Philly’s occupy is a shining light of how carefully structured bottom-up power actually hands power over to us–and we shouldn’t be giving it away, with to city administrations that pretend to play nice or ones like NYC & Boston that use more brute force.

If you read the letter from the city to OP, their demands SOUND “reasonable.” But the letter lies (we never agreed in our permit to vacate); the first demand was set in motion by an informant, perhaps self-appointed, who has been targeting the particular folks who constructed it (I was there when this happened two occasions); another demand is about removing a lot of the signage, which is all about demands and aspirations; there are easily accessible public bathrooms right in city hall, which they could easily open, since they have cops posted by them seemingly 24 hours a day, so why tell us to get port-0-lets (plus a union just donated some to us; we’re on it already!); and we have our own safety, sanitation, security, comfort, and other working groups who are doing just fine.

Ramsey and Mayor Nutter are not to be trusted, especially if you look at their past record on all sorts of issues from immigration to youth to prisons to police brutality to cutting off poor people’s heat in the winter, etc. They also released this letter right on the heels of our GA near-unanimously agreeing to disband the “police liaison working group” (which consisted of the informant & two of his sidekicks, and they’ve been calling the police on various ones of us, targeting, for instance, those of us working to make the space open and directly democratic to all, plus house the homeless, etc.) and transfer tasks to our lawyers, who received this letter and act on the GA’s behalf, not the city’s.

Don’t believe the nice hype; we’re self-managing just fine. For instance, when we debated on the union’s port-a-let donation at our GA last night, the big concern before unanimous approval was “we shouldn’t put the cleaning burden on our sanitation working group but all take care of the toilets and post signs on them, asking folks to clean up after themselves. That’s why the city is starting this strategy–honey (sorry vegans) gets more than the stick.

This is exactly the danger of this police/city strategy: convince people their requests are innocuous. The pallet village is a political issue, though–based on who is building it and why (it’s creating housing for the long-term homeless who live on city hall plaza year-round); not to mention that the city hall building is made of marble, and all the hundreds of tents and one small, pallet village aren’t going to set marble on fire.

I missed my first evening general assembly of the occupation in Philly tonight. Oh so hard not to be there (sickness & wage work have caught up with me), especially when the directly-democratic decision-making body is discussing the letter from the city laying out what seem like innocuous demands, but are a sham to start chipping away at our solidarity and self-organization. But my faith in people, diverse & damaged people who are struggling through the difficult process of creating a “world in which all worlds fit” is restored so far. A friend just texted me from the GA: “Loud applause for people making demands of the city, refusing relocation, that the city is trying to play us, [and] mad applause to my appeal to defend the pallet house!”

Day 7

Nice shout out in the Daily Pennsylvanian about a banner that some of us anarchists made & hung on the first occupation day in Philly: “So you’ve seen that big sign at City Hall, ‘Commons Not Capitalism,’ right? English Professor Ania Loomba asks. ‘What . . . we all share in common should belong to all of us–that’s a sentiment which writers from the 16th century and even earlier have been saying.”

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