The Politics of Occupation: Anti-Authoritarianism and Direct Democracy by members of Parasol Climate Collective and The Institute for Anarchist Studies

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INTRODUCTION

Walking through the camp of Occupy Portland, it is hard to believe it has only been a few weeks since it began. The transformation of the space is nothing short of miraculous: from a few scattered tents, some cardboard signs, and a tarp or two, a miniature city has arisen, crafted with the energy, creativity, and good intentions of us all. Together, we are learning first-hand the difficulties, frustrations, and joys of democracy and of the experience of power.

There are other things we need to be proud of, as well: we have held a space; we have negotiated ideas and conflicts as individuals, groups, and a mass; we have demonstrated flexibility and compassion; we have begun to question our assumptions. May this only be the beginning of all of these things.

As we move farther into the experience of wielding power for ourselves, it is good to remember the principle of rootedness, which comes to us from many different schools of martial arts. While we speak of being a “movement,” we are also a place of great stillness, a point which, in reality, refuses to be moved. This stillness will force others to move around us and to bend to our will - this should not be forgotten.

There are other principles, too, to keep in mind. May this text contribute to the discussion as we continue to help each other learn, grow, envision, create, and fight.

POWER and AUTHORITY ARE NOT THE PROBLEM

Social interactions, by their nature, involve the invocation, exchange, and negotiation of power. Power struggles are constant, whether they involve something small, like deciding where to go for dinner with friends, or something large, like the distribution of natural resources among different segments of the population.

It doesn’t make sense to say things like, “Power is bad,” or “Power is the problem.” Power exists, period. The issue is the way in which power is wielded and exchanged. Problems arise when, in the ongoing negotiation of power, the possession of power solidifies into a hierarchical structure that allows one group to exert dominance over another. These structures become accepted as institutions, and become “normal,” and the power disparity between groups ceases to be questioned. This is the nature of oppression.

Another common misconception is that “Authority is bad,” or “Authority is the problem.” A distinction needs to be made between authority and authoritarianism. Authority is simply expertise or specialized knowledge earned through experience, training, or effort. Health care professionals have a certain authority in questions or circumstances regarding a medical response. Pilots have authority when it comes to operating aircraft. This kind of authority simply acknowledges the benefit of experience, practice, and specialized knowledge.

Authoritarianism, on the other hand, is when the difference in authority is exploited to create and solidify an imbalance of power. For instance, I may turn to a health care professional to gain advice regarding a medical concern, but if the health professional is able to make decisions for me based upon her/his authority, that creates a system of dominance wherein I lose my power over my own body. Authoritarianism is a problem.

CONCERNS REGARDING DEMOCRATIC PROCESS

There is a tendency within some anti-authoritarian groups to think of consensus as “true democratic process,” and of majority-based voting systems as “compromised process.” However, it is important to consider the purpose of achieving consensus within a group before making these kinds of judgments.

The word “consensus” comes from the Latin consentire, or “feel together.” It implies unity, rather than unanimity - a willingness to engage with a group, air concerns (with an intention to resolve them), and then achieve a singularity of purpose together. The purpose is to better explore the issue at hand and to achieve a common understanding. It does not necessarily have to mean everyone being in total agreement. In order for this kind of communication to occur, groups seeking consensus require a great deal of commitment to one another; it is often best used among smaller groups that already have significant common assumptions and shared knowledge, as well as a deep level of earned trust.

In situations where a block to consensus can be used, groups may experience what is known as “the tyranny of the minority,” where the concerns of a small group or an individual can delay or derail the unity of a much larger group. This can be difficult to resolve, and can result in a loss of common purpose, as well as in significant negative feelings. One way in which this is avoided is through using “modified consensus,” (also known as a “supermajority”), where consensus is sought, but ultimately, decisions are taken through the expression of a previously agreed-upon majority, e.g. 90% or 2/3. At the time of writing, Occupy Portland is experimenting with a supermajority (90%) model. Total consensus is sought, but the Assembly accepts decisions with a 90% majority. Anything less than 90% is recorded and used as a guide for future proposals or action. Rather than being seen as a compromise, modified consensus should be considered a practice that is dedicated to the practical resolution and utility of the power of the group.

What is the purpose of using a democratic process? Democracy, particularly in a diverse community or society, should not necessarily be about achieving unity on all issues. There must be room for disagreement and multiple perspectives. What is important is that all concerns and interests have an equal opportunity to be heard and evaluated.

One issue that Occupy Portland is currently facing in its decision-making practice is the lack of time available to individuals to voice their ideas. This is inherent in the use of the “People’s Mic” technique, which nicely addresses the lack of amplification and creates a certain experience of unity through its mechanism, yet privileges those who are more comfortable speaking in front of crowds, as well as those with louder or more assertive voices. It also reduces discussion to brief phrases, which is not the way all of us prefer to explore ideas. One way this might be addressed would be an adoption of a spokescouncil model, in which individuals would group themselves according to interest, committee, affinity, or even randomly, in order to have smaller, more interactive (facilitated) discussions. These groups would then select a spokesperson to share a summary or consensus view with the General Assembly on their behalf. While some people dislike the idea of breaking into smaller groups, these groups can be malleable or impermanent to avoid the fossilization of interest “blocs.” Other benefits include the possibility of deeper discussion of issues, as well as the opportunity to use full consensus models on smaller and more practical scales. This can lead to greater clarity and understanding on the part of the participants in the General Assembly, both of the process and the proposals at hand.

Furthermore, it is particularly important for decision-making structures to contain and check accountability. In the example of Occupy Portland, all committees and the work they do must be accountable to the General Assembly. Decisions made by the General Assembly must, in turn, be honored by the groups and individuals doing work on the assembly’s behalf. An example of this would be on the first night of the Occupation, the General Assembly voted to cut off communication with the police via the Police Liaison. However, this was not honored by the committee, and significant damage was done, both to the confidence of the community and to the development of the process.

THE POLICE - AS AN ENTITY - ARE NOT OUR FRIENDS

It is understandable to want to feel secure and accepted, regardless of whether your pursuits are professional, domestic, political, or otherwise. But it is important to understand what Occupy Portland is and signifies in a historical context. This context includes understanding better the role of the police in our communities.

The police forces were first developed in this country to capture and return the property of wealthy men: namely, runaway slaves. Since that early role, the function of the police within civil society has been to protect the interests of the status quo: the rich, the powerful, the 1%. The social structure as it exists today entails racial, class, and gender inequalities, as well as other forms of domination, like ableism and ageism. This is the system that the police are sworn to protect and serve. Recall the shootings of people of color by the Portland Police Department in recent years: James Jahar Akbar Perez, Keaton Otis, Kendra James, Aaron Campbell, and others. In a city where the population is over 75% white, the number of people killed by the police are disproportionally nonwhite. Another example of a disadvantaged group being mistreated is James Chasse, a white local artist and musician who suffered from mental health issues and died in police custody after receiving a lethal beating at the hands of officers for alleged public urination.

These actions do not make our community safer for the 99%. We do not need people with lethal weapons to show up when we have a fender bender. We need moderators; we need people to ensure we are safe and unhurt. We don’t need surveillance, intimidation, or the threat of lethal force.

What we do need in our community is a means for us to call on one another to resolve disputes, mediate conflicts, and to intervene when we feel our safety or security is threatened. One of our goals, as a group, should be to develop these systems and capacities among ourselves, so that our values and processes are reflected in the means with which we protect them, and so that these means are, again, accountable to the General Assembly at large.

WE HAVE THE SPACE: WHAT WILL WE DO WITH IT?

It is important to acknowledge the magnitude of what we have accomplished so far. As a collective entity, we are not only learning new skills for democratic processes and communication. We are also learning what it means to wield power in and of ourselves. We do not need to ask permission to hold this space: we simply occupy it. We become the power that grants that access; we give each other the right to be here and to make our demands. With this in mind, we must also be careful not to become so caught up in the process of maintaining our camp that we forget to exercise this newfound power, or forget to work toward envisioning, crafting, and demanding the changes we hope to see.

One criticism you will hear of Occupy Wall Street and all the other hundreds of Occupations taking place across the country (and now, all over the world), is that our message is “incoherent.” Because of our diversity, our multiplicity of concerns and interests, our detractors say we have no clear purpose other than to protest for its own sake. Yet it is exactly this diversity of concerns that illustrates the magnitude of the problems of capitalism. We all experience the oppressive nature of this economic system, and we experience it in such various ways: from pressures and promises to join the military, lack of support networks for the elderly, lack of support for new parents, loss of homes or insecure housing, racial discrimination, queer discrimination, environmental devastation, unsafe working conditions, unfair taxation, corporate interests silencing our own, or simply the need to work more than one menial and unsatisfying job to care for a family. This is our common thread, our shared purpose. Herein lies our unity.

Our coming tasks should include short-term, camp-based goals:
• How can we best use this space and opportunity to share knowledge, skills, ideas, and experiences?
• How can we extend our influence from within the camp and the immediate area to reach out to those who are not familiar with our work?
• How can we better represent those who are unable to join us, physically?

Also, we need to ask ourselves the difficult questions about how our own organization, structures, assumptions, and practices are reproducing the structures of domination we have learned elsewhere. This is an opportunity to unlearn them, and to create positive alternatives. Look around the camp - who is represented here? Who is missing? It is important to recognize that many of the assumptions that arise from our assemblies are a product of absence as much as presence. Occupy Portland is largely white. Also, as someone pointed out in a meeting on process, many people cannot afford to take time from their job(s) in order to make their voices heard. A different racial or class makeup would likely result in very different conversations, which is something we need to consider seriously when we ask questions about who it is we represent. Who benefits from our protest and practices? Who doesn’t? How can we reach out to underrepresented communities and individuals who may not be comfortable taking the same risks as we are?

Lastly, we must consider not only how we can best support the activity of Occupy Wall Street and elsewhere. We must also think in terms of long-range, concrete goals for the transformation of our own larger community. How can we intervene directly in the structures and tendencies of local issues to transform them into those that will support our greater visions?

We have a lot of work to do. Let us take every opportunity, together.

Written by members of Parasol Climate Collective and The Institute for Anarchist Studies.

Questions?
Contact: alltopia@gmail.com

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