Sunday, October 23, 2011

Process, Taboos, and lots of Coffee

Deming is not an "Occupy Wall Street" kind of town, although there were a few demonstrators in front of the Walls Fargo bank one afternoon last week.

Over in Las Cruces, the local movement is gathering more steam after a few demonstrations, one or two "learn ins" every week, and lots of meetings of small "clusters" of people, each cluster assigned to a particular task and pledged to operate democratically and on the basis of consensus. There is also a weekly "General Assembly" meeting that is open to all and fully participatory, which gets more challenging as more people gather.

As noted earlier on this blog, a democratic process is an integral part of the movement's message. Because of the commitment to listening and letting voices be heard, things move at a slower pace than is sometimes desired. There is a threshold where the urge to get things done more quickly leads to competition: who will grab hold of the process and take the lead? It can feel a little bit like those team-building relay races they made us do in elementary school: running a course with our legs tied to a partner, that sort of thing. If you try to be too assertive, the whole team falls over. Achieving the aim requires mindful attention to the process itself.

Your correspondent participates in a cluster group that is tasked with drafting statements: language we might use when asked what we're doing, and copy for a flyer that could be handed out during public actions to explain a little more.

The work takes place over group emails and occasional face-to-face meetings. These meetings are leaderless. Not a lot of actual writing gets done at the meetings, but the discussions are useful, and I have contributed my little bit by going over meeting notes at home, writing, and emailing it around for the rest of the group to use, ignore, cut and paste, or whatever they want to do with it. It's not mine.

There is a conditioned belief that an effective social movement has to fit into a television episode. It needs a leader and sound bytes. It needs a detailed utopian vision for how it wants the world to look, and it must succeed or fail on the basis of its results alone. This is the standard pushed by the major news media. Leaders, sound bytes, and instant results!

Preserving this as a movement of people rather than leaders (or even a council of leaders) is also a tactical choice. When a movement has leaders, it has clear targets. Ask MLK about that.

The media will continue to have a difficult time treating Occupy Wall Street and its solidarity movements because this movement is criticizing something that is a taboo subject in mainstream news, where critiques of capitalism are off limits; in addition to this, the democratic process is itself taboo. For one thing, it moves slowly and makes boring television. Far more serious, however, are the implications of Americans organizing and governing themselves in this manner. We're not supposed to be able to do this; this is supposedly why we need a specialized political class to manage our workplaces and institutions.

On Friday, the cluster mentioned above had a face-to-face meeting at Milagro, an independent coffee shop near the NMSU campus. We gathered around two laptops and legal pads, passing things around and hashing out a way to proceed on our writing project. Whatever we produce will be presented at a GA meeting and submitted for approval by all participants.

During this work session, we were interrupted on two occasions by visitors passing by. They had noticed us, eavesdropped, and while they did not wish to sit down and get involved, they wanted to disperse their higher wisdom to us. And truth be told, both men had sensible and valuable observations about the issues and the movement's response.

Both of these men, however, made their contribution by interrupting the proceeding and "teaching" us, pronouncing their wisdom about what we needed to do. In education, this is called the "banking method" of instruction by Freire, in which students are regarded as receptacles for a teacher's content. One man, in particular, was personally aggressive, interrupting and raising his voice over everybody at the table who attempted to converse with him. Both men, when invited to sit down and join us, declined. They didn't want to be part of a process. They wanted to speak without having to hear anyone else or answer questions. They wanted to make their points and leave. They both said they did not have time; yet one man was observed leisurely consuming a bowl of fruit by himself after he had finished teaching us all a thing or two.

The process itself is a distinguishing characteristic of this movement, and for a lot of people informed about these issues and sympathetic to the basic grievances (such as economic injustice and the rule of money in our politics), the process will seem strange. We are geared toward competitive debate, shouting people down, talking over them, projecting our better ideas and pushing down competing visions. That's what our Congress and our talk shows are constantly teaching us.

The skills for doing this process successfully will need to be taught, re-taught, and spoken about. Occupy Wall Street is truly on to something, which is why its methods are being emulated in more than 1,400 cities with similar movements underway.

1 comment:

Algernon said...

On Facebook, someone commented:

"I've noticed that too: lots of people wanting to tell the 'Occupy Together' movement what it should be doing, without actually getting involved in the process or the people. I've settled on, 'Democracy is not a spectator sport' as a response."