I’m not gonna lie to ya… direct, consensus-based democracy is a slow, slightly dishevelled process. At least at the start of it. This might be true of all movements. The human microphone is both exhilarating and annoying. Consensus is not always easy to achieve. Uniting disparate intents in a common cause is problematic. Regardless of the obstacles, however, it’s completely worth the effort. These things we hold undeniable.
We left Kelowna, BC,Canada at 3:30 Saturday morning. Before that there was work and some last-minute packing before we finally got on the road. Kelowna to Vancouver is usually 4-5 hours, but there are advantages to driving while 90% of the population is sleeping – the roads are largely empty. Three and a half hours later we made it to North Van, parked in a safe place, and caught transit back across the water to Downtown Vancouver.
Occupy Vancouver was advertised as starting at 10:00am, October 15, one of over a thousand such #occupy events scheduled for Saturday around the world. We walk onto the square at around 9:50, start setting up our tent, and the human microphone kicks in at 10:00am, right on schedule. It is 11:30 or so as I start writing this and the facilitators are still walking the growing crowd through the process of non-hierarchical, direct democracy, consensus-based general assembly. We use the human microphone in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street folk (who have been denied any amplification), and augment it with a PA.
Like I said, it’s clumsy, this process of echoing speakers so that everyone can hear. Clumsy but exhilarating. And we’re learning. The human microphone, if you haven’t seen it in action on Youtube yet, involves one speaker expressing themselves in short, often half-sentences. Those around them, those who can hear that one person, repeat what the speaker says in unison. They repeat it loudly and project it outwards so that others can hear. If the group is large enough, a second ring repeats again for those even farther away, and so on, and so on. It’s exhilarating in and of itself to be a part of this mass cooperative communication. The amount of respect required just to get the message back to the outside ranks is stunning. And then, when someone from the back has a response, we do it in reverse. Waves of information ripple across the amassed humanity. People are forced to listen instead of think about what they want to say next.
I find myself grinning like an idiot and, without shame, almost crying for the sheer joy of it.
They start to read the statements of purpose and lay out what we will do at the next GA. We’re reminded that we are “occupying” on the unceded hereditary lands of the Coastal Salish people. BC is unique in Canada ; the colonizers here never bothered with any treaties – they just appropriated land with absolute condescension. Subsequently, the treaty process is ongoing, restarted around twenty years ago when the province realized how shaky the legal ground they were standing on really was.. BC has three signed treaties. Three. Technically, the rest of the province is unceded. Essentially I’m a squatter, all of us but the indigenous peoples are, and so the occupation has a certain irony.
All of that said, for all the complications and stumbles of starting, for all the ambiguities and ironies, I feel – just being here – like I’m lying naked on a Tesla coil. Seeing the concept of consensus filter into the consciousness of the two thousand plus (and growing) or so humans gathered here, hearing the excitement erupt when the first consensus is reached, feeling the overwhelming positive regard, is pretty unbelievable. For many (myself included), this is a first serious experience of actual democracy. I’d heard about how cool it was, I’ve read about it, but being immersed in it is a completely different thing.
Disclaimer: I’m not an experienced activist. I’m not even sure I get to call myself an activist in the traditional sense at all. I’m more of a slactivist with a smallish dose of weekend activist added in. Until a couple of years ago, at the ripe age of forty-two, I’d never been to a march, never paid too much attention, considered myself too cynical to care. Something happened in the fall of 2008 though, something that’s hard to describe. I woke up, started reading things and watching things I’d always missed or wilfully ignored, and now I can’t shut that awareness off. It’s a red pill/blue pill thing. Like the General Assemblies, it’s messy and complicated and worth it.
The second GA, at 7:00pm, is a different animal. If the first one was almost chaotic, with its muddling attempts to establish a starting statement of purpose – a place to work from – and the establishment of practices of process necessary for a human microphoned, mass democracy meeting (“this is the sign for agree, this is the sign for disagree, this is the sign for block”), then the second meeting is a notable leap forward. How to function in a GA is still being established though, and we move through several resolutions – about how to communicate without leaders, how to respect one another in the process – relatively quickly. In two hours, we reach consensus seven times on procedural points. It’s a start. We’re still talking mostly about process and not how to change the world, and yet… Just acting in a horizontal hierarchy, just practicing direct democracy, just being here and finding ways to unify, to embrace, to not compete; these are revolutionary in the world we live in.
A rolled ream of art paper is slowly being unrolled down Howe Street and taped to the sidewalk. It’s being filled up with doodles and statements and criticisms and quotes. It is about a hundred meters long Saturday night when I crash, overcome by the all-nighter to get here. Sunday morning it has growing again. Volume of signage explodes and the tent village is doubled in size. My hip is sore from being old and lying on the ground, and I’m okay with that; the view from the tent is kind of exquisite. A feeling of (semi) permanence is burgeoning, as if, after only 24 hours, people are digging in.
My favorite speech went something like, “We need to remember that, for all the 99% and 1% rhetoric, we’re really all in this together. Solutions will come from the 100%.” I said something like that a year or so ago, and felt a tuning fork-like resonance when I heard it. Binaries are so useful in uniting some and “othering” those that stand outside of the arbitrary “us” designations, but the key word there is arbitrary. From far enough back, say planetary orbit or the moon perhaps, there’s only us and this little blue and green planet. We’re all we’ve got.
Naomi Klein, speaking of the Wall Street Occupation, said this: “This generation grew up being told that there is not alternative to capitalism, that this is all there is. And so when you taste another alternative, when you feel it, when you see it, when you experience it, it’s life changing. Because you’ll never believe again that there is no alternative.” There’s that red pill/blue pill dynamic again. And apparently there are plenty of red pills to go around. In Barcelona, 20,000 marched. In Santiago, Chile, 60,000 marched. Over a thousand cities held events.
One of the joys of the Occupy movement is that we don’t speak for each other, so I won’t try to explain anyone else’s motives but my own. For me, it’s not about forcing change. I have limited expectations of (but an unending childlike hope for) revolution in my time. I don’t foresee the movement deposing anyone in North America from their lofty perches anytime soon. I’m taking a longer view.
For me it’s about awareness. The system will change when we actually change, when we evolve. Us. The species.
This small-scale stuff, the pressing against the imposed fences of allowed debate, the exercises in direct democracy, the functional examples of egalitarianism and equality, they are about saying/showing/believing that we can aspire to a mode of existence better than unfettered greed and unapologetic self-interest. It’s about laying seed. The critics say that the occupy movement doesn’t have a message, but in true McLuhan-esque style, the medium is the message here. There are options, and now we’re seeing some in action. The message is: Look, listen, consider this. We can aspire to be so much more than we are.
Like the human microphone, the idea is that if a few yell a truth out at the beginning, then a second, larger ring will echo it, and then a third, larger ring will echo that. Like a grass fire, it will spread over distance, time, over generations until one day, perhaps in the time of our grand children or so, everyone will put their hands in the air to sign applause and show consensus.
Right now, all I hope for is to show that it’s possible, doable. That we can be together and not fight for the microphone or the spotlight. That we can be one. Someone, a nameless, faceless equal in the multitude, said it best last night: The idea of the assembly is to function as if we were one mind, puzzle and debate and reach decisions as if we were one mind. One consciousness, full of individuals, but united in seeking equality and consensus.
It’s a lovely thought, isn’t it?
p.s. Hi, thanks for having me. Also, I may not be as political for the rest of the week.
p.s. 2 There definitely won’t be as many pictures next time. Probably.
p.s. 3 I will try to post earlier from here on in. This is, for everyone except Hawaii, already a Tuesday post. My bad.