December 12, 2011

People's Convention of Florida: Decisionmaking in a Leaderless Movement

The Occupy Movement proclaims itself to be leaderless and to be engaging in direct democracy. What are the implications of such a position? This past weekend, I found out a little more about this at the state-wide Occupy meeting, the People's Convention of Florida. Folks from local Occupy groups around the state converged to develop a list of desired changes to be delivered directly to the State Capitol in Tallahassee on January 10, 2012, the first day of the Florida legislative session,.

Right off the bat, there were differences of opinion concerning process and goals. For example, what would be the goals of Sunday's General Assembly? We spent all day Saturday in small working groups identifying sets of issues that we wished to take to the legislature. Some came up with a list of demands. Others a set of expectations. Were we looking for overarching themes or smaller items that legislators could immediately act upon. On Sunday, before the working groups presented back to the General Assembly, individuals presented their views on the objectives of Sunday's deliberations. At any other convention, this would have been announced ahead of time. But without a leader, the group had to spend time on this. We were treated to articulate and well-conceived insights. Acknowledgement of practical realities mingled with idealism. Thankfully there was a time-keeper or we might never have emerged from this preliminary discussion -

For many of us inculcated in the heirarchical world of our places of employment, customer call centers, school boards, local governments, boards of directors, supermarkets, political parties, and just about any large organization that we interact with on a daily basis, a leaderless movement is unfathomable. When we think of previous non-violent change movements, great leaders come to mind: Mohandas Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela. But consider the feminist movement of the 1960s. Consciousness raising groups formed the backbone of this movement. Small, independent, groups of women met to share their individual experience as women, and they shaped the newly forming feminist ideologies. In these groups, what had previously been considered personal failings were suddenly exposed as systemic oppression.

In much the same way as 1960s consciousness raising provided an alternate model for analysis, the Occupy Movement is currently providing an alternate model for decision-making. In Washington D.C., politicians have created and are maintaining gridlock. When our politicians are able to get the legislative traffic moving, many times, it moves against the citizenry. Our representatives do not represent we-the-people, rather they represent large corporate interests. In stark contrast, at most Occupy General Assemblies, anybody can bring up a proposal for consideration. And then Occupiers work to achieve consensus. If we start from the belief that everybody has a valuable veiwpoint, and we tweak a proposal so that everybody can support it, then decisions will benefit everybody. Consensus is a valuable method to arrive at solutions that work for the majority, the minority, and the extremes. As such, it models an alternative to the partisan obstinacy in evidence at many levels of government.

Is direct democracy through consensus the solution to our policital impasses? I think not. It is extraordinarily inefficient and time-consuming. It can also be easily sabotaged by a single person. Because, if consensus is the goal, it only takes one person to block that goal. Consequently each Florida Occupy location has adopted its own processes to address these problems. This past weekend, when the various local Occupy groups met in Orlando, they each came with their own set of procedures, slightly different hand signals, and established working relationships. For example, Occupy Gainesville uses pure consensus. Occupy Orlando makes decisions with a minimum of 90% agreement. Occupy Sarasota has yet to clearly define its process. Probably due to the fact that Occupy Orlando hosted the event, everyone eventually agreed to follow their process.

Although the People's Convention used the Occupy Orlando process, Occupy Orlando did not run the show. Moderators, stack-takers, and minutes-takers stepped up from all over the state. And when someone grew weary in their role, they asked for a replacement before stepping down from that role. So rather than calling the Occupy Movement a leaderless movement, I would describe it as a movement that is empowering many new leaders. Everybody's voice is important. Anybody can volunteer to facilitate. Having a single spokesperson or a charismatic leader makes a movement more vulnerable. Opponents can discredit, arrest or kill one person and bring the movement to its knees. But when there are many leaders and everybody speaks for themselves, a certain resiliency is possible.

Resiliency is what I saw this past weekend. I saw a laboratory for participatory democracy. I saw an extremely slow process. I saw leadership training going on in every corner. I saw people with expertise in one area educate those around them, repeatedly. I saw folks with differing concerns and solutions come together and have meaningful discourse. Americans are watching as our nation's infrastructure crumbles, our middle class evaporates, and our safety nets dissolve due to a mindset of competitive partisanship. The Occupy Movement does not suffer from such a mindset and is modeling an alternative.

Curious about what decisions were made at the People's Convention? Stay tuned for future posts.

1 comment:

  1. I've operated within the constraints of consensus in the anti-nuke movement and the anti-war movement.

    It is, as you say, "extraordinarily inefficient and time-consuming" and easily sabotaged.

    However our Roberts Rules and Current Practice in state and national congresses are even more extraordinarily inefficient and time-consuming.

    Take for example Connie Mack's recent "Town Hall Meeting" in Ft. Myers. It was totally controlled and smarmy. The pretense of feeling the pulse of the people easily fooled many present. What happened when a manly man like John Riccio spoke pointed questions? What happened when a powerful woman like Karen Dwyer asked pointed questions?

    Connie Mack and his back-up stage personalities as well as the sound equipment managers easily brushed John's and Karen's ideas aside and substituted glib political pablum.

    The BBC radio show "bbc whole world speaks program" was likewise totally controlled and smarmy. The "crew" totally ignored the Occupation issues and steered the whole program toward creating yet another hagiography of Steve Jobs. And baldly denied that Mr. Jobs exploited Chinese labor to produce I-pods and I-phones using the offshoring and outsourcing techniques of the kings and princes of the 1%.

    So as we become more and more frustrated with the Occupations' extraordinarily inefficient and time-consuming consensus, we must remind ourselves constantly of the inefficiency of the current system which, as a matter of survival, must be replaced.

    If you've ever been or known well a delegate to the National Convention of Dems or Reps, you well know what foolery passes for democratic process, caucuses, and platform building.

    What we replace that with must valorize the ordinary person's voice. We know that leads to all sorts of foolishness. Apparently ordinary persons become candidates for straight-jacket restraints when they, after years or lifetimes of suppression, finally get to take center stage.

    So there must be some criteria for the "hook" which was used in days of old to reach out and grab and pull offstage an actor who got off his nut, unable to handle all the electricity of audience adulation.

    I.e. what to do with Newt? Shave his head like Gov. Rick Scott's?

    So, as we struggle with motivation and anxiety and frustration over our G.A.'s, we must continually remember why we're doing it.

    Personalities get in the way. Egos do battle. Dumb decisions get made. But it's the process that's important.

    And sometimes somebody says something like "Give me liberty, or give me death" and the whole thing becomes worthwhile.