Saturday, October 22, 2011

In Search of Dialogue: Notes from OccupyOakland, October 22nd

by Miki Kashtan

After my first visit to OccupyOakland I felt inspired. I was connected to the vision, to a sense of possibility. I was fully open to the unfolding, to seeing what would come. I’ve been very encouraged by the response I’ve been getting to my post about that visit.

Before I posted those notes I had a second visit to OccupyOakland, and my current picture is very different, more nuanced, sober, intrigued, concerned, excited, and even more clear that I don’t know much. I notice how much harder it is to write about those experiences. I find it challenging to express concerns about the movement, and yet I know it’s vital to express truth with love, and I am reaching into the courage to do that.

On October 17th I attended the general assembly meeting at OccupyOakland. I had never been to a large group meeting following consensus rules, and I didn’t know what to expect. So much happened during the evening that I simply cannot speak about all of it, and there is no way to get the feel of it from reading the notes posted on the OccupyOakland site. What’s below is by necessity filtered through my very personal perspective and sensibilities.

One thing that stood out to me is the extraordinary patience of hundreds of people sitting in the small amphitheater outside Oakland City Hall. Most people sat through more than two and half hours of people speaking with more or less discernible relevance, announcements about many activities, committees, requests, offers, opinions, questions.

What was also striking to me, and the main reason for this post, is the absence of anything I would call dialogue. When a proposal was put on the table, what I saw was a lineup of people expressing their opinion about why a letter should or shouldn’t be sent, or about why this or that paragraph would need to be revised or taken out. I saw nothing that resembled what I consider to be the building blocks of collaborative decision-making. The facilitators were mostly occupied with controlling traffic - not a small task in a crowd that contains people using drugs or inhabiting different realities than most, and where almost everyone’s comments extended beyond the time requested. Between this challenge and the overall set of rules, people had the space to speak, and yet there was nothing set up for them to be heard. How would anything emerge in such a context that would allow creative solutions to take place? How could people ever come together on a divided issue?

The proposal on the table was to send a letter in response to the Mayor’s two letters to the assembly, in which the city was making some requests (or demands, as the case may be) to those living and using the space. As the lineup of speakers proceeded, I learned more and more each time about the depth of the issues that this proposal was raising. I also understood more fully that at least some people hold the term “occupy” to mean taking full possession of the territory such that they no longer hold the city as having authority over that area.

For these people, and for some others, responding to the Mayor means accepting the authority of the city to make requests of the campers. I understand this logic deeply: if the idea of a parallel life being formed is serious, then I can see why people would fully question business as usual, and why they would want the rules to be made, freshly, by the group for itself.

For others, responding is a way to make a statement that the group is not about creating chaos and dirt; that there is a sense of responsibility and care for the environment. Some believed that such a statement could make the camp, and the movement, more compelling and appealing, invite others to join.

Again, I can see the logic. Unlike in other places in the world, what I saw wasn’t a cross section of the entire population. I believe it’s still associated in the public eye with a particular subculture, and many are uncomfortable joining even if they fully sympathize with the critique being articulated. So I can see why people would want to appeal to such people by being less different-looking.

With my growing experience in collaborative decision making, I was itching to see a process, something that metabolizes all the opinions, that allows people to see beyond the surface words spoken to the underlying concerns, issues, needs, and dreams in the name of which people speak.

Could there have been a way to move forward that would honor what’s important to both groups? Is it possible that at least some people could have shifted as a result of getting more deeply what was important to others? Or that some people might have been willing to stretch to accept a solution that wasn’t their favorite because they could see why it was important to others? Or could the entire issue of what this “occupation” means have become clearer to everyone, leading to some surprising direction that would have satisfied everyone?

When the lineup of speakers was finished, the proposal was put to a vote. Over 100 people voted for sending a letter to the Mayor and creating a committee to finalize it, and over 40 people voted against it. In the consensus rules that govern the general assembly this means the proposal is now off the table. I am not satisfied with this outcome. Not because I necessarily want the letter to be sent. I abstained during the vote, because I didn’t have a sense of having been enough of a participant in the movement to have integrity about voting, nor did I understand the issues well enough to make a considered opinion.

I am not satisfied with the outcome because it left the people who wanted to send a letter without a way to address what’s important to them. No, I am not suggesting a simple majority vote instead of the 90% existing rule, because then I would have the same question about the minority. I am aching for some way to transcend the either/or paradigm on which such votes rest. We have been raised to believe that the way we can affect the outcome is by making a compelling argument and convincing others of the rightness of our opinion. I am sad as I am winding down this post, because I see this preoccupation with arguments and with who is right as part of the very world the “occupiers” are seeking to transform.

I am longing, instead, for everyone to matter and to have a true voice, so that what’s important to them can be heard and they can truly affect the outcome. I want those working to create change to have access to the plethora of ingenious methods that exist to support groups in converging, in learning together, and in integrating divergent opinions. More than anything, I want so much for the Occupy movement to have this as part of what gets modeled: the possibility of transforming conflict and disagreement into a solution that works for everyone.

Seeing the surge in visits to my blog since I started writing about the “occupation”, I plan to be writing more about it each time I go. My next scheduled visit to the site is today, when I am also part of a training taking place right onsite and hosted by Seminary of the Street (where you can see more information about it). While everything I do is fully infused with NVC, this training is about nonviolence more generally, and I am co-leading with other folks. Hope to see some people there, and I anticipate posting something within the next few days.