People Before Process: the Bureaucracies of Anarchy Pt. 2

Sometime in early October I showed up to an OWS organizer’s meeting at 16 Beaver Street. 16 Beaver, like 56 Walker or Charlotte’s Place, is one of these magically anachronistic spaces in lower Manhattan that feel like something out of Patti Smith’s Just Kids–free space for art, activism, and organizing, embedded in some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Of course, to label these spaces “anachronistic” is to cede to capital its totalizing power. With a nod to J. Fabian, this would deny the coevalness of diverse forms and uses of urban space within contemporary capitalism. So let’s invoke both Fabian and radical feminist geographers JK Gibson-Graham, and rejoice that there are such spaces in lower Manhattan today.

But I digress. Walking into the expansive, exposed-brick third floor of 16 Beaver that October evening, there was an Arabic class going on in the back and, in another corner, roughly twenty OWS open source folks having an animated meeting. Roughly thirty of us there for the organizer’s meeting made a third circle of chairs in the middle of the space.

As with nearly all OWS meetings I’ve attended, this one had an over-full agenda, and it started at 10pm. “Process” is the way facilitators handle these time-crunches. Described in Part I of this post, process refers to the combination of hand signals, stack-taking, and facilitated meeting organization used in OWS, and consensus-process more broadly. Process intends to allow everyone’s voices to be heard, while also speeding along the often-onerous meetings. If someone goes “off-process” — say by offering a proposal during the report-back section of the meeting, or offering a verbose and unrelated opinion when participants are busy trying to figure out a logistical problem — there is a hand signal (“point of process”) intended to bring the meeting back on course.

That night at 16 Beaver was one of the first indoor meetings I attended. The four walls and overhead lights enclosed and intensified the space in a way that I hadn’t experienced at General Assemblies (GAs) in the park, rendering starker some of the human dynamics of process. In particular, the ways in which this “horizontal” and “radically democratic” process can marginalize people was radically spotlighted.

tumblr_luj8snxU0B1r4jofco1_500.jpg Race came up in one of the early agenda items, and “Hector”* (a young Chicano man in his early twenties) passionately declared that race was an imposed construct to be intentionally rejected. “Sarah”, an African-American woman in her later twenties, at the meeting as a representative of the OWS People of Color Caucus (POC), vehemently objected to Hector’s characterization of race. She suggested that he ask the people most vulnerable to racist “stop & frisk” policing tactics in Harlem if race was something one could choose to reject on an individual, intentional basis.

As their debate blossomed and drew others in, hand signals for “point of process” began to go up around the circle, as some participants expressed their opinion that this conversation was not part of the meeting’s agenda. The facilitator acknowledged the points of process, and suggested that we move on. Sarah was deeply upset, explaining that the space did not feel safe to her if there wasn’t room to talk openly about race. Others felt not that they were foreclosing a conversation about race, but rather that they were “staying on process,” and hoping to get home at a reasonable hour. These divergent experiences of the evening did not divide neatly along racial lines. There were different people on different sides of the issue, though the facilitator’s white male identity was not helpful. The meeting eventually moved on, and Sarah stood up to leave the meeting, frustrated. Several participants intercepted her and had an intense, supportive, side conversation on process and privilege.

The bureaucracies of anarchy, in other words, are rife with signals of oppression. Today, two months and one eviction after this long-ago October meeting, questions of how an ostensibly inclusive and horizontal process can marginalize people remain at the center of the tensions (productive tensions, in my opinion) in OWS.

These tensions manifest most spectacularly in Spokes Council meetings, held Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at an indoor venue (often 56 Walker) in lower Manhattan. At a Spokes Council meeting in early December, a visitor from Occupy Detroit got up to speak. She noted that in Detroit, people come to Occupy meetings to speak their minds and to hear others speak, but when they try to participate, people more familiar with the movement’s rituals wave strange hand signals in their faces, telling them that their most passionately held beliefs are not “on process.” This marginalizes people, she said. It makes them feel like the Occupy movement is not for them or their concerns.

Others objected to her that the hand signals and process guidelines are introduced before every meeting, and there is no way to hold meetings in the absence of some agreed-upon structure. They insisted that the process is, by design, open to everyone, and that it contains its own mechanisms for critique and redress. Some insisted further that those who refuse to use the process are being “disruptive” insofar as meetings get “sidetracked” in these conversations. You can read the minutes of the Spokes Council, disruptions and all, here (free registration may be required).

jurgenson_ows_22oct2011-85-of-1061-332x500.jpgAs is so often the case, the label “disruptive” is most often applied across categories of difference. Those people often considered disruptive in OWS processes have different educational backgrounds, class backgrounds, home statuses (often the chronically homeless,) and certainly different psychological habitations of the world. In other words, while race is clearly one category across which “process” marginalizes, it is not the only one. OWS also deals with the serious issues of how to include and empower the homeless, those with substance abuse issues, those with mental health issues.

These debates have derailed two-thirds of all spokes council meetings since the model went live at the beginning of November. For some, this has turned the meetings into an exercise in futility, and increased their resolve toward autonomous action within their working groups. Others bemoan the negative media attention that these gaping wounds in the skin of  “solidarity” will surely beckon. But then there are others of us, and I include myself in this category, for whom these “disruptions” have become some of the most valuable time OWS can spend. They show that ideologies of solidarity, horizontality, or radical democracy always already contain their own privilege, their own insides and outsides. True radicalism is much messier, much slower, much more disruptive than any smoothly functioning process can handle. 

General Assemblies still happen in the cold dark of Liberty Plaza Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. At this past Saturday’s GA (December 10th) the first proposal on the agenda was from RAHKA – the Radical Activist Homeless Kicking Ass working group, many members of which had been routinely characterized as “disruptors”. Their representative asked the GA to approve funds that would allow members
of their group to spend the
night in the 24-hour McDonald’s across the street from the plaza – $2 per person per 12-hour period, to buy the coffee or other menu item that allows them to occupy the space legally. She explained that members of her group are not welcome in the church shelters OWS is using — they are pregnant, have psych disabilities, are trans, have been abused in or kicked out of church shelters; hence the need for another option. As their proposal was debated (through OWS process of clarifying questions, points of information, etc.) it came up that they had been offered office space at 52 Broadway. Why didn’t they just take that, as the Accounting working group had, rather than support McDonald’s? Their representative answered that RAHKA sought to be a beacon of radicalism and transparency in the movement, and because that office space had not been offered to everyone, they refused to occupy it. 

RAHKA’s proposal passed and the group’s many members present were jubilant. They hugged and invited everyone to join them for a coffee in McDonald’s between 10pm and 5am. Using the process effectively, RAHKA also subverted its attendant privileges in multiple ways — by refusing the “insider status” that office space would’ve conferred upon them, by allowing one man who routinely disrupted their presentation with drunken outbursts his time to speak. In short, RAHKA’s proposal, and this post, is a call for the productivity of disruption in the face of persistent privilege. People before process, not only profits.

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