Over the past few days, I’ve been attempting to process what happened on Friday at the Occupy Oakland General Assembly. In my head I wrote and re-wrote parts of this blog post throughout the weekend. But before I began typing on yesterday’s cold, rainy afternoon, I decided to reread the blog post I wrote just two and a half weeks ago (it’s baffling to me that so little time has elapsed yet so much has happened) about my transformation from an Occupy Oakland spectator to a participant. I ended that blog post with the following paragraphs:
At this point I’m satisfied with participating in ways that make sense to me, like helping with media, donating books to the library, and tweeting as much as I can about what’s happening.
Because that’s the beauty of the Occupy movement. Everyone can participate in their own way, and that might not even involve coming to Frank Ogawa Plaza or taking off work for the general strike.
Up until Friday, I was still satisfied with the way I was participating in Occupy Oakland and thought that my participation and the participation of others like me who supported OO but did not camp was thoroughly appreciated by the folks who were camping. I felt that Occupy Oakland was a very open space, and that anybody could participate at any level they wanted to and that was accepted. Whether you had been to ten General Assemblies or one, you had the same vote. Whether you camped with OO every night or only showed up for the GAs, you still were allowed to speak on any proposal (or even submit a proposal).
On Friday I found out that while all of that still technically is true, in practice many people camping at OO did not see me and other supporters as equals. Even worse, a very small group of occupiers had a huge amount of control over the decision-making process and, at least on Friday night, used this power to attempt to manipulate people.
But let me rewind a bit to Thursday, as I’ve seen a lot of misinformation spread (mostly on Twitter) from both sides about what happened with the proposal to rescind the vote to occupy the lot at 19th and Telegraph so I feel it’s worth telling the full story, or at least an abbreviated version of the full story. And don’t worry, this story isn’t all negative. In fact, until Friday night, it was mostly extremely positive…
Developing a proposal
I wrote about this a bit in my last blog post, but I thought it was worth sharing some more about the development of our initial proposal to rescind Wednesday night’s vote. On Thursday morning I realized I wanted to submit this proposal so I started tweeting about it. Many people tweeted back that they would support my proposal. One person (who I had never met) connected me with a friend who understands the OO process well, and that person emailed me with tons of information about how to submit a proposal. I was warned that it might be difficult to get the proposal onto Friday’s agenda as there was a queue of proposals waiting to be heard. So I emailed the facilitation committee to ask about my chances. I never heard back.
In the evening, I drafted a proposal and sent it to several people, almost all of whom I had met through Twitter – and some of whom I had never met in person – to ask for feedback. They provided plenty of feedback and after several rounds of drafts, three of them signed off on the proposal so I could submit it via email to the facilitation committee. I was amazed at the help and support I received from people who barely knew me, except through Twitter.
To spread the word, I posted the proposal on Facebook and shared the link widely. Immediately I started receiving positive feedback, and again it came mostly from near-strangers. For many reasons, people didn’t want to see OO move to the 19th and Telegraph lot. Some people were concerned about students at Oakland School of the Arts, others were concerned about the thousands of residents who lived just across the street, and others were concerned about the fate of the lot, which is slated to become a public sculpture garden in just a few months. People who supported OO were also concerned about what this would do to OO’s image. The most recent Oakland poll showed Oaklanders are split on support of OO, but this move could turn so much support into opposition.
As I lay in bed that night, unable to fall asleep, I felt very nervous about the next day. Would the facilitation committee even agendize our proposal? And even if they did, what were the chances that we could meet the 90% vote threshold for passage? I didn’t know the answers to these questions and frankly didn’t feel that hopeful about our chance of surmounting these two huge hurdles, but I already felt like our efforts had been worth it, since the proposal gave so many of us – people who may never have met otherwise – the chance to work closely together on something we cared about.
The facilitation committee
I was still nervous when I woke up on Friday morning and was grateful that I had a ton to do at work. But I soon started to get interrupted by tweets, emails and Facebook messages from another group of people who had ties to OSA who were submitting a similar proposal. We decided that we’d see what happened at the facilitation committee meeting and would work together.
I’m pretty used to uncomfortable situations. I’ve been yelled at during public meetings. I’ve stood up for unpopular positions, even when it became clear that winning on an issue was next to impossible.
But as I walked through Frank Ogawa Plaza to find the facilitation committee (I knew they were meeting under a tree but had no idea which one), my heart pounded quickly and I started thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong.
As I reached the group of trees in the middle of the plaza I saw a few people standing around and a good friend sitting on the steps. Just seeing her made me feel totally at ease. Seeing any familiar face probably would have made me feel more comfortable, but her presence was so much more calming because she has been one of my most influential mentors. She and my former boss taught me most of what I know about activism, direct action, civil disobedience and so much more.
Soon, one of the men involved with the other proposal – to have a re-vote on Wednesday’s vote – arrived and we started chatting. A regular at the facilitation meetings began chatting with us, suggesting we work together to create one proposal. He and a couple other people told us that it was problematic that we were only trying to strike Wednesday’s vote and that we weren’t suggesting what to do instead so he suggested adding to our proposal the creation of a committee to find the next space to occupy. The conversation was productive, but we kept getting interrupted by the woman facilitating the facilitation meeting who kept reminding everyone that our conversations were not part of the meeting, as the meeting hadn’t started yet. (I thought everyone was pretty clear that the meeting hadn’t started, but I guess she felt the need to make that abundantly clear.)
I could probably write multiple blog posts about the facilitation meeting, but I’ll spare you most of the details. Apparently these meetings, which used to take place every day and I think now happen four days a week, regularly last more than two hours, a fact that both confuses and impresses me. I only made it through about an hour and fifteen minutes of the meeting before I had to get back to work.
For either of the proposals to get on Friday’s agenda, the facilitation committee needed to vote that the proposals were emergency proposals so that we could jump to the front of the proposal queue. The other proposal was read and then I read our proposal. We let the committee know that we intended to combine the proposals into one, which they said we could do, though a few people let us know we didn’t have to do that. The committee made it clear though that the proposal would have to be to rescind the vote, not to have a re-vote, since there is no mechanism within the GA process to call for a re-vote.
The facilitator called for a vote, not on the merits of our proposals, but on whether the combined proposal constituted an emergency. Everyone in the circle, except for me and the man who presented the other proposal (proposal makers aren’t allowed to vote), raised their thumbs. Unanimously, the committee voted to agendize our proposal and told us that the item would be first on the agenda.
Merging the proposals
I felt a rush of energy and couldn’t help smiling as I walked across the plaza to my office – we had made it past the first hurdle of the day. I sent a message to the author of the other proposal and asked her to call me, and she did almost immediately. We decided to use most of the language in the proposal she had written and we worked on the language over the phone. Before that morning, I had never heard of this woman, yet on our first phone call we managed to hammer out the revised language and plan our strategy for the evening.
I was amazed at how well we worked together, though looking back, I guess I shouldn’t have been. After all, we both had strong stakes in the occupation of the 19th & Telegraph lot. She is a teacher at Envision Academy at 15th and Webster, where they have had to close the school early or open late multiple times in the past weeks due to the police response to Occupy Oakland. On other days, students arrived late because of bus detours and BART closures. She did not want to see the same thing happen at OSA.
Both of us also cared a lot about OO. We had both been to many GAs and she had been tear gassed on October 25th. If I hadn’t cared about OO, I wouldn’t have bothered. But since I did, I wanted to help OO avoid a PR and neighborhood nightmare. I was sure the occupation of that lot would lead to the neighbors turning against OO, and coupled with media attention, I figured this would also turn many other Oaklanders against OO.
Friday night’s General Assembly
Around 5:30pm on Friday I started to get nervous again. I also started to feel sick again (I had been sick all week). I looked out my office window and from the 11th floor the plaza looked eerily empty. There were maybe five people in the entire plaza, fewer people than I had seen there in well over a month. I finished up what I was doing at work and headed downstairs.
A few people were milling about in the amphitheater, setting up some tents (not the kind you sleep in but the kind you stand under for shade or for protection from rain). I ran into a couple of friends and we chatted and waited as a man strummed his guitar and sang. By 6:30 a decent crowd had arrived. There were no longer concerns about having quorum (100 people), and more and more people continued to arrive. Still, with so few people there, I realized it would be next to impossible for our proposal to pass.
I sought out the rest of the proposal signers, only one of whom I had ever met, and we chatted for a bit. The proposal author who I had talked to by phone earlier in the day hadn’t arrived yet as she had pneumonia(!) and wanted to wait until the last minute to come. When she arrived, we met her on the stage and waited.
From the back of the stage, the GA looks and sounds very different than from the steps of the amphitheater, where I usually sit or stand. Everything felt more intense, but since I struggled to hear actual words, often I just heard tone. Without the human mic, the tone quickly turned negative. (As an aside, I think Friday night would have gone much differently with a human mic because with the human mic harsh tones are not conveyed as much. Also, speakers have to be succinct and think more carefully about what they say. If OO got rid of amplified sound, I think it would be incredibly helpful to the tone of the discussions at the GAs.)
Though I couldn’t hear every word, I could tell by what I heard (and what I read on Twitter) that the facilitator – the same woman who facilitated the facilitation committee earlier – was talking down to the crowd, especially to the OSA community that had turned out in force. There were also some people in the crowd shouting, which I’ve seen happen at every GA I’ve attended. But she acted as if this was new and unexpected behavior and blamed it on them not understanding how the GA works. She sounded incredibly patronizing.
After announcements and before our item came up, there were votes on whether a couple other proposals were emergency proposals (which would allow them to be heard right after ours). The discussion and voting on these seemed to take forever. Finally, maybe around 8pm, we were up.
Everything after that is a bit of a blur. Things started moving very quickly and intensely. It’s like those scenes in movies when the scene has to cover a long time frame in a relatively short amount of movie time so a snippet of someone talking flashes and then fades out to something else happening (and of course really intense music is playing). That’s how I remember the next hour or so. Certain words, phrases, tones, and looks on people’s faces stand out, but everything else melds together. It all moved too fast and too many things happened at once for me to be able to take everything in. (It didn’t help that I had barely slept the night before and I was feeling much more sick by this point, so I wasn’t nearly as focused as I usually am.)
The atmosphere got heated right away, as my co-proposer read the proposal and got booed at a couple of points. The tension ratcheted up as people came up to ostensibly ask clarifying questions, but half of them yelled at us more than questioned us. We then didn’t do a very good job answering those questions because right as we were about to start the facilitator told us we couldn’t answer anything that wasn’t specifically spelled out in the proposal (which seems odd, because then what’s the point of the questions?). That threw us off our plan and so people were rightfully disappointed that their questions weren’t answered. It didn’t help that the facilitator cut us off before our two minutes were up.
So by the time the pro and con statements started, the tension at the GA on both sides was extremely high as I think everyone was rightfully frustrated. The pro and con statements quickly devolved into us versus them statements on both sides. It was very upsetting for me because that was not the goal of any of us who brought forward the proposal. We wanted to avoid division by avoiding this media and neighborhood nightmare. We wanted to bring the neighborhood and OO together, but the exact opposite was happening.
The worst moment might have been when an OSA parent came to the stage with two OSA students. She spoke and then handed the mic to a twelve-year-old boy. He was clearly very nervous and stumbled over his phrases a bit, and several of the people in the crowd booed him. He tried to hand the mic to the girl standing next to him, but the facilitator wouldn’t let her talk because apparently she was treating the three of them as one person because they had gone up together. I’m not sure what she expected – did she want a little girl to go to the stage to speak by herself? I’ve seen children speak at many divisive public meetings, but never have I seen adults disrespect youth so thoroughly.
Unfortunately there was little we could do to prevent the divisiveness and shouting as we had zero control over the situation at that point.
The leaders of the leaderless
The one thing we did have control over was our proposal and whether it would be amended. Several people speaking against our proposal spewed vitriol at us and at the community, but pivoted and said they could vote for the proposal if we amended it to propose occupying somewhere else (Piedmont and Oscar Grant Plaza were the most popular suggestions).
It rapidly became clear that our proposal was not going to earn 90% of the GA vote if it was not amended (looking back I doubt if it would have received 90% if it had been amended, but who knows). To me it also became clear that it wouldn’t earn 70% of the vote, which is significant because if proposals receive 70% of the vote, the authors can accept friendly amendments.
Regardless of votes though, proposal authors can amend proposals anytime up until the vote. So after screaming at us and calling us outsiders and NIMBYs (and much worse) from the stage, one of the people who initially proposed occupying the 19th and Telegraph lot came over to us and told us we should amend or our proposal wouldn’t pass. He said we should propose moving to Oscar Grant Plaza. Soon after, one of the leaders of the leaderless did the same thing. She gave an impassioned speech about why we were so wrong and came over to try to convince us to propose moving to Oscar Grant Plaza. I talked to both of them calmly and listened carefully to what they said to me.
It became clear to me at that point that the leaders of the leaderless were freaking out a bit. They seemed to realize that occupying the lot at 19th and Telegraph was a bad idea. Maybe they realized the police wouldn’t let them stay there or maybe they too wanted to avoid negative press. It’s hard to say. But for whatever reasons, they desperately wanted us to get them out of their impending crisis.
We (the proposal makers) huddled and talked about strategy. I argued that it made no sense for us to suggest where to occupy next when our main criticism was that due diligence had not been done in selecting the 19th and Telegraph location. We were totally unwilling to make the same mistake. Also, none of us had camped with Occupy so it seemed totally inappropriate for us to decide where they should camp (or if they should camp), even if the leaders of the leaderless had already decided and were trying to use us as their pawns in this elaborate game. So we agreed that we would not amend the proposal. If the proposal earned 70% of the vote, we would entertain friendly amendments from the GA and then the leaders of the leaderless could propose a location to occupy.
After hearing twenty speakers yell about our proposal (either in support or against it), the relative quiet of the voting process was very calming. We watched as whole groups of about 20 raised their thumbs and other whole groups turned their thumbs down. Mostly, people supporting and opposing the proposal were not mixing. We formed a small group of the proposal makers, and a woman who opposed the proposal joined us. We welcomed her and introduced ourselves.
A couple of minutes before announcing the vote to the GA, the facilitator told us that our proposal had only received 57% of the vote. Then, one of the authors of the proposal to occupy 19th & Telegraph – the same guy who had talked to us earlier – came over and said he would support allowing amendments even though we hadn’t reached the 70% threshold. We said we were fine with that if the GA approved it (it seemed very unlikely though). The facilitator then approached us and said the same thing.
She announced the vote and many people cheered. (Maybe some people booed too? It’s hard to say – by that time my feet and hands were freezing and I wanted to be in bed.) She then announced that the proposers – both of Wednesday night’s proposal and the one to rescind that vote – were open to taking amendments even though the 70% vote threshold had not been met.
Many people booed loudly and yelled angrily at her. She quickly backed down, realizing that this last-ditch effort to prevent the occupation of 19th and Telegraph had failed.
But it wasn’t the final effort!
After the vote I stood and chatted with the rest of our group. We all thanked each other and a couple of us stuck around to see what happened next. A guy came up to us with a proposal scribbled on a yellow sheet of paper proposing to occupy Oscar Grant Plaza instead. The proposal was one or maybe two sentences long. Two of the people I was talking to signed on and he submitted it as an emergency proposal.
At the time, I shrugged it off as an oddity of OO, but looking back, it pisses me off, as there’s no way we could have just showed up at the GA with a scribbled proposal and got it on the agenda. But the leaders of the leaderless really wanted to change occupation plans, so they were readily willing to bend all of their own rules.
I stuck around for a bit longer, through the next proposal, but left before the OGP occupation emergency proposal came up for a vote. I saw on Twitter later that night that the emergency proposal vote had failed. In less than 24 hours, OO would occupy the lot at 19th and Telegraph, and in less than 48 hours, OPD would force them to leave the lot.
I left the GA feeling pretty disheartened, thoroughly disillusioned, and a bit angry. I was not at all surprised that our proposal had failed. I think there were maybe only a few minutes mid-day on Friday when I believed that maybe it could pass. Our proposal’s failure was not the reason I was in such a bad mood.
Before Friday I had experienced the GAs from the back of the amphitheater. While I didn’t always agree with what people said or the outcomes of votes, I greatly appreciated the process (and absolutely loved the human mic). From the stage, I saw that so much of the process is for show. The leaders of the leaderless wield a huge amount of power over the process and decision-making.
But I also saw that power slipping away from them. They tried desperately to manipulate the GA into not occupying 19th and Telegraph, while simultaneously publicly railing against our proposals and us as individuals. They probably felt they had to do this because if they had just supported our proposal, they would have lost respect from many OO participants. Ultimately, their strategy failed.
I saw that many in OO saw OO as the most important thing happening in Oakland. They self-righteously seemed to feel that OO is so important that any harm they cause to Oakland residents or local businesses is well worth it. Some of them don’t seem to take the concerns of other Oakland communities into account at all. As someone who loves Oakland, our neighborhoods, and our businesses, I cannot support or even really understand that attitude.
That evening I tweeted that I was done with the current incarnation of OO. After sleeping on it (for 10 hours!), I tweeted again that I was done with participating in OO. I didn’t go to the GA last night or tonight and don’t plan to go anytime soon. I refuse to be part of a process that is manipulative or a movement that is so self-righteous that it totally neglects the concerns of the larger Oakland community.
I do not know where OO is headed. There are many distressing signs, some of which I haven’t even touched on here, but OO still holds positive possibilities. OO has brought many people together and energized Oaklanders who have participated. Some of these people are now taking autonomous actions outside of the GA. I hope this energy will continue, whether outside or inside of OO.
As for me, I’ll be watching and talking to people about their ideas for OO. But until it heads in a more positive, productive, and inclusive direction, I’ll enjoy my break from something that has thoroughly consumed me for the past month.
Previous Occupy Oakland blog posts:
- 11/18/11: Occupy Oakland plans to occupy lot and park at 19th & Telegraph… unless the vote is rescinded
- 11/9/11: Occupy Oakland: Hours have no reverse motion
- 11/2/11: Oakland General Strike: Support local, independent businesses
- 11/1/11: From spectator to participant: How the last week changed my relationship with Occupy Oakland
- 10/25/11: Occupy Oakland raided & dismantled by police this morning