Posts Tagged ‘Oakland’

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Fed by the 3000: An Experience of Occupy Oakland

October 28, 2011

by Phil Porter

I am 58, white, gay, a property owner and resident near downtown Oakland, somewhere in the middle on the income scale (and have more than one job to be in that position), President of the Koreatown Northgate Community Benefit District Board of Directors, Minister of Art & Communication at First Congregational Church of Berkeley, political and theologically progressive but not radical, inclined toward art rather than politics, co-director of a non-profit organization, grew up in Indiana and claim my Midwest roots, am the adult child of normal parents, am responsible to a fault, a Pisces, an introvert…

Occupy Oakland General AssemblyThis is all to put into some sort of context what I am about to report. You can interpret as you well, but it seemed important to “place” myself a bit before I share what I witnessed.

I went downtown on Wednesday, October 26, the night after the police broke up an Occupy Oakland rally with tear gas, to “check out the scene.” I had heard there was to be a “General Assembly” at 6 pm. I wasn’t sure what that was, but assumed that it had something to do with the way that the movement was being conducted.

What I witnessed was nothing short of incredible. I expected to stay for a half hour but didn’t leave for three hours.

A huge crowd of people gathered in the amphitheater next to City Hall. I’m not good at estimating but some were saying 3000. There were a few “facilitators” with a small microphone system. The meeting began with people having a chance to speak for a minute or two about anything. They shared experiences about the night before and the encampment in general. Some railed against the police’s actions the night before, others claimed the police as part of the “99%”. The crowd was respectful and caring and excited to be back together in force.

And then they began a “resolution” process based on a modified consensus process (they seek 90% agreement.) Although I can’t quite capture the whole process, let me share some of my own experience of it.

The group was using the “human mike” technique where the speaker at the microphone says a few words and then the whole crowd repeats it so that those at the edge of the space can hear what is said. Sometimes it is repeated in two waves. If you haven’t been in a large group doing this, you should try to get a chance to experience it. Besides the amplification of the speech, it takes on the powerful quality of “litany”, of the back and forth of speaking and listening. It was creates engagement and a sense of solidarity with the whole group. At one point those at the microphone asked the people near in to turn around so that they were actually speaking outward in the circle. From where I was sitting on the amphitheater steps, suddenly there were then a whole group of people sitting in the middle of the space facing me, speaking the words coming from the microphone right toward me.

The commitment to inclusion in decision-making was extraordinary. After the first resolution was presented (to call for a General Strike on November 2) and clarifying questions were asked, folks were invited to gather in groups of 20 to discuss the resolution. And we actually did. Mind you, at this point it is dark, with mostly just a few street and building lights, the flash of cameras and the glow of cell phones. The crowd is still huge. We could barely see each other but we gathered and talked. The comments were insightful, considered, serious and thoughtful. I don’t say this to suggest that it was surprising to me, but rather to emphasize that this was the tone I perceived in the whole crowd. Folks may have been impassioned, but they were also calm, considerate and committed to the conversation. And even as the time passed (and I must say, this process is a slow one) people stayed with it and were exceedingly patient. Remember, the crowd has not diminished over the course of the evening, perhaps it has even grown.

The process of discussion and debate put our national political process to shame. They (we) listened to each other, were genuinely committed to finding the right common decision and stayed with the process for a long time, even in this huge crowd in the dark, with relatively little previous “coming together,” even without a direct connection to the folks way on the other side of the crowd or even being able to clearly see who was speaking.

I did finally leave at about 9 pm before this resolution was voted on (I read online that it passed with a 96% vote from almost 2,000 people.) I found myself worrying about how the evening would end when the legal time for gathering would pass, but as I walked home I saw no police presence at all, other than the helicopters that circled overhead. I haven’t heard or read anything about what happened so I assume it ended peacefully.

And this is the another important point: the media will cover the drama and the clashes but they probably won’t report that real news: the 3,000 people gathered in the dark committed to working together to make some decisions for their own good, for the good of others, the country and the world.

I went because it is one of my practices to try to witness first-hand events that I’m not sure I can trust the media to report accurately, especially when it happens in Oakland. Because of who I am in my communities (and some of the qualities I listed at the beginning), I think people will trust what I am reporting, even as my reflections are shaped by my “place” in the world.

I left, though, as something more than an observer. I sat in that crowd for three hours on the cold, hard steps of the amphitheater. I was surrounded by voices chanting back the words of the speakers, I joined in a discussion circle. In the dark, in a crowd that stretched in all directions around me.