Eyewitness Account of Occupy Oakland General Assembly

Last night I went to Occupy Oakland’s “general assembly” to learn about the deliberative process that has developed there. I found it very encouraging, at least when viewed on a sort of wide-angle and “meta” level.

To set the scene: for most of , helicopters were hovering over the U.C. Berkeley campus, where students organized an “occupy” event of their own, started to settle an encampment, and held their ground nonviolently while being attacked by brutal riot police. Oakland’s mayor, members of the Oakland City Council, and representatives of the business community all issued statements to the effect that Occupy Oakland would no longer be tolerated. The city cut water and electricity to the plaza where Occupy Oakland is encamped. There was widespread anticipation of another police raid.

After the “general strike” and Port of Oakland blockade , a group of Occupiers tried to take over a vacant building near the encampment. Anticipating a police raid, they set up burning barricades and smashed bricks to create makeshift projectiles. Earlier, the general assembly of Occupy Oakland had approved a resolution encouraging the occupation of abandoned and foreclosed properties, which read in part: “We commit to providing political and material support to neighborhood reclamations, and supporting them in the face of eviction threats or police harassment. In solidarity with the global occupation movement, we encourage the transformation of abandoned spaces into resource centers toward meeting urgent community needs that the current economic system cannot and will not provide” — and the people who carried out this building takeover and its attempted defense presumably felt themselves to be acting within that mandate.

Some other people affiliated with the Occupy Oakland movement graffitied buildings, smashed windows of businesses, and physically threatened people who tried to get in their way.

Acts of vandalism and violence such as these do not seem to be supported by most of the Occupiers. Most would seem to prefer to stick to nonviolent resistance tactics, and to see the use of vandalism and violence as counterproductive and unhelpfully codependent with police violence. However, the people advocating a nonviolent approach have not figured out a way to use nonviolent tactics to successfully discourage violent ones, and so the violent tactics have come to dominate the media coverage and public image of the movement.

Many people in the Occupy movement consider nonviolence to be a sort of unilateral disarmament that leaves the tools of violent coercion (which they believe to be potentially strong and effective tools) in the hands of their opponents. They consider attempts to enforce nonviolent discipline to be effectively collaboration with the government in its attempts to suppress what is threatening to it about Occupy Oakland. Nonviolence, to them, is a compromise made by the squeamish or the superstitiously pacifist in a misguided attempt to conciliate the powerful — not a strong tool that can be used to wield power.

This is something that every successful nonviolent resistance campaign has had to deal with. They have all faced challenges from people who are sympathetic with their aims but skeptical of their means, impatient, and eager to tap their righteous rage to pay back some of the violence they have been receiving.

The best way for a nonviolent resistance campaign to cope with this challenge is to demonstrate results: to show that they’re every bit as committed and no less eager to put skin in the game and take risks, and to demonstrate that bold goals can best be reached by means of nonviolent action. Gandhi did not become commander-in-chief of the Indian resistance by making speeches about how everybody ought to be nice to one other. He had to convincingly demonstrate to skeptical members of the resistance why his methods ought to be given a chance to succeed in place of the tactics of a more traditional and intuitive violent revolution.

But some folks at Occupy Oakland hoped that there might be a short-cut: They could vote their way out of the problem, demonstrating by a show of hands of those in the general assembly that this was meant to be a nonviolent occupation and that violent tactics were an unwelcome invasion.

To this end, two resolutions were proposed for ’s general assembly. The second of these, which would have declared that “those who lauch physical attacks on people or property are not welcome to do so at or near Occupy Oakland events and encampment,” was withdrawn at the last minute, with its promoters saying they plan to reintroduce it at a future assembly. The other resolution was vague, urging “individuals employing Black Bloc tactics” (shorthand for vandalism & violence) “to use self-restraint and forethought” and “not to destroy local businesses,” while encouraging people using non-violent tactics “to continue to do so.”

The vague and non-committal wording of this resolution did not serve it well; only 15% of the 800+ people who voted on the resolution approved of it (the general assembly operates on a supermajority voting system, where resolutions approved by at least 90% of the votes of those assembled are considered to have passed and to represent the opinion of the assembly as a body).

A third proposal, calling on Occupy Oakland to march on and occupy a particular but unspecified building, also failed — the promoters of that resolution hoped to stay anonymous and so presented it via a proxy who was unable to answer even the most elemental questions about it (which building? do we have the keys or do we have to break in? who owns it? what is its capacity? what facilities does it contain?).

Be all that as it may, what I found encouraging about the general assembly (the first I’d been to), had nothing to do with any of the specific items on the agenda.

The process that has developed and is developing — to keep the encampment running, to encourage participation, to share information, and to deliberate — is working. Hundreds of people, with differing perspectives and ways of engaging, and with extreme variations in political outlook, come together enthusiastically and patiently to share their perspectives and to make decisions and to get things done. It is like a real-world incarnation of the platonic ideal of “politics” meant as the careful deliberation of the polis — so different from “politics” as we usually use the term. And it is “radically inclusive” just like they say: participatory, grass-roots, egalitarian, and non-authoritarian. The facilitators are skillful, careful, and non-factional.

Whatever happens to Occupy Oakland itself — whether it succumbs to repression, internal division, winter weather, or short attention spans or whether it grows into a larger movement to occupy buildings, bring down banks, or launch a violent or nonviolent revolution — the people who are participating in this encampment and guiding its development and its innovations in organization will be empowered by their experiences to seed and nourish future grassroots movements by bringing along what they have learned.