On Oct 15th Occupy Toronto will kick off its occupation of the city’s financial district. Are they prepared? That’s the question many have been asking since the group’s first general assembly meeting on Oct 7th, demonstrated the challenge of turning an idealistic vision into coherent action.
Held at Berczy Park, the meeting drew some 250 people with wide ranging political views, both first-timers as well as seasoned activists including anarchists, communists, environmentalists and zeitgeist. They united by shared frustration with growing inequality, austerity, corporate cronyism, and a lack of control over their world.
“What are people waking up too? We are waking up to a world where all young people and working class people have no future,” said Fightback member Farshad Azadian, to applause from the gathered assembly. “The conditions for our people are getting worse and worse, while bankers, industrialists are making huge amounts of profit and getting government hands outs, tax breaks, and bail outs. What we are saying is we’re not having it. That’s what the occupy movement is about.”
The group chose to forgo creating a concrete list of demands and grievances. As one woman told the crowd, the success of the Occupy movement can be attributed in part to not being restricted by concrete demands or specific ideologies. She said, “People who are not already part of the left infrastructure have felt ownership of what is going on and have been a part of it. We cannot try to control each other because then everyone leaves.”
But while a lack of concrete objectives may benefit Occupy Toronto by making it more inclusive, its lack of a clearly defined decision-making process seems to have the opposite effect.
“The biggest problem we have online and in real life is our organizational methods suck,” said a participant who identified himself only as Dan. “We are all trying to organize each other and there are demands going in every sort of direction. We need to streamline things.”
A small group of facilitators has taken on the majority of the movement’s responsibilities, maintaining the Occupy Toronto website, planning for the upcoming protest, and organizing meetings. But the facilitators insist they do not actually lead the group, and at Fridays meeting seemed committed to adopting the same non-hierarchical system of direct democracy, known as people’s assemblies, used by their Occupy Wall St counterparts. Facilitators also seemed determined to allow only decisions reached through 100% consensus, claiming that is the practice of the Occupy Wall St. people’s assembly. (This has been disputed by some involved in the New York movement, who say 90% consensus has been their goal.)
According to Take the Square, a people’s assembly is, “a participatory decision-making body which works towards consensus. The Assembly looks for the best arguments to take a decision that reflects every opinion – not positions at odds with each other as what happens when votes are taken.”
While many at Friday's meeting appeared to support the adoption of a people’s assembly process in principle, participants were unable to reach unanimous agreement on how that assembly would make decisions. This left many feeling that the process had been forced on them by facilitators. "Consensus is not the facilitator saying, ‘I think we have a consensus on this,’" said one member of the crowd.
Megan Kinch, a Toronto activist experienced in using consensus, believes it may not be practical or possible for Occupy Toronto to seek 100% consensus around every decision. In a recent blog post, Kinch writes that, “There are well known theoretical problems with using 100% consensus in open groups -- it's impossible, especially when anyone opposes the groups objective, or if anyone is trying to impose their own agenda on the group.”
Those theoretical problems became actual when, after four hours of often chaotic debate, the group had still not achieved basic decisions such as a location for planned Oct 15th protest. “We need to push for voting in these assemblies, we need to push for elected facilitators who are recallable by the meeting if necessary, we need to push for an actual consensus or voting process that can actually work, not one that claims unity where it doesn't exist,” suggests Kinch in her blog.
Undiscouraged by these hurdles, many participants remain positive, saying it is natural for a people’s assembly to be a little chaotic and messy in the beginning. “It’s taking the first step, you’ve got to start somewhere,” said one participant who asked to be identified only as a Jane and Finch resident, “In society in general, people don’t get their voices heard, they don’t get to play a role in making choices that affect them. This is a chance to do the opposite, to be truly democratic.”
A second Occupy Toronto general assembly meeting is scheduled for October 13th, two days before protests are set to begin.