No Consensus On Occupy Toronto

Oct 10, 2011

No Consensus On Occupy Toronto

(this is an opinion piece originally posted on my blog)

I've been really excited about the 'occupy' movement and have been watching it develop. Like many others on the 'existing left', I was one of those who argued to give it space, let it grow.  And I went to the meeting on Friday to see how I can help and how the organization I'm with can maybe contribute to this process. I left the meeting with very grave concerns about democracy and the development of a culture of coercive agreement in the name of consensus.  

The meeting started off on a bad foot as about 250 people gathered in a park at Front and Church.  Thomas Zaugg, who seemed to be some kind of coordinator despite not owning his leadership, made the announcement that we weren't going to be discussing politics, and also that he'd spoken to 52 division the day before.  The meeting erupted in consternation- if there is one thing the assembled crowd did not have an agreement on it was the cops, the black bloc, violence etc. Many people questioned what gave him the authority to speak with cops on the behalf of the group.  He did eventually apologize for acting on behalf of the group without its permission.

However, I've recently heard that not only did he speak to police but also to CSIS, and that he knew there was a CSIS officer present at the meeting. He did not inform the meeting of this fact. I find this very disturbing. While its good activist practice to assume that there are police at any open event (or non-open even for that matter), many people at the meeting are new and won't make that assumption, so it needs to be announced, especially if there is positive information that there is CSIS at the meeting. This is not keeping in mind the safety of those assembled and people's rights to make their own decision about the level of risk they want to be exposed to.

There were clear leaders who had been organizing with the ‘occupy ‘ on the internet, but some of them didn’t announce themselves and seemed to think we would already know who they were 'from the internet'.  The woman who ended up doing most of the facilitating was from the Peoples Assembly, a group I really respect and have worked with before, and written about. But it was very strange. For one, consensus was imposed. Democracy was derided as anti-participatory, and indeed in democracy the 51% can override the 49%. But what happened in the meeting was that a few facilitators ended up making all the decisions, which is much less democratic than 50% voting, let along true consensus. There was no consensus on using consensus. But there was also no consensus on voting, as I found when i tried to propose a motion.

I tried to intervene, I was on the speakers list, and when it was my turn, I called for a vote on whether we would use consensus of voting.   I said that I love consensus, that I am a student of it, that I have used it many times. But you cannot use consensus in an open and porous group, because not everyone is invested in the process. I said that that the decision on using consensus of not has to be made by the group, not by the facilitators, and that we should vote and/or come to consensus on it.  I started with a 50% voting proposal, but I accepted as a friendly amendment a motion for 80% to pass.  There was no consensus. I'd say about 30 to 40 percent was for voting, with about 30 to 40% totally opposed to voting and for 'consensus' and totally against voting . What do you do in that situation?

My call for a vote/consensus on how to make decisions was shouted down, and I was called out for being 'oppressive' because I was yelling, even though I was on the speakers list and every person who'd spoken had yelled as we hadn't started using 'the people's mic'. Other people tried to make similar points. One activist from the crowd put it succinctly: "Consensus is not the facilitator saying "i think we have a consensus on this" she said. 

The main facilitator tried to argue that you couldn't have voting in a People's Assembly, that there are assemblies around the world and they don't have voting in any of them. Which is not true- yes they try to work towards consensus but there is voting and vibe checking and straw polls in assemblies. I spoke to someone from New York and apparently they are using 90% percent consensus including voting in New York. Also, she argued that we should learn from indigenous people who have used consensus.  I agree, we should. But that doesn't mean appropriating some kind of idea of consensus where everyone just agrees on things and steamrollers past any opposition- that is the opposite of actual consensus as used by indigenous peoples, or people who have been practicing consensus for a long time.

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.  This is a strange kind of appropriation which consensus = 'unity' imposed by whoever is running the thing, which can be the very opposite of what consensus is. 

And that was exactly what was happening. The facilitators ignored the crowd almost completely when they went a direction they didn't like.

Several people spoke up and said that we needed to talk about goals, and that things like location would be determined by goals. The crowd really liked that and another man spoke about the same thing. But goals were not talked about and the meeting went on.

There were pretty much no motions. The decisions on where to locate the protest was somehow deferred to some kind of secret committee, so the cops wouldn't find out the location ahead of time. (given the security culture displayed so far by this group, I suspect the police will know the location well before I do). The question of non-violence was not agreed on. It was agreed that no one would talk further to police or issue media statements. Eventually a decision was made to adapt a People's Assembly procedure that they already had, but was approved with the proviso that consensus vs. voting be left to a later date. However, no one was taking notes or anything, so I don't think anyone will remember that.

There has been a lot of criticism about how this movement claims to be the 99%, but does not really represent people of colour or indigenous people. The meeting I attended last night was even worse than that, as it didn't even represent the people who were physically at the meeting.  It seems like at least half the people left extremely frustrated. I think if you were there too you would have grave, grave problems with process. Consensus is supposed to be MORE democratic than 50% not 'the facilitator deciding on everything. 

More disturbing was the fact that many people there were against 'divisive politics'  which apparently includes trying to open a debate on how to make decisions.  In the name of anti-oppression, I was shouted down for 'shouting' in a meeting where everyone had to shout because the noise level was too high. How does this make any sense?

There are really good people in this meeting, there are good people on the organizing committee, and I know that the facilitators had good intentions. But good intentions are not enough. If we don't get actual participatory decision-making, this movement will become very dangerous. It’s not enough to wait, the structures we make now will ossify and get harder and harder to overthrow.

The left needs to participate in this process and 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. 

A full video on the meeting is available here.

update: a video has been circulating online in which Zaugg, representing the "People's Political Party" speaks in favour of banning public sector unions