- One hundred protesters picked to live in a park and stand in the rain for three hours without making a decision.
If you've never been, the General Assembly meets every evening at 6:30 p.m. and makes all final decisions for the "collective." It operates on a system akin to Robert's Rules if Robert had, say, just ingested a pound of ecstasy.
When one person speaks, everyone in the audience repeats it (a process called the people's microphone). This electricity-free amplifier is legal without a permit and keeps you engaged because you say everything that every speakers says, and you wind up digesting the ideas. But the call-and-response makes for slow going. When you agree with a speaker you "twinkle" your fingers (upwards jazz hands); when you disagree, you de-twinkle (downward jazz hands). You eventually vote on proposals, but there is much blocking, revoting, and calls for clarity of process.
And there's no promise that a proposal passes—even after the assembly rolls on for hours.
Obviously, moving the base camp would be a fundamental shift in tactics in Seattle. Our Occupation has held its ground for three weeks—surrounded by banks and chain stores, despite police harassment and bad weather—because many protesters argue that a move would result in atrophy and defeat. Others contend they must migrate off the granite tundra of Westlake to a more hospitable encampment each night to sustain their movement.
I should add here that The Stranger has also been criticized for publishing complaints about anti-authority, anarchist factions of the movement and glossing over the good. That is, failing to report on the democratic process and the logistical orchestration that makes the international revolution possible.
So I went down last night to participate with 150 other folks, repeat what people said, and wiggle my fingers.
"We've been lucky so far that there hasn't been rain at the General Assembly," said Phil, a rather optimistic fellow, as he sits down to take minutes on his laptop. And then we begin: Our first 20 minutes is devoted to the people who have been camping overnight in the park—a slim but appreciated minority who keep the proverbial flame burning despite the city's ban on overnight camping. Each night, cops continue to shine lights at the demonstrators but demonstrators have begun retaliating by shining flashlights back at the police. "The police often turn off their lights," one man says. "The police often turn off their lights," we all repeat. "After persistent light warfare," he concludes. "After persistent light warfare," we conclude.
There is much twinkling.
Twenty minutes after we start, announcements commence: A coalition of work groups—the logistical doers and strategic leaders of Occupy Seattle, representing safety, communications, tactical, food, etc.—have a joint statement to make. They are researching alternative locations for overnight base camps. (Then there's a protracted dispute as to whether it was really a joint statement or not. We finally move on.) Justin from the Demands group announces that his group is still working on its first demand—that the city move its money out of major banks—but he repeats several times that this demand "isn't for sure" and they are only "thinking of making a proposal."
But some teams are more decisive. As we repeat things and twinkle, many folks are skipping the meeting, off making food, shuttling provisions to the protest, or doing something else. As they quietly work, someone in the General Assembly proposes "Occupy Halloween," where people are encouraged to come downtown on Saturday dressed as corrupt bankers, corporate zombies, or Captain Credit Union. This is fun, mediagenic, and on-message. There are hoots, hollers, and twinkles galore.
It begins to rain. Phil is now holding an umbrella as he types.
Forty-five minutes after we've begun, we get to the exciting part: proposals. But the first proposal is the subject of much detwinkling. It would require the group to keep the name "Occupy Seattle"—i.e., a proposal to maintain the status quo—unless the general assembly votes unanimously at a future regular meeting to change it. The group, after much deliberation, rejects the proposal.
It is still raining.
I mean, it's really raining.
A man is suddenly circulating with a huge sack of umbrellas. Soon there is another man distributing thin ponchos. We all appear to be wearing giant condoms. It's 8:30 p.m.—an hour and a half after the General Assembly began—and at long last we reach the proposal about moving the encampment to Seattle Central Community College, located about one mile east of Westlake Park. Many Occupiers believe police would need the college's permission to evict them, making it more secure than Westlake. But alas, college president Dr. Paul Killpatrick reportedly opposes an occupation of his college.
"He does not support us because he supports the one percent!" someone declares. Still, we vote and a majority support the move.
But then someone blocks the vote. It's raining harder. The crowd is thinning. Deliberations continue. We must vote again.
After a block, the assembly must vote by a four-fifths majority, or 80 percent. We vote and it's 89-24, which is only 79 percent. The move is called off. It's 9:40 p.m., more than three hours after we began. The last measure before the group—a proposal to move to Cal Anderson Park—has been tabled. The crowd has thinned to about 40 people. We have spent three hours and five minutes without making a decision.
But something lovely has happened. Soup! Volunteers are ladling it out of a pot into cups. These tactical groups—the ones that can make decisions about Halloween demonstrations, distribute rain gear, shuttle provisions, make soup, etc.—are efficient and incredible. But at the assembly, it seems that many of the most articulate, smart people are the advocates and defenders of the process. A process so slow and cumbersome that it is, in a way, a liability.
That said, this process has one incredible benefit: This cannot become a cult, enthralled to one charismatic leader with a bullhorn.
The anarchists and agitators that we've heard about—people driven by an anti-cop agenda—were silent or absent at the assembly. That said, plenty of people I spoke to were concerned by the persistent division between organizers looking for sustainable occupation and anti-authority types seeking dramatic displays. But there was hardly partisanship at the assembly. Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien says he sat in one an assembly last week and people were calm and thoughtful. "I'd love to see that energy carry on and for more people to get engaged," he says.