Analysis of the drafting “Declaration of Occupy Portland”

From Portland Occupier. Dec 31st, 2011.

The Declaration of Occupy Portland

by Adam Rothstein

I have seen a vision of the end of Occupy Portland. It looks like a meeting with no actionable agenda, no notes, and no plan for a follow-up meeting. It is organized–maybe–on Facebook alone. And it will have the phrases “ninety-nine percent”, “unity”, and “positive” repeated upwards of twenty times each.

It looked a lot like the Convention for the Declaration of Occupy Portland, held at the Mission Theater on the night of Sunday, December 19th. If I thought for a second that this meeting was all there was to the Occupation, I might have been convinced that this was the end. Thankfully, I know better. But if you want to quantify the distance between this event and a consensus GA after shutting down the city on a Tuesday afternoon in October, it would be measured in miles.

Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, to have a informal meeting on a Sunday night while drinking beer and eating pizza. There are plenty of people who aren’t cut out for facing off riot police in order to defend their rights to use public parks. These people were out in full on Sunday night, to a number of perhaps more than eighty people. They are people who should be talking calmly, and writing statements, and hashing out the general language in which this movement ought to talk to others like who aren’t ready to take the fight to the streets, or maneuver the GA process. But if this was all there was to the Occupation, I might rename it. Another word, that rhymes with Occupation.

I don’t want to write an entire essay trashing what I saw on Sunday evening. But I do want to move on from this. We need to circumvent bad process from taking place, and we need to keep ourselves from thinking that bad process counts as progress. So, let me tell you how it all went down.

As the meeting begins, we hear some words from Owen, who, according to http://thedeclarationofoccupyportland.com/, wrote the first draft, which we will never see all night. Then a woman named Trudy is introduced, who will be the only facilitator for the evening. She is apparently a mediator for some business something or other, that I didn’t quite catch. And then her agenda, which she made all by herself, graces the screen.

To recap: in the first five minutes, we have been welcomed by some unknown entity, had a single person take control of the entire meeting, and were told what we are going to be talking about for the entirety of the meeting. Anyone who has been to a single GA can tell you that this is not the way a GA is run. This is not just because of “process”. This is because such a format is insulting to the viewer. Why am I here, if you are running the meeting? Why didn’t I just fill out a questionnaire? Who are these people, in this space, and what are we here to do? I’d never met Trudy before that night. From those few hours, I have no reason to believe she is anything other than an intelligent competent person. But she is one person, and there were eighty in the room. She faced us, and told us what we would talk about. And we stood there and listened.

Her agenda was formed from six questions, each one divided into diametrically opposing views from which we were allowed to choose which of the two we agreed with. These questions, we were told, we drawn up by Trudy, from “the discussion on Facebook” about the first draft of the declaration. I took her word for it, as discussions on Facebook can only be seen by those with a login to Facebook, and there was no mention on the regular website of any sort of discussion.

But all the same, I found it bizarre that the first question on her agenda was “Should we have a declaration for Occupy Portland?” if the discussion was really about the first draft. We were not here to discuss the draft, but discuss the concept of the draft: which neither the web site nor meeting announcement had prepared me for. The first draft itself formed the vast majority of the public website. Reading it before I attended the meeting, I found an oddly-written draft full of standard tropes and emphasized-via-capital-letters phrases that might have been pulled off of the most common of corrugated protest signs. You know the kind. It wields the threat of the 1% as if it were a group of as solid conspiracy as the illuminati (we used to call it “class analysis”, but no need to think to deeply about such things); it refers to things like “greedy profit” (as if it were a sub-species); coins some bizarrely formulated “New Liberty” (opposed to the old?); and is signed by both “Occupy America and the 99%”, the emphasis and confusion as to the difference both being mine.

I was there as a reporter, however. So I was comfortable to sit back and watch where all of this was going. After reading off the rest of the agenda list, each another question formulated into to negating oppositions (I won’t bother to mention the rest because we never even got past the first one by the time the three hours of the meeting had slowly drained away) Trudy asked people to raise their hands to see which they agreed with. “Hang on,” asked the audience. Why were they being asked to agree already? What was the threshold for voting? I thought they said there would be no voting here tonight? Trudy explained to us what we were supposed to do. We were wrong: she was going to divide the room based on which opposing formulation of the question people already agreed with. Then, people could talk with people they already agreed with about why they agreed. Afterwards, we would come back and talk about it. No one disagreed with talking about it. There couldn’t be any harm in that.

So, after pointing out loose areas of the room where all twelve separate oppositional answers would meet to discuss their similar views, we were all released from our attentive rapture to go and find our fellows. But where was it we were going again? It might have been easier if a woman who seemed to be part of the group or committee that had organized this event (I assumed she was an organizer of some kind, because she was allowed to stand up and interrupt Trudy with impunity, unlike other people) hadn’t kept trying to explain Trudy’s intention during the explanation, by offering contradictory interpretations. We milled about, voicing confusion. Were we on the first question? Yes, the first question. Where do we go? A is over here, B is over there. Which one is agree? Agree with what? Agree with yes, or agree with no? What side? Luckily, I had noticed to begin with that the B answers to the six questions were all the “right” answers–as in, they were the reformist, unifying, general declaration making answers, whereas the A were divisive, “radical”, and generally argumentative, protest-for-protest-sake answers. That made it easy to remind what side I was supposed to be on.

So I got up and went over to my side of the room. From what I could tell, the “radical” side was composed of two tables, balanced by ten tables or so on the other side. This distribution made perfect sense to me. After all, if you were opposed to the creation of a declaration of Occupy Portland, whatever would inspire you to waste your time coming to a meeting about helping to form a declaration of Occupy Portland? Not wanting to harp on irony that evening, I decide to keep my observation to myself, and listened to my fellow dissenters.

There were six people at the table, including myself. Two of them, they announced, were actually for the declaration, but decided to sit with us to see what we had to say. No pressure at all, of course. The other dissenting table was quite larger, but had publicly identified themselves as The Radical Caucus. They were busily handing out a flyer listing their objections to Owen’s draft (eight objections on the flyer, strangely beginning at number ten?) that ran the gamut from criticism of representative politics and capitalist power structures, to claims of American-centrism, to calling out historical privilege. Clearly, they had done their homework, unlike some of the other attendees to the meeting; I was not well prepared myself, being no Facebook user.

A woman at my table named Lataya did most of the talking. She articulated that a declaration was far too formal a statement for a movement that needed to be fluid and encompass many people. She said that creating a declaration would create more disagreements than it would solve. She thought that if we wanted to make a statement, that was fine, but a “declaration” was not the sort of document that fit a movement like Occupy Portland. Lataya and the two guys who were for the declaration discussed this for awhile, and it even seemed like they might be agreeing with her. Another woman at the table named Ashlynn was completely silent until the end of the discussion period, but I thought she but it more succinctly and better phrased than anyone else the entire night: “Why are we trying to put all of Occupy Portland on one piece of paper?”

Trudy called us back together, and asked that one representative from each table read off their ideas to the entire group. She wrote some notes onto a large piece of paper on an easel, that was turned directly towards the pro-declaration side of the room–though she did redirect it once she noticed that it was faced that way.

When it was Lataya’s turn to speak for our table, Trudy missed her first few points because she was busy attempting to tack one of the previous big pieces of paper to the wall. But it didn’t really seem to matter, because taken down so quickly, the notes were fixated on very big picture ideas, that were near meaningless anyway. Such things like “unity”, “universal message”, “definition”, “clarification”, “generality”, and “specificity”. The sort of things that totally sound good, but any person would be hard pressed to say exactly what that meant, without beginning to contradict the general nice-sounding big-pictureness that led to these terms being written down.

The group lurched out of this airing of generalities into haphazard discussion, with no stack being taken, and people just speaking whenever they felt like it. For the most part, it was pretty civil, and was a fine way to while away an evening, with people speaking about what was important to them, and what they felt was most important to Occupy Portland, and what they thought everyone else thought was most important to them about Occupy Portland… or something. I would tell you the specifics, but no one was taking notes.

The highpoint of the evening was when Lataya and another woman from our table, Beth, occupied the conversation for a moment to suggest ways in which the two opposing sides could, just possibly, come to some sort of agreement–almost what one might call a “consensus”. I felt a small burst of pride for our table. But it passed, as someone else stood up and told everyone what the 99% really wanted for us, and my moment of clarity was scattered.

At the end of the evening, I tried to find Owen to ask him some questions about who exactly had organized the event, and whether the “summary” that Trudy promised in closing to draw from her scattered notes on the large paper would be posted on a place that was not Facebook. However, he disappeared half an hour before the event finished, after spending most of the event in the corner, chatting with a few people, including Reid Jackson (who was making a surprise appearance at this event, as he is still alleged to have, with a few others, stolen or lost several thousand dollars of Occupation money). Instead, I asked Trudy. She told me that she was from the Visions Committee of Occupy Portland, and they had decided to help “support” Owen’s efforts with the declaration. Although she seemed confused when I explained that only people who log in to Facebook are able to view it, she did say she would post her “summary” on the declaration web site on the real Internet, though as of this writing, it is still not up.

Other than snide remarks, what is there to say about this event? I feel that enough has been said about the declaration to last a lifetime, and I sincerely hope it is laid to rest in this half-germinated, half-aborted state, when the most concerted efforts have resulted in no more than a draft, and a long discussion about whether or not that draft ought to have been written.

But the meeting, on the other hand: I desperately wish it could have gone better. I want nothing but the best, the most efficient, the most productive, and the most engaging meetings for Occupy Portland. It sincerely distresses me that so many people would have come together for what, for them, was a very important topic, and none of the organizers would even have bothered to do so much as to take notes about what was said. Trudy made a fine effort, but she was just one person facilitating a meeting of eighty people. What sort of vision is that for Occupy Portland? For people’s political futures, separate from any movement? How could we ever make a declaration, if we can’t even hold a useful meeting about it? The tenor of a discussion is not an accident. The positive effect of a meeting is not beholden to the topic discussed, but the way that the meeting is planned and facilitated.

It would be to easy to condemn the entire endeavor as “not Occupy Portland”. But disavowal is not the solution here. We need to fix these problems, and facilitate the discussion of ideas in a way that they actually solidify into actions. We must do this over a period of hours, not weeks. We can do it. We’ve been doing it. And yet, occasionally we lapse.

I’ll make no declaration about this. I’ll just give you these thoughts–consider them my notes on the meeting, to be entered into the record. Hopefully it will help you.

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