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Conceding to Consensus with Occupy Durham

Posted: 11/03/11 07:38 PM ET

I've felt a little like a grizzled old veteran amongst the jejune activists at the Occupy Durham general assemblies -- thrilled to see the sudden burst of enthusiasm, terrified lest most of it perish like the radish seedlings that I just thinned in the fall salad garden, perishing in the afternoon sun. Much of what is being proposed is already being tackled by established groups that have been working in this part of North Carolina for years or even decades. Issues like alternative currencies, worker owned cooperatives, and income inequality already have established avenues for participation, and Occupiers are often surprised to find out others not only care but have put in tremendous energy and time to make the headway that they have.

The new crop is certainly idealistic, and along with idealism and a sense of moment, egos tend to rise to the surface and produce a lot of redundant wheel-inventing. The first general assembly I attended a few weeks back was run on the idea of consensus, and there's a fair amount of hand waving up and down and sideways and other symbols like pointing and making letters with your hands. The goal is to arrive at what's best for the group without lots of talking and shouting, allowing instead for opinions to be mostly expressed by (often boisterous) silent hand signaling. With over a hundred people and the contentious issue of whether to begin a physical occupation of the central plaza downtown, it was a tedious process. Some people were adamantly opposed, and as opponents are allowed to cross their arms above their head in a "block" that theoretically must be addressed before the assembly can proceed.

Equally interesting, yet even more off-putting, was the idea of "progressive stacking." This is essentially affirmative action in who is called upon to speak, when things like amendments and points of fact are to be verbally injected into the dialogue. Those who are considered members of minority or other underrepresented groups are called to speak with greater frequency and priority than the boring old white male (and yes, truth be told, I am member of this detested cabal). To point out what I hope is the obvious, who qualifies as a member of an "underrepresented group" is very much open to the interpretation of the facilitator. I thought I had come to a meeting to work for social justice and egalitarianism, among a thousand other different things. It was insightful to be blatantly ignored just because of my sex and race, but I can guarantee you that it did not make me want to participate in future assemblies. Maybe that was the point.

Regardless, I found myself earlier this week at my second general assembly, this time held in the basement of a nearby building because of the cold drizzle that was soaking the public square. The physical occupation had fizzled because protesters were told to take down their tents after the first night...and they did. The city said you can still sleep there but just no tents. In a game of chess this is called "check." The tents were taken down and a week later when the weather turned and the electricity shut off, the last of the Occupiers left. So a new occupation site was on the agenda, along with sundry other protests and marches and committee minutiae.

This time the hand-waving consensus process sped along. Had democracy been reinvented by some clever hand symbols? On a small level, I'll say yes. By allowing individuals the opportunity to show their approval or dissatisfaction with hand waving, the process was dramatically quieted down and allowed to move along in a way that couldn't happen if everyone had to interject something verbally. This is a major accomplishment and the process is a valuable tool in achieving group unity. The concept of consensus was aided by some other factors, however, making it less radical than it appears on the surface. The number in the group had dropped by three quarters, progressive stacking appeared to have been abandoned (thank goodness!), and the fringe seemed to have faded away making for a much more ideologically homogenous group. Those doubts aside, the process was rewarding on an individual level and creates a great team-building atmosphere, two essential components for keeping activists motivated and involved. Other groups hoping to achieve the same goals would do well to try their hand at it and see what evolves.