Posted by: Doug Henwood | October 24, 2011

The OWS Demands group meets

Last night, I went to the meeting of the OWS Demands Working Group, held in historic Tompkins Square Park, scene of many a riot and other kind of uprising in its 161-year history. There were about 75 people there, to discuss what to do with the draft set of demands that the group had passed past week.

On Friday, I wrongly reported that the OWS General Assembly had rejected the draft and disavowed the working group. In fact, the GA hasn’t even discussed the issue. According to people at last night’s meeting, whoever controls the website issued the statement of disavowal and deleted the accounts of some participants, making it impossible for them to participate in online discussions of the issue. The “whoever” is accurate: no one seems to know the identity of the website’s controllers, who nonetheless purport to speak for the organization. With such a freewheeling organization, if that’s the right word, lines of responsibility and accountability are very murky.

That statement of disavowal claimed that the Demands group does not work by consensus. From what I saw, it certainly does. Everything was extensively processed, and with hand signals as complex as those that used to prevail in the (now largely deserted) trading pits of the major futures exchanges. Perhaps the controllers of the website are scandalized that the Demands group works by “modified” consensus, meaning a 75% vote is necessary for something to pass (though as Michael Pollak reports below, they’re not alone in this). But what in this life—even the beauty of a clear blue sky on a crisp October day—could get 100% approval?

I must admit that I am not cut out for these sorts of meetings. When it started, at 6 PM, there was a discussion of whether to go to midnight, when the park closes, or try to cut it off at 9. The thought of standing outside for three hours filled me with fear, and so I left at 7:30. But my good friend Michael Pollak had the—well you can’t call it Sitzfleisch, so, Stehenfleisch maybe?—to stick it out. I admire people like that, and wish I could be more like them. Here’s Michael’s report:

There seems to be some misconception that the Demands Group is a bunch of outsiders. It is not. This is a argument within the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The Demands Group is a working group just like any other working group. Yesterday evening I spent three hours in the park taking part in their meeting, and I can attest, it was run scrupulously according to consensus procedures under experienced facilitators. And frankly it was one of the most satisfying consensus meetings I’ve taken part in. There were (a changing average of) 60 people, there were heated disagreements, and the proposals and counterproposals were modified so that they visibly came closer together while retaining what emerged as their respective most crucial points. And while each individual proposal was defeated or unable to get off the ground by itself, the final joint/modified proposal passed by a modified consensus, i.e., 75%. And it was a consensus in the real sense of the term. It was strongly supported. The opposed sides had come together. The final product was only possible because both sides had convinced each other that they would carry out their side of the bargain in good faith. And you could feel that everyone involved was palpably chuffed at the end. Tired, wired and cold, but chuffed.

The basic upshot is that there will be tons of liasing in the next few days with other occupation working groups and with community groups; there will also be teach-ins at Zuccotti Park and canvassing there; we will encourage representatives of all these groups to join us for our meeting on Thursday with their proposed amendments or concerns or questions (or support for the proposal at it stands — also an option); everyone present at the Thursday meeting will vote on amendments to the proposal that grow out of this liasing; and we will present the amended proposal to the general assembly on Sunday at 7pm, where it will be argued at length, amended as the GA sees fit, and voted on, according to consensus rules. (Important aside: switching to modified consensus when you can’t attain full consensus, and having this identified as three quarters approval—and not a person less—seems to be already SOP in many OWS working groups. It is not a new innovation invented by the Demands Group.)

The OWS General Assembly has never been made up simply of people who sleep in the park. The General Assembly has always explicitly been made out of whoever shows up for the meeting that day. This is part of its anarchist nature, and part of the whole idea of a prefigurative experience: anyone is free to take part and be transformed through transforming. (And it is just as much a part of working groups. In the Demands Group tonight, three quarters of the people there hadn’t been to prior meetings, but everyone had full talking, blocking and voting rights.) The Demands Group meeting today contained a spectrum of people from 24/7 occupiers; though people who sleep at home but participate daily; up through people who were energized to participate for the first time tonight precisely because the ideas of demands in general or these particular demands excited them.

So this isn’t an outsider group operating by principles foreign to OWS. This is the occupation operating by its own principles. It is a discussion and argument within the occupation.

And BTW, if anyone feels like a visit to OWS anytime soon, Sunday at 7pm would be a great time.

Background info for anyone wanting to get involved in the Demands Group:

The Demands Group has a listserv on Yahoo Groups: OWS Demands Working Group. (If you don’t already have a Yahoo account, you need to open one to join. You can, however, adjust it to send the messages to your normal email. It looks like there is option to do it without that step by logging in using Google or Facebook, but that is just a cruel trick. It has an acknowledged bug that leads to an endless loop. But that’s the way Yahoo works.)

The Demands Group has been meeting bi-weekly on Tue at 7 at Sun at 6 at Tompkins Square Park. Both those meetings have been changed for this week to meet the demands of liasing and presenting. The Tuesday meeting will be on Thursday this week, and it will be at 60 Wall Street, an indoor Atrium where many working groups meet. It is a similar private/public space to Zuccotti, except this one closes at 10pm, so the meeting has to end then. (This BTW, can be a great help to consensus. The meeting last night had an agreed ending time of 3hrs after starting too, and it really focussed minds at the end and helped in forging consensus.)

The Plan B meeting point for Thursday (if we can’t get the Atrium) will be Washington Square Park, not Tompkins. I’m not sure under what conditions we’d need to go to Plan B.

Washington Square Park may possibly replace Tompkins in the future.

The Sunday meeting this week that would normally happen on Oct 30 will be replaced by showing up to the General Asssembly.

For the record, a delegation from the Demands Committee will be meeting with the Facilitation Committee on Tuesday about getting on the Agenda for the General Assembly for Sunday (just in case you see that referred to in the listserv.)

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Responses

  1. Excellent post.

    I have been meaning to mentioned to others – but I’m glad to hear you report as well – that the websites are not necessarily accurate or representative of the group. For example, in the case of our small occupation, someone wanted to post videos that pretty much none of us agreed with. We thought of not allowing this member to post the videos, but since he personally owns our nicest tent, we reasoned that “surely everyone has the right to speak.” Also, our occupation’s website was started before the occupation actually existed. The person who started the website still kind of “runs” the website – not because the group wanted it, just because he started the website and the group hasn’t found a reason to end it.

    Anyway, when people point to websites as representative of the group, I always mean to raise these issues – I’m glad you’ve done so.

  2. Just on the issue of who’s running the occupywallst.org web site: the bulk of changes to its open-source software have been made by an account under the name of Justine Alexandra Roberts Tunney. The occupywallst.org domain’s otherwise anonymous registration info points to DNS servers at lobstertech.com, a domain which also seems to be run by a J. Tunney. So it seems like Ms. Tunney would be a reasonable guess for who’s running that site.

  3. Thanks for the update, Doug.

    Quakers have been practicing decisionmaking in a very similar manner to the OWS consensus for over 350 years. Some Quakers have even claimed there’s a direct line of descent from these practices through the Quaker-founded Movement for a New Society in the early 70s to training of activists in the 80s solidarity movements into the 90s anti-free trade ruckuses and beyond. George Lakey, who was active with MNS, helped Swarthmore College create the recently-launched Global Nonviolent Action Database, http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/. Occupy will surely be added to it some day, though it doesn’t appear to be in there yet.

  4. Thanks for the post! I’m keenly interested in this group, but wasn’t able to attend the meeting last night. However, I have been following this group’s efforts and the troubling attempts to silence it. There has been an active thread about the group’s deletion from the NYGA website, which was just deleted within the last few hours. Check out the activity stream on the Accountability & Transparency Group forum:
    http://www.nycga.net/groups/accountability-transparency. If you try to click on the forum topic “What happened with the Demands WG?” which was active just a few hours ago, there’s now a Page Not Found message. Perhaps this is just an innocent mistake, but given the controversy surrounding this group, I doubt it.

  5. I just wanted to amend my last comment to say that the discussion forum thread is now back up (although it was definitely down earlier–I took a screenshot.) Here’s the link to the thread: http://www.nycga.net/groups/accountability-transparency/forum/topic/what-happened-with-the-demands-wg/. Again, perhaps an accident, or perhaps a sign of intense internal debate inside the “whoever” that runs the website…


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