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This Is What Democracy Looked Like

Amber Gallup, a lecturer at Indiana University and activist with the No Sweat! student/labor/community alliance in Bloomington, was in Washington, DC, for the IMF/World Bank protests.

 


The “real” story from this weekend is the character and dynamics of a nascent movement. The real story is deep, self-conscious celebration and appreciation of a common humanity that the thousands of protesters reveled in throughout every moment of every day. The real story is not that these activists are trying to tear down an old world order embodied this time in the Bank and the Fund – but that they are actively and successfully creating and living a new one.

This weekend I saw thousands of people, with no central decision-making hierarchy, pull off beautifully orchestrated collective actions of civil disobedience. Affinity groups of five to 25 people formed clusters with other groups, sent delegates to long meetings, kept in touch with each other at all times via cell phones and bike messengers and word of mouth passed from one group to another as they met in the street.

I saw thousands of people so dedicated to consensus decision-making that they would spend all night in a circle talking rather than vote over the opinions of a minority – and it worked. Even in the middle of mass actions, as thousands locked arms and surrounded the IMF building, the spokespeople of affinity groups met, and dispensed messengers who walked among all the lines, soliciting opinions from small groups, building consensus for the next stage of the endeavor. I saw techniques in action that kept large groups communicating – hand signals, chants, rituals.

Democracy, nonviolence, and love were principles that informed every move. It wasn't that we didn't demonstrate other tendencies of human nature – hierarchy, violence, anger, peer pressure, insensitivity; these were all there. But there was a deep recognition of our common humanity, and there were nonviolent techniques for handling those situations in loving and transcendent ways.

Once, during a long hot meeting in a church basement, as hundreds of young activists struggled to form consensus on a course for Monday's actions, a man became angry and began to yell. Immediately the assembled crowd groaned and quietly hissed its disapproval. The man did not lower his voice, and chants of “nonviolence” and “respect” could be heard throughout the basement. Still the man did not lower his voice and suddenly (it seemed to me to be almost immediate and simultaneous) the hundreds assembled began to sing one beautiful musical note. The man swallowed his anger, the singing stopped, and the meeting was able to continue through to consensus.

Methods like these may seem strange to many of us but they worked, and they were truly representative, truly patient, truly democratic. I had never seen democracy in action like I saw it this weekend.

I enjoyed the dignity that my work afforded me during those days. We were there to side with the poor, to use our civil rights to help others claim theirs, to shut down those meetings that, through undemocratic secrecy and unresponsiveness to the opinion of those affected, had helped lead to the suffering of so many and to the amassing of huge wealth by so few.

I hope we can use some of the lessons that we learned in DC to make our movement for social change here in Bloomington stronger. Ultimately it will be in our small towns and cities, in our families, and in our friendship groups that this change plays itself out. DC and experiences like it are just staging grounds for mass display of the revolution in consciousness that goes on all around the country (and the world) among small groups of committed people.

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