The organizers of Occupy Wall Street’s National Gathering—or Natgat, as everybody there liked to call it—promoted the event as all about long-distance caravans, “visioning sessions” where protestors would debate strategies for moving forward, and spectacular direct actions in the nation’s birthplace of Philadelphia on the Fourth of July.
I found each of those things at the event. I met people who’d come in from California, Alabama, and Delaware. I sat in on the surprisingly small and intimate visioning sessions, the results of which have now been released (additionally, the results of the virtual visioning process, facilitated by OccupyCafe, are here). And nearly everyone I met had stories from direct actions they’d participated in.
However, the most compelling part about Natgat, for me, was the informal conversation and skill-trading, in which people shared what was working—and what wasn’t—in their own occupations. I wasn’t the only one to find this useful: occupiers from all over the country told me their favorite thing about the National Gathering was the chance to compare notes, network, and set up lasting lines of communication between far-flung occupations around the country.
Here are five of the lessons people said they’d learned at Natgat.
1. Room for Change in the General Assemblies
The General Assemblies are the DNA of the Occupy movement. It’s crucial that there be a regularly scheduled meeting place where people can get together, bring proposals, discuss them, and then develop a plan of action. This is where the community part of Occupy comes into play, too; when you see the same people week after week, you get to know them, not just as allies, but as people.
The GA’s have never been perfect, however, and Natgat was like a swap meet for the tips and tweaks occupiers had made to the format. For instance, folks from Occupy Harrisburg, P.A., have developed a 35-minute “open mic” at the end of each meeting. This provides a more relaxed environment where shy people can experiment with speaking in front of the group, as well as a forum where speakers can get on soapboxes without wasting the whole GA’s time. An occupier associated with New York City’s Yippie Museum mentioned their weekly “People’s Soapbox,” designed to do the same thing: make sure everyone gets to speak while providing a forum for open-ended conversations separated from those intended to lead directly to action.
2. Step Back! Step Up! Make Sure Everyone’s Voice Is Heard
On a related note, larger meetings at Natgat were filled with the voices of those who said they still felt marginalized in the movement. Women were tired of males speaking over them. People of color were tired of the same treatment from whites. And radicals willing to face down with the cops said they were tired of feeling lectured to, or even “policed,” by more moderate types.
Some of these problems can probably be solved only through deepening relationships of trust. But following a few easy rules doesn’t hurt, either. At a large Natgat general assembly, facilitators spoke of a “Step Back! Step Up!” policy. If you usually speak a lot, wait until the end of the stack before speaking. And that goes double if you happen to be a white and male. A little uncomfortable, perhaps—but in a useful way. Having this rule out in the open helped people get some insight into what it’s like for those who often feel silenced, even within the Occupy movement.
3. Keep’em Separated
Occupiers have always considered police reactions when planning events. But at Natgat, this way of doing things seemed to be evolving. A.J. Brown, of Occupy Boone, N.C., told me she’d used Natgat to form a network of GA’s in the Southeastern states that were going to collectively plan protests at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, both of which are in the South this year.
They’ve also been trading notes on what Brown calls “separation of time and space,” which is activist-ese for planning several separate marches for different levels of involvement, each coded with its own color. Those who are unable or unwilling to be arrested can go to the Green march, for example, while those prepared for arrest may join a Red march. Law enforcement will be informed about who is going where, in hopes of avoiding some of the violence that has marred past events.
4. Emotional Support Counts
When you’re dealing with potentially traumatic experiences like the possibility of being arrested or even physically hurt, it’s important to know that the people at your side are going to support and listen to you afterwards.
Some occupiers are putting a lot of time and energy into developing skills in this department. Michael Wilson and Deb Henry, of Occupy Salt Lake City, who drove together to Philadelphia from Utah, told me they came to Natgat unsure of whether they had anything to say that others would want to hear. But they soon found Occupy Salt Lake’s focus on debriefing and creating safe spaces in high demand.
Debriefings are meetings that take place after an action in order to understand, process, and address any questions or problems that arose. Someone may have felt abandoned or marginalized, for instance, while others may want to check in about things that were done wrong—or right. Using techniques learned from a local nonviolent direct action group called Peaceful Uprising, the Salt Lake occupiers specialize in encouraging open communication.
Deb Henry explained that Occupy Salt Lake City usually waits a few days before organizing a debriefing session. Then, they ask people to repeat a statement explicitly declares the debriefing a safe space and instructs people not to react defensively to the things that are said.
“The most beautiful debriefs I have been to,” Henry says, “start with a controversial statement that opens up the other people in the group to air what they thought were similarly controversial ideas. Things can come to a head, but then we rebuild from that point, instead of starting from scratch. It's much better than things festering and animosity growing, in my opinion.”
5. Encampments Are Still Important—Sometimes
In many cities, we think of actual Occupy encampments as a thing of the past. But that’s not true everywhere. Occupies in Harrisburg, P.A., Fresno, C.A., and Honolulu, H.I. all have continuing occupations, and there may be more I haven’t heard about. Please leave a comment if you know of any.
Richard “Patch” Day, of Occupy Fresno, has been living at his local occupation for 258 days. It’s the longest continuous 24/7 Occupation anywhere in the United States, according to him. And some members of Occupy Fresno, like Mike Bridges, say it couldn’t have happened without Patch. It’s a lot of work: in order to comply with police regulations, someone has to move the entire camp to a neighboring parking lot each night, and then back to the park the following morning. Most days, that’s Patch.
I asked him if physical occupations were still important. “I believe the camps are extremely essential,” he told me. “With Fresno, it’s so conservative that if the camp died, so would the movement.” He described how people who’ve been walking past the occupation for months now are finally stopping in to talk. “Their curiosity gets the better of them,” he said. “They ask me what we’re up to. And some of them get involved.”
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Here’s my invitation to you: Let’s take a month and intentionally notice those we would normally not see. Let’s interrupt old patterns of not looking into the eyes of “those people”—whoever they are to you.