Occupy L.A.'s Dilemma 

Protesters share enthusiasm and disenchantment, but need unity to survive

Thursday, Oct 27 2011

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"This is the heart of the city," Brito says.

They worked with the police and the city, advising them that they planned to march on Oct. 1 and camp outside City Hall. The police were resistant initially, but they came around after Councilman Richard Alarcon made a show of support.

The organizers worked to get the word out via social media. By that point, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations had entered the mainstream consciousness, largely thanks to the New York Police Department.

click to flip through (9) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Occupy L.A.

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The organizers were overwhelmed by the turnout. "We figured if we were successful, we'd have 500 people," Brito says.

At least twice that, maybe more, turned out. The first night, only about 100 decided to sleep at City Hall. By the end of the first week, the encampment had swelled to more than 200 tents and was still growing. By the end of the third week, the number stood at nearly 400 tents, and the encampment had spilled over into Fletcher Bowron Square and the courtyard of the Police Administration Building. It was becoming a village.

"It's extraordinarily idealistic," Sulzdorf says. "It's a little like I'm a member of a Greek city-state."

Organizers set up a food tent, a day care area, a meditation temple, a library and a medical tent, where occupiers could get first aid and basic health care supplies. (Who says this is no better than a Tea Party rally? At one meeting, a medical team member announced, "We need condoms." The Venice Family Clinic quickly came through with a donation of 2,000, of which about 100 had been distributed within a few days.)

Following the lead of Occupy Wall Street, the organizers ran their meetings from the early days with a formal, consensus-based process. The process has a long history in leftist movements, dating back to the 1970s, and it has many advantages. But in a large group — some "general assembly" meetings have had more than 600 people — it can be difficult to reach consensus.

Any one person can block the group from taking action. This makes the U.S. Senate, with its 60 percent threshold to stop a filibuster, look like a model of procedural efficiency. Small wonder, then, that three weeks into the occupation, the group was spending more time discussing its own process than anything else — a messy issue that has persisted and looms as a big threat to the L.A. movement.

This is not a new problem in left-wing politics. Since the left adopted consensus decision making as its primary means of getting things done, activists and scholars have been refining it to try to minimize its most obvious shortcomings.

First, some of the history. If your image of left-wing protest is mass demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, then your image needs updating. History has not stood still since then, and neither has the history of protest.

The consensus process was borrowed from the Quakers, taken up in the early '70s by feminist collectives and later by anti–nuclear power demonstrators. The idea is that the group decides what to do by reaching a collective understanding rather than by voting. The theory is this reduces the power imbalances within groups and allows each member to participate as an equal.

The Clamshell Alliance, an anti-nuclear group, was a major early adopter of consensus decision making. The process has been applied and altered in subsequent movements, including, most recently, the demonstrations against globalization in the late '90s and early '00s. Those movements developed hand signals. "Twinkling" fingers — also known as "spirit fingers" or "jazz hands" — conveys support. Crossed arms indicates a "hard block" — a veto. Facilitators and "stackers" keep the process going.

Consensus can stop a lot of half-baked ideas from gaining traction. But the process has drawbacks as well.

Consider, for example, the Movement for a New Society, a leftist collective that was founded in 1971 and dissolved in 1988. Part of the reason for its undoing was its consensus process, which resulted in endless discussions. Over time, there was a bias toward inaction — because it became harder and harder to agree to anything.

"It was easier for the organization to stay the same than it was to change," says Andrew Cornell, author of Oppose and Propose, a history of the Movement for a New Society. "Consensus decision making was seen as ... a goal rather than a process."

Consensus also contributed to the stalling out of the antiglobalization movement, Cornell says. "There needs to be a balance between these things. I am concerned that too much focus will be placed on the internal conversations at the Occupy sites."

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