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Assembling, Generally

General Assembly

On March 17th, the occupation's six-month anniversary, a crowd of 3,000 assembled to briefly and joyfully re-occupy Zuccotti Park. After many were bruised, bloodied, and hauled away by the cops, marches prowled Manhattan. The next morning, a handful of Occupiers revealed they'd spent the night in Union Square, and the infrastructure of the movement began to reinstate itself in the park: the info table, the library, and a loose grid of cardboard signs all appeared in the square.

It had been a long winter: first in Zuccotti with hand warmers, later under the fluorescent lights and underwater acoustics of 60 Wall, eventually through what seemed like every church and meeting space that would have us. But meetings, and the processes they entailed—the seemingly end- less reminders not to jump stack or block just from spite, the presence of constant disruptors, the cyclical, often unsuccessful efforts to reach con- sensus—were far more difficult to greet zealously without the invigorating balance of a more informal and organic public commons.

Faced with the option of making the trip from Union Square to 60 Wall for the customary General Assembly, most declined.

"It's been been such a long couple of weeks," one gangly live streamer said. "No more meetings. Can't we just be here, together, for a second?"

But the General Assembly had been our only center of gravity for months. It's on the website, someone said. We have to go. Many shrugged it off, but a handful of occupiers descended beneath the park and boarded the 4 train to Wall Street. There were plenty of people at 60 Wall—chess-playing locals, businessmen working late, a few homeless men slumped uncomfortably in corners pretending not to be asleep. But the absence of occupiers reinforced the perception that Things Had Changed. The heat and light of Zuccotti had returned, in Union Square, and we were downtown living in the past.

What to do? 10 people make not the New York City General Assembly. A thin woman with blue streaks in her black hair suggested the wisest option was to bring the meeting to Union Square: GA was the proper format to decide what the new occupation would look like. But someone else countered that many of those most committed to the tactic of occupation—by now, a mixture of travelers, die-hards, and folks without a better placeto sleep—had expressed disinterest in having a GA. They didn't want the money, either.

Fuck the GA, self-described "real occupiers" had been saying for months, and there was no denying that many people had come to agree: what had once been a forum attended daily by hundreds had dwindled to maybe 75 on a good night. The money had been a big part of the problem. What had once seemed infinite—hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly from before the great power-washing of Liberty Square—had dwindled to a mere hundred grand before the GA consented to a contentious "spending freeze" on a frostbitten midwinter night. The money kept evaporating even after the freeze, sublimated by reoccurring budgets left on loop, but about twelve grand still remained.

The freeze was supposed to re-generalize the General Assembly, to free it of constant, divisive, minefield-laden debates about spending. But in the weeks since, full of frustrating discussions about values and tense, occasion- ally violent debates about accountability, it seemed we'd waited too long. Too many people motivated to prefiguratively build consensus had given up, and many who remained seemed to forget what the GA had once been like, before the eviction, when there were immediate things for us all to make decisions about, together.

The facilitated conversation at 60 Wall eventually developed a consensus: we'd simply go to Union Square and ask whether people wanted to have a GA. Twenty minutes later, the returning group mic-checked across Union Square to a loose crowd assembled on the southern side of the park: occupiers, the kids who frequented the square, passers-by intrigued by the signs and festive mood. The conversation began with an open stack, and when one of the first speakers opened with "Is this really the GA?" the question felt somehow irrelevant.

"Are we occupiers?" someone asked. "Are we assembled?" There were a few hoots. "Then what does it matter if we're The GA?"

The group agreed to continue the conversation in breakout groups, which one occupier nearby noted, "was pretty much what we were doing anyway." The only consensus reached was a unanimous uptwinkling in solidarity with the Trayvon Martin Million Hoodie March set for the next evening.

For two more days, Union Square felt like real freedom. Occupiers slept openly for the first time since November, curled up on top of their cardboard signs beside mountainous backpacks. The network once again had a physical point of intersection, and emergent collaborations bloomed: de-esca- lation discussions, working group meetings, new projects. "The winter was worth it," someone pointed out. "We made it." No GA met in Union Square, but it didn't mean we weren't connected. We were: when, if, and because we wanted to be.

One friend, a fellow minutes-taker, became particularly distressed as the GA moved further still from the center of the movement. "How can we abandon the process we've spent so long perfecting?" she asked. But her question begged us to consider the true function of consensus, and of assembling at all. Amidst the collaborative rebirth it seemed hard to imagine that the value of the process ended after the last formal proposal was made.

We were familiar with the consensus model before OWS, from radical youth organizations and our old housing co-operative, but never before had the two of us seen it used so publicly, nor on such scale. To organize through consensus is to fundamentally re-articulate one's own identity as a political and social being.

As children, many of us are taught to share because it is right; grown, we may notice the suggestion often comes from those who exercise power, and that it is not our ideas or visions but our resources they desire. Growing up with these contradictions, reaching consensus—a mutually agreeable conclusion based on expressed needs — is by definition a deeply radical pursuit. Far beyond learning hand signals, it requires trust.

So it's no wonder we have trouble differentiating our tools: a stand-aside or a block, a process or a game played to win. The regular forum the GA became, where the general public struggled—often for the first time—with collective decision-making helped many grapple with the difference. And while the dissolution of the GA as we knew it left us with a void of sorts, we cannot underestimate its importance as a value system as much as a deci-sion-making process, or forget the impact it had far beyond Liberty Square, or 60 Wall or, for that matter, Seattle. Our pursuit of consensus continues.

On the second night in Union Square, the cops came back, at least 300 of them, filing down the park steps two-by-two. They pushed the exhausted occupiers out, barricaded the stairs, and made a few arrests for good measure. The message was more than clear: yeah, no. It was the last night we slept there without harassment, now on the sidewalk outside the barricades, exiled once more.

The next evening, occupiers assembled in large numbers to decide how to deal with the expected 12am eviction from Union Square. A consensus was necessary, and one quickly emerged. There would be tactical training, gameplay with the police, and then a soapbox in the tradition of the outdoor speak-outs that preceded Bloombergville and OWS.

Sure enough, the police showed up just before midnight and organizers executed the first iteration of what would come to be known as Midnight Eviction Theatre. Deinstitutionalizing our collaborative ethic, the movement's core strength, had opened space for us to take advantage of the cops' robotic predictability.

We had new tools, too, that adapted that core strength into new forms. Suddenly someone began to hop up and down: "hup hup hup hup hup," they yipped, and suddenly 150 people were doing the same. For perhaps the first time, a cop smiled. Over the preceding weeks the +Brigades (pronounced "plus brigades") had been holding workshops to train us to recognize keywords, a language designed specifically to enable horizontal tactical response. Like the human microphone, these tools were automatically available to anyone who knew how to use them, provided there was enough of a consensus around to garner participation.

The huppers clumped together and +Brigades reviewed their kit: "wall" instantly generates an arm-to-arm blockade in any direction; "melt" means an instant but temporary "die-in;" "charge" can send hundreds running towards an agreed-upon point; "civilian" allows us to relocate undetected. Before long, the assembled multitudes were moving as one, up and down the barricades, laughing and yelling and charging and melting and hupping once again.

Eventually the group returned to the center of the stairs. "Wall north," someone suggested, and after a pause, the unit quickly pivoted towards the barricades. "Charge and melt?" someone asked, and everyone raised their fingers in agreement. Why not?

"CHARGE!" the front line shouted, hurtling towards the barricades. Spectators gasped, the officers directly facing the brigade visibly flinched, and the unit melted into a puddle of laughter inches from impact.

After things settled, a group sat to brainstorm for the next evening. "How about Barricade Burlesque?" "Let's play capture the flag." Someone else wanted to challenge the police to a rap battle—"and we'll win, because the cops will ignore us! Unless they don't, and that's a win too!" "Let's build a people's barricade!" someone shouted out, giggling. "We can make it out of donuts."

To passers-by, this no doubt seemed like fun and games—joking around, letting off steam. But after 6 months of working together, we were equipped to execute all four ideas, and many others, over the coming nights. The police stepped up too, abruptly arresting people for sleeping, then summoning the Department of Sanitation to justify pushing us around. But each day, we reached immediate, unifying, and creative agreements when we needed to, putting them into action by night. Fuck the GA, indeed.

Something extraordinary happened recently that reminded us of the GA's larger impact. An old friend, Kevin, moved to New York after being absent from our lives for years. Over drinks in the kitchen this time around, it took us about ten minutes to get into the subject of OWS. While we had toiled over the General Assembly, taking notes on the devolving process as our breath came out in clouds, our old friend fled the poor job prospects in the States for a small town in Italy, where he found work organizing performing arts festivals. The first events he helped throw were very successful, but the organizers "were getting a steady stream of information on the Spanish Indignados and the Occupy movement," he explained to us, "and we became very inspired by the use of consensus discussion." His organizing committee jumped from five to fifteen, and from November through June they met regularly to plan their festival, forming autonomous committees which would then make proposals to the larger body using formal consensus. In the parlance of decentralization, what Kevin was doing in Italy was building an affinity group.

Affinity groups—traditionally, small groups of ten to fifteen based on shared interests or values—like the +Brigades, Mutant Legal, ICU, H.B., and the Silent Ninjas, along with many working groups and others, have taken on new significance in the post-NYCGA era.

Affinity groups vary in form, and can be open or closed, but they use consensus, value autonomy and, most importantly, provide spaces where trust can grow. The challenges of the General Assembly eroded good faith, but affinity groups can be safe spaces for us to heal, process, and struggle within, so that we can endure our encounters with police, our conflicts with each other, our moments of disillusionment and stress, without burning out entirely.

Is this a Balkanization, as suggested by our friend the minutes-taker, or is it a tactical change in practice? It is probably a little bit of both. We'd prefer to have an occupation; we'd prefer that our public spaces—and the public— were ready to be safe, but oppression, repression, and competition still characterize our world. We treasure our togetherness, but a distributed model has always been integral to our movement. How many days passed between Occupy Wall Street and "occupy everything?"

A network of groups — affinity groups, project groups, working groups, general assemblies, neighborhood assemblies, worker-owned cooperatives, and new forms yet to spontaneously develop – was always part of the plan. The police and their minders, who have never understood who nor what we are, mistook our tents for our intention, and in kicking them out they have pushed us ahead.

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