Exposed: The Secret Elite Faction that Controls Occupy Philly
Over the past two weeks, the level of conflict within Occupy Philadelphia has risen to a new peak.
One of the first signs of conflict was the skepticism with which people viewed the people who were talking with the city, and then later when they merged into the legal team - this skepticism carried over to the entire legal team. The legal team was attacked from all sides. It was either too compromising with the city or not compromising enough. Some people thought that the legal team was making a power grab. Recently the legal team has become less of a target for criticism as they have been emphasizing their role as that of facilitating communication between the City and the General Assembly. As such, they've tried very hard to take a neutral stance on this relationship.
More recently, the focus has shifted to the facilitation working group. They are seen a lot due to their work of leading the General Assembly. They tend to stand or sit at the front and get more speaking time than anyone else. The facilitation team makes important decisions about process. For instance, they'll decide whether someone who wants to speak is giving a clarifying question, their own opinion, an amendment, a totally new proposal (that is often phrased as being an amendment) or an off-topic rant.
The facilitation team is also linked to the very mysterious CoCo meeting - a meeting of representatives from working groups that reviews proposals and set the agenda for the General Assembly. This meeting is mysterious because many people have not attended it and the membership fluctuates a lot. Many people will only attend it when they are trying to get their proposal on the agenda.
Last Friday when the General Assembly voted around 100 to 3 to stay in the Dilworth Plaza some people assumed that this verified that the radicals (anarchists or others, some of whom are in the official working group: Radical Caucus) had managed to takeover Occupy Philly.
However, yesterday the General Assembly voted by a similar margin to move across the street to Thomas Paine Plaza. When this happened, some people assumed that the movement was now controlled by the Reasonable Solutions working group.
So why do people think there is a small secret group that controls Occupy Philly? Here are several possible causes:
1. The Mainstream Media is Framing the Message
The mainstream media is trashing Occupy Philadelphia, raising fears of an anarchist or radical takeover, and causing a lot of people to turn against us. For instance this story is one example of the media getting it right
Solutions: develop our own media. Fact check and send our press releases (or blog posts) that correct every single media mistake. Develop relationships with reporters.
2. Occupy Philly has a Small Number of Key Leaders
The movement relies upon a small number of people (perhaps 20-40) who do most of the organizational work. These people run the working groups and are more likely to live or be on-site. Almost all social movements have some people who are more active than others, and they almost always tend to exert more influence. If a person is a well-known and respected participant in a movement, then their opinions are more likely to carry weight with other people and they will have more power. The fact that we try to deny that we have any leaders makes it harder for people to figure out what is really going on - that participation equals leadership.
The situation is aggravated by people having different levels of experience in activism.
Solution: let people know how they can become leaders. Continue to make trainings available.
3. Occupy Philly lacks Transparency
We are doing a bad job of publishing a list of contacts (eg. for working groups), General Assembly minutes, a budget, etc. It isn't totally clear who controls our various websites, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. Many people do not understand our decision making process. Some people will have no idea how to get on stack or what a stack is, and will resort to yelling at a General Assembly or abusing a clarifying question. Many people don't know that anyone can start a working group. Many people have never written a proposal for a democratic decision making body in their life. People would feel more empowered if they facilitated a meeting, and the facilitation team is constantly urging people to attend a training and get involved.
Solutions: publish General Assembly minutes (currently happening!), the budget, a list of contacts, a guide to how to use our decision-making process, and a list of people who control means of communication (facebook, twitter, and websites).
4. Occupy Philly lacks Explicit Values
We have values, but they are not stated explicitly. So our values are not evident/transparent to many observers. We try to appeal to the 99% and try to bring an extremely diverse set of opinions under a single coalition. If we had more cohesiveness in our values (ex. we all agreed that racism was a critical issue, instead of a "special interest"), then we would have a higher level of trust for each other and less suspicion about a secret group taking over.
Solution: make a values statement.
5. Occupy Philly is Ineffective at Achieving Goals
Part of the reason people are so divided and suspicious is that we aren't united together in working on any campaign. If we had a strategic campaign, and ideally were making serious progress on it, then many of the rumors would fly away. Lacking a common enemy, we are too likely to lash out against each other.
Solution: develop a strategic plan to achieve a goal that will benefit people's lives and build a movement for longterm social change.
6. Philadelphia is full of Anarchists
Tons of anarchists (and other radicals) live in Philadelphia. Anarchists are on most of the working groups. Typically in social movements you are more likely to find a revolutionary socialist group (like the International Socialist Organization - the best organized and largest radical left group in the US) with a strong participation in a movement. Probably because this Occupy Movement is too broadly targeted (in values/ideology) for revolutionary socialists, we have a stronger presence of anarchists.
Anarchists are far less likely to vote together, whereas some revolutionary socialist groups will practice "democratic centralism." The group will hold a meeting in advance to decide its position and then all the group members will have to advocate that position within the larger movement (even if they don't agree with it). By contrast anarchists would carry over their internal debates to the larger group setting.
So you see a lot of radicals in Occupy Philadelphia, because Philadelphia is a working class city (tied with Detroit for poverty) with a lot of radicals.
Solution: increase communications between radicals and non-radicals through workshops, speakers, and face to face conversations.
7. The General Assembly is Open-Minded
The General Assembly has changed its opinion on the most critical issues that we've discussed. Paradoxically, some people interpret this openness as the General Assembly being taken over by a faction. I think this is because the General Assembly changes its mind in response to new information. The first incidence of this was when the General Assembly repeatedly voted against having a meeting with the City, only to change its mind and have a big meeting (37 people on our side, and around 7 from the City) at the Friends Center. After this meeting, the General Assembly voted against having any more meetings with the City.
The second example was how the General Assembly voted around 100 to 3 in favor of staying at Dilworth Plaza (with rumors of "bussed in" radicals circulating) on Friday (Nov 11), and then reversed this decision by a similar margin 100-130 vs 6 on Thursday (Nov 17) by deciding to move to Thomas Paine Plaza.
Some people might think that there were organized factions that dominated both meetings. But I saw a move in opinion. I saw tons of radicals supporting the proposal to move on Thursday. This happened in response to a Day of Action which included a march of over 700-1000 people (possibly our largest action yet) that was organized by Fight for Philly, had a lot of community and union support, and featured a strong public union presence. The unions put out an official statement asking us to move, showed the strongest level of solidarity we had seen, and then the General Assembly decided to act in solidarity with the unions.
One main reason the General Assembly is changing its mind is that we are debating tactics. People tend to have fixed opinions about values/ideology, and more flexible ones about tactics.
The General Assembly is open minded exactly because our participants are NOT being super-ideological. This open-mindedness proves that the power and coherence of factions within Occupy Philly is very limited.
I think the open mindedness of the General Assembly is increased by the fact that we have a large number of people who are new to activism and/or are young.
8. The Lack of Personal Relationships
There is a lack of trust within Occupy Philly that is most likely to occur between people who don't know each other. This happens when outsider supporters observe the movement but do not get involved in working groups. It also happens when people within working groups don't talk to people in other working groups, and do not talk to people who share different opinions. An excellent example of this is LiveStream. The LiveStream feed is full of mean accusations. It is easier to make a hurtful statement in an email or when you are using a user name (which often isn't linked to your name) than to do it face to face.
Solutions: introduce yourself to people you don't know. Don't tolerate personal attacks.
9. General Assemblies at Night
It is harder to build community and trust when it is dark and you cannot recognize people.
Solution: hold meetings at the Friends Center.
10. Focusing too much on the General Assembly
If you spend all of your time at the General Assembly and do not participate in any of the direct actions, workshops, speakers, music, or cultural events that are organized by Occupy Philly then you are missing out. Too much focus on the intra-organizational drama is not healthy.
11. Lack of Strong Relationships with Existing Philadelphia Organizations
Occupy Philly is working on building relationships with many organizations including the Quakers (and the Friends Center), the unions (SEIU, local AFL-CIO, and others), Jobs With Justice, Fight for Philly, and others. We should build stronger relationships with existing Philadelphia organizations including activist groups, unions, community organizations, churches, and more. We should hold joint actions and support the actions and campaigns of other groups. We should have a values statement that allies can endorse. This will make Occupy Philly less of an outlier on the political landscape.
I think there are some clear solutions that will help increase trust and debunk the rumors that Occupy Philadelphia is controlled by any secret faction or small group. Most notably, we need transparency, develop our message and own media, encourage people to participate directly in our actions and meetings, and encourage Occupy Philly participants to talk to people who they disagree with. My hope is that Occupy Philadelphia will move past these internal conflicts and unify over the next weeks and months!