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ZAM communique April 5, 2013 (before the eviction May 22, 2013)
2 gyms, 3 stages, 2 concert venues, 2 bars, 2 offices, 1 newsroom, dozens of sport activities for hundreds of people, 160 m2 of climbing wall, more than 200 gigs, more than 100 cultural events, one cinema and documentary festival, 1 theatre workshop, 1 hip hop workshop, thousands of people inside and through, more than 2 years of occupation and self-management.
Since January 2009 that has been Zam and it will still be there thanks to the everyday commitment and enthusiasm of thousands of people who are delivering to the site their desire of change.
The evacuation threatening has arrived strong and clear: the property is leading towards the usual grim procedure for property speculation.
The Police station is following the rules, the town hall falls silent otherwise it should talk about its inability to establish a concrete politics about spaces and self-managements which was flaunted during the political campaign and actually neglected in the end.
The guilty silent of the mayor and the city council has been paid with an higher number of evacuations in the city during the last 2 years compare to Moratti’s council: already 6.
This is who we are and here we are: Collettivo Politico (the political collective), Rete Studenti Milano (the Students Network Milano), Polisportiva Milano (the Multi Sports) Council with the gym, the martial arts and combat disciplines, dance classes, yoga classes, climbing classes; the hip hop Lab, the theatre for everybody, Zam Film festival; these are all projects at the Zam, that you can find here in Olgiati Street 12, Milan, Barona neighbourhood. For the past two years dealing with the crisis, fighting the crisis. Two years of self management and culture, two years of action in the City. Starting today, 4th April 2013, everyday from 5pm we are open: come visit, gather information, come join. For the evacuation day we already set an appointment for everyone in front of Palazzo Marino at 6pm.
We fear No evacuation. Zam is a dream tattooed on the living skin of the City: you can try to hide it underneath the maquillage of the City, window-shop of the Mafia and the eyesore of the Expo, but it’s trace is not erasable and it’s permanent. Here we are and here we will always be!
Stay Zam: the direct and the eviction from the parade at Palazzo Marino.
May 22, 2013
Updates from Palazzo Marino-parade #stayzam
19:10: the situation is now calm, the event is melting. No response from Palazzo Marino to the demands of the demonstrators. Zam Stay, Stay tuned …
18:34: The square is surrounded by tanks of the police. The protesters called for an open meeting with the mayor, which for now is not responding.
18:32: 4 injured among the demonstrators in 4 offices: wounds in the head and limbs. Have flown torches, now you face the two cordons of police and protesters.
18:29. the protesters continue to apply to enter, some guys injured in the face. tense situation and threats of new offices, and jostling melee with the police.
18:23: third charge, voltage square
18:22: two charges of violent police to prevent the access of protesters at Palazzo Marino.
18:20 people try to enter but are prevented, jerks and clubbing
18:07 A procession of about 100 people arrived at Palazzo Marino, “welcomed” by a vast array of police. The intention is to make an assembly there, seen that the area of ??ZAM was taken away from students, temporary workers and activists this morning, and saw that the city of Milan has not objected to this operation. # Stayzam
16:00: all at Porta Genova.
18:00: at Palazzo Marino!
12.20 – The compagi fell on the roof! We will bring our demands unheard directly in the heart of the city, Palazzo Marino today at 18!
11.45 – The van, music, and all present were moved to the front gate of Zam, manned by the Police, in solidarity with two companions on the roof!
11.00 – Telephone connections from the roof.
10.25 am – The police entered within Zam. From the roof we are told that the Digos tried to rise, but could not. It ‘started a negotiation. The conditions of the two boys on the roof to fall are: talk to the lawyer Zam, be made aware of the project that will involve the area occupied until now, have the boys and girls in sight in order to communicate with their , be able to return in the coming days to return the material that is still in Zam.
10.00 – The bulldozer is trying to break down the last parts of the fence. The cordons of police and carabinieri prevent the passage of the corner of Via Olgiati and via Cottolengo.
9.53 – Two people were on the roof of Zam. From the roof drops the banner “Stay Zam, the dreams continue.”
9.40 am – I am the fire department arrived to extinguish the fire in front of Zam.
9.37 – A barricade on fire. The flames rise up a column of smoke over the surrounding buildings.
9.33 am – The bulldozer moves towards the barricades in defense of Zam followed by dozens dozens of men. From behind the barricades raining objects, books, videotapes. The bulldozer stops.
9:32 – From Via Cottolengo police officers and police continue to arrive. There are at least another 30.
9.31 – The bulldozer is ready to overwhelm the objects that symbolize the two years of culture, social, sports Autonomous Zone of Milan.
9.30 – The police and the police are deployed between the students and the objects placed in the street. There comes a bulldozer police.
9:25 am – Police and the police continue to drag force with people. Are dragging students and prevent those who are already out of the way to get closer.
9:20 am – Thirty men between police and riot police are close to the people on the street. The first guys who oppose passive resistance is moved with force by the police. The chairs and tables placed in the street are dragged away. Many children are taken away weight. Behind them, the students remain seated.
9.10 am – A score of men are in the process of Digos Olgiati
9.00 – The first trucks are approaching in via Olgiati to clear Zam. We invite everyone to come and bring their solidarity!
The entire street Olgiati is invaded by a representation of the activities in these two years of self-management have animated the Autonomous Zone Milan.
Zam is sports, love is Zam Zam is socializing, culture is Zam Zam is students.
To welcome the police an unusual scene, which opens with a curtain. Behind this the audience and the stage that since January 2011, they hosted hundreds of concerts, theater performances, film screenings, cultural events and debates.
Between the auditorium and the police dozens of people line the street recreating spaces for social interaction: from popular gym for an assembly of students, from the presentation of books for the preparation of MilanoInMovimento!
PREVIOUS COMMUNIQUES (Comming soon)
In solidarity with all the students, faculty and staff who believe that knowledge is a commons.
MAY DAY – GENERAL SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
10am – 3pm: Cooper Union Free University @ Cooper Square
3:00pm: NYC EDU BLOC Convergence + SPEAK OUT!!! @ Cooper Square
4:00pm: March to Union Square to join the May 1 Coalition rally & March to City Hall
9:00pm: Dance Party to Free Education @ Washington Square Park fountain
FREE UNIVERSITY CLASSES AT COOPER UNION
Schedule of NYC May Day events organized by Free Cooper Union and the Free University of NYC - check for updates!
Open Arts & Crafts Session
Book Shields! Banners! Placards! Sidewalk Chalking!
“Space, Design, and the Everyday”
This course explores fundamental concepts of space and design with particular attention focused on how as designers and citizens we participate in the everyday design, reproduction, and production of our current and future realities. This course session will focus on architecture and counterculture and support the continuing development of semester long student projects.
“Organizing a NYC Student Movement”
Discussion with folks from Free University-NYC and All in the Red
Join students from around NYC to explore concrete ideas on how to organize a city-wide student movement that can build on lessons from mass mobilizations in Quebec, Chile, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere, while also envisioning our own locally specific forms of student power.
“Understanding Basic Economics and Finance”
There is a clear distinction between Economics (Main Street) and Finance (Wall Street). In order to understand how and why more and more of the value created by Main Street is flowing into the hands of Wall Street it is absolutely necessary to understand the distinction between these two related but different institutions and how they function in today’s world. Otherwise no real change will be possible.
“Watch the Gap: How Income Inequality and Poverty are Hurting America’s Kids”
Poverty and Low Socioeconomic Status can cause significant challenges to the cognitive, emotional and physical development of children. They increase the risk factors for everything from child abuse to school failure. With one of the highest gaps in income equality in the world, and one of the highest child poverty rates in decades, the United States is creating a lost generation that will grow up with less opportunity and more risk- unless we act. Income inequality must be addressed as a public health problem with repercussions that effect the entire community.
“Tidal: Occupy Theory Occupy Strategy Conversation”
TIDAL has held significant conversations with Free University. The discussions in Washington Square Park led to Strike Debt. The S17 event expanded our horizons. Now, as TIDAL seeks to internationalize and nationalize its project, we want to re-open the conversation. How do we learn from Detroit? From Athens? From Tunis? From Cairo? What are the means of that learning? How do we ensure that this conversation is mutual and beneficial to all? An open workshop for all hosted by Team TIDAL.
“Writing for Home, School, and Everyday Life”
Susan Naomi Bernstein
For new and experienced writers: This course presents the processes of writing for anyone who struggles to write. Together we will develop our own practices of writing for audiences and purposes that connect to our visions of social transformation for home, school, and everyday life.
“Imagining a Student/Worker-Run University”
This will be an open discussion that is meant to encourage the development of a vision of a Free Cooper Union run by students and workers. We will talk about precedents in the form of student-run coops, cooperatively run schools, worker takeovers, the tenets behind the wages for schoolwork movement, and the legal and ideological strands that can link Cooper’s past to this future.
“People Power and Politics”
Introduction to the Gay Liberation Movement, discussing Carl Wittman’s A Gay Manifesto.
Reading materials and outlines will be provided.
“NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium”
Discuss and share new models for the distribution of text/image work.
“Climate Debt/Climate Justice”
Climate debt is not yet part of the political architecture in the U.S. Where does it come from? What kind of justice does it involve? And why is it so important?
“Towards an Alternative School of Art”
Collaborative workshop with folks from vizKult, OWS Arts & Labor, and Making Worlds
The economic and structural realities of art schools as they exists today can often be a source of anxiety and frustration for artists, teachers, and staff alike, but what might an alternative model look like? In this workshop we’ll discuss the things we like and don’t like about the current art school system. Then we’ll learn about various alternative models and discuss amongst ourselves how they can be applied to or replace that system.
About a year and a half ago, I initiated an experiment in creating a surplus of sentimental value. I began by spamming random individuals with personally targeted, hand-crafted ukulele covers I made of sentimental songs. Victims ranged from an obesity doctor in Winnetka, Illinois to the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber. In this workshop, I’ll give an update on the results (thus far) of the project, and I’ll give participants some ideas for possible similar projects of their own.
“Presenting the New Edition of the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual”
members of Strike Debt
“Art, Design, Architecture, and Activism”
What do art, design, and architecture have to do with activism? How can artists, designers, architects, and other cultural workers contribute to a radically egalitarian and democratic public sphere? How can we imagine other forms of communication and design outside that of advertising? What forms of public discussion, critical thinking, and social and political activism can take shape against or through mass culture, and how can art and design disciplines contribute to them?
Participants are asked to come prepared to discuss the following readings: Mira Schor, “Lowering the Bar on Activism,” Huffington Post; Mira Schor, “Books are Like People,” A Year of Positive Thinking; Reinhold Martin, “Occupy: What Architecture Can Do,” Design Observer; Reinhold Martin, “Occupy: The Day After,” Design Observer.
“Building the Commons in NYC”
Join an open conversation about the commons and education.
“Why We Need to Break Up the Megabanks”
Cathy O’Neil, OWS Alternative Banking Group
Want to learn the May Day song? Want to sing but feel afraid to? Want to have a rockin’ good half hour? Then this is the class for you!
Throughout the day many will be singing the May Day song “We Stand for Justice.” This class is to help everybody feel comfortable, confident, and excited about singing during the rally and throughout the day. No singing or music skills needed, for we all are singers. We welcome and invite you to join us. Let your voice be heard!
“Sociology of Race and Ethnicity”
Introduction to Colorblind racism, using excerpts from Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists, Ch 3 and Conclusion; Brown et. al’s White-Washing Race: The Myth of a Colorblind Society, Ch 6. Reading materials and outlines will be provided.
Move your class / teach your own class at the Free University! Sign up here.
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Apologies to those who came out last night to see the Iraqi film “Life After the Fall” by Kasim Abid. There were technical difficulties with the tape and it will have to be re-screened later this year. In anycase, next week is the last event of the Festival of Iraqi Culture “We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War” book reading, signing and discussion.Wed, March 27, 2013 7:00 pm at Alwan for the Arts, 16 Beaver Street (between Broad and Broadway), 4th floor, NYC
A little game of Hide-and-Seek ensued yesterday morning at Cooper Union by it’s Board members. Just like the last minute plans by Obama to move G-8 talks to Camp David last year fearing confrontation with the people it is supposed to be serving, the Cooper Union Board decided to change location of their meeting to an off-site undisclosed location, avoiding the presence of students, faculty, and community members.
Why hide? In yesterdays meeting the board was to decide the fate of free education at Cooper Union. News is now coming out from undisclosed “sources” that the Board decided to put the onus on the faculty of Art, Engineering, and Architecture, forcing them to find sustainable ways of funding the program. But some like the Cooper Union Student Action Group are suggesting the faculty was threatened by holding back fall admissions. Ironically the current ideas for keeping education free at Cooper Union is to charge others for education – like charging for a pre-college program, undergrad summer program, and MA program. Let’s see what else they come up with, until then back to the drawing board.
Students Rally in Unity as Board Meets in Secret
by Cooper Union Student Action to Save Our School
March 6, 2013
Cooper Union Art School Agrees to Explore Revenue Options
Wednesday, March 06, 2013 – 09:01 AM
By Beth Fertig
Why is Cooper Union Being Occupied?
December 4, 2012
by group affect
Obama Moves G-8 Summit from Chicago to Secluded Camp David
Monday, March 5, 2012
by Common Dreams staff
By Suzy Subways
In March 1995, 20,000 students from City University of New York (CUNY) were attacked by police after surrounding city hall to protest a draconian tuition increase. This protest, organized by the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts, marked an upsurge in student movement activity that continued into 1996, when the group transformed into the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM), a multiracial radical organization. Before disbanding in 2004, SLAM established chapters at CUNY colleges in all five boroughs of the city. This roundtable focuses on the chapter at Hunter College in Manhattan and explores SLAM’s legacy of building a left culture in New York City and across the country.
SLAM’s legacy is bound up with the evolution of CUNY, which became the primary route out of poverty for the city’s Black, Latino, and immigrant communities starting in the 1970s. Prior to that, despite offering free education since 1847, CUNY was predominantly white. In 1969, Black and Latino students at City College in Harlem, with support from the Black Panthers and Young Lords, occupied CUNY campus buildings and won an open admissions policy that made CUNY accessible to students who needed remedial classes because they had attended substandard high schools. By 1976, the year CUNY started charging tuition, the student body was predominantly people of colour. The policy of open admissions was reversed in 1999, despite SLAM’s militant opposition.
This roundtable is part of a larger and ongoing SLAM oral history project (see http://SLAMherstory.wordpress.com). While many people helped build SLAM, this article highlights the voices of some of the women of colour members. These women represent different generations of SLAM, from founders to younger leaders. Their insights convey their experiences in SLAM and draw out lessons about building organic leadership and creating multiracial, feminist organizations that are accountable to communities directly affected by the issues.
Lenina Nadal was a founding member of the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts and SLAM. Having graduated in 1997, she returned in 2000 to help create SLAM’s organizer training institute. She is a filmmaker, playwright, and poet, and works for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. Visit http://www.performingprofound.com
Rachèl Laforest was president of Hunter College’s Black Student Union in 1995 and SLAM’s first student government president in 1996. Before leaving SLAM in 2003, she defended open admissions and worked on SLAM’s High School Organizing Program and the Mumia Youth Task Force. She is Director of Organizing for New York City’s Transport Workers Union (TWU, Local 100).
Luz Schreiber worked on SLAM’s open admissions campaign and other projects between 1998 and 2000. Co-founder of Ollin Imagination (a cultural circle of resistance of parents, artists, students, and educators of colour), Luz is a creative writing major and Hunter Student Union organizer.
Suzan Hammad was president of Hunter’s Palestinian Club before joining SLAM and becoming a lead anti-war organizer in the early part of this decade. She is a painter (see www.cafepress.com/LailatiNar) and continues fighting for a free Palestine.
Tamieka Byer organized college and high school student walkouts against police brutality and the Iraq war as a member of SLAM between 2000 and 2004. She currently works with Amnesty International USA as the Board Liaison.
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How did student clubs at Hunter come together in 1995, work in the CUNY Coalition, and start SLAM?
Suzan: Pre-SLAM, some of the first CUNY movement meetings were happening in the Palestinian Club. It was like we were all saying the same thing: “Oh shit, they’re raising our tuition! Oh shit, they’re bombing Palestine! Oh shit!”
Lenina: There was a lot of anxiety among the students, because tuition was going to be raised by $1,000. The Black Student Union had members who were responsible for some of the major takeovers of the Hunter campus and other CUNY campuses in 1990 and ’91. The other clubs that had political consciousness included the Palestinian Club and the Arab Club, which were very strongly affiliated. And right across the hall was the Puerto Rican Club, which had some progressive membership. Those were the organizations that solidified people of colour on the Left.
The only alternative we were being offered was from the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), which was like, “Let’s lobby our representatives to see if we can change it from within.” But the frustration was already building up and working class students were feeling like this might be the last chance they would have at a CUNY education. The stakes were very, very high. It was really a mass movement. It’s like most movements – the leadership can claim it, but they have to claim it after the masses have already said, “This is what we want.” Those of us who had been part of organizations, or who grew up with leftist parents, started to get to know each other and see that we had something to offer to sustain a movement. That’s how some of SLAM’s leadership started to come together.
SLAM was a student group. Why did it fight for political prisoners, visit Zapatista communities, bring medical supplies to Iraq, and protest police brutality and the navy occupation of Vieques?
Tamieka: CUNY doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I mean, you talk about a tuition hike – which seems like a strictly CUNY issue – but you have to ask the question, “Why the hike?” The first thing I learned in SLAM was that tuition was free until the first year people of colour forced their way in. SLAM always made the point that tuition hikes were forcing out lower-income New Yorkers, while the government was spending more money recruiting these same lower-income people of colour to join the military.
Lenina: Despite the fact that SLAM had new leadership every year as people graduated and moved on with their lives, the last group of people in SLAM were still talking about police brutality and saying, “We can’t forget what’s going on in our own neighbourhoods.” It was really amazing for me to see that a radical movement can be sustained if certain values are maintained. Instead of just a political organization, we developed our own culture to pass down.
Rachèl: There were a lot of young people on Hunter’s campus who wound up being attracted to SLAM because we were speaking their language, politically and socially. Our Mumia Youth Task Force concert was a really dynamic event. We packed the entire 2,000-seat Hunter College auditorium. Mos Def and Dead Prez performed. People in the Mumia Coalition knew how valuable SLAM’s level of organizing and sexiness was. Young people wanted to be around folks who really had their finger on the pulse of what was happening in terms of hip-hop. That’s what made SLAM an easy thing to gravitate towards. Once you heard people talk about what they were really about, folks stuck around to listen and had ideas of their own.
I think the Amadou Diallo1 issue made it easier to pull young people into the Mumia stuff. Even though young people had heard about Mumia, he wasn’t a New Yorker. He wasn’t someone that you might have seen when you left the house to go to school that morning. Amadou was. Especially for young people in the Bronx who lived right next to him, Amadou’s murder and the acquittal of those cops allowed them to look at a situation like Mumia’s, and really believe that he was framed for killing a cop.
There are serious lulls in organizing work, and sometimes events like this are catalysts. We realized that folks were angry because there were so many spontaneous gatherings throughout the city. Now, I have to tell you, I was very disappointed, because I think those mobilizations also showed how much people had gotten used to things. The response was angry, but I don’t believe it went far enough. There were young people just running through the streets. But nothing really happened. When a community finds itself completely backed into a corner and is angry, fear drops away. Flipping over a police car, setting something on fire, rawly expressing the rage that you feel – there’s nothing to hold it back. It showed SLAM that young people were so lulled by the system that they were angry, but they weren’t angry enough. We weren’t angry enough.
How did people bring in traditions of resistance from their own communities?
Lenina: People learned about who they were. A lot of people came out of the closet and started to engage in queer political theory by bringing that analysis into the organization to challenge people. We had a Cambodian member who was taken out of Cambodia during a very repressive time and brought to the US. She was discovering what the repression in Cambodia had to do with US foreign policy. Another member taught us how Mao used pop culture to create cultural resistance. He was saying, “how can we have our cultural resistance?” That’s what helped feed Mao’s revolution, and that was going to help feed our revolution. The Puerto Rican students and Black students had access to institutions created in the ’60s and ’70s by young revolutionaries like ourselves. Together, this created a very sensual space: it wasn’t a clash of cultures so much as a joint discovery.
Rachèl: I was a red diaper baby. My parents were an interracial couple at a time when that wasn’t popular in any way. My mom’s parents had been union organizers; both were involved in the Communist Party during the 1920s and ’30s. When I was younger, my mom was a tenant organizer. My father participated in one of the first formations of the Communist Party in Haiti. His family was asked to leave the country because of it. I learned that if there were liberation struggles that affected your life, you participated in them no matter what. SLAM was unique because most of the core group came from that kind of background.
Luz: The village in Oaxaca where I’m from has a great spirit of resistance, dating back to the Mexican revolution in 1910. I came to New York in 1998, four years into the Zapatista rebellion against neoliberalism’s economic policies. People in Chiapas and elsewhere are displaced by these policies. The struggle in CUNY to keep admissions open was also about stopping students being displaced from the university. I was surprised that people in SLAM knew about the Zapatistas. From that, I knew that this was a group of people that cared about what was going on in the world and were eager to learn how indigenous people resisted. The Zapatistas declared, “We want a world that can fit many worlds,” and that resonated with people everywhere. In New York there are many worlds, but the people in power don’t want to make room for all of us.
How did SLAM develop leadership?
Luz: I think I was only able to imagine myself as a leader because I saw powerful Latina and Black women – leaders, intellectual, strong – doing stuff. They said, “We have to make you speak. There’s a rally, and you have to testify because you’re a remedial student.” So they made me get up on top of a desk and recite a Nelson Mandela poem. It wasn’t the most orthodox way to teach public speaking, but it worked. If someone had just said, “It’s important to have women of colour leadership,” that wouldn’t have clicked as much as seeing it in practice.
Tamieka: Lots of trainings! Doing readings and coming back to the group to discuss them. And we were doing the readings while simultaneously doing the work: it was easy to look at something we had just read about imperialism and see how it was still relevant to how we interact with each other, and how America interacts with the rest of the world.
SLAM helped develop new leaders by actually having leaders that represented me. I’ve been at three other organizations since SLAM, and not once has there been more than one strong woman of colour at a time in each organization. In SLAM, part of what developed me was knowing that these strong women of colour had done the same readings I did, made many of the same mistakes I was currently making, and were the better for it.
Lenina: When we started the organizer training institute, we used the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL) curriculum.2 We recruited about 25 students a semester, and taught them organizing skills like campaign development, power analysis, public speaking, media relations and messaging, graphic design and web design. We also did political education using current events and older texts to define imperialism, patriarchy, and capitalism. In the high school organizing program, we had a video instructor. The young people were looking into the Anthony Baez3 case, so they did a short documentary about that.
Suzan: I felt a very strong connection to our mentors from the Black Nationalist movement. They gave me good advice when I felt confused. I was mentored by their example of devoting their whole lives to the struggle for liberation and peace. They were experienced in organizing, and I really respected their anti-imperialism, anarchism, and Black Nationalism. Palestinians and the Black Panthers had worked together. To this day, not everyone works with Palestinians; we’re still marginalized in the movement.
Why and how did SLAM become a women of colour-led organization? How did SLAM deal with questions of whiteness and male leadership?
Rachèl: The white men did much of the theorizing and writing. The women of colour did much of the relationship-building. The number of people recruited into the organization by white men was very slim. They built relationships with new people who didn’t know them by having theoretical conversations about what was happening and pushed people little by little. The women – and mainly the women of colour – met people at a party or were handing out flyers and getting into a conversation about food or an event. They developed many more relationships at a time.
Internally, the women ran the show. Because we had a better understanding of the population we were dealing with and what folks were going to respond to, we made decisions about what should happen. While some of the white men in SLAM had some great ideas, sometimes people said no for the sake of saying no, just to not move on another idea the white man had put forward. People were angry about not hearing their voices come through in the work. It was in the second year that people started to shut them down, and it came out angrily at first, but eventually it came out respectfully and it was for the right reason. It wasn’t to shush up the white man but because, “Actually, we genuinely don’t think that’s a good idea right here, right now. But we love you, and we want you to keep putting ideas out on the table.”
Luz: I learned to become aware of power dynamics within the group. We called out white privilege, sexism, and homophobia during meetings or any kind of gathering. All these forms of oppression persist because we internalize them. At times it was challenging and even painful. But if a man spoke for too long, someone would ask, “So what do women think of this?” I wasn’t used to seeing a man following a woman’s direction or being challenged for his behavior, and that was amazing. Many men preferred to only engage in theoretical work, write articles, speak at meetings, and argue ideas. For a lot of men, it’s easier to take on the role of the intellectual and leave the organizing and networking to women. The men in the group acknowledged that women were better at organizing. But sometimes it was a cop out: men aren’t good relationship-builders because they don’t practice or try hard enough.
Lenina: SLAM allowed people of colour to have their voices at the forefront by teaching people public speaking, writing, and documentation skills. For white people who have had some level of privilege, who are good writers or speakers, or who have had a good education, their role is really to be a trainer. And they can continue to write because if you’re teaching someone how to be a writer, but you’re also writing yourself, that person feels like, “I’m being taught by someone who really does this stuff and takes it seriously.” You have to see if you can play a role in helping somebody who is afraid that what they say or how they’ll say something won’t be accepted. Historically it hasn’t been.
How did Maoism and anarchism shape SLAM’s decisions and goals?
Rachèl: Those ideologies were interwoven in the work. Anarchism shaped our involvement in the global justice convergence protests against the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000. What we learned from Maoism showed up in the more institutionalized organizing work we did in the High School Organizing Program, the Hunter clubs, and our community anti-police brutality work. All of the folks involved had a genuine desire to be led by those most affected by what was happening. Sometimes it was SLAM members, and sometimes it wasn’t. And I think our struggle to be a multicultural, multi-ideological group allowed us to ask about the needs of a particular community and figure out what role SLAM could play.
The anarchists leaned toward Maoism because the majority of the group leaned toward a Maoist tendency. Folks that subscribed to more Maoist ideas felt safer playing on both ends and were excited by a lot of the anarchist ideas that were put on the table. However, the fact that we had this institution to run that was university-based and had rules and regulations played a role in quelling the more anarchist activities. The anarchist notion of tearing things down and resisting any structure that was not built by us was important. And where Maoism came into play was that it wasn’t just tearing down for the sake of showing outrage. Institution building was meant to replace what we were tearing down with a different approach, new ideas, and a new way of relating to people. I think the two played hand in hand.
Luz: It was amazing to learn theory and see it applied. I remember a demonstration against Herman Badillo, a man on the Board of Trustees that wanted to end open admissions. This was someone who fought for education for minorities early in his political career, and then he made racist statements to the media about Mexicans. Coming from a Latino, it was internalized racism. He said things like, these short people from the hills are coming here and taking over our schools, and we can’t allow this to happen. I was like, “fuck, this shit is real, this is not something from a book.” We needed to challenge the ideology that people of colour were intellectually inferior, culturally inferior, and therefore had to be segregated and denied a right to education.
You can hear all you want about theory, the masses, and how class relations work, but it’s experiences like this that really bring it home and make you understand not only intellectually, but with all your senses. Mobilizing people to fight police brutality and for Mumia Abu-Jamal put ideas into practice. It wasn’t just preaching. Because then Mao only becomes a gospel; it’s not something you can live. I lived it with SLAM. Not only “What does it mean that women were disempowered systematically throughout the centuries?” but also “What does it mean to have women leadership? How does that look, how does that feel?”
Lenina: SLAM’s Little Red Study Group brought together a group of radical teachers and community organizers: people who wanted to have a more radical nonprofit space. We decided to study Marxism seriously. We studied a lot of Mao, a little queer theory, a little feminism. That group evolved into the New York Study Group, which includes former members of Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM).4 We felt a kind of identification and connection with STORM because it had the same goals around women of colour-led organization.
How did SLAM’s militance relate to issues affecting its members’ communities?
Suzan: I really am glad we were very loud when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq broke out in 2001 and 2003. I wish a lot of people had stayed that loud, maybe because I related to it so much, because I’m from the Middle East, and there’s been a lot of war in my history. What happened in the Nakba 60 years ago is happening today in Afghanistan, it’s happening today in Iraq. When we took over the Hunter president’s office in February 2003, we just wanted to make a really bold statement. We met people that day who would later become SLAM members. Did we expect to stop the war that day? No. It was an expression of a lot of people’s feelings of “Fuck this!” I think in America today, there’s a lot of people suffering under the surface. I think people were feeling it, but nobody was saying anything.
Lenina: We believed we had to find the most revolutionary way to react. And that was being more militant at a time when this society was constantly encouraging us to be comfortable, passive, and do things without accomplishing anything. Militant action feels good because you’re connecting and doing what’s in your heart, despite whatever the state says. If you have a supportive community, why not take over a bridge? A lot of younger people tell us, “I wish I was around when SLAM was around.” We used to say that about the Young Lords, and the Young Lords probably said that about somebody else. Just do the best you can, you know?
What were some of the contradictions in SLAM becoming student government at Hunter College?
Tamieka: Trying to appease the administration and still hold true to our politics at the same time. Making other student groups and clubs feel welcomed and not like SLAM was a special club that benefited from student government while they were given crumbs. Feeling overwhelmed with hard, emotional, full-time jobs at 20, 21, 22 years of age, in addition to SLAM work.
Lenina: I think you’re hitting at the core of the nonprofit industrial complex. Any time anything becomes institutionalized, it loses a certain amount of energy. It’s like running a small country like Cuba or Nicaragua, where you’re no longer an outside guerrilla. All of a sudden we had money and power within the structure of our college. We had access to CUNY by-laws and knowledge of important meetings where real decisions were going to be made for students. We received this information in memos and we would raise hell in all those meetings. We had unlimited photocopying, and basically anything we needed for organizing (walkie-talkies, things we needed for rallies, for security), we could purchase with student government funds as long as we put it on the books. Plus, several organizations that weren’t funded at the time – groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and the Taxi Workers’ Alliance – could freely come in and use our copy machine, space, computers, and web access. Hunter was a hub for organizing work.
As time went by, we became a top priority for the Board of Trustees, which wanted to get rid of us. There were very explicit conversations about our organization. We took a very strong stance on Palestine in a city where, to be honest, it got us into a lot of trouble. And taking a stance on police brutality was very important to us, and we didn’t give a shit. If it was going to mean losing student government, then F-it, you know?
Rachèl: We really did capitalize on a moment of a lot of young people being pissed off and wanting a space to channel that energy. You build institutions to try to carry people through the valleys until the next peak of movement activity arrives. People have to be better prepared, and have stronger and tighter language for how to talk about the peaks when they get there. But as far as our organizing capacity, I think it was a double-edged sword. SLAM could not have done the things we did without the resources student government provided. And I think the obligations to run the student government prevented SLAM from doing some of the greatest things it could have done. I lived in the office. I got caught up in so much of the financial bullshit that it didn’t allow me to really go out amongst the students and talk about what SLAM did, why I was a part of it, and how important the issues we were dealing with were.
What do you think led to SLAM falling apart?
Rachèl: In 2000, it was easier to link police brutality to CUNY students. At that time, Hunter was still a majority of people of colour college, so students went home to the very communities we were talking about. Tuition was going up every year, so the class and complexion of the school changed. It became more of a challenge for SLAM to link the antiwar organizing with the student body because students didn’t see the connection between undocumented immigrants being detained and CUNY students being targeted. They didn’t see it as their struggle.
There was also a stigma tied to SLAM being in student government for eight years, as if it had been a dictatorship. Sometimes the student body didn’t want to hear shit anymore.
Lenina: In the end, we were an institution getting money from students. A lot of the people who were getting a salary in SLAM didn’t want to work on student issues. They wanted to work on issues in their communities. It wasn’t too hard for the administration to tell the students, “These people aren’t really serving you.” The problem when you get money from any particular source is that you’re beholden to that source of funding. Because open admissions ended, you began to see more middle-class students that were easily persuaded that we were a little too radical.
Also, when you have a job, it’s no longer really a movement for you. It becomes your 9 to 5. You almost get sick of it, like any job. And it’s funny, because small businesses are encouraged to constantly make people feel a sense of the team and a commitment to the cause. We didn’t really do that, because we didn’t know how. So we were functioning the way you would in a grassroots movement, where it’s like, “You’re not holding up your end of the stick here, what’s wrong with you?” as opposed to “Let’s go back to our mission, our values.” What were we doing to heal ourselves, to reinvigorate ourselves, to keep ourselves excited and to be engaged and understand why this was so important? When you don’t have that consistently, it’s difficult. Especially when you have an administration connected to mayor Giuliani, and they’re mobilizing against you, and you’re doing your darnedest to stay in there, but you don’t have as strong a connection to the student body that was initially so all about you being there.
Tamieka: The older generations of SLAM did the best they could with transferring information and skills to the incoming generation. Looking back, I see that there is a problem if the organization is unable to function without some of its founding members. If we can’t survive without a member who has been in the organization for over eight years, then we’re lacking the self-sustaining part, right? I look back and think, “Boy, if we had those contacts… I didn’t know we had a contact in X organization! Wow, that could’ve been helpful.” But folks get burnt out and are ready to wrap it up. We had a haphazard transfer of institutional knowledge. I’ve seen it everywhere; it’s not just a SLAM problem. How to effectively pass knowledge and history along, and make sure new folks are receptive to this kind of learning. We all have such huge egos. I think too often we wanted to work on our own; we could’ve shouldered some of our work better if we partnered with more organizations, in my generation at least.
SLAM was great at movement building and leadership development, but not so successful at winning immediate victories. The loss of Open Admissions was especially painful. Why do you think SLAM lost so much, and how much do you think it matters?
Lenina: In 1995 they raised tuition by $750 instead of the initial threat of $1,000. Of course, the reformist groups took a lot of credit for that, like the threat of 20,000 young people showing up out of nowhere and running around Wall Street had nothing to do with it! The administration also didn’t cut financial aid as much, but our vision was so much larger. We wanted a school where we didn’t have to pay tuition, period. Some of the most amazing, transformative experiences are experiences where you lose. Those anti-globalization protests were so deeply transformative in terms of like, wow, we could actually build sectors of society with just who we have. We could build a little media sector and a little law sector, and a little sector of doctors, and we could really make this happen on our own. And we didn’t win crap in that, you know?
Rachèl: SLAM chose issues sometimes that we knew weren’t winnable, but were core issues that people could be unified and gathered around. And the strength built by people learning about each other and building that community was a kind of victory. If you are a longstanding organization, and you come down from a peak and you’re in a valley for a while, there are times when choosing small, winnable issues is important for the morale of your members. People have to know that the organization has the strength to win things, even if they’re tiny. But even if the issue itself is not winnable at this point in history it’s a win to bring people together around it, especially if they’re able to stay stuck together around that issue and grow outward. They say to pick your battles wisely, even in interpersonal relationships. And yeah, sometimes you only want to focus on the battles you know are significant to the relationship. And then other times, you just want to have the battle for the sake of making sure that something that’s important to you doesn’t just die by the wayside.
Suzan: Unfortunately, it’s a very unfair power dynamic. The forces against us have a lot of power. But our spirit is stronger, and what we want is greater.
What can SLAM teach the CUNY movement and the Left today?
Rachèl: The one-on-one relationship-building approach to organizing. The internet makes it so that you don’t have to be in human contact with anybody anymore, and that’s not such a great thing. My first boyfriend at Hunter became politicized because every single time I saw him by the cafeteria, I would stop to have a discussion with him about what was happening in the Black Student Union, and how he might be able to get involved. You sort of met a friend and didn’t let them go. Working at Jobs With Justice, they had me running around East Harlem, door-knocking, and they had this whole laid-out script that I never used. That Alinsky5 style is devoid of any real, genuine investment in the issue. Because of SLAM, I had learned how to look for the elements in it that I identified with personally, and let that shape the discussion. And to sit down and try to figure out who folks were, where they were coming from, did this affect them, and if it didn’t, why? Did it move them, and if it didn’t, why? You’ve got to deal with people where they’re at if you want them to move forward in another direction. I brought what I learned in SLAM about the relationship-building approach into my work at the transit union also.
Luz: One of the core philosophies in SLAM was the personal is political. We really took time to build relationships. Sometimes people think that part is not really organizing, because it’s just social. But that’s the foundation of organizing. If you cannot build personal relationships, how can you build organizational capacity? When people set up 1,000 barricades in Oaxaca in 2006 to protect themselves against the government, it was instinctual, because in Oaxaca people have really large, closely knit families. That is a natural social network. People were guarding all the entrances of town and if they said, “Go get your family,” your family means like 200 people. In Oaxaca, those relationships are already built; you just have to tap into them. Here, you have to start from scratch.
For students who come to Hunter now, there’s a student government in the service of the administration. Just knowing that there was this other alternative for so long is amazing. Some people can’t get over it. They ask me, “How did it happen?”
I see less intergenerational work happening now. SLAM really had these mentors from older generations in the community; they weren’t scholars. People who are active now at Hunter have a professor they look up to. Right now, everybody learns from each other, but I don’t feel like there’s leadership. Horizontalism is more attractive, because everyone gets to participate, and more ideas are exchanged. But I think it’s equally important to have systematic accountability. Some people are very repulsed by the idea of leadership. But if there hadn’t been true leadership in the Cuban revolution, it would have failed.
Lenina: We were visionary, because we weren’t just about the economic revolution and the political revolution. It wasn’t just about these capitalist pigs, and socialism was the answer; it was about how the hell does that relate to hip-hop? It’s like, we’re going to take this boring message, something you’d read in a newspaper, and present it in a way that you can understand, like something that happened to your mom or could happen to your best friend, and make it that personal and real for you. It was about love and kindness and getting excited, not just about a new, different type of social order.
1 Amadou Diallo was an unarmed 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, Africa, who was killed on February 4, 1999, by four New York City Police Department plain-clothed officers. They fired a total of 41 rounds at Diallo, mistaking his wallet for a gun when he reached for his identification.
2 SOUL works to lay the groundwork for a powerful liberation movement by supporting the development of a new generation of young organizers, especially young women, young people of colour, queer youth, and working-class young people. See www.schoolofunityandliberation.org.
3 Anthony Baez was a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. He was killed in 1994 by asphyxiation during a chokehold by Officer Francis Livoti, after his family’s football hit a police car.
4 STORM was a multi-racial, internationalist, left cadre organization based in the Bay Area from 1994 to 2001. See leftspot.com/blog/files/docs/STORMSummation.pdf.
5 Saul Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals and has inspired many neighbourhood activist groups like ACORN that have single-issue campaigns. The Midwest Academy is a training center that draws heavily from Alinskyism.
[ originally published at OccupyWallStreet.net ]
(photo: Friday, Day 14 of Occupy Wall Street – photos from the camp in Zuccotti Park and the march against police brutality, walking to One Police Plaza, headquarters of the NYPD. CC BY 3.0 David Shankbone )
There has been a flurry of discussion around process in OWS of late. This can only be a good thing. Atrophy and complacency are the death of movements. Any viable experiment in freedom is pretty much going to have to constantly re-examine itself, see what’s working and what isn’t—partly because situations keep changing, partly because we’re trying to invent a culture of democracy in a society where almost no one really has any experience in democratic decision-making, and most have been told for most of their lives that it would be impossible, and partly just because it’s all an experiment, and it’s in the nature of experiments that sometimes they don’t work.
A lot of this debate has centered around the role of consensus. This is healthy too, because there seem to be a lot of misconceptions floating around about what consensus is and is supposed to be about. Some of these misconceptions are so basic, though, I must admit I find them a bit startling.
Just one telling example. Justine Tunney recently wrote a piece called “Occupiers: Stop Using Consensus!” that begins by describing it as “the idea that a group must strictly adhere to a protocol where all decisions are unanimous”—and then goes on to claim that OWS used such a process, with disastrous results. This is bizarre. OWS never used absolute consensus. On the very first meeting on August 2, 2011 we established we’d use a form of modified consensus with a fallback to a two-thirds vote. Anyway, the description is wrong even if we had been using absolute consensus (an approach nowadays rarely used in groups of over 20 or 30 people), since consensus is not a system of unanimous voting, it’s a system where any participant has the right to veto a proposal which they consider either to violate some fundamental principle, or which they object to so fundamentally that proceeding would cause them to quit the group. If we can have people who have been involved with OWS from the very beginning who still don’t know that much, but think consensus is some kind of “strict” unanimous voting system, we’ve got a major problem. How could anyone have worked with OWS that long and still remained apparently completely unaware of the basic principles under which we were supposed to be operating?
Granted, this seems to be an extreme case. But it reflects a more general confusion. And it exists on both sides of the argument: both some of the consensus’ greatest supporters, and its greatest detractors, seem to think “consensus” is a formal set of rules, analogous to Roberts’ Rules of Order, which must be strictly observed, or thrown away. This certainly was not what people who first developed formal process thought that they were doing! They saw consensus as a set of principles, a commitment to making decisions in a spirit of problem-solving, mutual respect, and above all, a refusal of coercion. It was an attempt to create processes that could work in a truly free society. None of them, even the most legalistic, were so presumptuous to claim those were the only procedures that could ever work in a free society. That would have been ridiculous.
Let me return to this point in a moment. First,
1) CONSENSUS IS “A WHITE THING” (OR A MIDDLE CLASS WHITE THING, OR AN ELITIST FORM OF OPPRESSION, ETC)
The first thing to be said about this statement is that this idea is a very American thing. Anyone I mention it to who is not from the United States tends to react to the statement with complete confusion. Even in the US, it is a relatively recent idea, and the product of a very particular set of historical circumstances.
The confusion overseas is due to the fact that almost everywhere except the US, the exact opposite is true. In the Americas, Africa, Asia, Oceania, one finds longstanding traditions of making decisions by consensus, and then, histories of white colonialists coming and imposing Roberts Rules of Order, majority voting, elected representatives, and the whole associated package—by force. South Asian panchayat councils did not operate by majority voting and still don’t unless there has been a direct colonial influence, or by political parties that learned their idea of democracy in colonial schools and government bodies the colonialists set up. The same is true of communal assemblies in Africa. (In China, village assemblies also operated by consensus until the ’50s when the Communist Party imposed majority voting, since Mao felt voting was more “Western” and therefore “modern.”) Almost everywhere in the Americas, indigenous communities use consensus and the white or mestizo descendants of colonialists use majority voting (insofar as they made decisions on an equal basis at all, which mostly they didn’t), and when you find an indigenous community using majority voting, it is again under the explicit influence of European ideas—almost always, along with elected officials, and formal rules of procedure obviously learned in colonial schools or borrowed from colonial regimes. Insofar as anyone is teaching anyone else to use consensus, it’s the other way around: as in the case of the Maya-speaking Zapatista communities who insisted the EZLN adopt consensus over the strong initial objections of Spanish-speaking mestizos like Marcos, or for that matter the white Australian activists I know who told me that student groups in the ’80s and ’90s had to turn to veterans of the Maoist New People’s Army to train them in consensus process—not because Maoists were supposed to believe in consensus, since Mao himself didn’t like the idea, but because NPA guerillas were mostly from rural communities in the Philippines that had always used consensus to make decisions and therefore guerilla units had adopted the same techniques spontaneously.
So where does the idea that consensus is a “white thing” actually come from? Indigenous communities in America all used consensus decision-making instead of voting. Africans brought to the Americas had been kidnapped from communities where consensus was the normal mode of making collective decisions, and violently thrust into a society where “democracy” meant voting (even though they themselves were not allowed to vote.) Meanwhile, the only significant group of white settlers who employed consensus were the Quakers—and even they had developed much of their process under the influence of Native Americans like the Haudenosaunee.
As far as I can make out the ideas comes out of political arguments that surrounded the rise of Black Nationalism in the 1960s. The very first mass movement in the United States that operated by consensus was the SNCC, or Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a primarily African-American group created in 1960 as a horizontal alternative to Martin Luther King’s (very vertical) SCLC. SNCC operated in a decentralized fashion and used consensus decision-making. It was SNCC for instance that organized the famous “freedom rides” and most of the direct action campaigns of the early ’60s. By 1964, an emerging Black Power faction was looking for an issue with which to isolate and ultimately expel the white members of the group. They seized on consensus as a kind of wedge issue—this made sense, politically, because many of those white allies were Quakers, and it was advantageous, at first, to frame the argument as one of efficiency, rather than being about more fundamental moral and political issues like non-violence. It’s important to emphasize though that the objections to consensus as inefficient and culturally alien that were put forward at the time were not put forward in the name of moving to some other form of direct democracy (i.e., majority voting), but ultimately, part of a rejection of the whole package of horizontality, consensus, and non-violence with the ultimate aim of creating top-down organizational structures that could support much greater militancy. It also corresponded to an overt attack on the place of women in the organization—an organization that had in fact been founded by the famous African-American activist Ella Baker on the principle “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” Stokely Carmichael, the most famous early Black Power advocate in SNCC, notoriously responded to a paper circulated by feminists noting that women seemed to be systematically excluded from positions in the emerging leadership structure by saying as far as he was concerned, “the only position for women in SNCC is prone.”
Within a few years SNCC began to splinter; white allies were expelled in 1965; after a brief merger with the Panthers it split again, and dissolved in the ’70s.
These tensions—challenges to horizontalism and consensus, macho leadership styles, the marginalization of women—were by no means peculiar to SNCC. Similar battles were going on in predominantly white groups: notably SDS, which ultimately ditched consensus too, and ended up splitting between Maoists and Weathermen. This is one reason the feminist movement of the early ’70s, which within the New Left began partly as a reaction to just this kind of macho posturing, embraced consensus as an antidote. (Anarchists only later adopted it from them.) But one point bears emphasizing. It’s important. None of those who challenged consensus did so in the name of a different form of direct democracy. In fact, I’m not aware of any example of an activist group that abandoned consensus and then went on to settle on some different, but equally horizontal approach to decision-making. The end result is invariably abandoning direct democracy entirely Sometimes that’s because, as here, that is explicitly what those challenging consensus want. But even when it’s not, the same thing happens, because moving from consensus sets off a dynamic that inevitably leads in a vertical direction. When consensus is abandoned, some are likely to quit in protest. These are likely to be the most dedicated to horizontal principles. Factions form. Minority factions that consistently lose key votes, and don’t have their concerns incorporated in resulting proposals, will often split off. Since they too are likely to consist of more horizontally oriented participants, the group becomes ever more vertical. Before long, those who never liked direct democracy to begin with start saying it’s what’s really to blame for all these problems, it’s inefficient, things would run far more smoothly with clearly defined leadership roles—and it only takes a vote of 51% of the remaining, much more vertical group, to ditch direct democracy entirely.
Obviously, the widespread perception of consensus process as white isn’t just be a hold-over from events that took place forty years ago. A lot of the problem is that, since the ’70s, consensus process has largely been developed among direct-action oriented groups, and, while there are certainly African-American-based groups operating in what might be called the Ella Baker tradition, most of those groups have been largely white. The reasons are pretty obvious. Those lacking white privilege face much higher levels of state repression, and (unlike, in say, Mexico, or India, where those who face the most repression are generally speaking already organized in semi-autonomous communities that operate at least partly by consensus), in the US, this limits the degree to which it’s possible to engage in creating experimental spaces outside the system. Communities face immediate such practical concerns so pressing many feel working outside the system would be irresponsible. Those who don’t often feel they have no choice but to adopt either strict, rigorous, MLK-style non-violence, or adopt revolutionary militarism like the panthers—both of which tend to lead to top down forms of organization. As a result, the culture of consensus, the style in which it’s conducted, the sensibilities surrounding it, inevitably comes to reflect the white middle-class background of so many of those who have created and shaped it, and the result is that those who do not share these sensibilities feel alienated and excluded. Obviously this is something that urgently needs to be addressed. But the problem here is not with the principles underlying consensus (that all voices have equal weight, that no one be compelled to act against their will), but with the way it’s being done—and the fact that the way it’s being done have the effect of undermining those very principles.
2) RULES VERSUS PRINCIPLES
I think the real problem here is a misunderstanding about what we’re basically arguing about. A lot of people on both sides of the debate seem to think “consensus” is a set of rules. If you follow the rules, you’re doing consensus. If you break the rules, or even do them in the wrong order it’s somehow not. I’ve seen people show up to meetings armed with elaborate diagrams or flow-charts for some kind of formal process downloaded from some web page and insist that only this is the really real thing. So it’s hardly surprising that other people put off by all this, or who see that particular form of process hit some kind of loggerhead, say “well consensus doesn’t work. Let’s try something else.”
As far as I’m concerned both sides completely miss the point.
I’ll say it again. Consensus is not a set of rules. It’s a set of principles. Actually I’d even go so far to say that if you really boil it down, it ultimately comes down to just two principles: everyone should have equal say (call this “equality”), and nobody should be compelled to do anything they really don’t want to do (call this, “freedom.”)
Basically, that’s it. The rules are just a way to try to come to decisions in the spirit of those principles. “Formal consensus process,” in is various manifestations, is just one technique people have made up, over the years, to try to come to group decisions that solve practical problems in a way that ensures no one’s perspective is ignored, and no one is forced to do anything or comply with rules they find truly obnoxious. That’s it. It’s a way to find consensus. It’s not itself “consensus.” Formal process as it exists today has been proved to work pretty well for some kinds of people, under some circumstances. It is obviously completely inappropriate in others. To take an obvious example: most small groups of friends don’t need formal process at all. Other groups might, over time, develop a completely different approach that suits their own dynamics, relations, situation, culture, sensibilities. And there’s absolutely no reason any group can’t improvise an entirely new one if that’s what they want to do. As long as they are trying to create a process that embodies those basic principles, one that gives everyone equal say and doesn’t force anyone to go along with a decision they find fundamentally objectionable, then what they come up with is a form of consensus process—no matter how it operates. After all, it a group of people all decide they want to be bound by a majority decision, well, who exactly is going to stop them? But if they all decide to be bound by a majority decision, then they have reached a consensus (in fact, an absolute consensus) that they want to operate that way. The same would be true if they all decided they wanted to be bound by the decisions of a Ouija Board, or appointed one member of the group Il Duce. Who’s going to stop them? However, for the exact same reason, the moment the majority (or Ouija board, or Il Duce) comes up with a decision to do something that some people think is absolutely outrageous and refuse to do, how exactly is anyone going to force them to go along? Threaten to shoot them? Basically, it could only happen if the majority is somehow in control of some key resource—money, space, connections, a name—and others aren’t. That is, if there is some means of coercion, subtle or otherwise. In the absence of a way to compel people to do things they do not wish to do, you’re ultimately stuck with some kind of consensus whether you like it or not.
The question then is what kind of decision making process is most likely to lead to decisions that no one will object to so fundamentally that they will march off in frustration or simply refuse to cooperate? Sometimes that will be some sort of formal consensus process. In other circumstances that’s the last thing one should try. Still, there’s a reason that 51/49% majority voting is so rarely employed in such circumstances: usually, it is the method least likely to come up with such decisions.
Think of it this way.
Imagine the city is about to destroy some cherished landmark and someone puts up posters calling for people to meet in a nearby square to organize against it. Fifty people show up. Someone says, okay, “I propose we all lay down in front of the bulldozers. Let’s hold a vote.” So 30 people raised their hands yes, and 20 people raise their hands no. Well, what possible reason is there that the 20 people who said no would somehow feel obliged to now go and lay in front of the bulldozers? These were just 50 strangers gathered in a square. Why should the opinions of a majority of a group of strangers oblige the minority to do anything—let alone something which will expose them to personal danger?
The example might seem absurd—who would hold such a vote?—but I experienced something almost exactly like it a few years ago, at an “all-anarchist” meeting called in London before a mass mobilization against the G8. About 200 people showed up at the RampArts Social Center. The facilitator, a syndicalist who disliked consensus, explained that another group had proposed a march, followed by some kind of direct action, and immediately proceeded to hold a vote on whether we, as a group, wanted to join as. Oddly, it did not seem to occur to him that, since we were not in fact a group, but just a bunch of people who had showed up at a meeting, there was no reason to think that those who did not want to join such an action would be swayed by the result. In fact he wasn’t taking a vote at all. He was taking a poll: “how many people are thinking of joining the march?” Now, there’s nothing wrong with polls; arguably, the most helpful thing he could have done under the circumstance was to ask for a show of hands so everyone could see what other people were thinking. The results might even have changed some people’s minds—”well, it looks like a lot of people are going to that march, maybe I will too” (though in this case, in fact, it didn’t.) But the facilitator thought he was actually conducting a vote on what to do, as if they were somehow bound by the decision.
How could he have been so oblivious? Well, he was a syndicalist; unions use majority vote; that’s why he preferred it. But of course, unions are membership-based groups. If you join a union, you are, by the very act of doing so, agreeing to abide by its rules, which includes, accepting majority vote decisions. Those who do not follow the group’s rules can be sanctioned, or even expelled. It simply didn’t occur to him that most unions’ voting system depended on the prior existence of membership rolls, dues, charters, and usually, legal standing—which in effect meant that either everyone who had voluntarily joined the unions was in effect consenting to the rules, or else, if membership was obligatory in a certain shop or industry owing to some prior government-enforced agreement, was ultimately enforced by the power of the state. To act the same way when people had not consented to be bound by such a decision, and then expect them to follow the dictates of the majority anyway, is just going to annoy people and make them less, not more, likely to do so.
So let’s go back to Justine’s first example,
the first time I saw a block used at Occupy was at one of the first general assemblies in August 2011. There were about a hundred people that day and in the middle of the meeting a proposal was made to join Verizon workers on the picket line as a gesture of solidarity in the hope that they might also support us in return. People loved the idea and there was quite a bit of positive energy until one woman in the crowd, busy tweeting on her phone, casually raised her hand and said, “I block that”. The moderator, quite flabbergasted asked why she blocked and she explained that showing solidarity with workers would alienate the phantasm of our right-wing supporters. Discussion then abruptly ended and the meeting went on. The truth was irrelevant, popular opinion didn’t matter, and solidarity—the most important of all leftist values—was thrown to the wind based on the whims of just one individual. Occupy had to find a new way to do outreach.
Now, I was at this meeting, and I remember the event quite vividly because at the time I was one of the participants who was more than a little bit annoyed by the block. But I also know that this is simply not what happened.
First of all, as I remarked, OWS from the beginning did not have a system where just one person could block a proposal; in the event of a block, we had the option to fall back on a 2/3 majority vote. So if everyone had really loved the proposal, the block could have been simply brushed aside. While many felt the woman in question was being ridiculous (most of us suspected the “national movement” she claimed to represent didn’t really exist), the facilitator, when she asked if anyone felt the same way, was surprised to discover a significant contingent–some, but not all, insurrectionist anarchists–did in fact object to holding the next meeting at a picket line, since they didn’t want to immediately identify the movement with the institutional left. Once it became clear it was not just one crazy person, but a significant chunk of the meeting—probably not quite a third, but close (there weren’t really a hundred people there, incidentally; more like sixty)—she asked if anyone felt strongly that we should move to a vote, and no one insisted. Was this a terrible failure of process? I must admit at the time I found it exasperating. But in retrospect I realize that had we forced a vote, the results might well have been catastrophic. Because at that point we, too were just a bunch of people who’d all showed up in a park. We weren’t a “group” at all. Nobody had committed to anything; certainly, no one had committed to going along with a majority decision.
A block is not a “no” vote. It’s a veto. Or maybe a better way to put it is that giving everyone the power to block is like giving the power to take on the role of the Supreme Court, and stop a piece of legislation that they feel to be unconstitutional, to anyone who has the courage to stand up in front of the entire group and use it. When you block you are saying a proposal violates one of the group’s agreed-on common principles. Of course, in this case we didn’t have any agreed-on common principles. In cases like that, the usual rule of thumb is that you should only block if you feel so strongly about an issue that you’d actually leave the group. In this sense I suspect the initial blocker was indeed being irresponsible (she wouldn’t have really left; and many wouldn’t have mourned her if she had.) However, others felt strongly. Had we held a vote and decided to hold our next meeting at a picket line over their objections, many of them would likely not have shown up. The anti-authoritarian contingent would have been weakened. Had that happened, there was a real chance later decisions, much more important ones, might have gone the other way. I am thinking here in particular of the crucial decision, made some weeks later, not to appoint official marshals and police liaisons for September 17. Judging by the experience of other camps, had that happened, everything might have gone differently and the entire occupation failed. In retrospect, the loss of one early opportunity to create ties with striking unionists now seems a small price to pay for heading off on a road that might have led to that. Especially since we had no trouble establishing strong ties with unions later—precisely because we had succeeded in creating a real occupation in the park.
There are a lot of other issues that one could discuss. Above all, we desperately need to have a conversation about decentralization. Another point of confusion about consensus is the idea that it’s crucial to get approval from everyone about everything, which is again stifling and absurd. Consensus only works if working groups or collectives don’t feel they need to seek constant approval from the larger group, if initiative arises from below, and people only check upwards if there’s a genuinely compelling reason not to go ahead with some initiative without clearing it with everyone else. In a weird way, the very unwieldiness of consensus meetings is helpful here, since it can discourage people from taking trivial issues to a larger group, and thus potentially waste hours of everyone’s time.
But all this will no doubt will be hashed out in the discussions that are going on (another good rule of thumb for consensus meetings: you don’t need to say everything you can think to say if you’re pretty sure someone else will make a lot of the same points anyway). Mainly what I want to say is this:
Our power is in our principles. The power of Occupy has always been that it is an experiment in human freedom. That’s what inspired so many to join us. That’s what terrified the banks and politicians, who scrambled to do everything in their power—infiltration, disruption, propaganda, terror, violence—to be able to tell the word we’d failed, that they had proved a genuinely free society is impossible, that it would necessarily collapse into chaos, squalor, antagonism, violence, and dysfunction. We cannot allow them such a victory. The only way to fight back is to renew our absolute commitment to those principles. We will never compromise on equality and freedom. We will always base our relations to each other on those principles. We will not fall back on top-down structures and forms of decision making premised on the power of coercion. But as long as we do that, and if we really believe in those principles, that necessarily means being as open and flexible as we can about pretty much everything else.
About a week before Hurricane Sandy hit The Yes Men launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $100,000 for a movie about themselves. Intertwined between the frantic tweets of the Sandy’s devastation, The Yes Men were tweeting for more movie money. Then all went silent… for many it was several weeks without electricity, hot water, communication devices, many without homes and loved ones.
Fast forward to just about a few weeks before Christmas, a group of community workers at La Union (Sunset Park) and OWS Making Worlds started a Indiegogo for Sandy relief for immigrants who were not covered by city relief fund. When you considering that the local immigrants where some of the first to come in and begin the work of cleaning up, without insurance without anything but the will to help, you would think they’d be able to raise some money, right?
But with only 14 days left, the immigrants fund put together by La Union from Sunset Park has been lingering just under $500 bucks. Meanwhile, as of November 30th, The Yes Men surpassed their goal and collected $146,006 for their film, amazingly so as this was during the many Sandy fundraisers. So how is this possible? What are the social and economic mechanisms behind these two campaigns that keep them miles apart?
I’m just reminded of something that someone tweeted during OccupySandy that asked, why are some of our community and social workers some of the most without? In this case, we might want to look at generosity in a different way, that is to see it as a measure of how much a person gives in relation to how much they take.
In any case, congratulations to the American heroes.
(A communique from Year0.org with a list of ATU picket locations in each of the boroughs.)
January 17, 2013
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 called for a strike to begin Wednesday January 16th at 6am. The strike includes almost 9,000 yellow school bus drivers and matrons, and will affect upwards of 150,000 students who regularly use the buses to get to school.
The strike hinges on the Employee Protection Provision, where any new contract for bus routes must guarantee continued job security for its experienced, skilled workforce. The EPP was one of the victories of ATU’s last strike, lasting over three months in 1979.
During the 1979 strike, special needs children were picked up by Correction Officers in buses meant for inmate transportation to Rikers Island. How quickly our city schools and prisons become interchangeable. This time around, instead of New York’s Boldest behind the wheels, the Department of Education is planning to provide students with MetroCards, and to reimburse cab fare and mileage. Though perhaps the Boldest are just too busy now, as the 2013 population of Rikers is 14,000, making it the world’s largest penal colony, more than double its 1979 numbers of around 6,000.
Much of the debate around the strike has been around the education and safety of the students. But what better education for our city’s children than a strike—a group of workers, adults, parents, standing up for themselves, challenging repressive authority, confronting the government and the logic of capital, acting now for the future.
The conflict is not between parents and unions, but rather a city government in defense of capital versus a union contract defending labor; the conflict is between a city government and all those it wishes to govern; the conflict is between capital and the class.
Capitalism is in crisis, and the response worldwide has been waves of austerity. City, state, and federal budgets are slashed, largely with cuts to public services, and attacks on the working class. Larry Hanley, the national president of the 190,000-member ATU, compared Mayor Bloomberg to Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker. Both have been at the forefront of campaigns trying to eliminate job standards, wages, health care, and retirement benefits for workers in public services.
New York City’s apparent budget crisis is only a small part of a larger global financial crisis. These gestures by our billionaire Mayor of “cutting costs” are simply a move towards towards disciplining and weakening the workforce in preparation for the cuts to come.
The MTA’s last contract with 38,000 TWU workers expired January 15th, 2012. New York’s contract with District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, with 121,000 members, expired in March of 2010. The city’s contract with the United Federation of Teachers, representing 75,000, expired in October 2009.
The International Longeshoremen’s Association has been threatening an East Coast port strike of its 14,500 members since September. Last July Consolidated Edison locked out 8,500 members of the Utility Workers of America. In August 2011, 45,000 members of the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers went on strike against Verizon.
The lesson of this strike—of all of these disputes, lockouts, threats—is to become a class against capital, against its race to the bottom, against its governors, mayors, and billionaires trying to convince us that austerity, tightening our belts, is the only path toward recovery from this crisis. The class against the logic of capital is to become, in the end, a class against the recovery of capitalism, a class against classes.
A “Picketing Do’s and Dont’s” leaflet distributed by Local 1181 emphasized peacefulness and safety, and condemned (at least officially) blockades, confrontation, provocations, threats, and property destruction. It doesn’t take much to realize we are at war. We will have to decide which tactics will contribute to our winning it.
There has been an increased police presence for days around many of the bus depot sites. The allegiance of Bloomberg’s private army should never be in question: they are class enemies, they will do all they can to facilitate scab labor, to facilitate a business-as-usual which benefits the few, punishing the many.
And let’s not forget, kids hate school, they probably hate many of their teachers, they probably even hate many of their classmates. Why not talk of a student strike by all ages—children, adolescents, young adults—in solidarity with the bus drivers, in solidarity with their special needs classmates, in solidarity simply with staying home, playing with their friends, listening to music, going on the internet, doing whatever they want. The right to be lazy and recover from the stress and madness of this sick society, is a fundamental one.
When students have recovered their energy, they can dedicate themselves to dismantling their school-prisons and determining their lives for themselves. In Chile, students have been occupying classrooms and running activities there on their own account, with the help of parents and teachers who understand the importance of youth control and self-determination. Connected with marches, demonstrations, riots, celebrations of their power in the neighborhoods, occupations of radio stations and political headquarters, etc., Chilean youth have been utterly transforming their society. Similarly, youth in the Canadian province of Quebec demonstrated their power in 2012 by striking from school, stopping the trains that shuttle workers to their places of exploitation, and taking over the streets. From this point of view, New York City has proven itself somewhat backwards when it comes to its somnolent student struggles. May the bus driver strike provide the spark that ignites the world of compulsory study and discipline, leading to its total re-making from the bottom up!
NEW YORK YEAR ZERO
17 January 2013
Here’s an updated list of picket locations, to be staffed 24/7 (peak support times are 6am-4pm):
Atlantic Express Co. – Ridgewood, 46-81 Metropolitan Avenue, Ridgewood, NY 11385: Subway – L (Jefferson St & Wyckoff Ave)
Atlantic Express Co. – Jamaica, 107-10 180th Street, Jamaica, NY 11433: Bus – Q42 (177th St & 106th Ave)
Boro Transit, 50 Snediker Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11207: Subway – L (Atlantic Ave)
Reliant Transportation – Greenpoint, 297 Norman Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11222: Bus – B48 (Hausman St & Norman Ave)
Lonero Transit, 2350 Hermany Avenue, Bronx, NY 10462: Subway – 6 (Castle Hill Ave)
(Office entrance on Hermany Ave., bus yard around corner on Zerega Ave.)
Pioneer Transportation – Staten Island, 2890 Arthur Kill Road, Staten Island, NY 10309: Bus – S84/S74 (Arthur Kill Rd)
A limited edition of The Occupy Wall Street Journal by vizKult is one of many zines being donated to The Way the Lights Went Out: A Hurricane Sandy Zine Benefit for The Ali Forney Center, a New York based organization which provides housing to homeless LGBT youth. Some of Ali Forney Center’s facilities were damaged when Hurricane Sandy touched down in the New York City area on October 29th, 2012. More info about the benefit below.
The back-page of new edition of The Occupy Wall Street Journal is a call to invigorate Alternative Economies in the face of rebuilding of communities affected by Sandy. The issue also puts a shout out to all the art related groups doing alternative economies work, including Arts & Labor’s Alternative Economies subgroup and their new guide What Do We Do Now? to be distributed in 2013.
The Way the Lights Went Out: A Hurricane Sandy Zine Benefit (Facebook Invite)
Zine Reading and Sale Benefit
Wednesday January 9, 7pm
Blue Stockings Bookstore
172 Allen Street, NYC
Kate Angell (My Feminist Friends, A Thousand Times Yes)
Jamie Varriale Vélez (Sinvergüenza)
Jenna Freedman (Lower East Side Librarian, Barnard Zine Library)
James Aviaz (Everything is Fucked, Everything is OK)
Stranger Danger Zine Distro, Kathleen McIntyre (The Worst), Lauren Denitzio (Get it Together), Kate Wadkins (International Girl Gang Underground), For the Birds Collective, Kate Angell, Amber Dearest (Fight Boredom Distro, The Triumph of our Tired Eyes), Maranda Elizabeth (Telegram), PonyBoy Press, Aimee Lusty (Booklyn, Pen15 Press), Amanda Stefanski, Jami Sailor (Your Secretary), Jordan Alam (The Cowation), Alycia Sellie (Brooklyn College Zine Library), Cindy Crabb (Doris), Natty Koper & Sivan Sabach (Bangarang This), Chella Quint (Adventures in Menstruating), Shawn Smith (Black Lesbians in the 70s Zine), Elvis Bakaitis (Homos in Herstory), Sarah Rose (Tazewell’s Favorite Eccentric, Once Upon a Distro), Maud Pryor (Marmalade Umlaut), vizKult.
Facebook Invite: https://www.facebook.com/events/138515892968167
PS. Another group devastated by Hurricane Sandy was the immigrant community of New York, who in some cases did not qualify for aid despite being valuable members of our communities. Sandy Relief for Immigrants, a online donation page has be made by La Union, OWS Making Worlds and others, please spread the word and donate here.