Direct Democracy in Action

Posted on November 8, 2011 by


The Legal Support Group submitted a  proposal Tuesday evening to the General Assembly (GA) to determine whether or not the occupiers agreed to the basic premise of meeting with the city.

The GA has provided the Legal Support Group with the power to communicate with the City of Philadelphia on its behalf. The proposal stems from a recent meeting with Mayor Michael Nutter as well as other requests for Occupiers to meeting weekly with the City.

While the City has requested the formation of a committee to fulfill this responsibility, Occupiers have encouraged representatives of the City attend the GA. There, Occupiers have said, the City could make its own proposal. The Legal Support Group has been relaying information back and forth between the City and the Occupation; all details of communication and meetings with the City, however, are brought before the GA for a vote.

Once the Group submitted the proposal, the process of direct democracy practiced by the GA began. Stack was opened up for one minute for those who wished to ask Clarifying Questions.

What is “stack”? The mayor asked the same question on Sunday. Stack is a list of people who wish to speak. When stack is open, people can add their name to the list. Two people holding placards that say “STACK” scan the crowd for people with raised hands. Names of those wishing to speak are written on the lists of the stack takers until stack is officially closed. Then, one at a time, the names on stack are called.

Clarifying questions about this proposal focused mostly on the lack of specifics about these proposed meeting. Questions included: Who would be in attendance on the city’s side? Who on the occupier’s side? Where would the meetings be held? Why doesn’t the mayor and his team come to a general assembly, does he know there has been a standing invitation to him to join us?

Once all of the clarifying questions from those on stack were voiced, stack was opened up again for those wishing to voice Concerns.

Whereas clarifying questions are requests for specific information and are usually given a brief answer by those who brought the proposal, concerns are statements often for or against the proposal that help to flesh out the issue and act as a form of expression.

Concerns about the proposal ranged from discontent with the lack of specifics, “what would the result of a blanket endorsement of communication be?” There was also the point, approved by many in attendance, that the Occupiers should not agree to meet on the mayor’s terms, but rather should set the terms themselves. An agreement to his requests could be seen as a capitulation.

Another concern had to do with the practice of direct democracy and representational democracy. A committee formed to communicate with the City would constitute a form of representational democracy and would be inconsistent with the format of the GA.

Even if the people on the committee were clear that they did not speak for the occupation and were simply conduits to pass information back and forth, there was concern that the City would see the committee this way, would in fact approach them this way, and that the individual members of the committee would not have the political savvy to combat this.

Mayor Nutter and the individuals on his staff have been welcomed repeatedly, and again on Sunday in person, to come to the general assembly; to bring their proposals, stand for clarifying questions and concerns and subject their proposals to a vote.

Personally, I started from the position of seeing the benefits of communication as obvious. The vagueness of the proposal, it seemed to me, simplified the issue to one of deciding whether communication itself was something to endorse. How could anyone think otherwise? And yet they did, and I found their points were well stated and persuasive.

Normally friendly amendments to the proposal would be accepted after concerns, but the facilitators of this meeting took a vote to foregoe this part of their process. Instead a straw poll was  taken as a temperature check to see if the group was close to consensus.

It was clear from the number of hands raised on both sides that the group was not near a consensus at this point. In a case like this, the GA’s process called for a break out session in which small groups could gather and discuss among themselves in more depth before being called back to another vote.

The people nearest me voted the same as I had so we drifted away from each other looking for folks to debate with. The idea was to bring together people who disagreed and air out both sides in a respectful way. There were two young people looking for someone who voted the way I had, and they happily welcomed me into their circle.

The conversation was fascinating. I could honestly understand the merits of what they were saying. They expounded on the concerns stated previously. We should disagree on principle, they said, because the mayor and not us had requested the meeting. The mayor was walking into the negotiations with a presumption of unequal status. On principle, we should insist that he not be given any additional status beyond that of any individual who had the right to their opinion and one vote.

In my opinion, change is more likely to come about as a result of talking. And it is more important to meet people where they are and talk them into coming to where I am rather than insisting they come to where I am before we begin the discussion. Having said that, I could see the logic that real change will only come about through force—nonviolent force but force all the same. And if the GA did vote against this committee, and the mayor did attend the GA to present his proposal, I could see this would constitute a major victory.

The argument that I found most convincing was the one that compared direct democracy to representational democracy. A movement committed to direct democracy cannot compromise by using representational democracy. It requires a commitment to a way of exercising democracy that must be held against the temptation of drifting into representational democracy for convenience sake. A committee of this kind would, without a doubt, constitute a representation.

After 10 minutes, the meeting was reconvened and a new vote was taken. Although I was indeed swayed by the points I had just heard, I voted again for the meetings to occur. The way I understood the proposal as it was stated is that it was vague enough to be limited to an up or down vote on communication itself. And I just could not bring myself to vote against communication, especially since this vote would not bind us to any specifics about how we  communicate.

I was not alone. Out of 95 people voting 57 voted for the proposal. About 38 people voted against it. Since a two-thirds majority is needed for any proposal to pass, this proposal did not pass. I found myself relieved that things turned out this way. It would be revisited again but for that night  people on both sides still looked on with incredulity at the people who disagreed with them. It was clear that we had not yet come to a consensus as a group and to decide this now would lead to discontent that might jeopardize our unity in the future.

The issue was debated over several days. On Friday, representatives from the Legal Working Group wrote and presented the following response for approval by the General Assembly:

“We appreciate your request for weekly meetings, and understand your concern about keeping lines of communication open between the city and Occupy Philly. In our capacity as the legal collective, we have been empowered to relay information sent to us from the city to the GA in order for them to, through a process of direct democracy, decide how to proceed. Communication is always open between our two parties in this way to relay logistical concerns. At this time, the GA has decided not to go ahead with weekly meetings with the city, but this is no way affects the city or Occupy’s ability to communicate with one another generally. In the future, Occupy Philly may request a meeting with the city to discuss specific matters. We hope at that time, you will be open to a meeting with members of Occupy Philly.”

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