My Nov. 14 Notes
Major Tom’s notes, meeting of the “General Assembly” of “Occupation Harvard,” held in Harvard Yard on 11/14/2011
1. About 70 people were present at the start, around 6:15 p.m., arranged in a circle near the tents. (By the time of the final vote, more than 3 hours later, only 36 remained, illustrating the extremely fluid nature of the voting pool.)
2. A woman with short blonde hair who’s probably in her late 20s, Hannah, served as the “facilitator” of the General Assembly. She apparently served as one of the facilitators of the first General Assembly, held on the evening of Nov. 9. Apparently she has ties to Occupy Boston and/or perhaps other Occupy movements, which she sometimes references in doing facilitation. (For now I’m not using any of the few last names I know, as my purpose is to publicize the inner workings of “Occupy Harvard,” not to publicize the involvement of any particular person, and perhaps unnecessarily embarrass that person due to Google searches of that person’s name — though if I later can better pin down which of the people I discuss have actively sought publicity for their involvement, I may come back and amend these notes to add their full names, and further information about them.)
3. Several minutes were spent debating over whether to move the General Assembly to the west gate of Harvard Yard, in case those without Harvard i.d.s wish to join. There was no consensus reached to move, in part because no one was at the gate wanting to join in.
4. Next there was a guest speaker, Helen, one of the SEIU officers in charge of negotiating for the Harvard custodians, whose current contract runs out tomorrow night, and who have threatened to strike. Helen had difficulty using the “people’s mike,” which consists of the speaker using short phrases, each of which is laboriously repeated by all others who can hear — a technique which apparently originated in Zuccotti Park, where noise amplification was not allowed and the crowds were large, and a technique which apparently has been widely copied nationwide in other “Occupy” movements. There was little if any reason to use the technique in the middle of Harvard Yard, with just 70 people listening, and it made communication extremely inefficient and undoubtedly conveyed to onlookers a cult-like impression of the group. (Indeed, at one point a passerby asked, “Why are you all speaking in unison?” Hannah answered: “to be sure we can all hear each other.”)
5. Speaking in much-too-long phrases, leading to disjointed echoing of her comments by the others, Helen said she really appreciated Occupy Harvard’s support of the janitors. (Apparently, Harvard students who are part of SLAM (Student Labor Action Movement) have actually been attending the negotiations as part of their show of support.) Helen said they’re working to come to contract terms, and are making progress, but are prepared to strike if they need to. She invited everyone to protests tomorrow by the janitors at Harvard buildings at 3:30 p.m. on Brattle Street, and at 4:30 p.m. in downtown Boston at Harvard’s investments office.
6. The other guest speaker was Ed, a union representative of Harvard’s dining hall workers. He conveyed to the group the “love and warmth” of all the dining hall workers. He sarcastically attacked the Harvard administration for supposedly caring so much about the safety of the Harvard Occupy campers that it closed down Harvard Yard, when it did nothing after an armed robbery in the Yard not long ago. He talked passionately about the need for Harvard to help the 99 percent with the world’s problems.
7. Ed said that the dining hall workers would be coming down much more often to thank the occupiers.
8. More to the point, Ed added that tomorrow at 9 a.m. the dining hall workers would be holding a protest at Harvard’s personnel office on Mt. Auburn Street, concerning Harvard’s alleged reneging on a contract it just signed a month ago with the workers, allegedly upping their insurance costs so high that some won’t be able to afford it.
9. After about 15 minutes of speeches from labor union officers, Hannah then said it was time for the General Assembly to make decisions — to “make the commitments that make Occupy Harvard powerful,” to make a difference. She explained for newcomers that decisions are made by a process of “modified consensus,” based on a belief in participatory democracy. She then explained various hand signals that are used to communicate (see here), and the order in which various matters are considered: (1) working group announcements; (2) working group proposals; (3) individual proposals; and (4) “individual stack” (basically, open-ended discussion on any topic, in the order people sign up to speak).
WORKING GROUP ANNOUNCEMENTS
10. Jeff of the Divestment Working Group called on everyone to join in a direct action against Bank of America in Harvard Square, on Saturday at 11 a.m., when those in sympathy with the “Occupy” movement will take all their money out of Bank of America and put it in either Cambridge Saving Bank or the Harvard Credit Union. Why? Because, Jeff said, “Bank of America is evil.” It’s evil because even though it has $2 trillion, that’s not enough for it — it’s charging $5 a month for people to have access to their money. A woman in the group said she’d heard that Bank of America had decided not to go through with its plan for a $5/month debit card fee. Jeff agreed that was true, but that “we shouldn’t have to fight banks that have our money.” Plus, even though Bank of America eventually gave into demands to block the fee, “it will find another way to screw us in the end.”
11. Karen of the Messaging Working Group said the group had a redrafted proposed mission statement, slightly revised from the one debated at the last General Assembly on Nov. 12, which she handed out. You can read a copy here:
Note: I also managed to obtained a copy of the Nov. 12 proposal she referenced, which you can read here:
Earlier on Nov. 14 I picked up a handout at the info desk which was quite similar to the Nov. 12 proposal, and which purported to be the official statement of Occupy Harvard, but which did not disclose that the Nov. 12 proposal was just a proposal, and had not been approved by the General Assembly. You can read that handout here:
12. A woman with the Petitions Working Group briefly discussed efforts to gather support through a petition, focused on the movement in general and not on opening the gates to Harvard Yard.
13. Liz from the Logistics Working Group said that she was working on a list of needs for the camp. She said she’d been away for the weekend and apologized if anyone’s tent was cold or wet. Talk with her if you have ideas for the camp, e.g., for a medical tent.
14. Alex from the Direct Action Working Group reported that last night he’d met with Occupy people from several colleges (including BU, Northeastern, and U. Mass. Boston) to coordinate. Also, he’s attending a general meeting at Occupy Boston in Dewey Square at 9 p.m. tonight, to plan for a big march on Nov. 17 in solidarity with Occupation Wall Street and Occupy Oakland, which everyone’s welcome to attend.
15. Sandra from the Outreach Working Group reported that it’s publishing the first “Occupy Harvard Crimson” this week. At minimum it will be online, and there will likely be some paper copies, depending on how much money is donated for printing . Also, the group is helping coordinate efforts to get professors to sign a petition of support for the Occupy Harvard movement.
WORKING GROUP PROPOSALS
16. Karen of the Messaging Working Group, who also is a key member of SLAM, the student group working with Big Labor, then spoke in support of its latest proposed mission statement (see here). She said the idea is to communicate to the rest of the Harvard community, and beyond, “why we are here.” She said it was very similar to the Nov. 12 proposal (here), with some language changes and shortening.
17. Karen said it’s clear the 2 initial demands do not encompass everyone’s visions and desires for a better Harvard, but they are focused on concrete goals: a fair contract for the custodians, and a commitment to socially responsible investment, beginning with a decision not to reinvest in HEI Hotels & Resorts. As to why the second demand was limited to HEI, she said it was because SLAM had been working since 2008 to get Harvard not to reinvest in HEI. (Apparently this is because Big Labor objects to HEI’s labor practices, see here, here, and here.)
18. After various rounds of questioning about details of the proposal, Karen commented that as to any other demands, the group thought it could begin with these demands and then have discussion on the website about other possible demands, and as others reached a critical mass, have them then proposed to a future General Assembly.
19. While various possible amendments to the proposal were being discussed, a fellow piped up saying he was from Occupy Wall Street, just visiting (he refused to answer when asked how he got in), and commented that one technique that had worked well for them was taking a “temperature check” at the start of discussion of a possible friendly amendment can be a time-saver.
20. After about half an hour of discussion, someone in the group — apparently having gotten wind of the plan hatched last week by key leaders of Occupy Harvard, who were tired of camping, to declare “victory” after the custodians got a new contract, and then disband the camp, see here — pointed out that the proposed mission statement did not EXPRESSLY state whether or not the camp would be taken down if the demands were met. Karen was asked whether Harvard meeting the demands would mean the camp would end. She said that, speaking for herself, her view of the document is that “if Harvard meets the demands, we will leave.”
21. At this juncture it was quite clear that the student representatives of Big Labor had used the Messaging Working Group to spearhead an effort to coopt the Occupy Harvard movement and use it as a bargaining chip in the ongoing negotiations on behalf of the custodians, and Karen’s answer triggered a huge amount of critical commentary.
22. One person asked, why the shape of this document is being determined in any way by something we hadn’t voted on, that is, whether to leave the camp? Karen said we could vote on this proposal, as is, and could then later vote on whether the meeting of these demands were conditions for leaving.
23. Someone else implored the group members that if we are to align with the Occupy movement nationwide, we must not only state demands, but state IF THE DEMANDS ARE MET WE WILL NOT LEAVE. He said that’s “constitutive of every Occupy movement I’ve been involved with.”
24. Someone else pointed out, in the proposal’s favor, that implicit in the document is that these are not the only demands.
25. An older man — probably in his 60s — who identified himself only as “J.M.” (later, he commented that he graduated from Harvard in 1969, where he was a member of the Students for a Democratic Society and helped take over buildings, so I’ll call him, somewhat irreverently, “SDS Dinosaur”), stated he had strong objections to the employment, at least now, of any demands. He thinks we should approach the University as members in good standing who strongly believe that Harvard should participate in solving the problems of the country and the world. That may disarm the University, whereas demands will automatically provoke conflict — demands can always come later, if necessary. By presenting ourselves as the conscience of the University, we may garner much more support within the University, particularly among the faculty
26. The proposal then came to a vote. 34 were in favor, 14 were against, and a few abstained. In any normal democratic process, this vote of 71% in favor of the proposal would mean it passed, but the consensus governance process of the Occupy movement requires a 75% affirmative vote, so it failed.
27. At that point, various members of the Messaging Working Group started pushing hard to get their proposal through despite the absence of consensus, in the process making clear their connection to Big Labor and labor activism.. First they called on those who had voted against it, or who had abstained, to explain their action in hopes that any issues with the proposal could be fixed.
28. One woman who had abstained said she’d done so because she didn’t understand whether or not the “demands” were being put out with the implicit promise that the camp would be shut down if they were met — or whether they were instead general desires of Occupy Harvard.
29. A male member of the Messaging Working Group, who said he’d been at all 5 General Assemblies, said the group defined the demands based not on things we’d like Harvard to do, but “things we have organizing force behind,” things we can make good on with deeds, not words,” things on which we “have an organizing history.”
30. This use of the language of labor organizing triggered turmoil within the ranks of the General Assembly, because it struck a sizable minority of those present as inconsistent with the spirit of the Occupy movement.
31. A woman who identified herself as “Mona Lisa” immediately launched in, saying that she agreed substantively with the demands, but was going to “block” the proposal (which would require a super-supermajority vote of 90% to override, basically impossible in this context) based on her understanding of Occupy and the past 100 years of history, about alternate models of democracy to address “horrific things” and get redress and socioeconomic and social justice.
32. She said she was against the proposal from the moment she read the first five words: “We are here to protest . . . .” That’s not in the spirit of Occupy, she said. Occupy is not a protest or a demonstration. It is “evocative of an entire system of redress.” We need to be addressing how we move forward, what’s the longevity of what we want, she said.
33. In her view there had already been an explanation of Occupy Harvard, on the website (here), which she had quoted in what she’d written on Occupy Harvard. (If anyone knows what she was referencing, please send me a link.) She said she knows that, in the face of peer disparagement and the lockdown, people feel a rush or hurry to further explain themselves, but Occupy Harvard is only 6 days old. We may need to explain to those disparaging us, but a list of demands is not a solution — least of which one that says it’s a “protest,” which is transitive (one protests to someone), and suggests we’ll pack up and go if the demands are met. It’s not a “protest,” it’s an “evocation.” We create our message. We don’t have PR; we tell what’s happening here, tell about issues, expose problems, and grow the movement as we do so.
34. Hannah then explained to all what a “block,” is — it’s announced by someone who feels that the proposal at hand is against the good of the movement. Once announced, all the General Assembly decides is whether it’s a principled block (not whether they agree with it, but whether the person sincerely believes in it), and it takes a 90% vote to declare the block unprincipled. Absent that 90% vote, the block stands and the proposal fails. The idea is that Occupy cares about the consensus process, and wants people to feel they belong — it doesn’t want people walking away because a proposal passed that makes them not want to be part of the movement.
35. This being Harvard, someone asked debated the logic of the process: what if someone in the circle feels the block harms the movement? Why can’t the block be blocked? Why is the onus against change of the status quo? Hannah explained that a block is neutral on the substance of a proposal. It’s a strong statement against a given proposal, and consideration of a block is about consensus, not about the proposal per se. You can still respect the block, and agree that all people belong in the circle, even though — especially because — people disagree about the substance.
36. Another person seconded Mona Lisa’s perspective, arguing that part of what Occupy is all about is starting a conversation about what’s wrong — part of its strength is that we don’t have a list of demands. He said that his favorite sign from an Occupy event, which he termed “intentionally and ironically inarticulate,” is: “SHIT IS FUCKED UP AND SHIT.” People in Occupy are saying that this has got to stop; that something is deeply wrong, with the capitalist system, or the world, or with how we govern ourselves, many things, not all articulate and well thought out.
37. At this point Karen, the student labor activist and point person from Messaging, responded with another plea steeped in the language of labor organizing. She said these 2 demands are ones that a lot of people are behind. Realistically the occupation will end at Christmas, so it would “be incredibly stupid of us not to leverage the resources at our disposal right now,” by adopting these demands, and if they’re met to agree to leave by the time we’ll have to leave anyway. “These two concrete proposals directly impact people’s lives right now,” and she doesn’t know of any particular ideology about how “Occupy” is supposed to work that would prevent making real change right now.
38. “SDS Dinosaur” then set forth further detail on his perspective. Because he graduated from Harvard in 1969, he was on campus while the anti-war movement slowly built. “I helped occupy that building” (pointing). After the police came in, 5,000 people gathered in Harvard Stadium and voted to boycott classes, which effectively shut down the University for a week. It didn’t occur overnight; there was a lot of organizing going on — small group sessions, flyers, guest speakers, etc. For the most part, SDS was a small force, and support only built gradually.
39. He said we need to answer the naysayers, propose solutions, and negotiate smartly. The first step should be to portray ourselves as the conscience of the University and appeal, not demand, to the University to do the right thing. It may be fruitless in the end, but it may delay their attacks on us, giving us time to get stronger. We can do better than issue demands right away. The time for demands will undoubtedly arise, but right now the priority should be on using this opportunity to strengthen ourselves, justify our presence to the world, and possibly the shame the institution into changes. The faculty would be more willing to join us on a premise like this.
40. A member of the group named Tim was much more blunt, and strident, almost yelling: “We are OCCUPY!” Timi said we’re not a living wage campaign, or disinvestment campaign, or former Harvard campaigns riding the momentum of Occupy; we’re something else that includes all these things. “I am SHOCKED AND DISGUSTED that 6 days in we’re talking about leveraging the power of this camp to achieve 2 goals,” he said, and he complained that writing demands into this message was affecting the entire way we’re presenting ourselves. “WE ARE EITHER OCCUPY OR SOMETHING ELSE” — and if something else, “you’d lose a lot of us.” A group of people favoring the proposal, in particular a tall fellow who identified himself later as Adam, started heatedly arguing with Tim, an argument which almost turned physical, in particular as they attacked Tim for not being a hard-core occupier as he hadn’t slept in the tents.
41. At that point another member of the Messaging Working Group, Sandra, said she’d been involved in Occupy Harvard much longer than 6 days, had been sleeping here, and had gone to every General Assembly. Clearly not in favor of consensus governance if it meant she doesn’t get her way, she said she thought “Occupy Harvard” would remain a movement even if the tents were taken down after the demands were met. She said she and others felt very strongly about these issues, and if they could do anything to achieve these goals they would. If that meant changing the name of the tent city to make it the “Custodian’s Campaign,” and let some of the others set up another tent city nearby called “Occupy Harvard,” fine, though she thought that would be ridiculous. In her view most of the people driving this movement feel strongly that we should have demands — if that doesn’t reflect the rest of the global “Occupy” movement, then maybe that just means “Occupy Harvard is a bit different.
42. Someone else commented that although the custodian issues are important, to make particular demands is simply against what the “Occupy” movement is about. The movement should allow all to bring their issues and act on them in solidarity with the group. Someone then responded that some Occupies have demands, like Philadelphia, Chicago, and New Haven.
43. Mona Lisa then reiterated her objection that statements of solidarity and creative action are fine, but to present demands to end an occupation that itself is a tactic and not necessarily a means is not in concert with “Occupy” in general. She said that if people in the group want to end the camp by Thanksgiving or Christmas or some other date, fine, but they shouldn’t use two urgent demands to do that — that would do a disservice to the demands and to Occupy.
44. Someone then suggest that perhaps this objection could be addressed by amending the statement to say that it’s not saying that if the demands are met, we’ll leave.
45. Someone in favor of leaving if the demands are met stated that there was never a consensus, at the start, to have a standing occupation, and that six days is longer than some intended to camp.
46. Josh said he had been involved with Occupy Boston from Day 1, though he hadn’t been as involved with Occupy Harvard as much as some. Josh said he was hearing many echoes of what happened in Occupy Boston. People said they didn’t know why the occupiers were there, and there were no demands. Yet the numbers have only grown, and there still are no demands! Josh said he’s worried about the language of “demand.” He’s worried that with all the attention on Harvard, it will be thrown in the face of other Occupies. People will say Occupy Harvard made demands, they were met, and they left, so why can’t you do the same?
47. One of the labor organizers reiterated that the 2 demands are excellent goals because they’re issues that have prior organizing support and connections between students and staff that can be built on. Occupy should be used as a base to organize around these demands.
48. A tall, somewhat older, fellow named Adam who speaks with a thick British accent (maybe Welsh), who seemed to be aligned with the labor activists in wanting to issue these two relatively minor demands and then shut down the camp while declaring “victory,” said Occupy isn’t “just about tents, it’s about taking a series of inspiring, disturbing actions across this campus!” He said Occupy “is LIMITLESS in its ambition to change society” — it’s a systematic critique. Adam urged that while all options should be explored for the future, in the present “we can link to specific demands in solidarity to our brothers and sisters, the janitors, for whom the deadline runs out tomorrow.”
49. By now, the meeting had lasted for more than two hours. The group appearing no closer to adopting the labor activist demands than an hour earlier, Sandra — no more a fan of the consensus process than earlier — then ratcheted up the pressure. She said she cared about making Harvard a better place today. Sure, she also cared about constructing a radical vision of democracy, but that “would not make me sleep in a tent for weeks on end.” She said a sizable number of others in the circle (i.e., those coming from a labor organizing background, focused on the custodians’ concerns) “would agree with me that if we do not have these two demands, I will not be sleeping in that tent anymore.” She urged people to “seriously consider that if you block this proposal, what will be left of Occupy Harvard? I will walk away from the movement if we do not have these two demands.”
50. Someone immediately objected that it’s unfair and unhelpful, and counter to the consensus process, to issue ultimatums on either side.
51. Alex defended Sandra’s statement, saying it’s important information, and that we have to show the same commitment shown in this meeting to staffing the tents — we can’t have them empty at 11 a.m. when students stop by to ask what we’re about.
52. Adam seconded this point, warning that the people backing the labor activism demands would “all walk away” if the demands didn’t pass.
53. Mona Lisa then suggested that the proposal be amended by getting rid of reference to a “protest” or “demand,” and just cutting it down to the fourth paragraph and a statement of solidarity with the workers.
54. This was unacceptable to the labor activists, who continued to insist on the approval of their proposal as is. They called for another vote on that proposal. Even after their threats to walk away and leave the encampment basically empty, destroying “Occupy Harvard,” their proposal fell well short of the 75% consensus. At that point Karen, the lead labor activist, walked out.
55. Further turmoil and extended debate and further proposals then ensued. Eventually the group voted on Mona Lisa’s proposal that, given the imminent deadline for the custodians’ issues, the General Assembly issue the fourth paragraph of the statement standing in solidarity with the workers on their two demands — but declining to have Occupy Harvard itself make any demands. Largely due to the votes of the labor activists, this attempt at compromise was defeated, 26 to 10 (thus by this time, half the people who had been present at the start of the meeting had left).
56. As one of the labor activists put it (a male, I think Alex), “If we do not call them demands, we will not be willing to stand behind” the encampment. “I will walk out of the General Assembly and I will not come back. If we do not stand behind the custodians to make sure they get a fair contract, I will not stay in Occupy.”
57. A Harvard temp worker then pointedly objected to any implication that he didn’t stand with workers just because he did not want to issue “demands.” He’s not a union member, but he said if the custodians strike he won’t come to work, because he won’t cross a picket line, even though last week he had to borrow money for groceries. He thus made clear he does stand with the workers, even though he’s against any demands.”
58. Mona Lisa added that she didn’t understand why people were caught up with whether or not something was called a “demand.”
59. Someone against the original proposal stated that the main problem with the “demand” language was the implication that the camp would shut down if the demands were met. If that implication were removed, he’d be fine with the wording.
60. Adam again warned that the people behind the labor proposal were the ones who built the tents and slept there, and that if it didn’t pass they wouldn’t be at the camp — “that’s just a statement of fact, not a threat. People need to know that those tents will be empty!”
61. At this point, Hannah summarized that after three hours, none of the proposals had received consensus, though these were difficult issues.
62. Jesse, although the labor activist camp, suggested that any statement put on a website or in an e-mail may not make much difference, so he proposed ending the attempt at wordsmithing, and breaking into groups so that “people who want to do stuff” and engage in direction action could make plans.
63. Someone then asked why the labor activists objected to a statement of solidarity. Sandra said it wasn’t a bad thing, but she wouldn’t participate in the movement if it didn’t endorse these two specific demands.
64. Mona Lisa then worked with various people to come up with language that would satisfy the labor activists while also reassuring those who worried about “demands” implying that if the demands were met, the camp would end. She agreed to wording to the effect that “If this demand is met, it does not mean that we will leave the Yard.” She approved the final wording being worked out by the Messaging Working Group, in good faith, so that the statement could issue in time to help the custodians on their contract negotiating deadline. At that point, the modified solidarity statement passed with a broad consensus.
65. After three and a half hours of proposals, debate, discussions, ultimatums, and threats, yielding only agreement to issue one largely inconsequential (to the outside world) paragraph about Harvard labor issues, the meeting ended with Hannah suggesting that everyone turn to the person on the right and give him or her a hug, back rub, etc., and with Jesse suggesting that anyone who wants to talk about actually “doing stuff” get together with him for a few minutes.
Postscript: Despite all this bother, the labor activists who apparently control the OccupyHarvard.edu website ended up ignoring the consensus governance model and the General Assembly’s vote. The next morning they put on the website the original proposal which had been twice defeated by the General Assembly. See Google cache version of Nov. 15 website here (in case that vanishes, it’s saved for posterity here).
This was the version on the website all day, until the custodians finished negotiating a new contract on the evening of Nov. 15. Only after that was accomplished was the website updated, on Nov. 16, to post the watered-down (but by then basically moot) one-paragraph statement that the General Assembly had voted to approve, which is presently on the website here. Apparently “this is what democracy looks like” to Big Labor activists at Harvard who have in effect coopted the Occupy Harvard movement to their own ends, to the point that they refuse even to recognize the voting results on proposals reached using the consensus process they embraced when they opted to join the movement.