My Nov. 18 notes
Major Tom’s notes, meeting of the “General Assembly” of “Occupation Harvard,” held in Harvard Yard and in the Phillips Brooks House on 11/18/2011
1. About 47 people were there at the start. By the time I left with many of the others, at 9:30 p.m., less than half were left.
2. John, one of the facilitators, asked everyone to start with a shout of joy that we’re still occupying Harvard Yard. Most complied.
3. John then introduced Maureen, who he said would also be facilitating tonight, as well as LeAnn, who would also facilitate. Maureen started with Working Group announcements.
4. Alex of Direct Action reported they’d just had a direction action tonight. They interrupted Newt Gingrich at a Harvard event, because “for various reasons we disagree with him.” Alex termed it “quite a success.” He said that as a result, “my name is now on a hit list for Harvard, but I feel it’s worth it.” (For video of the interruption, see here and here. For today’s Harvard Crimson article see here.)
5. Alex said they’d be having more direct actions, e.g., on Monday when they march to yell “open the gates!” to the Harvard community. He asked for further volunteers for the group. When asked who’s currently in Direct Action, Alex identified Iman, Adam, and few others, but said they weren’t very active, so he’d taken point. He complained that only 4 people had shown up for the direct action against Gingrich.
6. Someone asked whether this had been listed on Facebook. Alex said if you go to occupyharvard.net, there are links to Google Groups, Twitter, and Facebook, and if you sign up for one of them you’ll know about future events — though given the sensitivity of tonight’s action they’d kept it off Facebook. In the future, though, since the administration will find out about direct actions anyway, they’ll post everything.
7. Announcements were then made. Prachi from the Outreach Working Group reported that 100 faculty members have signed a petition supporting Occupy Harvard, which she called “a tremendous amount of support.” About 600 students, also, have signed it.
8. Someone else from Outreach mentioned that there will be a panel discussion this coming Monday at Dudley House at 6:30 p.m. The master of the house had decided to select the speakers, rather than allow the General Assembly to select representatives to speak. The Dean of Harvard College plans to be on the panel, which seems surprising since the administration hasn’t accept any of the invitations to speak to the General Assembly. Apparently attendance will be limited to people who are Dudley House members.
9. Liz from the Logistics Working Group reported that they’d created a Google Docs form for people to sign up to sleep in the tents and to staff the info desk, which has been sent out twice. So far only 9 people have filled out the form. Two of them weren’t serious — when contacted, they responded by asking us to leave the Yard! So that’s only 7 people so far who are willing to actually occupy the site (Later on Liz clarified that 2 of the 7 indicated they were only willing to staff the info desk, so only 5 had signed up to sleep in the tents at least one night).
10. Liz said there are about 30 tents, and that Logistics has control of 16 of the tents. The rest are personal tents. Someone said she’d slept in the tents without telling Logistics, so the situation of the tents being empty may not be as bleak as the online forms may indicate.
11. David, who said he is a supporter of “Occupy Harvard,” said he had an announcment from “Free Harvard,” which has established a working arrangement with the administration. The administration thinks negotiations would be helpful if “Occupy Harvard” first drafts a resolution on what they believe are proper security measures to protect the campus and prevent members from outside Harvard from expanding the camp. Once drafted, the resolution would be presented by “Free Harvard” to the administrator acting as a third-party mediator whom the administration is willing to engage with. Please consider drafting this resolution. For further questions, please contact John Lo of “Free Harvard.”
12. A woman from the Media Working Group said she’d created email accounts for all the working groups, and asked people to contact her so they could be used.
13. Three people were invited to speak about why they’re here tonight.
14. Kavi first spoke. He’s a scientist at the school of public health where he works on global road safety. He thinks we should use Harvard to do good work for the world, like he and others at Harvard do. He wants the administration to clarify whether Harvard exists for people like him, or for greedy people who caused the collapse of the financial system.
15. Another man said this was his first General Assembly at Occupy Harvard, though he’s been at Occupy Boston and just got back from New York. He said seeing everyone’s energy, including that of his friend Fenna, is uplifting. He talked about last night being part of a crowd that completely filled the Brooklyn Bridge, and a display that was put up supporting Occupy Wall Street . The media isn’t giving nearly enough attention to the movement. More action is needed to involve the public, like they’re doing in “Occupy Jamaica Plain,” in occupying foreclosed homes. He’d like to see Occupy across the Boston area.
16. Rachel then spoke. She’s a freshman, in the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM). She said it’s not surprising that Occupy started during some of the most anti-union actions ever, in Wisconsin and elsewhere. She thinks union causes are important at Harvard and around the world, because unions are the main way people secure their economic rights and assert their political and human rights. She’s glad the Harvard custodians have signed a tentative deal with Harvard that they’re largely satisfied with. She asserted that student support of the custodians was “instrumental” in their fight, and that she’s proud of these efforts. She then summarized SLAM’s opposition to Harvard’s investment in HEI Hotels & Resorts, which has been cited by the NLRB for terrible labor practices — for being a sweatshop. SLAM’s been trying to get disinvestment from HEI for 3 years, and Rachel thinks this is “a central cause of Occupy,” and she’s excited to do more work on that cause in the future.
17. Maureen said she’s very involved in Occupy Boston, where she’s on the Facilitation Working Group, and mentioned that she facilitated the 2nd General Assembly outside the Harvard gates on Mass. Ave. on the night of Nov. 9. She said she offered to facilitate here because she’s got 15 years of experience in facilitation, and a lot of training, and people with the Facilitation Working Group of Occupy Harvard thought it would be helpful to have her here, given problems the group has faced in making decisions, especially given that there are a couple of urgent things that need to be addressed.
18. Maureen asked for, and received, some leeway in how she conducted the meeting, to allow for easier back and forth between people on particular topics of importance, and a less formal style of deliberation, to allow for a productive conversation.
19. She first asked people to shout out a desired outcome of the meeting. Suggestions were a plan for what to do, and a rally to help get the petition signed. Kavi wants an agreement to hold off at least a week before any decision to decamp, to allow people time to build support for the camp. Another wants a plan to deal with the “Free Harvard” people, self appointed to play middleman with the administration. Another wants the decision on the fate of the camp to match the reality that very few people are camping. A MIT student asks whether Occupy Harvard wants the assistance of MIT students in building a geodesic dome! Another wants to know if the camp is an objective in itself, or a tactic to achieve something else.
20. Maureen summarized that a key concern was what’s the strategy behind the tents, and what is the plan concerning them.
21. At this juncture, an athletic male student walked up to the group and asked: “How many people are sleeping in these tents?” At first Maureen mistook him for a member of the group, saying we’d get to that. He then blurted out that the reason for his question was that when he walks by in the morning he doesn’t see anyone here. “That’s kind of a dick thing to do — leave tents and then not sleep in them,” he said in a loud voice, and then walked off. Little did he know that the group had just been discussing that awkward reality.
22. Maureen then listed other concerns the group has, like whether to make decisions by consensus rather than majority; whether to involve outsiders; the fact that people who’ve been sleeping here are getting burned out.
23. After about half an hour, someone suggested we move inside, given that the temperature was in he 40s and some people are sick. Most wanted to move, but there wasn’t a consensus (75%) in favor of moving.
24. Varous people then discussed the pros and cons of immediate decamping. Kavi and others felt that it would be premature to decamp immediately, because even though many students are negative about the camp and the gate restrictions, there’s good faculty support and it would be a mistake to decamp before we can find out whether we can build greater student support. Others said their greatest fear is that participation in actually staffing the camp will only further dwindle and peter out, after which at some point the administration will take down the tents, which would be a humiliating defeat for the movement. Since the camp can’t continue over the winter until spring, anyway, the best thing to do would be to have a big party, ending on a high note, and then decamp.
25. Alex in Direct Action pointed out that the energy needed to keep up the camp was detracting from the ability to take other actions.
26. Someone suggested that Harvard alums be asked to apply for a library card so they can get into the Yard, and then help relieve the people currently in camp.
27. Responding to the point about alums, the guy I call SDS Dinosaur (who in the last meeting called himself “J.M.,” and now calls himself “John”) said he’s class of 1969, Harvard, and gets in using a library card. He said the tents are an important symbol showing us in solidarity with other Occupies. His view of Occupy is that we’re trying to rid the government of corporate control. He said, “I don’t think we should ever leave!”
28. Someone then mentioned that on Wednesday night there had been a PRE-MEETING MEETING, in which 40 or so of the people most active in setting up “Occupy Harvard” had met and had voted amongst themselves that a date certain should be set for decamping (either before or after Thanksgiving), and that there should be a concrete decisions as to what to do when decamping, whether have a big party, move the tents elsewhere, do a direct action of some sort, etc. There was a call for the General Assembly to vote on those two points.
29. Jesse (one of the Big Labor types who spearheaded the occupation) emphasized that we need to set a date certain for the encampment to end, so it ends on our terms, and that there was a consensus in the Wednesday meeting on this — only 2 dissented on the need for a date certain so we can build a plan around it . The people who attended that meeting strongly want a decision by the General Assembly on this, because the problem with conensus is that if you can’t reach it, the default is the status quo, which is simply that we have tents in the Yard.
30. About 45 minutes into the meeting, Maureen said it was getting hard for her to listen, as it was so cold and she’s sick, so she asked whether it would be okay to move inside. Jesse objected, pointing out that we should get the discussion on the fate of the camp going — people have to sleep out here in the cold, so we should at least be able to meet outside. The rest deferred, even after a woman said that she had come right over from class and hadn’t dressed for such cold. Maureen suggested that even though there was a symbolic virtue to meeting outside where it’s cold while voting whether people should keep camping in the cold, it would be better to go inside where it’s warm, while making sure, when voting on whether to keep camping, to remember how cold it felt outside.
31. Eventually everyone objecting to the move relented, and the group moved inside, to a meeting room in the Phillips Brooks House. The House is reserved for use by various authorized student groups. “Occupy Harvard” isn’t one of them, but a woman got a room to use by saying the group was the labor activism group, SLAM. (The room was originally reserved for a Seventh Day Adventist group, but that meeting was cancelled because, ironically, most of the members couldn’t get through the gates due to the presence of “Occupy Harvard” — so by dint of its imposition on the Seventh Day Aventists, “Occupy Harvard” ended up taking over their warm and cozy room.)
32. Once inside, Maureen asked whether there was enough clarity about their goals to decide on the fate of the camp. She noted that this is a very tough foundation on which to make a decision.
33. SDS Dinosaur pointed out we can agree on a tactic even if we can’t agree on the reason for it.
34. Maureen distinguished between “agreement,” which is a shared opinion, and “alignment,” which is a shared intention. She said there’s clearly a common intention to somehow create a more just university. Alignment is good. Maybe agreement will come. People at least pretended to understand the distinction she was trying to make. Maureen then asked for comments about camp.
35. Someone pointed that that logistically speaking, this weekend is the Harvard-Yale game, where lots of the undergrads that have been staffing the tents will be, and then there’s Thanksgiving and people can be going home, so to keep the camp going would take concrete commitments that appear not to exist now.
36. Maureen then elicited from everyone a long list of things that would be needed to keep the camp going, to make sure a decision whether or not to continue camp is rooted in reality. E.g., a list of people willing to sleep, especialy during breaks; a broadened base of support throughout the university; information on how to camp in winter; better tracking of who’s in the tents, so it’s clear which ones are empty and can be used; 2 people staffing the info desk at all times during the day; a plan for opening the Yard; winterization of the tents; more strong, positive messages about the movement.
37. An undergraduate woman named Helen, who’s new to the movement, and who happens to be blind, said she’s committed to camping and she thinks more interest can be developed in new people committed to camping.
38. SDS Dinosaur suggested that we consider taking down the tents during the day, and maybe only having a few tents at night, which would make it very difficult for the administration to justify keeping the gates closed all day long, with no tents there.
39. Maureen asked for a show of hands of people who think it’s impossible to meet all these needs, even in the foreseeable future. A sizable minority of people raised their hands.
40. Jesse then referenced again what he said had been a four-hour discussion on Wednesday among many of the people who had been most actively involved with the camp, in which they had reached a consensus that there needed to be a date certain on which the camp would end, so it was ended on our terms (either before or after Thanksgiving; that vote was split). The second thing was the question of tactics: on the date certain, should we have a big celebration, say “we did it,” move the tents, and welcome the community, or do an escalating action like occupy the business school, and perhaps also move the tents out, or what?
41. Kavi, who was at that meeting, said he’d been urging that we not address what date we’re leaving at least for another week, to find out if we’re able to build more support through outreach which we’re actively pursuing. Jesse responded that Kavi’s view was rejected, and only 2 of 40 had voted against now setting a date certain. Someone else pointed out that not everyone was at Wednesday’s meeting, and it wasn’t a General Assembly.
42. Maureen noted how the question was getting more complicated: the needs depend on the timeline, and there’s no agreement on a timeline, and now there’s a debate about whether the timeline should be set now or a week from now.
43. Someone suggested that if we make compromises to get the gates open, there will be more support for the movement from the community. Someone else responded that we shouldn’t worry about the gates, as there’s tremendous pressure among the faculty to open them (some faculty members in protest are holding their classes outside the Yard, and lots of professors are writing letters protesting, particularly in the history department). We don’t need to respond, she said; it’s perfectly legit for us to have the camp there, and we’re doing nothing wrong.
44. Maureen then called for a vote on whether we want to vote to set a date certain for ending the encampment, and shifting to the next phase of tactics. Do people think we should set a date? More than half of the 40 people present voted yes, so it fell short of the 75% threshhold required by the “modfied consensus” rules. (This is an interesting example of the fluid nature of the Occupy Harvard “membership” — the votes that count are those of the people who happen to show up for each General Assembly. Only a handful of the 40 people who attended the Wednesday meeting and who overwhelming favored shutting down the camp showed up. Had they attended, this proposal would have easily passed. Apparently they had traveled down to New Haven for The Game.)
45. At this point Jesse, who based on the last meeting I’ll call “The Do Stuff Guy,” having seen his proposal fail despite having hammered it out for several hours on Wednesday night at the pre-meeting meeting, in effect suggested that we should just jettison the “modified consensus” democratic governance process, and basically pursue governance by anarchy (my term). Jesse thinks folks should figure out what they want to do and focus on that, rather than taking up all our time debating proposals. People who want to camp, or pass out petitions, should do that. People who want to focus on other things should do that too. He suggested we take a vote saying people who want to focus on the tents, great, people who want to focus on other things, because “tents aren’t your thing,” great. Amazingly, at least for a so-called “deliberative” body populated by Harvard students, this suggestion that the movement be allowed to descend into anarchy was greated with near acclamation — “yes!,” “that’s good!,” etc. — even after it was pointed out that if that meant no one ended up being in the tents, it would mean that by default the occupation would end soon even there there would not have been any vote to end the occupation.
46. One undergrad, however, forcefully objected, arguing that if we decide that we can split, that you can drop out when you want to drop out, then every undergrad who’s been even cursorily involved and who’s faced great anger about the movement will with everyone else see the number of tents and people sleeping in them dwindle, and we will not appear to have had any success, and there will be no final ending of the camp on our terms. Everyone will say, “Oh, they just faded out,” making our movement appear weak and inconsequential — a very bad outcome for everyone who’s been involved. So he forcefully concluded that we can’t split — we have to agree on a date certain to end the camp.
47. Maureen noted that this concern was exactly what had spurred the effort to set a date certain for ending the camp. Seeming to expose an inclination on her part that such a date should be set (she didn’t seem strictly neutral), she called again for a vote on the proposal that had just been defeated, to set a date certain to pack up the camp and move on to the next phase (either before or after Thanksgiving) — only if the proposal passed would we decide what that date is. Again a majority favored the proposal — though a smaller majority than before (17 out of 32) because several people had backed the proposal earlier had left the meeting.
48. The result, Maureen conceded, was that we’re not going to set a date certain to end the camp. But in a comment bolstering Jesse’s suggestion that we govern by anarchy, she noted that this did not preclude the folks who are camping from getting together to decide what they’re doing.
49. At this point, as was the case in the prior meeting when the labor activists did not get their way, people who did not agree with the results of the consensus process then started opting out of the movement. Liz, the head of the Logistics Working Group, announced that she and the other there members of the group had “reached our personal limit” and were resigning, effective immediately. She then walked out, never to return. Jesse, the “Do Stuff Guy” and originator of the anarchy idea, also left shortly thereafter.
50. Someone else said she’d be for picking a date, but only at a later date. Someone else objected, “it’s not going to happen — there won’t be anyone in the tents in a week.” Someone else disputed that, saying there was interest by new people in sleeping in the tents.
51. Someone who had favored the proposal for a date certain, who is a frequent camper,aptly summarized the problem: students are justifiably angry at the gate restrictions, which are caused by tents in which no one is sleeping, and the problem is that “people who aren’t out there sleeping won’t let us leave!
52. Another person who has been camping said she was upset that Liz and others who had been working very hard on the movement since well before the tents went up walked out, because people that haven’t been sleeping in the tents don’t respect those who have been, and who are tired and want to end the camp. She commented that the camp is petering out, and that a majority of people in the room want to set a date to end it, and there are lots of undergrads who are part of the movement who can’t be here tonight (i.e., because of the Harvard-Yale Game or other events) who want to set a date. She called for a non-binding vote by just those who have slept out on whether they want to set a date to end the camp. Her idea was that the votes of those actually laying their bodies on the line deserve extra weight.
53. SDS Dinosaur commented that the whole conversation has been dispiriting. We’re not talking about how we can make movement catch on among undergrads. Just talking about appeasing them. Need to bring these people in!
54. Somene answered that we should set a date certain for decamping, which obviously could change if more support emerged. Another person stated that he still wasn’t sure what he voted for.
55. A French woman said that we have to leave room for new people to come in. Especially with the new faculty support, we need to have trust that people will step up.
56. Helen said she hasn’t camped yet but plans to do so (impressive, as she’s blind) — at first she wasn’t aware of the logistics for doing so, and didn’t know anyone who’d be there. In her view if we’re going to set a date certain to decamp, we might as well decamp now, as we’d lose the value of having the camp. We need to give the camp time, to build interest in it. If we work more on outreach we can build support.
57. In one of the few comments to flatly attack the Big Labor origins of the movement, Kavi said that 9 days ago he’d never heard of this effort; all he heard was “Occupy Harvard.” He thought it was about occupying, and he joined. Then a few days later it turned out that this was a group of people that had just 2 demands related to Harvard labor issues, whereas he was there occupying. He felt they’d lied to him to get him to come out his house and join them, so they could get what they wanted. But they said it was “Occupy Harvard,” not that they had 2 demands! Kavi says in effect, hey, I’m with you, so you have to take my vote into consideration! The people who are burned out, fine, the rest of us should fill those spaces and begin the process of burning out!
58. Kavi’s wife, Prachi, reiterated these points. She wasn’t part of 3 weeks prior to Nov. 9 organizing. So it’s only been a week, and she’s not burned out. She’s only done a week of organizing and figuring out what we’re doing. We shouldn’t be that hard on ourselves for not having anything organized. I didn’t own a sleeping bag until yesterday, she said. People are figuring out logistical things like that. She says Outreach is trying to take over logistics of who’s sleeping in the tents.
59. SDS Dinosaur said that the concept of “horizontal democracy” is key to this group. He’d like to be aware of the nature of the group that planned this, or voted on Wednesday to decamp. We’re the GA. We didn’t betray them. They betrayed us. They didn’t explain; they didn’t come to the GA to make their proposal. I don’t like that I don’t know who this group is that’s coming in — it’s not horizontal democracy, he says.
60. One member of that group said he’s positive about new people coming in, but we need to have some date in mind to end the camp, if by that date we’re not filling 75% of the tents, say, then we have a plan of action in place.
61. Another member of the group said that on Wednesday, his view was we needed to be thinking about an exit strategy, in part because we can’t survive over the winter break.
62. Yet another member thanked the newcomers, and said that those burned out would be thrilled if new people are filling the tents. But if we don’t have a plan to keep a large number of people in the tents over Thanksgiving, they’ll be taken down. If there aren’t at least 5 there during the day, and 10 at night, those tents will be gone. We need a plan in place by Tuesday, or else exit by Wednesday. He said he’ll sleep there over Thanksgiving.
63. Someone else said the two natural stopping points are Thanksgiving and winter break. He acknowledged that this is a different kind of occupation because it’s a college campus. One strategy might be to fold up the tents during the breaks, and then put them back up after.
64. Someone else suggested a solution that would yield a gradual phaseout of the camp, if not enough people are interested in sleeping there: for any night for which the number of tents exceeds the total number of people sleeping in the camp, remove one tent — reflecting that it’s odd to have way more tents than people sleeping, and guaranteeing that by winter break all the tents will be gone if there’s not interest in camping. This would also signal a commitment to filling whatever tents are there. This would give a glide path toward an end to the camp, and presumably the plug would be pulled before the number of tents went to zero.
65. Someone else suggested a need for an emergency response strategy — how to deal with the situation when, not if, the authorities come to take down the tent.
66. Maureen then suggested people talk in small groups for a few minutes to talk about options and concrete ideas for moving forward.
67. After about 20 minutes of discussions in small groups, Maureen acknowledged that we may not get to an agreement, we might not be ready to make a decision yet. She asked people to share an idea coming out of the discussions.
68. Prachi said it’s key to have a way for people to sign up to sleep at the camp or staff the info desk. Also, a lot of us would like to have one mailing list, as many of us aren’t hearing about direct action and other events. Also, we need an emergency plan if the tents are threatened. Her group wants to shoot for 10 people sleeping in the tents each night, and 2-4 at the info desk. Another person in the group thinks that’s needed to have a visible presence and to deter police action. Before we leave for Thanksgiving, we should secure commitments for that.
69. SDS Dinosaur suggests that, like with Occupy Boston, any major proposal should be distributed online at least 2 days before any GA in which it will be proposed. Also, 2 GAs a week doesn’t seem very smart given all that needs to be decided.
70. Another person suggests we give Outreach a chance to ramp up support, and a deadline for it to line up commitments to staff the site, and if there are not enough, to then revisit the issue of a date certain for decamping.
71. Someone else suggests a standard time for people who are camping to get together and coordinate. Maybe over a campfire with smores?
72. Someone suggests the idea of putting up a geodesic dome, which is quite an effort to put up, so we don’t want to do it if we’re going to decamp soon.
73. Maureen then summarized the various ideas for the camp. A plan, she said, includes a what but also a who and a when . So she asked for two people to sign up to run a mailing list for who wll camp — Kavi and Umag.
74. For an emergency plan in case the tents are about to be taken down — Neil and Maggie.
75. Someone cautioned that on e-mail lists, don’t say anything you don’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times, because “they” will know anything you say.
76. Maureen asked for people to work on an outreach campaign to secure a certain number of campers each night, and to decide what should happen if the objective isn’t met. Figure out the minimum number we need, line up people to camp, and if it isn’t met, work on a Plan B to discuss with others. Apparently there’s already an outreach working group that’s been dealing with this.
77. Prachi complained about the panel discussion to be held on Monday night at Dudley House, because the audience is restricted and because the organizers are picking people — they want safe people, not who the GA appoints. They invited Jennifer, a grad student, and they’re trying to find a safe undergrad. Dean Hammond, who hasn’t shown up at GAs though invited, will be on the panel.
78. Maureen mentioned some near-term items to be addressed which were mentioned. First, a system for posting proposals ahead of GAs so people know what’s being discussed, to be addressed by the facilitation working group. An outreach campaign to get more people involved, by the outreach working group. And then a strategy in case we need to leave, to be addressed by a new logistics group to be formed because the old members just quit.
79. Maureen then took a vote on short-term plan for camp. A clear way for people to sign up for slots to man info desk and sleep in tents. Emergency plan in case camp is attacked. Outreach to get a minimum number of people at the camp each day. Facilitation working group to come up with way to post proposals. And finally, try to erect a geodescic dome to make camp more lovely. It passed with a consensus, though by this time there were less than two dozen people left, less than half the number that started the meeting.
80. Finally, Maureen asked whether they could reach consensus on a statement that Occupy Harvard stands in solidarity with all working people fighting for good jobs and the right to organize, and that Harvard is a major investor in HEI Hotels and Resorts, and many workers at HEI have asked universities to stop investing in HEI until they’re granted a fair process to organize, and their hotels are no longer being boycotted for workers’ rights abuses — and Occupy Harvard calls on Harvard to state that it won’t reinvest in HEI.
81. With basically no discussion of the merits of the proposal, and with the meeting forced to adjourn because the building closed at 9:30 p.m., the statement of solidarity quickly passed with a consensus. A majority of those still present then moved outside to talk even longer, but I had reached my limit.