Occupy Crossroads

Community Organizing Organizing Protests

New Orleans   I had offered the Occupy NOLA folks a place to meet at various times during their occupation of the desolate park space in front of New Orleans City Hall, but it was only by showing up on the night that they were being evicted from the Avery Alexander / Duncan Plaza and inviting them to have their General Assembly at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse as part of the new Fair Grinds Dialogues that I got taken up on the offer. All of which gave me a birdseye view of the process and predicament of the Occupy movement as it struggles to find a future when it has nothing to “occupy” in the dramatic way they began.

More than forty Occupy NOLA folks, friends, and others attracted to the dialogue poured into the Fair Grinds Common Space for the meeting. A good cup of coffee and a warm scone or coffee was a long way from the damp, chill of the Plaza campsites. Theoretically it should have been a welcome change to actually hear one another as well, but listening to the meeting that might have not been an advantage in some ways, because what might often seem a difficult consensus process in the best of times was easily contentious. For the exact reasons part of the ACORN culture had always been to ban Robert’s Rules of Order to prevent empowering an elite that could weaponize the procedural tools to control a meeting, the Occupy NOLA discussions were caught in the tensions between “facilitators” whose expertise was reportedly the “consensus” procedures, but who kept sparring back and forth for command of the crowd and the agenda. Those parts of the meeting weren’t pretty to watch, but for the most part the Occupy veterans would argue that was either part and parcel of the process or simply the way sausage needs to be made, despite the frustrations voiced repeatedly in the debates and later in the “soapbox.”

At the same time there were parts of the meeting that were surprisingly robust. A hearty delegation from Baton Rouge visited and reported on their progress, which might not have involved an encampment but did involve a written list of demands, making them unique in that respect, as well as what sounded a lot like a legislative agenda. They also brought news of other Occupy groups in Lafayette and around Louisiana, which was also fascinating. One of the OccupyBR folks whispered to me at the back of the room that “they didn’t work like this,” which I assume means that the process involves a learning curve that’s pretty steep.

The most exciting local report involved Occupy Lots. More explanation and reports indicated that there were somewhere near 20 folks many from other Occupy uprooted encampments around the country that were camping on a vacant lot next to a homeowner in the 7th ward and helping her make improvements on the property. News cameras were there earlier in the day. Other reports focused on reasserting their role in the community with something around Martin Luther King Day and other events.

Nonetheless, listening closely to the whole meeting, it was hard to escape the conclusion that as committed as many were, they were groping for a plan for the future. There was no consensus on that question, and really very little debate or discussion. Several people raised the issue during the “soapbox” session, which allows open mic griping that everyone can easily ignore. In fact most people left the room during that section to visit elsewhere in the coffeehouse.

As an organizer, I would venture to predict that there is a hard debate coming between occupants committed to a program and plan going forward and occupants committed to the process and trusting that something will emerge. Logically one would think that this sort of thing simply works itself out, but after listening to a 45 minute debate of sorts as they struggled to decide where to meet again twixt and tween the Plaza and our Fair Grinds Common Space, I wondered if that was possible or the group would simply split into various Occupy this and that’s without being able to sustain the Occupy core.

One advantage of dialogues that is past argument, is that when they work as well as this one, it gets you thinking!