Rethinking Occupy Meeting Process in the Neighborhood

New Orleans    There’s nothing like watching a neighborhood civic association meeting to make one blush at having ever critiqued the sometimes maddening consensus process of the Occupy movement.

Having watched several Occupy meetings weather the arduous process of coming to consensus, I had almost concluded that despite the way the process has defined much about the movement; it would also be their undoing.   At one meeting in the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse it took 45 minutes for our friends with Occupy NOLA to decide where to have the next meeting (at Fair Grinds!).

Watching a neighborhood association for a couple of hours recently is making me reevaluate my frustration with Occupy.  Community meetings definitely need a new “agreement” on how to operate, especially when there is even the hint of controversy, or they seem unable to come to terms with any “rules of the road” that work for everyone, which then exacerbates the least tension into bad feeling and worse contentiousness.

This particular organization had the makings of a good foundation.  They had eschewed Roberts’ Rules of Order, which is always a good democratic sign of organizational health, though they still tried to treat motions and so forth as if they in fact did  buddy up with Robert.  They had wonderfully democratic participation in this civic group.  The board meetings were open though not transparent, since similar to old – and bad – union tradition you had to be on the board to look at the financial statement and the treasurer didn’t reveal the numbers in her report, even though as a 501c3 all of it is public on the 990’s anyway, which was all curious.  Members and others were allowed to speak, though of course they could not vote on a board issue without being a member of the board.  All of that felt right and appropriate.

But when the issue got to a matter of new neighborhood retail business being opened in what one leader called the neighborhood’s “central business district,” then Katie bar the door.  Ironically, I would have expected some fur flying if the issue had been moving from residential to commercial zoning, but that matter was ostensibly not in dispute, since both properties were already zoned commercial not only there but pretty much throughout the block.  The issue was a confusing technicality whereby the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) required a variance for a certain number of parking slots based on the square footage of the property.  Despite the fact that the variance is pretty standard and so uniformly applied that the applicant was not able to get a modification even though volunteering to rewrite her application to have less parking slots in the variance, the discussion was endless and the process was no help.  It turned out that the BZA had already approved the variance for the larger of the two establishments and had delayed the more modest one, yet the speakers rose to the argument as if no action had been taken and pretended that choices were somehow involved by unknown parties, despite all evidence presented to the contrary.

In fact most of the consensus somehow revolved around agreement that the group had used a flawed process itself, which was almost as difficult to follow for me as a casual observer.  The actions taken over more than 90 minutes of dispute included a close vote to oppose the already approved project which was then followed by additional votes that would resurvey neighbors around some kind of matrix that most members seemed not to clearly understand on both the deferred project and the one already approved.  In order to get to the heart of the “flawed process” the body urged and the board voted to have special meeting to then rehash the whole matter once again on some kind of grounds, though this was also disputed by both owners and members, some claiming the information was already in hand and others seeking more from some direction.   Add to all of this the occasional threat to sue by some, speeches and tantrums by others, and walkouts by both sides.  Certainly it was a fun evening, though as an organizer, I felt badly for just about all involved.  Virtually everyone wanted to do the right thing and no one seemed to know how.

In good spirits the old jokes were made about democracy and “watching the sausage made,” but these were laughs from the survivors.  By then what had been more than 40 folks were down to the survivors at about half that number, so whatever damage was already done.  The survivors were inured to the process and relived to have gotten to the buoyancy of the meeting’s finish.

Parking disputes will come and go, but how, as organizers, can a better meeting process be crafted for everyone that increases participation, rather than alienating it?


Occupy Crossroads

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!