Occupy Vancouver, March 12, 2012
The following report was submitted by a member of an Occupy group that will remain anonymous. The process outlined may help occupations everywhere.
IN HER RECENT article, “Mad, Passionate Love—And Violence”, Rebecca Solnit refers to the initial rush of collective excitement felt by activists worldwide as Occupy’s ‘honeymoon’ phase.
She was comparing the early days of the movement to the golden glow of the energy we feel when we first fall deeply in love with another, but few of us had ever experienced such passionate love for all of humanity. With encampments springing up everywhere, I think most of us not only felt this way, but experienced it simultaneously as a transnational ‘honeymoon.’
We also recognized, with uncanny synchronicity. our common concerns. This was due, in no small part, to the wide array of electronic communications available, which brought the pain and joy of people around the world right into our hearts, along with their hopes and dreams—which we discovered to be so like our own.
As we viewed the mini-documentaries of indie film producers like Ian MacKenzie and Velcrow Ripper, and read the provocative articles of authors such as Sara Robinson and Rebecca Solnit, the creative energy unleashed by the Occupy Movement continued to permeate the planet’s collective consciousness.
Image after image and word after word, it was clear that we we were participating in something that, while still nascent, was changing the trajectory of civilization as we know it. In the process, in ways still being imagined and transformed, this knowledge was transformed into actions.
These actions were natural catalysts for Occupiers to link up with people from other encampments and groups they were working with. This cross-fertilization of imagination and creativity is still going on and may prove to be one of the Occupy movement’s greatest strengths. But while the honeymoon phase is clearly past, internal conflicts within and between groups remain a problem in many places.
It is for this reason that some of us who have witnessed and/or been part of these conflicts want to document one possible intervention method that we know is workable, because we were part of it.
Our particular disruption occurred when we were all very much caught up in the honeymoon phase of the movement. We were confident there was no problem so great it could not be resolved by directing our seemingly boundless energy of love and compassion toward it.
Thus, when one site whose activities we had often been part of suffered a potentially serious setback early on, it took us all by surprise. We began to wonder if the patience, love, and compassion there was quite as boundless as it appeared to be and certainly to the extent this occasion demanded.
Still, we believed the group possessed the collective wisdom to handle the situation at hand. The situation at which this intervention was targeted began with the arrival of a young man, fictitiously named Donnie here, for purposes of this account (and with sincere apologies to any Occupier bearing this name by sheer coincidence).
Clearly, it is not our intent to defame any individual anywhere—only to return support given to the Occupy Movement everywhere, and hopefully help our fellow Occupiers by sharing a successful intervention for solving an internal conflict which could occur at any Occupied site. Moreover, this intervention was carried out in what little privacy public encampment allows, without physical violence, by members of a small, newly formed Occupy group.
Around mid-November of last year, Donnie began coming around frequently, and though he claimed to be part of the Occupy Movement, he was clearly not aligned with any of the basic goals. Continuously disruptive of General Assemblies, he shouted foul and vulgar epithets when anyone disagreed with him, threatened to hit people, and could not be reasoned with by anyone. His behavior damaged the new encampment’s solidarity and appeared to be driving away those whose support Occupy was trying to enlist.
As time went on, in addition to his unpredictable disruptions, it became apparent Donnie was using the encampment to freeload food and donations intended for persons in dire circumstances. Unlike many at the encampment, he had a place to live, his own transportation, and appeared to be well fed and clean.
In short, Donnie was obviously a person whose basic living needs were met. To be fair, he did occasionally help keep the camp clean, and could even be amiable when he thought it would get him what he wanted. But he generally did this only with certain persons—usually women—who originally came to the encampment to get involved with Occupy actions.
Moreover, he had no sense of discretion, and often approached women in a manner deemed sexually harassing by Occupiers of both sexes. It was soon apparent to most everyone that his foul moods and vulgar epithets had driven away many people from this newly established site, especially families with children, who otherwise might have supported the Occupy movement. It needed supporters very much at the time, as there was a lot of suspicion about Occupy when it first began. Most thought it too good to be genuine, even when sites began cropping up everywhere—even the mass media was astounded at how quickly Occupy Wall Street in New York spread to Main Street USA, and often in the most unlikely places.
Donnie also had not responded to numerous discreet suggestions from peers that he stop his inappropriate behaviors. At the time, not many in this area realized other Occupy encampments were having similar problems.
We received a suggestion to read Sara Robinson’s ‘Occupy’s A**hole Problem: Flashbacks from An Old Hippie‘, and all of us at our camp gratefully did so. The group’s resolve was confirmed by Robinson’s statement that “It is absolutely OK to insist on behavior norms in Occupied space.” This cut right to the heart of its internal dispute.
The conflict of values involved in dealing with destructive energy for a movement based on an unwavering commitment to actions grounded in love and compassion is obvious. What was needed was a way to resolve the moral aspects of this dilemma. Robinson went on to describe a ‘restorative justice’ process in which the entire group, or a large number empowered to speak for the group, confronts the disruptor in an intervention process. No shame or blame involved.
One or two persons point out what they have seen, how it has affected them, and then the disruptive person is given a choice: make specific changes in the problematic behavior, or else leave. She recommends some pre-organizing in terms of who will do what: spokespersons who will do most of the talking, make factual “we” statements reflecting group observations, while the rest of the group stands in a circle around them, saying little or nothing but showing collective strength and resolve.
Robinson explains the entire process in detail, so this is just a brief recap that confirms its value. The Occupy group followed through to the letter, and even added a list of additional Occupiers from other sites who agreed to be called by those living at the encampment should things get out of hand. They would come to the site immediately if the intervention began going sideways.
Donnie was, after all, a person who had threatened violence if he did not get his way, and his numerous temper tantrums had caused most of the group to avoid contact with him whenever he was present at the Occupy site.
TAKING CARE OF ANGER
It was also recommended that those participating in the intervention should review the short film with Michael Stone, to ensure they had taken care of any personal anger toward Donnie prior to confronting him.
This was another useful tool, as this process needs people with the calm demeanor that only comes from a deeply felt inner peace—from people who have ‘taken care of their anger.’
Donnie had established a schedule by then that seldom wavered. Since he did not sleep at the encampment, he was never there after nightfall. So the intervention was scheduled to take place in the late afternoon, when the street traffic past the encampment was at a minimum and most people had left for the day.
Donnie was told a group representing the General Asembly wished to speak with him at a specific time the next day about his refusal to comply with a short list of behavioral norms it had adopted by consensus. As Donnie was not present at the GA when this list of guidelines—all of which were simply common sense—was unanimously agreed upon, these were put into writing. Copies were distributed to all persons who had missed the meeting—including Donnie, thus eliminating the likelihood he would use the excuse that he did not know he was doing anything wrong.
As the group gathered for the intervention at the scheduled time the following day, it was hardly a surprise that this disruptive individual did not arrive, and though they waited all day, he avoided the site for the rest of the week. When he finally did show up again, it was very late at night. Most of the intervention team sleeping onsite that night had gone to bed in their tents, while the others taking part in the intervention had gone home.
Uncertain how to proceed, given this entirely unexpected turn of events, but also unwilling to take Donnie on with only a handful of the intervention team present, one of the founders of the encampment made a spur-of-the-moment decision that all supported later. He decided it was preferable to show compassion than try the intervention when no one was prepared for it to happen in the middle of a cold and rainy night, after being awakened from their sleep.
In short, he told Donnie, who was sitting on the ground shivering from the rain and cold that he could sleep the rest of the night in an extra tent that happened to be vacant that one night. While Donnie at first refused, wanting to demonstrate what a ‘tough guy’ he was, after sitting for a short time with no protective gear in the freezing rain, he accepted the offer and climbed into the sleeping bag in the vacant tent. He never did explain why he had returned in the middle of the night, but the group suspects he thought they would change their minds about him if he just stayed away for a few days.
After more than two months of the group protesting his obnoxious behaviors with increasing emphasis on how damaging it was, he still just did not ‘get it,’ or so he claimed later.
The Occupiers then decided to put into effect what they now call Plan B, which was to forego the restorative justice intervention, since it was obvious he would never be there at the same time as the intervention group. Donnie was asked to attend the next General Assembly and explain his reasons for not complying with its unanimous proposal, which was that he leave the camp, and not return to the space they had Occupied. He did show up for the GA, but stolidly refused to explain himself.
Instead, he just asked, over and over again, what ‘they’ wanted him to say, as though that would change their minds and they would allow him to stay. It went precisely as Robinson’s article predicted, with Donnie having an endless string of excuses, all boiling down to him being a persecuted victim without whom the entire Occupy Movement would collapse.
The Occupiers at the site did really well in deflecting his bogus excuses and claims that certain people in the group had a ‘personal grudge’ against him. Nonetheless, he finally hit on one that bought him a short amount of time. While the entire GA had agreed he must be told to leave Occupied space for good, Donnie was not present at the meeting where this specific proposal concerning him was passed.
In the end, everyone agreed that if he would stay away from the encampment for the rest of the week, they would give him one more chance to explain why he had ignored the collective decision of the group. They said he could come to the next GA to explain why he should be allowed to stay. In other words, he was given a ‘graceful out’ and he took it. No one has seen or heard from him since.
A great deal was learned from this experience, which can be briefly summarized as:
- The damage a single disruptive individual can do to a group of highly committed and experienced activists should not be underestimated;—just one can drain the enthusiasm and energy of fifty people in less time than it took to document this incident;
- We are never alone in this struggle—there are numerous resources in many forms to guide us through the darkest times—many of whom have gone through similar experiences; and
- Whatever intervention you come up with, these clever persons will always find a way to sabotage them—so always be prepared with a ‘Plan B’.
With love, gratitude, and in solidarity with all of you, especially our friends atOccupy Love.
- The Morningstar Collective