On Wednesday C.T. and I traveled into New York City for a meeting with the affinity group helping us organize a Spanish translated consensus workshop. There had been some thought to have the meeting at Union Square, the real estate Occupy Wall Street is newly claiming. And we had heard stories about occupiers’ first actions and sparring with police at Union Square. So even though we were meeting in the opulent comfort of the lattice and palm tree lined atrium at 60 Wall Street, C.T. and I left the subway early to check out the action at the new protest site.
The first picture I took was this one, of handmade cardboard signs laid out on the ground, like so many Occupys around the country. Sometimes it’s an art installation, sometimes the signs are spread out so you can pick one to hold out toward traffic.
No sooner did I snap my shot and pivot did I encounter a very grumpy gaggle of NYPD and park police, six or eight of them at least, who were pushing a large plastic trash bin on wheels toward the signs. They were followed by a wave of dozens of protesters, anyone who could track the bin, all taking pictures and calling out remarks about the pettiness of the police.
One officer started picking up the signs and tossing them in the bin, sometimes handing them to another officer. A protester circled the scene, urging other Occupiers not to get caught up in the provocative behavior of the NYPD.
It was a moment in time, after a night that saw several OWS activists arrested after midnight, and through 4 a.m. It was a moment in time before the 6 p.m. rally in honor of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager killed by a neighborhood watch captain.
Several members of our affinity group didn’t make our meeting at 60 Wall St. I imagine they felt a strong pull to attend the rally, which was also attended by Trayvon’s parents.
Later, on the train back to Long Island, a passenger told us the subways around Union Station had been closed by the police. This is a tactic they use before a “scrape,” or mass arrest. So C.T. and I worried for our friends. And when we got home, we did find an internet pic of one affinity group member being dragged by police in the early morning arrests (“That was 4 a.m.—He was out by the time of our meeting—Where was he?!?” C.T. joked), but there was no news about arrests associated with the rally.
How long will OWS hold Union Square? Will they try to repeat the encampment? I don’t know these things, any more than I know how long C.T. and I can remain with the Occupy flagship. Our rv’s furnace is out, but spring is here. We don’t have much funding, but we have more eager students than ever.
There’s no mistaking the community and public spectacle that is a mass protest. That sense of being a part of the solution, a part of something larger that yourself. There’s the speaking truth to power, or at least power’s security force, when a protester shames a cop for making up some law to enforce on the spot (“No suitcases…No libraries!” They warned me and C.T. last November). It’s electrifying. It’s something to do, when the only clothes you can afford were probably made by slaves, and the degree that cost you six figures earns you a convenience store existence.
For some people, like this protester shadowing a Community Affairs officer with an article saying, “NYPD Outta Control,” things have gone so far that boldness and risk-taking replace comfort and free time. Other people seem to still be at home, plugged into the Matrix.
More people will come with the early spring. And C.T. and I are here in New York, saying to activists that consensus doesn’t have to be the shouting match/power play they experienced in Occupy’s infancy. We want these newly minted activists, this year’s and last year’s crops, to know that true consensus looks and feels very different from what they’ve experienced with the Madrid model.
So as the nation and OWS rally over the killing of a Black teenager C.T. and I organize to hold a Spanish-translated Consensus: Body and Soul workshop. We pour over facebook invites and funding opportunities. We make calls and make lists. And when enough pieces are in place, we get on the train for the face to face organizing. It’s not as sexy as a rally, but it’s our form of witness.
Maybe you have sidewalk chalk or a saxophone.
When you can’t stay away any longer, you’ll be like Richard, a man who wandered over to our Spanish workshop affinity group meeting at 60 Wall. He asked to sit in. We welcomed him and advised him to just observe, since he was not a member of our affinity group. After a half hour of listening to nine people speak the language of value-based consensus, with jargon like “level one discussion,” and “values embedded in the structure,” Richard couldn’t stand it anymore. “I hate to interrupt,” He said, not stopping himself from doing so. “But I don’t understand a thing you all are talking about. What is your group’s purpose???”
In the meeting role of doorkeeper, I took him off to the side and explained that C.T. Butler is the cofounder of Food Not Bombs and author of several books on consensus and that the rest of the group are his students, learning how to conduct meetings not ruled by privilege and oppression. Richard told me he had never been an activist outside of his own mind before, and this day, the day that OWS had moved to Union Square, the day that the Trayvon Martin rally pulled half of our affinity group out of a nearly empty 60 Wall St., was his first time venturing into this world.
It must have been boggling for him to have our group, with it’s new culture and strange language, be his first contact.
But don’t be boggled. When you can’t stay away any longer, bring your sidewalk chalk or your saxophone or a favorite children’s book you can replace when the police arrest it, and arrive in the river of people. Just make sure that one of your first appointments is a consensus workshop. Learn how, even with all the love in our hearts, we still bring privilege and oppression with us into situations of hope and repeat the same old patterns. Learn the language of breaking that pattern.
Then speak our new truth to power.
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