General Assembly

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See: People's Assembly


Issues with the Gene Assembly Format


"In my experience with the occupations, thus far, not understanding what a General Assembly is and is not is the source of a lot of confusion and, therefore, frustration. People are compelled to join this movement because of their disenfranchisement has left them feeling angry and hopeless. They fear for their future. They want to congregate with others in the same boat. The only thing we know here about taking this kind of political stand is to rally together. We're used to congregating and listening to people speak at us and rile us up and inspire us with their ideas. We expect them to lead and take on the problems for us. We confer our collective responsibility for our society onto them.

The problem is, that's how we've been doing it for over 200 years and we're in a state of failure. We need to do something differently. This movement is a protest, indeed, but it is also an offering. It offers an alternative way of addressing our societal needs. That way is direct, participatory democracy where each person is equitable, responsible and fully accountable for the decisions we make about how to govern ourselves. That means getting down to work.

What's brilliant about this system is that it is about coming up with solutions. It's not about complaining. If you have a concern, develop a proposal. Can't do that yourself? Create a working group.

It's not about pontificating. If you have information to share - real, hard information, not opinions - by all means provide information which helps make decisions. Stick with facts. It doesn't matter what your opinion is. We have a problem at hand and we must construct a solution. Provide proposals or amendments, not intangible opinions.

There is no point to political parties in this system. If you have a constructive idea to add to the building of a solution, put it out there. It doesn't matter if it came from some ideological background. Marxist, Communist, Democratic, Socialist, these labels won't mean anything. Either the idea addresses the need at hand or it doesn't. It will be considered and adopted or rejected based on whether it's something everyone can consent to as meeting a need.

Many people are lost when they attend a General Assembly. Over and over, I've seen people complain that "we are talking about real things!" I watched an Anarchists' Caucus form here in Boston. They expressed frustration that there is no debate happening in the General Assembly. But, the General Assembly is not a forum for debate. It's a practical, solution-building forum. So, if you have a proposal, make it. If you have information to share, by all means, get on the stack and share.

What's a 'stack'? Stacks are lists that are kept of who has asked to speak. Stack managers will call people up in order at the appropriate time. At the Boston GA, for instance, we now use a Group Announcement stack, a Group Proposal stack and an Individual Stack. There are mini-stacks kept when someone is speaking. Each person is allowed to speak without interruption. If someone has a clarifying question (very important qualifier, there) or a directly relevant point of information, they make a gesture. A Floor Time Manager will put them on a list to speak when the current speaker is finished. If the Floor Time Manager determines that the question is for purposes of clarification or the point of information is not directly relevant, the person can opt to be put on the individual stack. No one is denied the opportunity to speak.

It should be noted that in NY and in Boston, we use a tool called 'progressive stack'. The stack manager watches to see that a plurality of voices are being heard. If one demographic is being heard too often, the stack manager has the discretion to move someone up the stack who might represent a different demographic. We've most typically seen this be based on gender. More men put themselves on stack to speak than women. We might hear from 5 men in a row and the stack manager would then bump a woman up the stack. As we get to know each other better the progressive stack management will likely get more refined so that more marginalized voices are bumped up the stack more often.

What the General Assembly is not has been a challenging concept to embrace. So, what we've seen emerge is a modified version of the Assembly where the 'individual stack' is more of an open mic at the end of the Assembly. It's fascinating to see how engaged people are during the process of considering a proposal and how many people walk away from the Assembly once the open mic starts. I imagine we will need to split the individual stack into an individual proposal stack and individual sharing stack so that we don't miss out on the collective considering worthy proposals because they've walked away.

In Boston, it's taken a while to settle into a General Assembly structure that the encampment owns and adheres to. Going from the "majority rules", top-down structure of our society and all the feelings of oppression that have resulted have left us fearful and un-trusting. There was a kneejerk reaction to having people "impose" rules and structures. An underlying assumption of authoritarian oppression from a self-made ruling class was prevalent. After several failed assemblies, however, a near-mutiny on the part of the Facilitation Working Group, led to a heartfelt plea to please give it a try, and being a part of making it better if things don't work well. It was a tense moment, as the facilitators were willing to walk away if the participants didn't consent to experimenting with structure. They did, though, and we had our first experience of really working through consensus. People really came to understand that it was an authoritarian imposition, but an assurance of safety for all to speak. We're still tweaking the details, but we're now moving forward with a sense of trust." (

Challenges to its legitimacy

Arun Gupta:

"For nearly every Occupy movement in the United States, the General Assembly is seen as the legitimate decision-making body. But when it comes time to enforce a decision that some disagree with, its authority is often called into question. Nearly every significant conflict that has cropped up in Occupy movements around the country rests on the bedrock issues of authority, accountability, representation and legitimacy.

The issue is central to the movement’s future because authority rests on the notion of legitimacy. In a leaderless movement, who – if anyone – gets to call the shots, initiate actions, represent the group, and perhaps most important, hold people accountable by enforcing authority, order and discipline? Exactly how democratic must a people’s movement be?

These questions of legitimacy and leadership will return in the next several weeks, as the weather warms and brings possible new outside Occupations, and as a presidential campaign heats up in which both major parties, in different ways, will attempt to lay claim to Occupy’s rhetoric and message. The Occupy movement has grappled with these questions in very different ways over the last six months, and lessons learned over that time could be key to the movement’s success in 2012.

For example, an attempt by a group calling itself The 99% Declaration to convene a “National General Assembly” in Philadelphia on July 4 was rejected by both the Occupy Philly General Assembly and Occupy Wall Street as the event smacked of co-optation by an outside group that allegedly included a former Goldman Sachs executive. The call received some media attention, but suspicions about the organizers, their plan to replicate conventional politics by electing U.S. citizen-only delegates according to congressional districts and an unhinged tirade by a group member, declaring “OWS is a failure and … a fraud,” drained the idea of any meaningful support.

Meanwhile, Adbusters, which sparked Occupy Wall Street, issued a “tactical briefing” in late January with #OccupyChicago and the line “May 1 – Bring Tent” superimposed over a photo of Chicago police pummeling protesters in 1968. Adbusters is promoting an occupation of the city during the NATO and G8 summits in May. But Adbusters didn’t consult with OccupyChicago or the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda, and that incensed many people.

Serena Himmelfarb of OccupyChicago told one reporter, “I am excited that Adbusters continues to support OWS, but they acted irresponsibly … They acted alone, without regard to what’s already being planned here for the summer.” Another organizer wrote, “If you want to pick a fight with [the police], you should consult those whose name you are using.” In a nod to Adbusters’ prominence, Chicago activists swallowed their grumbling because they knew the call could help generate the publicity and crowds they wanted.

Unlike the people behind the unsuccessful 99% Declaration, Adbusters drew from a deep pool of media attention and activist goodwill to create its own source of legitimacy. It went around the Occupy Chicago General Assembly and put it in the position of having to endorse the call or make it appear that the movement was split – which the media would have played up.

A third challenge of Occupy’s belief in democracy is whether or not homeless people are a legitimate part of the movement. The instant any occupation set down stakes in an American city or town, it attracted society’s dispossessed in search of food, shelter, medical care and counseling. Many perceived, often unfairly, that the Occupy demonstrators had introduced the drug abuse, violence and mental illness that bedeviled many camps. The occupiers insisted, often correctly, that these social maladies had existed all along, studiously ignored by news organizations and right-wing bloggers. (In fact, as Rebecca Solnit reported, crime in Oakland actually went down 19 percent during Occupy Oakland.)

Nonetheless, the challenge of the homeless for the movement was profound. So-called street people are consummate members of the 99 percent. Their troubled lives are the outcome of decades of public policies calculated to deindustrialize the economy, emaciate cities, ghettoize the poor and minorities, and shred the safety net. But in Occupy camps all across the country the same split emerged between those who felt that the homeless, runaways, train hoppers and itinerants were central to the movement versus those who felt that they drained resources and diverted energy from the task at hand.

This divide played out at Occupy Los Angeles at City Hall, mere blocks from thousands of homeless who bed down every night in the largest skid row in the country. Ruth Fowler, a journalist, screenwriter and member of facilitation team at Occupy Los Angeles, told me via email that “Skid row residents were extremely vigilant in self policing the encampment, and running out the inevitable dealers, thieves and violent individuals who made their way over there.” Of the seven U.S.-based occupations she visited, Fowler said “Occupy L.A. didn’t have any more incidences of drug and alcohol use than other encampments.”

But tensions still surfaced. Fowler saw a conflict between “radicals who believe the worst thing you can ever do to anyone is call the cops on them, given the brutality and corruption of the police and the prison industrial complex, and liberals who would rather call the cops, sweep an issue under the carpet, and focus on legislation reform.”

Fowler also offers a dose of perspective: “People smoked weed in Occupy L.A. Big deal. In London they got shitfaced drunk and punched the crap out of each other in the middle of the GA.” (

Issues of Representation and Accountability

Arun Gupta:

"even if the legitimacy question is solved, it leaves unaddressed issues of representation and accountability. A former black blocker who lives in Portland, Ore., explained it’s a predicament when any group organizes in secret, and takes actions in the name of the movement but without any transparent mechanism for accountability. Self-selecting “affinity groups” take actions under the Occupy umbrella, but accountability is largely based on informal social networks, moral suasion and pressure.

This is not only Occupy’s current organizing model – for better and for worse – it’s how the movement began. Schneider says the original Occupy Wall Street action “involved a tactical committee composed of a small group of people working partly in secret.” He explains that the announced target for the Sept. 17 occupation was Chase Manhattan Plaza in the heart of Wall Street, but the committee “knew that it probably wasn’t going to work, so it was more of a decoy.”

“Now, there are a lot more power dynamics in the movement that are kind of shadowy,” Schneider adds. “You might be able to see who is in what working group, but you don’t always know what affinity group they are in and who is hatching what ideas. There aren’t the traditional forms of accountability in which responsibilities are clear and someone can be removed.”

Peter Bratsis, a professor of political theory at the University of Salford and author of ”Everyday Life and the State,” asks, “How do you create authority within the movement, how is that authority going to act, do we have groups working in affinity with each other or one disciplined group recognizing the authority of the GA to make strategic decisions?”

The problem, according to Bratsis, is “how to find macro-level coordination but recognize the autonomy of all the individual left groupings. Should the radical feminists have to go to the GA to make a particular decision? No, they have their own structures and can make their own decisions.”

In a movement like Occupy, which is more like a cosmic haze of subatomic particles than a luminous celestial body, democracy is fuzzy. Democracy is not “everyone does what everyone wants to,” says Bratsis. And that is the heart of the matter. Some people want to drum. Others want to toke up or shoot up. Some want to work within the system. Others want to fight the state. And these actions all impinge on other people’s rights or visions of the movement.

Consensus – the lifeblood of the General Assembly which is the beating heart of the Occupy movement – is about getting everyone to agree. This sidelines legitimacy. Referencing the philosopher Max Weber, Bratsis says “legitimacy refers to seeking a probability that a command will be obeyed.” In consensus, however, if everyone agrees, there is no need to issue a command. In the few instances where a crisis must be resolved, it is exceedingly laborious to issue a command, which promptly gets ignored as proved by rogue drummers and pot smokers. The state has riot police, jails, courts and armies. The Occupy movement has downward twinkling fingers, and so it ends up using other social and psychological methods to elicit compliance.

Perhaps a few dozen active encampments remain around the United States. Freed from the burden of maintaining a daily society, hundreds of active Occupy movements still have to wrestle with the philosophical issues of democracy and legitimacy even as they strategize for what comes next. For now, the source of legitimacy is the General Assembly operating by consensus based on “We are the 99 percent.”

The 99 percent is a great slogan, but even in a best-case scenario, there will be winners and losers whenever a decision is made. Progress requires democratic mechanisms of legitimacy and accountability and an awareness of who represents the movement and how to represent it. But that can be easier said than done, as the fragmented history of the American left shows.

It would be easy for radicals and reformers to part ways, which is already happening from Philadelphia to Southern California. The tougher part is making the 99 percent more than a slogan and creating new systems of democratic power in which everyone is invested. This will determine if the Occupy movement is a flash in the pan or the dawn of a new era." (

More Information

List of General Assemblies

NYC General Assembly organizing the occupation of Wall Street. website