Symphony of errors

 

Livestream of the assembly can be found here.

Prelude

No one wanted this job. I didn’t either; there are pleasanter ways of spending an evening than trying to guide a group of disparate (and sometimes desperate) people around a minefield of poor outcomes.

 

My aim as facilitator of this assembly is to take a practical step towards safeguarding victims of violence. I’m hoping the assembly also shares this aim and has the collective will, health and wisdom to make it happen. It could be a tall order.

 

The assembly was initiated by a recent act of violence, perpetrated by Tom upon Mark. It’s by no means the first instance of violence within Occupy but it appears to have acted as a catalyst for a large number of people to demand sanctions. So the idea is to propose (and implement) a specific sanction for acts of violence. The particular and the general, the enactment and its implementation, are bound to interact and make things messy. But forward planning and preventative measures have never been strengths of Occupy London. This is where we’re at right now, as so many times in the past: trying to get everything done at once.

 

There are many explosive scenarios but only four that I consider most likely. They go as follows:

1) Tom and his supporters take over proceedings. Assembly descends into chaos.

2) Outraged elements within the assembly demand vigilante justice. Tom and his supporters come under attack. Security guards (or others) break up the assembly.

3) Process- and/or rehab-focused attendees block any attempt at sanction implementation. Assembly survives but inaction causes other supporters to leave in droves.

4) Discussion of the case at hand triggers uncontrollable emotional reactions among past victims of abuse. Assembly drowns in one huge wave of emotion.

 

Since the probability of emotions dominating the assembly is high, I suggested a venue that’s both enclosed and public. An enclosed private space, i.e. one with only us inside, ran the risk of developing cabin fever. A shared public space with easy outside access and other people in the background might act as a buffer in situations where emotions start running high. I could be wrong. The security guards on the other hand, might act either as a semi-conscious deterrent or as an irritant, a provocation. I don’t know enough about the mental state of everyone attending to make more than a very approximate guess.

 

There are my own biases to contend with. I don’t really know Tom but tend to lean in favour of smarts and original thinking, and Tom can lay indisputable claim to both. How heavy is the weight of this bias? I spent decades working in an environment where applied intelligence was the only requirement for success. Even though this is a different setting and even though I’m seeing intelligence standing decoupled from other requirements vital for its development (commitment, discipline and the like), I still value it highly. So, a heavy bias.

 

It’s possible that in my effort to compensate for this bias, I’ll end up being harsher in my interactions with Tom than I otherwise would, something to also watch out for. Then again, I’m not here to judge him or his actions. I’ll try to take myself out of the way as much as possible and open up my attention to the thoughts and emotions of the assembly while also keeping an eye out to avoid the four sure-kill outcomes. A juggling act.

 

People keep arriving.  There’s a lot of traffic due to an imminent performance so a start before 7:30, half an hour later than planned, is unlikely. People will get tired faster. At least, there’s time for observation.

 

There’s a fair number of Tom’s supporters, and at least one outspoken aficionado of vigilante justice. Possibly others, I can’t tell. But one person can be more than enough to turn a crowd into a mob. Process- and rehab-focused supporters are also present. That’s great, it means there’ll be a broad spectrum of views at the assembly. It also means that all four blow-up scenarios are still on the table.

 

People cluster in two groups, not exactly mixing freely. Even though it’s off subject with respect to tonight’s agenda and meeting, this dynamic (for/against Tom) will probably be the one that will dominate the assembly. Keeping the focus on victim protection is going to be a challenge.

 

Adagio

Location shifts closer to the Thames. Chairs are gathered. I sit cross-legged on the floor, glad at the proffered opportunity of countering any high status I might end up accumulating. I haven’t counted but estimate us to be around twenty people.

 

I open the assembly with an anecdote, a true story of my reaction on encountering verbal abuse during a talk at UCL last night. Primed by recent events within Occupy, I found myself shaking with anger. Even though my intervention stopped the abuse, my upset state meant I didn’t manage to get my message through to the abuser or the rest of the group with any clarity.

 

I do so now, talking about the foundation of consensus: respectful dialogue between equals. I hold a leaflet from Seeds for Change and read out a couple of relevant phrases. Respect. Trust. The facilitator’s role in keeping the meeting focused. Consensus won’t brew like instant coffee but I’m hoping the ideas of trust, respect and focus will remain somewhere in peoples’ minds. The printouts of Occupy London’s safer spaces policies that I brought along might also serve as reminders.

 

I feel tempted to talk more about violence, following a brief discussion with another Occupier on the subject prior to the assembly. Mention how the external injustices we are up against are also instances of violence. How if we manage to effectively deal with violence both within and between ourselves, put a stop to the vicious cycle of attacks and counter-attacks, maybe we’ll be better suited both to recognise and effectively deal with external violence. Like war or the upcoming bedroom tax. But the demands on this assembly are high enough already without adding personal philosophies and musings to the load.

 

I go back to my original plan and give a recap of the spread of views as expressed over the last couple of days on groupspaces:

 

Tom’s behaviour is unacceptable and action needs to be taken but there’s no process for doing this. We need a lot jury of peers to judge a breach of safer spaces.

Ban Tom for 6 months, give him time to sort himself out.

We already have all the tools and legitimacy to put forward a complete ban. See sections 10 and 11 from online SSP, section 11 from SSP. Let the ban be indefinite, or at least until there has been clear commitment and proof in Tom’s actions that he will not be a threat to anyone.

SSP (Safer Spaces Policy) will never work in the absence of the capacity to overpower people and somewhere to hold them.

Tom has been asked repeatedly to apologise to Mark, desist from abusive behaviour, seek treatment and take down the Facebook page that shows him holding Mark’s dreads as trophy. He has also been physically restrained at demos and Occupy camps.

Tom’s act is that of a bully seeking to humiliate.

Tom thinks Mark is responsible for him and his lover having been beaten up by cops last May.

We have all been complicit with acts of violence in the past, either encouraging them (e.g. burning of Dom’s hat) or not acting decisively when witnessing them.

I was there when it happened. There were maybe 8 other people present.

Maybe people fail to react out of shock.

The recent SWP case shows the danger of kangaroo courts.

Restrain him. Throw him to the cops.

Refuse to acknowledge him in public spaces.

There are mental and substance abuse issues. Send him to external agencies.

Several people declare that in the absence of concrete action in the face of abuse, they will be dissociating themselves from Occupy.

The current situation is the result of activist burnout; it’s fucking everything up.

The current situation results from the combination of consensus decision-making with open membership. We need to drop one or the other otherwise implementation will never work.

 

So here it is, one big mix of data: proof of the attack (witnesses, photographic evidence, own admission), background/context (Tom’s own attack by outsiders last May, Tom’s suspicion of Mark’s involvement), extenuating circumstances (diminished responsibility due to mental/substance abuse issues, activist burnout), past complicity involving a number of people present at tonight’s meeting (encouragement of at least one other violent attack, inaction in the face of others), bias of people involved at tonight’s meeting, e.g. by making unsubstantiated assumptions and instant judgements (bully seeking to humiliate), failure of initial attempts at mediation (refusal to apologise, desist etc.), incitement to violence, caution against vigilante justice, lack of belief in the process we’re about to employ (consensus) and so on.

 

I try to provide a temporal frame for separating them: first, protect victims. Then, judge aggressors. Following judgment, consider mediation, rehab and other remedial measures.

 

In principle, we’re only working on the first part (victim protection). I read out Mark’s informal proposal seeking to address this (6-month ban of people who have carried out an act of violence).

 

In practice, and since we’re missing trust, the habit of respectful dialogue and all the rest of the ingredients necessary for a healthy consensus (including clear processes and a shared understanding of how these work), I can’t see any way this can go right for everyone. My best hope is to somehow approximate a good-enough solution by getting things less wrong.

 

Floor is opened for clarification points. Tom kicks things off with a procedural comment: this assembly has not been advertised on the website. I reply that it has (events page). The legitimacy of this assembly will be questioned by others, both in private and in public. Someone else asks if we’re going to now become a membership group. No, we’re not here to discuss consensus or other methods of general operation. This is about sanctions. We have had people who were banned before, e.g. on groupspaces, who still returned. Another procedural point follows: what I read out was not a proposal by Mark, it was a statement of his position. Mark does not feel he is in the right place to make any proposals, does not wish to bias or manipulate the situation in any way. Fifteen minutes in, the assembly risks losing its compass, its focus.

 

I try to clarify that while not a formal proposal, Mark’s suggestion might act as a starting point for us to start thinking about implementing sanctions. Next comment though takes us off subject again; it is an expression of distress at Tom’s presence at this meeting. The request is for him to put away Mark’s hair that he’s visibly carrying around his person. Tom complies.

 

Floor is opened to any points specific to SSP implementation. Tom wishes to speak again but as his presence here is already causing upset, I tell him he’s not allowed to do so. I doubt anyway that he will have anything to say on the subject of SSP implementation. He gets up, along with a bunch of other people who start talking together, pointing fingers, telling me to fuck off and generally getting ready to leave. Some pub quiz apparently. I tell Tom he is no longer welcome in this assembly.

 

New complaints kick in. Tom should be allowed to speak as part of due process. Even if he violates SSP by doing so? Even if his presence here causes others to feel unsafe? If the choice is between freedom of speech and safety, I will opt for safety. But I shouldn’t have to be making this choice. I shouldn’t be put in this position. It sucks.

 

Before leaving, Tom disrupts proceedings one more time to reiterate accusations against Mark, calls us stupid for not believing these accusations and talks of joining UKIP. The shouting is so loud, that crowds gather to watch. Also security. But finally he’s gone. Other people leave with him, including the vigilante justice proponent. Twenty-five minutes in, we have lost a significant portion of this assembly and with it, bomb scenarios #1 and 2.

 

Scherzo

We move into a closer circle. Someone else expresses being appalled at Tom coming to the assembly while parading the proof of his act of violence. That in itself, constitutes a serious violation of SSP (point #11 – if you feel unsafe, you can ask someone to leave). It was also a statement of provocation. Apologises for not saying something on the subject before. Process is already available, we just need to work on applying it. We should have asked Tom to leave earlier on. We should have made it absolutely clear to him prior to the meeting, that if he were to show up, he wouldn’t be allowed to speak.

 

A point is made that there were a lot of people who came here tonight because they wanted to hear Tom speak. What we had, was a trial online (on groupspaces) without hearing the other side. It’s a failure of process. Specifically, a lack of process.

 

But Tom already admitted to doing this online, was the one who actually announced it there. And it’s been witnessed. Someone else makes the point that the need to make boundaries is also for Tom’s sake, states their own case as example. One of the witnesses present during the assault, confirms. The point is made about legalese process – are we really questioning that Tom carried out this action? It’s possible we are all hallucinating but if not, we don’t need to be philosophical. This qualifies as beyond reasonable doubt.

 

Tom could have spoken eventually. He chose to go to another meeting. It’s a mess but you can’t reasonably say that he was gagged.

 

I’m glad someone else realises this is a mess.

 

At one of the camps, Tom got drunk, started accusing a visitor of being a cop, there was a fight, I and others took him down, Tom came back and started accusing  us of attacking him. I don’t want to be in a position where I stay in a camp where I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep safely at night.

 

We are not discussing the need for SSP, we all recognise the need, we have it in writing, we all have countless examples of SSP violations etc. We are here to discuss implementation.

 

We need to make a decision that won’t act as a precedent, a specific decision. Generalised discussion is for later.

 

We need to be clear about what Tom has done, and communicate it to him clearly. He also has the right to reply to any accusations. Mediation via a neutral person should also be considered.

 

Once again, I try to make the point that this is not about Tom, it’s about Mark and anyone who feels threatened or unsafe by Tom’s actions. It’s about SSP implementation. Fifty minutes into the assembly, it transpires that at least some of the attendees are not clear on this point.

 

Someone online is asking what were the reason(s) behind this violation. I don’t know. Various people take this up. But again, the reasons at this point are irrelevant.

 

My brain feels stuck. I don’t feel like I’m getting any clarity across. Or receiving any back. Time for a break.

 

Allegro

Tim has decided to formally endorse Mark’s proposal with a specific application to Tom. I ask how people feel about this. The tempo picks up.

 

There is no either-or. I don’t understand why there’s any confusion about practical implementation. This is a starting point.

 

I jump on that. Good. A beginning, possibly flawed but a start. Something we can build on.

 

Someone brings up the need to recognise warning signals so we can bring them to the group earlier.

 

Someone brings up the physical limitations of applying SSP to open spaces, dealing with people that have mental health issues and so on. We, as Occupy London, can’t do it.

 

Process issues are brought up again. I feel this is a word that rubs people up the wrong way and triggers knee-jerk reactions. It’s on a par with structure. I think people hate these words because they see them as something external to them, something that’s imposed upon them. But we’re here trying to make our own rules, so we can operate more smoothly. And that is vitally important, as has become apparent several dozen times already during this assembly.

 

Outcome #3 is now looking like the only serious contender. I try to get specifics on what would constitute a due process. What constitutes violence? Is this not described or covered already in our existing SSP?

 

No, the process involves a series of steps. One, communicate to people that SSP has been violated through a specific action. We need to tell Tom, you have done this and therefore breached SSP.

 

I did read this out at the very beginning of the assembly.

 

Clarification points are made that are not clarification points. People go off subject again and again. I don’t interrupt all the time with requests to refocus because venting is important; maybe it’ll clear peoples’ emotions and leave space for calm and reason enough when it comes to testing Tim’s proposal for consensus. Also, repetition might help people absorb the information and intent better (improve listening skills). Then again, it’s getting late and tiredness is starting to count against us.

 

I’m not convinced this is 100% an issue of SSP. If we were all 15-stone body-builders with kung-fu skills we probably wouldn’t feel unsafe. However, there would still be an issues to be addressed about inappropriate behaviour, to put it very gently. Mark is perfectly free to go to the police. However, if I see something bad going on and the person receiving the bad stuff doesn’t feel strong or brave enough or whatever to go to the police, maybe it’s my responsibility to do that. Maybe we should all walk away and say, hey Mark, it’s down to you. Maybe we need to figure out something useful for the future. However, if there aren’t consequences after something undesirable has happened, blame yourself if it happens again.

 

Online comment: Not feeling safe involves not being able to trust. If we don’t implement SSP, we’re going to drive people away. In fact, this has already happened.

 

We did implement SSP. It’s not just to do with violence, disruption counts too. At GAs (general assemblies) a while back, if people kept disrupting, their comments were not taken. The other thing I want to say is, I’m not waving, I’m driving. When are we going to get a grip on this? We went through all of this when Phil was assaulted. Everyone pussyfooting around. It was a very unpleasant episode to deal with. The police were involved at that time but we still haven’t dealt with it. It’s symptomatic of our failure to deal with issues when they arise. If you hold a party, you guarantee the safety of people. You can’t invite people to come join your group and place them in an unsafe environment. However inadequate our processes are, this is something we need to work on as a matter of urgency.

 

I propose that process issues be dealt with in a follow-up assembly next week.

 

Another proposal. Until SSP is implemented, we hold no events, we organise no actions and we hold no general assemblies. No more Occupy London until SSP is implemented. We keep being dragged back to Tom. Doesn’t matter who it is. It’s beyond ridiculous.

 

I go back to Tim’s proposal. It’s for a generalised ban for serial SSP abusers, including acts of violence. Duration of ban has been proposed for 6 months or more. This can be further finessed subsequently, by discussing how revision could happen. It’s just a starting point. How do people feel about testing this proposal for consensus?

 

Is it a general proposal? That’s fine. But if the consequences are that it now applies to Tom, I can’t agree with that. I would block this proposal if it applied to Tom. If it’s a general proposal, then no.

 

I try to get clarifications. In what sense wouldn’t this general proposal apply to Tom, in the specific? I try to listen but people are getting antsy. I ask for potential improvements on this proposal, asking people to keep in mind the potential block.

 

There are two components: do we agree to this as a general principle and does this apply to Tom?

 

Ok, so are there any blocks to this proposal as a general principle?

 

Another disruption by someone making racist comments. I ask them to stop talking.

 

No blocks. Any stand asides? Any reservations?

 

Yes. Six months is a very long time. Has to be viewed on a case-by-case basis. I also don’t think an outright ban is realistic. Find other ways of dealing with this, in the case of mental health issues.

 

Other alternatives are brought forth again, such as mediation. There could be other responses than a ban.

 

We’re making assumptions on how much influence we have as a community on both these men’s lives.

 

Rehab etc. issues can be discussed at a separate assembly. They’re not part of this one.

 

This should have been flagged up months ago. You can’t have a 6-month blanket ban. The seriousness of the ban can be adjusted depending on background. There needs to be a place where I can go to flag things up early.

 

A point is made off camera. It is, again, a question as to whether this ban will be applied to Tom.

 

A review after 3 months by a liaison is proposed.

 

An act of violence justifies an automatic ban. This is distinct from violation.

 

So the proposal is amended to a generalised ban for serial acts of violence.

 

One act is enough.

 

A generalised ban for an act of violence. Ban involves all Occupy London general assemblies, groupspaces.

 

Only general assemblies. The rest is pretty arbitrary. We’re making ourselves out as being bigger than we are.

 

How do people feel about that? Groupspaces have their own moderators. Working groups have their own ways of operating.

 

We need to keep asking Tom, keep contact, look after him a bit. And if he says sorry and apologises, he’s welcome back as far as I’m concerned.

 

Would you then be blocking this proposal?

 

Are we considering serial acts of violence?

 

This is a starting point.

 

It takes a lot more than 3 months, 6 months, a year to get over things. It may have to be a permanent ban.

 

Can we put at least 6 months?

 

Online comment – Complete ban must be completely last resort. People who don’t agree with the core group might provoke others so they end up being pushed out.

 

That’s what Tom did with the new guy who came in, he started provoking him.

 

What if someone who’s banned from a general assembly turns up anyway? Say they continue like Tom did, shouting and so on?

 

This is a starting point. We can make it better, improve on it.

 

There are situations where someone has had a particularly bad week or day, someone gets in their way and they push them. They wouldn’t normally be a violent person but that’s an act of violence. An automatic 3-month ban may not be appropriate.

 

Context. Good point.

 

Just affirm If someone has been violent they will be banned from an assembly. And just work on it really. It’s getting late.

 

Yes, 9:30pm.

 

Do people want to go or do people want to test this proposal for consensus as it is now? We can still amend it at a later stage.

 

What’s the process? Can we really amend such a proposal in the future? Would that be valid?

 

It’s my understanding that all our conclusions are provisional and are up for change. Everything is, because we’re learning as we go along. We’ve always acknowledged that. If the GA chooses to pass this, it needs to be added to the information about general assemblies. It’s quite a key agreement we’ve reached. It’s important that whatever the proposal is, it’s carefully minuted.

 

Proposal is for a ban for people who have committed one or more acts of violence. Ban is from all Occupy London structures (general assemblies, working groups, groupspaces). Duration is for 6 months with review at 3 months by liaison group to be determined at a later stage. I think reservations for this proposal should also go in.

 

We need some proviso for conditions leading to the act of violence.

 

Premeditated act of violence?

 

We’re meeting next week, we can discuss this then.

 

It’s important that people commit to this.

 

We’ll meet again, Wednesday or Thursday.

 

Let’s test this proposal for consensus. Again, it’s a starting point, to be finessed next week and beyond.

 

No blocks. Two stand-asides. Consensus is reached.

 

It’s a Frankenstein proposal, held together by bits of sticky tape. Half of its content (definitions of acts of violence, proof, liaison group) has yet to be built. The other half (formal implementation procedure in Tom’s case, aka process) is set to come to life in the future (next week).

 

But somehow it still feels like a victory of sorts. It will make Mark feel a bit safer. It might even help safeguard Tom from people who, in the absence of any sanction, would be happy to take matters in their own hands. But most importantly, it will show other victims of abuse (as well as perpetrators) that we respect ourselves and our values for real, in ways that ensure their safety and continued growth.

 

A first attempt at bringing together form and fluidity, light and darkness, gentleness and strength. There could be great music in this, just waiting to happen. Or the dissonance could grow even harsher and tear us apart. Only time, hopefully offered with care and intelligence, will tell.

 
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