The Power of the People to Stand and be Counted

We have been brought to this moment through the momentum of centuries of struggle and resistance, fighting to create alternatives to the accumulation of power and wealth by a minority who horde the resources of our finite planet for their personal profit and pleasure. Our so-called "modern" societies are intentionally structured to maintain deep imbalances of power in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality, and our natural environment. We've marched, voted, petitioned for laws, maxed out our credit, and played the game. But its naive to think that a government and economic system built with the blood of genocide and slavery would ever hear our cry. So we rose up, again and again and now we rise once more to continue the liberation of our minds and lives. This current moment of resistance is growing into a global movement devoted to reclaiming and building free societies.

Occupy Wall Street has captivated the global imagination. It began with the literal occupation of the heart of global capital, and, just as the arteries and veins of the system stretch to every part of our lives, so must our occupation. Liberty Square is just the beginning. We need a Liberty Square in every neighborhood in America for things to change! And by a Liberty Square in every hood, we mean strategic occupations that fundamentally challenge existing structures of power and create a forum for the community to address its own concerns, free from the corruption of exclusionary economics and elite government systems.

I reject the notion that this is a leaderless movement, because i know that the opposite is true. In the so-called West, we are socialized to play our position, marginalized to lanes of professional specialization, as if we are only as good as our job. But in this movement we are all leaders, no longer defined merely by our education, "profession", the things we can buy, or our contribution to the economy. This idea is given its greatest expression through the assembly process. The process of friends, neighbors and members of our broader community coming together in public space to engage in meaningful dialogue about the issues that matter most to us; this is what democracy looks like.
I have voted in every national and local election since I turned 18. I vote out of a deep sense of devotion to the ideals of democracy. Several years ago I was privileged with the opportunity to collect and produce stories as part of the largest oral history project of its kind dedicated to recording the stories and experiences of African-American's for StoryCorps Griot, The Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture. We traveled the country in the spirit of Zora Neale Hurston, and the Lomax family, creating a space for people to let their stories be heard for posterity. I heard some of the most devastating and awe inspiring stories of struggle, survival, and resistance I could ever imagine. Listening to Ms. Theresa Burroughs in Tuscaloosa, AL, remember having to guess the number of black jelly beans in a jar in order to vote, or Johnny L. Flowers (http://storycorps.org/blog/griot-booth/selma-alabama/the-right-to-be-counted/) telling his 13 year old grandson about what it was like to stand on the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965, a day that became known as Bloody Sunday, for the vicious attack on nonviolent protesters marching for their human rights, made me promise myself that I would continue to vote for all those who have fought and died for this fundamental right.

But despite all that, i have no illusion that my vote really counts for anything. At least I know it doesn't count as much as the people and corporations that have the privilege to back their vote with money and the power to influence legislation that privileges profit over people, corporate person-hood over human rights. It is the checkbook of the 1% who is heard not the vote of the 99%. I'd even go as far as to say I feel my vote only counts for three-fifths of all other "corporate-persons."

So, it is with this understanding that i believe that the power of this growing movement is in the practice of people gathered together in peaceful public assemblies and consensing on how to address our grievances, not least of which is through nonviolent civil disobedience targeted at strategic objectives. Creative radical direct action is integral to this phase of the movement.

Currently the movement is organized through General Assemblies (GA's), which are public forums for people to gather together to address concerns and make decisions through collective agreement, also called consensus. Since we are socialized to understand leadership and power centers as decisions makers, there is a common misconception that this is some type of hierarchical governing body. On the contrary, this is simply a fluid process that attempts to create a forum for the inclusion of anyone who chooses to participate. As is the case with any community these forums have developed their own culture, in the form of hand gestures and other habits that emerge from group settings. But these are just subtleties of circumstance, that can and must change and adapt to reflect the cultural expressions of the community engaging the forum process. For thousands of years societies around the world have engaged in variations of democratic decision making. The beauty of this movement is it is implicit that these distinct histories and cultural ethos will evolve the General Assembly's method of consensus building. The GAs are ours to make our own as we see fit.

Because our minds are not yet free, this space is also not free of the frictions and misunderstandings that result from inherent privileges associated with race, class, gender, able-ism, and sexuality. These are the growing pains of a new society. Of course these realities still exist, but now is a moment to stretch our imaginations with an open mind and an open heart, and dream new ways into the world through positive participation and active engagement.  

Two months into the occupation General Assemblies are spreading across the country. In New York City, GAs have sprung up or are on the verge in the Bronx (Borough-wide), Washington Heights, Central Harlem, East Harlem, Brooklyn (Borough-wide), Sunset Park and Bed-Stuy. I'm sure there are others that I just don't know about.

The beauty of neighborhood GAs is that they provide a forum for a variety of local constituencies within a community to come together. And in the light of so-called anti-gang laws and State terrorism against black and brown communities the act, alone, of peaceably assembling in mass numbers can be an act of defiance. But communities have been divided as much through state terror as subtler forms of co-option. One of many forms of division is often supported by the proliferation of the non-profit organizing model that segregated organizations and community groups into issue silos, often excluding potential allies, as similar groups began to compete for limited funding, and similar members or resources. Now is the time for those silos to give way to renewed opportunities for mutual collaboration. There are a lot of people doing a lot of good work but since we still seem to be facing the same old problems, why not try something different?

One example of the spreading GAs is Occupy Sunset Park. The first meeting was a gathering of about 10 residents, activists and parents from the immediate and surrounding community captivated by the energy of the moment and interested in taking action to find creative solutions to stubborn problems. At the first planning meeting it was decided that the community would begin regular weekly General Assemblies, to establish continuity. In the spirit of each one, teach one, participants were encouraged to bring at least one friend to each meeting. The following week, at the first official Occupy Sunset Park General Assembly, participants discussed facilitation processes, alternative banking options, began to address local issues like gentrification and housing, and even made plans towards their first direct action. The sheer simplicity, inclusiveness, and adaptability of this process is what makes its potential energy so powerful. In America we believe that bigger is better, but all it takes is a small group of committed individuals working together to begin to change the world.

It would be amazing to see General Assemblies spread to every building, neighborhood, town and city evolving and adapting the collective agreement process as it grows. Liberty Square is just the beginning. The act of peacefully assembling to reclaim what has been taken, making decisions about our collective future through direct democracy and engaging in nonviolent direct actions of occupation and liberation must continue to spread until a new day dawns. This is a demonstration of the power of the people to stand and be counted.

Michael Premo lives in Brooklyn, NY. As an artist and cultural worker he has worked with the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, EarSay, Inc, The Foundry Theatre, Penny Arcade and NPR's StoryCorps, among others. Michael is co-producer of Housing is a Human Right (www.housingisahumanaright.org), an associate artist with The Civilians and serves on the Board of Directors for The Network of Ensemble Theaters. Currently his is a member of Organizing for Occupation (www.o4onyc.org) a group of New York City residents from the activist, academic, religious, homeless, arts, and progressive legal communities who have come together to actualize the human right to housing through direct action and non-violent civil disobedience. His radio documentaries and photography have been distributed internationally.

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