A report on Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Forum on the commons 16-17 Fe 2012 in NYC from the eyes of a digital commoner from the global movement generation coming from Barcelona
I did write a report on the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Forum on the commons 16-17 Feb 2012 in NYC. It is too long to be a blog post, but you could download it here: Download a doc version of the report: owsforumonthecommons_mayofm
I have been involved on the commons in one way or another for the past 10 years as part of the global movement and/or free culture movement, and particularly since 2008 it has become evident that the commons “paradigm” is increasing in social movements’ processes. From this perception, I was, some how, surprised that initially the frame “commons” was not present – or not with the protagonism I would expect – in the “indignant” mobilization and square occupations in the Spanish State since 15 May 2011 (meaning, the term or/and the references to the main intellectual or practice references was not present in the documents that mobilized for the action, working groups did not emerge or many events around commons did not take place (with exceptions) while the Plaza de Catalunya was occupied). Over time, this is changing and more and more initiatives and thinking around commons are emerging in the Spanish State (to give some examples with emerging of a group to create a School of The Commons and the celebration of the international forum on digital commons in Barcelona (www.digital-commons.net)). With the celebration of OWS Forum on the commons, OWS in NYC seems to be showing a decided shift towards commons, which I celebrated very much and did not doubt to attend on February 16-18 2012.
The OWS NY was my second direct contact with OWC NY since the very start of the movement in the city on 17Sept. (mobilization which I also came to the city to attend). Normally, I am based in Boston or/and Barcelona, I am part of the global movement generation and nowadays the sector I am more involved in is digital commons. It is from these “eyes” that this report is written. I am afraid some of the reflections that I present here might seem obvious or incomplete for others attending the Forum from NYC.
Place and people attending at OWS Forum on the commons
Surprisingly or not OWS Forum on the commons took place in a Church (an “alternative” church) the Church of the Ascension at Greenpoint Brooklyn.This is common in OWS as there are not many spaces to celebrate meetings.
Around 100 people congregated in a circle each of the three days of the forum – however the total participation might be higher as there were frequent changes in the audiences depending on the sessions. Among the attendence, there was a very good gender balance of around 50% men. However, some interventions complained of the lack of “ethnic” or color diversity. In this line ,a previous survey among OWS participants in October 2011 showed similar trends: participants were largely white (81.3%), male (61.7%). Furthermore, the survey also suggested that they were well-educated (64.7% have a college degree or better), and non-affluent (71.5% make less than $50,000/year).2
Most of the people were coming from NYC and were involved in some OWS working group. There was a significant part of Spanish living in NYC. Among the NYC initiatives taking place you could find references to initiatives such as “Take back the bronx” (http://occupythebronx.org/), “Occupy students debt campaign” (http://www.occupystudentdebtcampaign.org/), “Great transition initiative” (http://gtinitiative.org/), “Land rights and land value capture: for a world that works for everyone” (labourland.org), “Beyond oil nyc (beyondoilnyc.org), among others.
Many participants were from the generation of Vietnam war, others from the generation of the global movement, others (mainly the organizes of the event) which got active politically for the first time though the occupy wave, but very few were very young. This lower presence of youth people in OWS Forum on the commons contrast to the results of above mentioned survey conducted in October 2011 that resulted that 64.2% of OWS participants resulted to be younger than 35. Over all, most of the people were in their 30s-40s (some with their small children) and then people in their 60s and beyond. However, I think OWS has gained diversity over time. I was so shocked that when I came to 17S in NYC and I found almost 100 people that I knew from the global movement circles; in the case of OWS Forum on the commons I did not know any of the locals.
The people coming from other places than NYC, like me, were mainly people working on the commons for many years and who I knew from the commons circles – people such as Alexa Bradley (Reclaiming the Commons), Mary Beth Steisslinger (schoolofcommoning.org, futureofoccupy.org), David Bollier (bollier.org), Kosmos magazine, and James Quilligan (Global Commons Trust). Then the presence of participants from London was particularly stressed – with George Por connected with the UK or with the interventions in the feminist session of Emma Dowling (also from the wave of the global movement who we did not meet each other since the good times of the World Social Forum).
Were there computers? a digital commoner might wonder. In digital commons or/and free culture circles people often attend conferences or events with their own laptops, but this was not the case in the OWS Forum on the commons. Apart from my computer and the two computers at the table taking care of the streaming (from Occupy Streams) I did not notice another participant with a computer at the event. This anecdote and also the interventions at the event, brought me to the conclusion that there are not many linkages between digital commons/free culture circles and OWS in the USA – or not as is the case in the Spanish State. In fact, in the Spanish State one of the main trajectories of mobilization that fed the starting of the 15M mobilization and that influenced its organizational logic came from the struggle for Internet freedom (against Sinde Law in December 2010 – what would be the SOPA law in the USA). Instead the OWS Forum on the commons seems to be more connected to environmental commons traditions and community work in the city than to digital commons sector.3
Why the OWS Forum on the commons?
According to the people I talked to, the idea of organizing the OWS Forum on the commons was based on two reflections. On the one hand, the need to move beyond protest organizing and create a space for strategic thinking towards building alternatives. In this line, as it is presented in the webpage: “The Occupy movement is entering a new phase, one in which many of us feel the need to combine renewed engagement through direct actions and mobilizations with a deep reflection on the strategic objectives of our movement. The structure of the Forum is meant to help us overcome the traditional theory/action divide.”
On the other hand the second reflection under the celebration of the forum was the willingness to solve the “fragmentation” of almost 100 specialized working groups on OWS. With time many working groups have been created on most diverse aspects – such as Occupy University, Occupy Libraries, Occupy students debt campaign, among many many others. They coordinate through online sites and the general assembly. However there was the willingness to create a space that would contribute to meetings between the several groups, exchange ideas and together expand the common frame.
From these two mentioned willingnesses – strategic thinking for moving beyond protest and overcoming fragmentation of groups – it was decided to organize a OWS forum. Then the decision to connect the event to the commons frame was taken as it was perceived that adopting the commons frames would allow them to link the event with the approach of “building alternatives” and the idea of connecting initiatives.
The willingness to move beyond a frame of protest is also present in the case of the Spanish State too – actually is very “real” in terms of movement composition. According to a statistical analysis I participate in developing in 2011 on 145 initiatives in Catalonia, 52% of them were framing their actions as “performative” politics, in other words, as getting organize to collaborate in solving common needs; from a 38% that frame their action as mobilizing, protest or increasing sensibility among citizens towards changes that involve public policies or conventional political institutions.4 This would suggest that occupy squares have hosted a significant percentage of actions based on building channels of collaboration and self-organization among citizens than to protest.
Organizers of the OWS Forum on the commons
The organizational group emerged from the Empowerment & Education Committee of New York City general assembly (http://www.nycga.net/), which is also connected to the Direct Action OWS working group (http://owsdirectaction.com/).
The group had a large presence of Spanish people. This is not necessarily surprising. When 15M mobilization started in Spain, Spanish immigrants around the world started also to organize in solidarity with what was happening in Spain. These Spanish solidarity groups played an important role in the emergence of OWS. What I found more intriguing is that it seems to me that the group was founded by or build upon previous friendship affinities. As a part of the “Spanish” affinity there were many also among the non-spanish that were professors of literature.
Reflecting beyond this specific case I found interesting the idea of “pre-politicized” groups of friends or networks of affinity that start to occupy their time and affinity to contribute to OWS, becoming an organizational channel for OWS energy. That is – groups of friend or affinity groups already existing that decide to redirect their energy into contributing to a large social movements process by connecting to the general assembly. In other word, political action that is channeled though friendship. Instead of the “normal” which is the other way around. On a theoretical level and in general, the groupings in large movement processes are created though people who meet in the assembly with similar interest that create a thematic sub-group and then they have to find a way to combine their several styles and affinities – which could be challenging, as it is unfortunately frequent in social movements to have personal conflicts. Apart from the difference in terms of achieving or not fruitful merging of personal affinities, the two models are also different in terms of the relationship with the whole process. While the “normal” one, the group starts from the center – the sub-groups and its action is defined in terms of delegations or “mandates” from the general assembly; in the one based on previous affinities/friendship/relational networks connected to your own life, the “general assembly” becomes the space to synergize and coordinate, but with minor dependency on the assembly. Overall this would involve a move from a general assembly that delegates to groups, to groups and collectives that act with autonomy and then synergize with others in the general assembly. This involves a minor submission of the groups to the general assembly. Some how I like the greater freedom of “groups” that the last one involves. It is connected to what for me is one of the more innovative questions of digital commons – let’s call it “collectivizing freedom and autonomy”. The freedom to create collectively and act collaboratively in collective with the people you decide to – and in the direction the group decides, having the possibility to reframe the group or recreate or redirect the group (named forking in free software). Let me clarify – that this “collectivizing freedom and autonomy ” is different from freedom and autonomy defined in individual terms.
Who we are as individuals? What does it mean politically from the stand point of the commons?
I found it very funny that someone said that she was told that the indignant mobilization in the Spanish State was done by the anarchists, only anarchists?. To my understanding 15M demonstration was mainly organized though Facebook and the impulse came from new groups (with no central connexions to social movement circles) that were created in the previous 4 months. The point here is not what to think about anarchism (which I very much valued), but to question: could any political family really reclaim the indignant mobilization as their own when 86% of the population in Spanish State expressed their mobilization support?5. According to a survey of 198 individuals at OWS NY on October 2011 found that just under a third of respondents identified as Democrats and another third did not identify with any political party or tendency. Meanwhile, 5% identified as anarchist and 6% as socialist, independent, and libertarian, respectively.i The question of political identity – which is also present in the Spanish State – was present in the discussion transversally. In this regard, I enjoyed the calls done by other participants to move beyond political sectarianism and rigid identities (i.e. like saying that “I am an activist” in front of others could be in itself an argument in a discussion). In my view, this wave of mobilization is “post-activist” in the sense that it is about active citizenship/human being dignity. But this view is not shared by everybody, the common approach is useful precisely because it provides a way to build inclusive political linkages and identities beyond previous frame that are more adapted to the changes in society and the movements composition.
One of the days I was in an episode that can help to illustrate what I mean as ‘post-activist”. I did not have a place to sleep in NYC, so I asked the assembly if it was possible to “occupy” the “couch” of someone. A Tanzanian student generously offered me to stay at her place. Going home, she explained to a group of us taking the underground that she started to be involved in Occupy University when the protesters came to her University that open its door to allow students to escape from police repression. She saw this very positively and since then she had been more and more involved (even at the risk of being deported). However, at some point, she complained that she could not understand why OWS protesters did some damage to her school and importantly were disturbing the development of the final exams of this year she needs to take, and for which she is assuming a very large debt to study. Immediately she was accused by a USA activist – telling her that the movement was more important than her personal requirements – to the point of expecting her to renounce proceeding with her studies. Do we expect that people have to renounce themselves?.A post-activist movement, to become of the 99%, means not to expect that indignant people adopt an activist performance (lets call it an activist life style – which tends to coincide only with the conditions of a minority), on the contrary – that “activism” adapts to people’s lives, where one’s needs and happiness have not to be sacrificed but are viable to understand and canalize the energy for change and the connexion of “common” with others. In other words I don’t think we have to make people feel guilty to activate them and expect from them self-exploitation (which sadly I found frequently in social movement circles) it is from the feeling of empowerment to solve together common needs and dreams from which to connect one another. In a feminist term – starting from the self and what we have in common. As Vicente – one of the organizers – pointed out: the Forum is an invitation to redefine politics and to think politics in common. In which the question is – what does political action mean in what we do, and from the stand point of the commons?. Instead of asking how political traditions might feed or not into the commons practices or the personal trajectories which bring each to move towards changing realities.6
“Caring” of each others atmosphere
Something that I also enjoyed from the Forum was that the atmosphere was really really really nice and welcoming. You feel people were taking care of each other, talking with respect and with gratitude. The food was provided by Occupy Kitchen and it was very good and made with care. We even have ice-cream mochi! (See picture of a mochi and Wikipedia entrance to know what it is: http://greenegrape.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/bubbies2.jpg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mochi#Ice_cream).
There was an intervention that pointed out the need to go beyond “nicerism”. I think this intervention has to be a bit contextualized. In the USA there is a general culture of being nice to each other and not to hurt others’ feelings – you can notice it in the daily life. From a USA person perspective I can understand that sometimes trying to not hurt others feelings could be an impediment to directly confronting our different views on matters; however, from the perspective of southern Europeans (sorry to be sooooo general in this reference) where communication in social movements can became hard and aggressive, I think there is much social movement circles could learn from this culture of relating to each other inside movements – creating a respectful atmosphere. In my view it also helps to break the predominance of macho-hero (and military) approaches in social movements. Don’t take me wrong, internal differences and conflicts are very creative and needed, the question is not not to embrace them, but how we do it.
Agenda of issues addressed
Apart from two sessions introducing the commons frame the three days program was organized in six thematic workshops: Environment/Sustainability, Culture/Art/Education/Library, Economy – Economics of the Commons, Economy – Money and Banking, Gender/Care/Health, and a final Nurturing the Commons, Old and New (a presentation on each workshop presentation can be found here: http://makingworlds.wikispaces.com/Workshops). In each of the sessions, there were three or four presentations from OWS working groups linked to each theme and then general debate. Then the forum ended with an assembly.
The general discussions were a mix between interventions from people working on the commons for more than a decade, interventions from participants of OWS working groups, some with long political involvement, but most without a very deep understanding of the commons intellectual tradition, even if involved in “commons” practices for a long time.
Of the interventions, I particularly enjoyed Alexa Bradley (Reclaiming the Commons) positioning the commons as a form of belonging, a form of “we”, which is situated in the border of environmental responsibility, direct democracy and social justice. Marcela Olivera (Water struggle in Bolivia) presented the commons as something that at the same time belongs to us – empowering us – and doesn’t belong to us – as it does not exclude others. Marcella also stressed that the notion of the commons is very flexible, it changes from one culture to the other, and we should not try to oppose this flexibility with rigid definitions. Marcela, coming from an experience of privatization of a public good – water – with the help of the State – also put the question: What is the role of the State?. Actually this question emerged several times. Instead, the question of which relationship to maintain with the markets was not as evident. Again this aspect, which is present in Free culture/digital commons discussion (for example with the lively discussion of new models of sustainability or the fruitful relationship of free software projects with companies) was not present in the Forum – to me another symptom of the minor relationship of OWS with free culture/digital commons struggles in the USA compared to within the Spanish State.
On the interventions I also very much enjoyed the approach of the presentation by Caroline Woolard – OWS solidarity economics NYC. She presented the initiatives on mapping alternative practices, as a start to indicate that commons are already taking place and most of us (even if not using the term commons) have some experience of being part of a common. “How can the “commons” that we are already doing be recognized – here and now?” She asked. Let me point out that during the three days there was a “polarization” and some moments of clash between intervention on this line – of naming the hope and giving visibility to what is already in place here and now – and the “fatalist” wanting to analyze and denounce the current stage of things and the functioning of the system. These two approaches are clearly connected to diverse intellectual traditions, however, additionally to this explanation, something that took my attention is that some participants seemed to be in an state of emotional “shock” from the hardness of reality – concentrating their interventions on expressing their incredulity and pain about the horrors of USA politics and life conditions and not being able to go beyond that discourse. To me the three aspects are important and have to have their place: the analysis on the current stage of things, the reflections on alternative practices and discussion on organizational strategies, and, finally, the moments for mutual support (in practical matters but also through focusing on emotional evolvement) are all three important dimensions in a common frame. However they need to be well combined and each have its own space and moment. In this regard, at some point there was a discussion to have the figure of the moderator or not. The arguments to not have one was in order to assure that everybody take the responsibility to take care of the session. Honestly I would put my hands up not for just moderation, but active moderation. In some sessions it was really needed. I missed the great job developed in Plaza Catalunya by the facilitators of assemblies with more than 5000 people attending. This “knowledge” and deep experience on assemblies facilitation that is present in Catalonia I frequently missed in USA occupy circles.
Finally, David Bollier provided a very rich update on the commons frame globally. With mentions of the water struggles in Bolivia; the promotion of digital commons by the Brazilian minister of culture; the development of commons base policies to protect commons (seed and land) in India; the fights for preserving the coast in the Balkans; the mainstreaming of the commons in Germany impulsed by the Green Party and Pirate party and the celebration of International Commons Conferences in 2010 in Berlin and the creation of a Research Institute on Climate Change and Global Commons in Berlin; the more government-oriented approach to the commons characteristic of France; the referendum against Water privatization in Italy, and the promotion of commons by the Mayor of Naples; and the emerging of a school of the commoning in the UK; and finally, the organization of an Online workshop on The Commons by the UN.
From event to process: What next?
The organizers stressed the willingness that the Forum on the commons goes beyond an event to a process. In this line, the following weekend, there were planned a new meeting in order to organize the follow-up of OWS Forum on the commons. Two main ideas where mentioned: on the one hand extract a common document from systematizing the discussion and on the other to organize a “fair of the commons”, referring to an event based on stands of initiatives. Possible to organize a first one in coming month, with also the possibility to consider to organize another one during the May 1st. demonstrations. Apart from those, the “Reclaiming the Commons as a Social Theory of Collective Action” workshop (http://thefutureofoccupy.org/strategy-and-commons-workshop/) and the online workshop “How can Occupy issues be resolved with the Commons approach?” Feb.25-March (www.commonscampus.org) is designed to continue and deepen the conversation that emerged at the OWS forum on the commons.
Other initiatives being carried out are: “This is how we do it: A festival of dialogues” April 20-22 2012 NYC (www.thefoundrytheatre.org), and a conference on the Economics of the Common in 2012 in Berlin.
What remains clear is that May is going to be an important moment of revival of the OWS in both sides of the Atlantic. 1st of May seems to be the key day in USA, while 12 of May in the Spanish State.