Consenting to Consensus?

By Owen Sheppard [i][Republished from the Dominion][/i]

Interviews with Occupy Toronto participants have revealed a wide range of opinion on the effectiveness of the movement’s process for making group decisions.

According to Brandon Gray of Occupy Toronto, decisions are made through a consensus system where possible, with a 90% “supermajority” vote if consensus proves impossible.

Some participants highlighted the constructive aspects of the current meeting procedure. Danielle, visiting from Occupy Guelph, observed that GAs help people to get “a grounding in how to speak to each other effectively, how to problem solve, and how to use different models of communication like consensus.” Another activist visiting Toronto from Mujeres Libres, an women’s anarchist group in Spain, drew parallels between the Occupy assemblies and similar forums on the streets of her native Barcelona. Despite imperfections, she encouraged Occupy Toronto to persevere in consensus-based decision-making.

But Alex Balch noted that structures for revising and resubmitting proposals to general assemblies (GAs) have not been established, and that GAs have simply ignored some proposals - most notably, a request to stop using the 'People's Mic' so that people with autism can better participate in meetings. The People’s Mic, a communication system which involves assembly members repeating statements in a chorus, was popularized in New York due to the local illegality of amplification systems. It has since been eagerly hailed as a participatory practice, and widely adopted.

In blog posted on the Toronto Media Co-op website, one participant describes how use of the People’s Mic affected her:
The first time it happened, the chorus of voices coming from all sides (to announce a general assembly taking place in a few hours) was so loud and overwhelming that I actually found myself cowering...This felt like a form of segregation to me. I will not be returning to that park until/unless I can participate in the meetings.[/quote]

Claire Voltarine is a member of the accessibility committee, which is “made up of disabled people and their allies.” Voltarine describes the People's Mic issue as complicated. “It is quite a barrier for people with... difficulties such as hearing disabilities or anything on the autism spectrum, or auditory processing challenges. But there are people with hearing impairment who say that it helps them [too]. People are definitely committed to finding different strategies, but its been really difficult with the logistical and...ideological constraints”.

Lynn, a member of Occupy's Legal Committee (who spoke to the Media Coop outside of her official capacities) noted that improvements had been made to GA procedure via a rotating facilitation system. Despite this, some have noted a disproportionate number of white, male speakers and facilitators at GAs. One female participant noted that males outnumbered females by three to one at the Sunday evening GA. A male participant at the same GA agreed that “it seemed that all of the loud and aggressive males were the ones who were picked [to speak] first.”

Balch concurs with this analysis. “There have been a lot of people....who are using their sense of entitlement to make their voices heard over those of others,” he said following Tuesday afternoon’s GA, where the new rotating facilitation procedure was discussed. One woman related the announcement of a “silence is consent” policy, implying that participants who do not, or cannot, make known their opposition to proposals at the GA are nevertheless bound by the consensus of the group.

The assumption of equal ability to participate was also highlighted at a stand-up comedy event following the Tuesday afternoon GA, when an activist challenged event organizers because comedians were telling rape jokes; her comments only elicited justifications as to the comedic merit of the jokes.

“We’d be fooling ourselves if we thought that by a snap of the fingers we could create a new society here in the park,” Gray observed. “We’re still struggling in the old society, and that means racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia.”

The approach to equal and empowering participation in Occupy Toronto's decision-making will be a challenge for the movement in the coming days.

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