Occupying the future

Forum raises the question of what's next for Occupy and the audience offers myriad answers

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Occupy supporters discuss strategy before the Commonwealth Club forum.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY YAEL CHANOFF

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It was a funny feeling, seeing so many faces from Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland in the bright, clean "Gold Room" of San Francisco's Commonwealth Club, particularly after spending so many nights camping with them and covering the movement.

But they were there on Dec. 15, just up Market Street from their old campsites, along with a couple hundred supporters and interested community members, attending a forum on "Occupy: What now? What's next?" Facilitator Caroline Moriarty Sacks announced that she "expected a civic conversation." What she got was a very Occupy answer to the question of the evening which, in typical style, redefined the very concept of "civic" conversation.

The forum involved voices from many different parts of the left. Jean Quan, the Oakland mayor with a progressive activist past. George Lakoff, an outspoken liberal professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley. In the audience, dozens of people who support or are interested in Occupy, the mostly leftist San Francisco political milieu. And, of course, representing most of the panel and a good chunk of the audience were the active occupiers: anarchists, peace activists, labor organizers, and everything in between.

During the panels, their perspectives clashed. Yet Occupy strives to be a coalition of everyone, and all of these voices will be important as it progresses. Sacks had planned a 90-minute forum, featuring a panel to answer both moderator and audience questions, a break-out session, and summary reports back.

In their quest to practice participatory democracy, Occupy protesters have become used to long meetings that strive for non-hierarchical structure and a platform to hear the voice of anyone who would like to speak. If there's one thing they can all agree upon, it's that they're a little tired of waiting patiently for their voices to be heard.

During the panel discussion, a few Occupiers started a Peoples Mic, interrupting Mayor Quan. They were escorted out. This fazed no one, and by the time she left the panel, chants demanding her recall rang in the hall. At each disruption, some Occupy-involved folks would object, "Listen to her! I want to hear all viewpoints!"

The tone was rowdy, but not aggressive. Minutes after disrupting the forum, protesters were back on schedule, sitting in small groups engaged in dialogue with other audience members. Even Quan was fine with it; she told the Oakland Tribune, "It was a chance to talk and have dialogue...We fostered a debate."

This event was a microcosm of the thorny but crucial way that Occupy is uniting the left. The people in the room had something in common: belief in the visions and goals of Occupy. They just disagreed on how to get there.

Discussing, debating, and creatively bridging these differences has been one of the movement's greatest struggles. But the more Occupy succeeds on the thorny path to unity, the more its strength builds.

Misrepresenting anarchism

Civil disobedience, peace, non-violence—all of these are critical concepts for the Occupy movement, and wrestling with them frankly has been part of the long road towards unification.

This has been done through the application of what's originally an anarchist concept: embracing a diversity of tactics.

This is what the Occupy protesters did at the Commonwealth Club Forum. Some disapproved of disruptions, others thought them necessary. Individuals acted as they felt was right.

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