Monday, October 22, 2012

Lessons from Occupy Otautahi Christchurch

This was first published in March, 2012.

The Useful Common

I've been involved, recently, with Occupy Otautahi Christchurch. There have been weekly meetings and quite a lot of voluntary work associated with that. For me the Useful Common, that taught me the most this month, was there. Many of the lessons were unpleasant. Here's my review.

The Importance of Leadership

I thank Douglas Long for his valuable article on Successful Leadership recently published. Douglas demonstrates his New Zealand roots in the core of his message. In the last month of Occupy Otautahi Christchurch, two middle aged Maori men, Wirimu and Gary, stood up in different ways to make the camp work. To bring more harmony into the group.

In the beginning the Occupy Movement tried to operate without leadership. Daily General Assemblies were held. There was a lot of repetitive stuff, week after week, because there were always new people. Those coming in needed to learn what we were doing by participating in the discussion.

Lesson One: Direct democracy works.

Lesson Two: Direct democracy cannot be sustained, it's simply too time consuming and exhausting.

Don't confuse the tactic with the mission

Occupy Otautahi Christchurch went on too long; 196 days. Life in a camp for a week is fun, the second week it's boring, after that every day is hard. Few people lasted more than 30 days. That's why the people in the camp were continually changing and why the message of the original group kept getting lost, and re-found, and lost again.

The energy of the camp was dissipating in December 2010, and I tried to encourage the group to leave in an orderly way on New Years. Day. That wasn't to be.

Lesson Three: Occupying the park is a tactic, not the purpose of the mission. When the tactic ceases to work, give it up.

New Leadership comes from unlikely places.

Two Maori guys both in their 40s arrive in the camp. They realise that there is a problem and take on the leadership role. Two weeks later you can see a real difference. The place is tidy and all the "disruptive element" is gone.

Lesson Four: Every group needs leadership.

Lesson Five: Every group needs to establish agreed rules of conduct.

Gary, another Maori, a street dweller, ex mongrel mob (16 years ago), once a heavy drinker, takes on the role of camp night-watchman. Around the camp Gary set an example. Those who don't care to follow his example were invited to leave. He's a big tough boy, but also honest and hard working. Willing to help. Wanting to contribute. Just watching him was inspiring in many ways. He came to the camp 140 days ago, with no idea what it was about. He left with a good understanding of the purposes of the Occupation, and as a leader with qualities that everyone recognised.

Lesson Six: For some individuals the occupation was trans-formative.

The Importance of Engagement

At a General Assembly where I took the notes on Monday 19th of March, Gary made an impassioned plea for the original occupiers to come back to the camp. "We can't do it without you!" he said.

I said in the early days that the occupation would change many lives forever. Those who came by for a short time and those who spent a month of more in the camp all got something from it.

Lesson Seven: When we retreat from the street to our middle class homes to be "safe"; life on the street continues. Our absence makes a difference. Our presence is necessary, don't abandon your city.

Be careful who you invite to join you.

The idea that "we are the 99%" and that everyone was welcome, created lots of problems. When you can't control who comes in, you have to put up with whatever behaviours, attitudes and problems new arrivals bring with them. Camp rules can help, but you need leaders to enforce rules, someone who sets standards, who other people choose to follow.

Camp maintenance and disputes in the camp sucked energy out to the movement. In January and February, for self protection many middle class people walked away, and the camp became a place for secret drinking and drugs, and crime, and later on open drinking unless someone like me was about. Long established camp rules were ignored.

We came to learn about another 1% of our community. Those who chose to join us but who had no understanding of the cause, and no loyalty to the group or it's members. They abused the rules, and stole from the group, and abused each other. Amazingly, some of the middle class people involved turned a blind eye to this behaviour. The worst one I know of was small, had a lovely smile, spoke well, was full of enthusiasm, and appeared to be "on board" with our intentions. After the police arrested him, I discovered what he had really been up to.

Lesson Eight: Be open to other people, but choose your friends carefully.

Many Views - Diversity of opinion

You can get a good idea of the diversity of views in Occupy Otautahi Christchurch, by reading the minutes I wrote at this GA. General Assembly Minutes - Monday - 19.03.2012 - WEA - 7.15pm

Lesson Nine: While people recognise that there are problems in our society, we're a long way from understanding what those problems are, and how to fix them.

If it is to be it's up to me.

It's entirely up to us if "we" survive or not. That applies to the Occupy Movement and to each reader here. What sort of society do we want? Most of the original Occupiers, middle class idealists, had their dreams pretty badly shattered by the reality of maintaining camp life. Most had possessions stolen or broken. Many donated money that someone else in the camp stole. Some hard lessons learned on the grindstone of reality.

Lesson Ten: Record your primary experience. Write it down. Take the opportunity to reflect on it and to learn from it. Otherwise you'll repeat the same mistakes again. (As our society keeps on doing endlessly. A question for you. Why is it so hard for human beings to learn from their own experience?)

Restoring Order; Being Responsible as a Group

The camp members did get their house in order. They did establish some house rules that worked and managed to enforce them fairly well. They did successfully negotiate the closure of the camp site with the City Council, and the City Council was very helpful in offering a couple of trucks to take away the unwanted rubbish. The camp ended in an ordered way, and the camp leaders were acknowledged for their efforts. The camp ended with dignity.

Lesson Eleven: Each of us has a part to play in keeping our collective house in order.

Lesson Twelve: Begin well and end well. End with a decision, not by exhaustion or forced closure.

Occupy Otautahi Christchurch Open University.

On Sunday, at the Open University, we were blessed by many fine presentations about our hope for the future. New Zealand can be a place with a better future. Even so, our kids are unlikely to be as fortunate as we have been. People want to live lives that are meaningful, that make a difference. There are many opportunities to do that today and into the future. First of all we need to dream a different dream, because the old dream is killing the planet and eventually it will kill us.

Lesson Thirteen: We have much to teach each other. Learn to listen; keep good records; de-school yourself; discover and develop your own voice.

John Stephen Veitch
The Network Ambassador
Open Future Limited - You may comment privately to John S Veitch here:

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