Nov 6, continued. “Like I said, I have sympathy for you. But the shelters are all full.”
“Yes sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir. I’ll do my best not to make any more work for you tonight.” I was about packed. The cop told me to make sure I took all my property and my garbage — grocery wrappers — and warned me that I could be arrested. And that was it. I walked away a free man and feeling grateful to the cop for handling it the way he did. I’m not sure the other protestors really understand how lucky they are to have police that are willing to cut people a little slack.
So you can see what an advantage the social organization of the Occupy crowd is for a guy like me, just practically. You may think then that my involvement in Occupy Bangor is simply self-serving. I tell you frankly there is an element of this, and I hope you forgive me that. But on the other hand, isn’t the Occupy movement intended to get people some practical solutions? And my politics are very much in line with most of the other protestors’. I wouldn’t join the Tea Party for a bed.
Also, I do pitch in. Mostly this means I hang out at camp and handle things as they come up. That may sound — I don’t know what it might sound like, but the fact is that I think it’s important. The vital step of converting a prospect into a member is not something that can be done over the internet. It requires face to face interaction. The supply tent needs to be ordered, and so forth. As one of the original organizers told me, I “take care of the basics.” That’s important, although to be entirely candid it did irritate me that he put it that way.
We run meetings by consensus, which means that nothing happens at a meeting without permission and consent from all those present. That’s actually a big deal. On the one hand, it means one jerk who does not share the movement’s aims could show up and prevent anything from getting done. Everyone present has a veto. On the other hand, it means everyone present is personally responsible for the group decisions. Because they had the power to veto.
But we still get problems.
Well, one problem in my view is the centrality of the meeting itself. A prospect shows up at camp all charged up over corporate greed, or any of a number of our slogans that simplify enormously complicated issues — that’s what slogans are for — and ask how they can get help out. We tell them about our meeting at four, about an hour before people get out of work, and they maybe say they’ll try to make it. Maybe they do make it.
Then they stand around listening to people argue for fifteen, twenty minutes about a proposal about the camp compost bin. The discussion drags on that long because one jerk thinks he knows better than everybody else, and at the end of that time the proposal is tabled, since the person who proposed it had to leave halfway through and therefore it can’t reasonably be modified or amended.
The jerk in question, by the way, was me. This is what happened —
I suppose you may be amazed that I intend now to take you into a play-by-play of the Great Compost Controversy. But this is meant to present my point of view, as a homeless person, so compost it is.
We’re lucky to have a very nice, goodhearted lady named Valerie who runs the Logistics working group. A working group is basically a committee, as far as I can tell. I want to tell you that Valerie solved a very serious problem, a problem of the kind that can come up in any group of people who feel passionately about things, which could have had serious repercussions for the whole group. Dire, even. I say that because I want you to keep in mind that I deeply respect her, beyond loving her as a Christian, so you don’t lose sight of that when I tell you about the points I disagree with her on.
The problem, she told us all in meeting, was that people were putting things in the compost bin that weren’t compost. There was a kind of liquid sludge, horrible to behold, she told us, and even plastic spoons, when it was brought home to by whomever volunteered to bring home compost.
I never saw plastic cutlery in there, but the sludge is my fault. (In the meeting, I’m afraid I did not confess this. I still don’t know what we’re supposed to do with day-old soup.)
Valerie’s proposal was that people should only compost compostable things. Then, to this end, she had found on the internet the compost song, which would be a fun and easy way for people to remember what was compostable.
That all sounds good, but there were two problems as I saw it. The first was that it wasn’t at all clear to me when we were to get together those rugged individuals who were pissed about corporate greed and sing the compost song. Or who would lead it. I don’t sing too well myself. It’s just not a talent I have, and besides not wanting to inflict my off-key efforts on people around me I do my best not to look like a horse’s ass.
I didn’t even bring that up. Maybe my personal insecurities colored my view of the matter.
The objection I raised was, okay, “people should” only compost compostable things — granted, but what did that mean as a resolution? We have random people passing through all day. Some stop in for the free food. Some are prospects. I raised these points and said, “Look, I’m not going to be a compost cop.” Privately I was thinking that I certainly wasn’t going to invite people to sing the composting song with me, like a big, hairy version of Mary Poppins in drag.
Really, it’s the basic social problem of human freedom, right? How do you set up norms of behavior and then expect people in general to follow through? What are the effects of someone composting something non-compostable? Do you require them to sort through and extract it like a naughty child? Obviously not. We’re aiming to flip prospects into members here. So what does the rule mean?
That’s a little more sarcastic than what I said in the meeting, because Valerie isn’t here and I feel a little freer to express my point of view, as a homeless person. But in fact, Valerie wasn’t there at the meeting by this time either.
I gave them a milder, politer version of the above objection and said, sure, we can educate members, and put the compost behind the table where only we can get to it. That could work. But that modification one of the lead organizers, a college student named Chris, vetoed, because we would then lose out on composting all the stuff that prospects produced. I was not, in short, able to win one person to my thinking. At some point, the whole conversation was suspended because Valerie had left and was unable to consider reformulating the proposal.
That was fifteen minutes, all together — Valerie’s story about the compost, proposal, and presentation of the song solution, along with the group discussion. It’s all like that. Not the place to bring a prospect to get them fired up about the Occupy Bangor movement. A prospect needs to be brought to a rally.
Valerie hasn’t brought up the proposal again. The compost is now still publicly accessible. The compost song is taped to the lid, and nobody pours old soup into it anymore. I don’t know about the plastic spoons, although relatedly I did fish a good steel spoon out of the recycle bin two days ago.
This result isn’t terrible — certainly the thing with the song would have been worse — but this result was also attainable by Valerie, or whoever complained to Valerie, putting word around about the compost. And we run out of time every meeting, which usually means that suggestions from the peanut gallery — anyone not a leader of a working group, which is to say, one of the original organizers — often don’t get a chance to speak.
I made a peanut gallery proposal once. On the one hand it didn’t get voted down. On the other hand, it didn’t get voted on at all.
[entry to be continued.]