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Occupy protests stall in Toronto, Vancouver over decision-making

As the Occupy Canada protest took root in tent encampments across the country, the big questions being asked about this chaotic, nascent movement is where does it go now, and how does it get there?

From Toronto, where a group was camped in St. James Park just outside the financial district, to British Columbia, where about 70 tents are pitched on a patch of bark-covered dirt at the Vancouver Art Gallery, participants have been engaged in seemingly endless process discussions, as a movement without any leaders tries to find its direction.

For lack of a better label the approach might be called 'crowd-sourcing democracy,' as protesters try to plot their course through mass meetings where people take the floor by shouting "mic check," and use hand gestures to accept or reject proposals. There is no reference to Robert's Rules of Order.

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Organizers feel the frustrating and at times confusing approach, which might be likened to driving with the brakes on, is an improvement over the rigid, hierarchical structure that they blame for getting the world into a financial crisis in the first place.

"It's messy, but it is working," said Julie MacArthur, as she stood on the Vancouver Art Gallery steps while several hundred people broke into small dialogue circles in an attempt to reach consensus on what process should be used to achieve consensus.

In Toronto, a small committee met Monday morning to discuss the facilitation process, and spent most of its time debating whether or not groups should discuss ideas within committees first before making a decision in the unwieldy general assemblies.

Sasha Avramov, a graphic designer now on disability pay, proposed the small-groups method, which he called "node-based architecture." He said he hoped it would speed up the decision-making process.

"Nothing's getting accomplished at the general assembly meetings now," he said. "If I'm going to be here, I want something to get accomplished."

In Vancouver, the discussion over consensus models entered its second day.

"Some of us here are used to organizing and are comfortable with the structure you impose on meetings. But we are learning how to build flatter structures – and it's hard because our society doesn't have flat structures," said Ms. MacArthur, who was one of several people who took turns serving as moderators at general assemblies in Vancouver.

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"Just take a deep breath – and keep it going for the long haul," she said when asked her strategy for making the movement succeed.

Dan Richardson, driver for an organic grocery business, took the microphone at one meeting in Vancouver to urge people not to drown each other out during debates.

"We all came here to decide the way forward … we are trying to set up the process now, so let's not have everybody yelling," he pleaded.

But that prompted someone in the crowd to shout: "The microphone is undemocratic."

Other speakers tried to get around that complaint by amplifying their voices not with the sound system, but through "the human mic," a process in which people are asked to repeat out loud what they've just heard. It means every word is heard by everyone – but also that each speech is heard twice.

Mr. Richardson said when he first attended an Occupy event, Saturday, he was struck by how disorganized it all was.

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"It was a gong show," he said. "I mean it took 15 minutes for the crowd to take a stand on smoking." (It is allowed, but please, leave the immediate area and smoke on a sidewalk.) However, he says the world needs a fresh approach and the Occupy model – unstructured, anarchistic, but always striving to be inclusive – is worth trying.

"I think it can work … but it is new and it is different," he said. "It's not efficient all the time but we're trying to be patient and we're trying to learn to listen to each other."

Suresh Fernando, who has been organizing social-media connections between protest groups in Vancouver and New York, said the general assemblies are often wildly tangential, but that's just part of the learning curve.

"It's totally chaotic," said Mr. Fernando. "But … the gauge [of success]is if we can keep it going … if we are here at day seven you can expect more and more people to start coming down."

With files from Kim Mackrael in Toronto and Laura Kane in Vancouver

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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