Inside Occupy Maine's General Assembly: Portland activists try to create a movement

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PORTLAND — Any passing motorist or pedestrian has seen the group, fluctuating in size, but constant in presence for the last week, “occupying” Monument Square and Lincoln Park.

They declare themselves representatives of the “99 percent,” the mass of American citizens whose voices they say aren’t accounted for in the policy-making process in Washington, D.C., and on Wall Street.

The group first massed in Monument Square on Oct. 1, one of the many “Occupy” groups to pop up around the country after thousands showed up in New York City more than a month ago to “Occupy Wall Street.”

After two days, they gained permission from the city to camp in Lincoln Park. Between 10 and 20 full-time occupiers have slept there every night after striking a deal with the city that requires them to take care of the park and obey city ordinances.

Like their Wall Street counterparts, the Portland group says they have no plans to leave.

Determining the goals and ideology of the Occupy groups is difficult. If the “99 percent” claim is to be taken seriously – the group in Portland, though predominantly white, includes all ages of seasoned protesters, students, veterans, lawyers and the homeless – a set list of demands and ideals is going to be hard to put a finger on.

But that doesn’t bother the activists.

“We’re appropriating spaces and bodies to begin those sorts of conversations (about goals),” said Pat O’Connor, a member of Occupy Maine’s media team.

Though their lack of structure doesn’t make for easy soundbites, their signs reveal general economic angst as a unifying cause. They decry “corporate rule” and call for a “maximum wage” and an “end to poverty.” One set of posters at the Lincoln Park campsite describes wealth inequality with pie charts and bar graphs.

Some of the protesters say “direct democracy” is more important than the message. Others go further, saying the process is the movement.

The heart of that process is General Assembly, a daily 6 p.m. meeting, where the group makes decisions and plans and discusses logistics, internal conflict and dealings with the city. There, the underlying structure of Occupy Maine is apparent.

“This is a leaderless organization, but we do have structure and process,” said one protester who runs a facilitator training workshop before each General Assembly.

John Branson, a Portland attorney, is the group’s de facto legal expert and representative. He said the point of the General Assembly is to help people disenfranchised by the political process feel empowered. He said that at General Assembly, everyone’s voice counts equally, something he believes isn’t the case in Washington, D.C.

“That sense of empowerment has been lost,” Branson said Sunday. “People don’t have the money to influence politicians and elections.”

On Sunday, about 80 people showed up for the three-hour assembly. Representatives from organized “teams” – for media, campsite, finance, sanitation and more – reported to the group on the day’s work. Predetermined hand gestures – wiggling fingers pointed upward for approval or downward for disapproval – are constant, allowing the crowd to constantly contribute to the conversation.

During Sunday’s assembly, the group took up questions such as how to spend money coming in via donations. (No one would say how much has been donated, only that it was “a lot,” but plans were afoot to buy a generator and have it at camp by midweek.)

They also discussed questions of etiquette, such as when it was alright to drum and whether it was too alienating to potential supporters for female protesters to go topless, as well as plans to ensure campers cleaned up after themselves.

“This movement is about creating a process for a more equal and inclusive democracy,” said Leah Deasy, a Portland resident who facilitated Sunday’s General Assembly. “That’s what we’re doing every day.”

The General Assembly operates on consensus. Whenever the group is about to make a decision, the facilitator asks if there are any “blocks” – a person so upset by the decision of the group that they intend to leave the occupation. If there are, the group keeps discussing the issue.

“Meetings by consensus can be long and painful, but are a lot better than representative democracy, which doesn’t work,” Deasy said.

That disillusionment with the political process and the drive to participate in a new one is a characteristic of the occupations around the country, O’Connor said. He said it’s hard for the public to understand a movement with a list of vague demands and no legislative targets.

“To make demands kind of presupposes a level of trust in that system that just isn’t there anymore,” he said. “If this all looks sloppy, that’s because it’s not a revolution for the media.”

But in a press release dated Oct. 2, the group did outline a list of national and state demands: an end to corporate personhood, the removal of private interests in public policy, the elimination of tax loopholes, the return of bank bailout money, affordable heating oil for Mainers and a viable public transportation system.

Jacob Lowry, a student at University of Southern Maine, said it is the nature of the group’s youth that so much time is taken up with decision-making and internal soul-searching.

“We’ve only been here a week,” he said. “So the majority of people’s effort is going toward internal decision-making. The next step will be coming up with a template for external actions.”

Labor groups such as the Teamsters and Southern Maine Labor Council have come out in support of Occupy Maine, and organizers hope they’ll turn out for a march planned for Saturday, Oct. 15. Until then, the occupiers say they’re going to stay put and carry on.

“The goal now is continued occupation and discussion, trying to get even more people involved,” said Katherine Hulit, a student preparing to travel to New York to communicate with Occupy Wall Street. “We don’t know yet what comes next. If we knew, we’d be doing it.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

Sidebar Elements

John Branson, a Portland attorney, center, is Occupy Maine’s de facto legal expert and representative. He said a “sense of empowerment has been lost. People don’t have the money to influence politicians and elections.”

Members of the “Occupy Maine” group listen during their General Assembly on Sunday, Oct. 10. The group meets at Monument Square at 6 p.m. every day for members to report to the group, discuss logistics, make plans and settle in-group conflict.