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Marina Sitrin: Lessons from Paris

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Marina Sitrin: Lessons from Paris

Z Communications Daily Commentary
“To celebrate and imagine together”
“To look at each other and smile”
“No parties, no barriers, no labels”
“Take Squares and rediscover hope”
 Quotes taken from interviews in this film, done by the Nuit Debout TV group.
Thousands gather every evening in the Place de la République, and even more during the days and nights of the weekends. Assemblies are held every evening at 6pm, with a wide diversity of ages and social classes. The plaza begins to fill around 5pm with circles of people standing and sitting, talking under cardboard signs to identify the theme of their discussion, including groups such as: comision de l’economie, commision de l’educacion, facilitation, feminism, housing and ecology. Then, around 5:30pm high school students march in together, chanting and singing behind sheets painted with their school names. By assembly time there are always medical, legal, media, library and kitchen areas. And, somehow, as with every occupation I have witnessed, there is a meditation circle a few meters from the drummers. Everything is so wonderfully familiar, having participated in similar assemblies and plaza occupations, from New York to California, Athens to Thessaloniki, Madrid to Barcelona, Buenos Aires to Cordoba and on and on …
Paris is alive with democracy. Real democracy. Overflowing the plazas and streets. People speaking and hearing one another in assembly after assembly. Growing in number, geography and diversity. The movement that began first with High School students rebelling against the police killing of a student, and then mass resistance to a potential turning back of long held labor protections, spread to people speaking in plazas, trying to occupy them at night, being repressed, and coming back the next day, and the next, and the next. They are not a protest. They are creating something different. They are not making one demand – they are speaking to one another insisting on “real democracy”, meaning face to face discussions about their own lives and things that matter most to them. And when and if they do come up with demands, it will have been out of these sorts of discussions – decided horizontally and together. There are now dozens of plazas holding assemblies nightly in France alone. Many more dozens of similarly organized movements are springing up in other parts of Europe and Canada as I write.
Topics of discussion range, though most substantive conversations happen in the various commissions, and neighborhoods where more assemblies are springing up, and then are brought as report backs to the general assembly. After only two weeks the assembly decided that consensus, while appealing in so many ways, was not working and moved to a combined form of voting with consensus. Learning through practice and together with people from other movements, such as Occupy Wall Street and the 15M who are also there in the Plazas, to support and share experiences. (For a more complete history of the movement and day to day activities, read Maris Holmes’s article. She is one of Occupy Wall Street initiators and is currently in Paris.)
So many things are consistent in Paris with the other movements for real democracy, from the importance of the face to face discussions, the exclusion of political parties, the striving for horizontal relationships, the breaking down of hierarchy and the care of and for one another as much as possible – even if only in those hours of togetherness. And of course the contagion of the hand signals to make one’s feelings known in a mass crowd, such as the twinkling of fingers in the air for agreement or the crossing of one’s arms in the air to show dissent. The Feminist Commission has added a new sign, reflecting the evolution of the movements, which is two fists meeting above one’s head to call out a sexist remark.
I have spoken with movement participants in many places throughout the world, and almost all, from Spain and the US, to Turkey, Greece and Argentina, reflected upon how they feel different now, more confident and with more affection for others, since participating in the movement. Something different happens when in assemblies with others, listening to what strangers have to say, and taking care of each other. The fact that every occupation moment insists on having food for those in need, basic medical and legal support, as well as space to just be quiet, meditate, or to go to help have conflicts with others resolved with mediation, reflects the seriousness in which the movements are taking relationships to one another now. And of course there is the joy – the music, songs, and dancing that manifest this joy at a new found togetherness. I joked earlier about the drumming in every plaza around the world, but it is a space where people can be free to move and feel. Drumming can be a release of so many deep sentiments, as well as can create feelings of togetherness and well being. In Paris people shared how they are smiling at one another more – while in the US people spoke of all the hugs that would happen in greetings, and in Argentina the language of affect, care and love predominated.
The Movements of the Squares – or Real Democracy Movements – that began in late 2010 are in no way ending – they are moving, popping up again and again around the globe as they change form, as they will continue to do. Movements are not linear. Movements move, have ebbs and flows. The movements in Paris may continue to spread and grow until there is popular power and rule from below. Or they may dissipate from the plazas, relocating, into other spheres of life – perhaps to come back again even larger and more grounded in different neighborhoods, workplaces and schools. Or some combination of both of these. Or not. The future is yet determined.
So what does that mean for us now in places where mass assemblies are not yet taking off – or are not taking off again right now?
I was a part of was drafting “Some Possible Ideas for Going Forward” a call for conversations on what a people’s agenda might look like. Rather than discussing and responding to what others say they will do – or not do – for us, we ask what we want and how we could make it happen. In the document we use the language of program, not in the sense of political party platform, but as a possible plan for collective action. The intention is to spark conversations – ideally in person – face to face – in assemblies. There are many signers to the document, with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. The intention is a diversity of positions. Mine is that of direct democracy and the formation of local and regional assemblies.
The document is organized thematically, with issues such as gender, health, education, race, housing etc. Themes not dissimilar from the work commissions in Paris or working groups from Occupy and the 15M. Why not organize a conversation with a few people at lunch? At your university? In a plaza or square? We don’t have to start with the expectation that we will launch a Nuit Debout, 15 M or Occupy Wall Street for that matter. We just have to start talking to one another about our agenda, and doing so face to face, while using technology carefully. Many people are already doing this of course – this is a call to continue the conversations, deepen them and think together towards a future where we have a more coordinated concept of what we want and how we might make it happen.
Imagine if before Occupy or Nuit Debout informal and formal groups as well as neighborhoods and students groupings had already come to loose agreements on a number of things, such as, for example, the right to housing and importance of taking over empty buildings to make it real. Or using the example of the autonomous Solidarity Health Clinics in Greece, people decided that we should create free health care in a way that also reimagines the meaning of health and care. Then, with that base of agreement, the commissions and working groups might have concrete proposals or actions that could take place almost immediately. This is the sort of thing that I imagine with this document – people coming together to think about what is important to us and how we might make it happen – even if not right now, laying the groundwork for future possibilities. And hundreds of thousands in plazas around a country or region of the world is a very real possibility for action on those things upon which we agree.
I am confident there will be more occupations of public spaces and assemblies. Until we live in a real democracy, it is up to us to create these spaces – and we will. What if next time we had more preparation? More conversations about those things we have in common – those things that are most important to us? Could we move faster? The taking over of schools and workplaces? Here I am imagining the Spanish Revolution of the early 1930s and how it was able to move much faster than it’s revolutionary counterparts precisely because people had been organizing and talking together for years about what they wanted and how they might make it a reality. Taking over land and running it in common, and even taking over banks was less of a debate, as it had a general consensus in the discussions in the prior years.
From the Nuit Debout page at the moment of writing this (April 16, 6pm Paris time):
We are more than 100,000 people on this page. We are in 150 cities, ‪#‎partoutdebout, in France and dozens of cities around the world. We are also ‪#‎banlieuesdebout, ‪#‎artistesdebout and many other things! We are 100,000 and soon we will be millions — in the process of creating a new force that will displace the old world.
Marina Sitrin is a writer, lawyer, teacher, organizer, militant and dreamer. She is the author of Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism & Autonomy in Argentina (Zed, 2012) and co-author, with Dario Azzellini, of They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy From Greece to Occupy (Verso, 2014).
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