My Tuesday evening walk to the General Assembly of Occupy Austin begins near 5th St. and Colorado as I enter the fashionable warehouse district occupied by restaurants where I cannot afford to eat. Signs on the sidewalk offer valet parking. A rooftop club shares music that puts you in the mood to party.
By the time I get to 2nd St, better known these days as Willie Nelson Blvd, sidewalk dining is in full buzz. At 6:30 pm the temperature is sliding down into the 70’s, and the atmosphere could not be more perfect for a gourmet pizza with salad, wine, and schmooze. This newly-developed high-rise section of downtown Austin has got to be one of the more fortunate neighborhoods in the history of the world.
At the corner of Willie Nelson and Lavaca, sidewalk tables hug the plate glass windows of a coffee shop leased out from the backside of Austin City Hall. Here behind neat Texas gardens enclosed by hefty limestone blocks the diligent organizers of Occupy Austin check their emails, their twitter accounts, and make use of old-fashioned face-to-face communications. Mostly they look relaxed, together.
“OK, it’s seven o’clock says a young man with light longish hair who has just rounded the corner from the front,” and folks fold up their laptops for the walk around the building.
At the front side of City Hall more than a hundred folks have gathered on and around a stair-stepped stone amphitheater. In a handy space at the western edge of the front row I find myself sitting next to Jimmy, a friendly veteran with a pickup truck who is going to be helping out with chores of the occupation. And standing on the other side of me is Jim, a well known Austin pastor, activist, and author. We three are among the older folks here, though probably not the oldest, and we spend our first minutes together remarking how impressed we are with the velocity and youth of this movement, barely weeks old, and already approaching world historical.
Soon enough tonight’s facilitator Josh who I first recognized by his jeans that were netcast Monday night in a poorly lit General Assembly video is introducing us to the rules of the occupation.
“I moderated last night, and I’m facilitating tonight,” explains Josh, “but I can’t do this three times in a row. Nobody can appear three times in a row for any of these things, so we need all of you to step up and do your part.”
Josh is orienting us to The Process, how we should lift our hands and wiggle our fingers to “sparkle” with signs of approval, or raise up our thumbs and index fingers together to make a triangle when we want to raise points of order, or cup our hands in the form of a “C” to seek clarification in discussion. When we don’t want something to happen we cross our forearms in an “X” that will read as a “block.” Blocks need to be cleared before the group can go forward, or, if necessary, a block can be overridden by a nine-tenths majority.
The Process seems to work pretty well for gathering a sense of things from a complex meeting filled with energy and opinions. First order of business was to hear from working groups their Magnet Reports on health care, child care, press relations, outreach, affirmative action, wifi, reading groups, jail help, union solidarity, bank actions, campus activism, beverages, flyers, development of local issues, and more.
In between reports up steps the Vibe Watcher to remind insiders who are chattering amongst themselves only a dozen feet East of the moderator that they are distracting folks from what should be the main center of attention for the moment. Which allows us to get back to the business of coordinating pickup trucks to haul trash and so forth.
The diversity of chores is daunting as the scope of the occupation unfolds before us. Just check out the list of contacts at the Occupy Austin website and see if you don’t think wow that’s a lot of stuff to do.
After a careful process of agenda construction — which takes more minutes that anyone would prefer, but what can you do about it when so many people have so much to say — the new business begins.
A lawyer talks about procedures of arrest, booking, and bonding, in the event that cops are turned loose on the occupation at some point in time. Money is gathered to print flyers. Alex Jones is mentioned as someone who has allegedly threatened to stage a counter-occupation of some kind, which most folks here are of a mind to resist by means of booing him back.
A very short mission statement is read and approved, which is pretty close to the one posted at the Austin Occupation website.
And then, shortly before I decide to step off into the night, there is a substantive discussion about police relations and whether the Austin Occupation should continue to have a police liaison. There is heartfelt disagreement about this, but the organizers appear to have a leaning on the question and so the liaison that is already in place stays in place.
The walk back is exceedingly pleasant, with signs of good life aplenty. Then, back at the corner of 5th and Colorado, there is a bus-stop bench and a brief glimpse of the life that grinds you down slowly into old threads and sullen eyes. Thirty-six hours before the occupation of Austin begins Thursday morning, you can’t help but hope that it does some good.