Home » Problems & Solutions » Movement Structure » 15M-Neighborhood Assemblies
Posted on February 18, 2012 by josh in Movement Structure, Problems & Solutions
Originally I wasn’t going to make the Neighborhood Assembly structure here in Madrid a post on its own, but after seeing it in action over the course of the last 3 weeks I believe this will be one of the most important pieces I write in the next 5 months. If we, in the U.S., follow the example of Madrid and create our own neighborhood assemblies I believe it will help provide the strength, visibility, and direction that is needed now that our camps are gone. Remember, this idea was so good to the people of Madrid that they reached consensus to take down their camp VOLUNTARILY to create neighborhood assemblies! So I will explain what the assemblies are (although that part is easy), what sort of things these assemblies are doing, some of the problems Madrid has had in the implementation of this system and lastly (and most importantly) why we should follow their example.
Like any large city Madrid is split up into different neighborhoods, here they are known as “barrios.” Madrid also has, like most large cities, suburb cities that closely surround the city. Here, each one of the neighborhoods and suburb cities has a weekly assembly meeting. Most of these assembly meetings take place on Saturday but that is by no means standard or fixed. I have seen as little as 8 people in one neighborhood assembly to 45 in another. I feel I should point out that the neighborhood assemblies take place within the neighborhood, whether it be plazas or parks, the neighborhood assemblies meet somewhere in the neighborhood on public property. According to the coordination website, www.madrid.tomalosbarrios.net, there are over 120 different neighborhood/suburban assemblies.
I have had the chance to attend 3 of these neighborhood assembly meetings and was really impressed with what they are doing and I think it provides the first insight on why this is an important step in the evolution of the Occupy Revolution. The focus of all the neighborhood assemblies I have been to is not on “problems” but rather on ways to improve the neighborhood, expand awareness, promote a positive community. For example, the Assemblia Popular de Las Letras (or People’s Assembly of the Las Letras neighborhood) has been working on getting a movie theater in their neighborhood to offer FREE documentary screenings once a week. The same neighborhood assembly also operates a free book give-away every Sunday. Another common thing the neighborhood assemblies do is set-up “cineforums,” or screenings of films with a conversation immediately following. Some neighborhood assemblies also work on promoting feminism through a variety of methods including talks, “cineforums,” and producing literature. The assembly for the neighborhood of Chueca is helping organize and promote group bike rides through Madrid, much like the “Critical Mass” movement in the U.S. Malasaña has multiple projects currently including planning a carnival for their community. The also have set-up systems for different economic structures such as the “Time Bank,” “Barter List,” and “Social Market.” The Time Bank is a system where people exchange services using 1 hour of time as the payment, for example exchanging a one-hour massage for one-hour of cleaning. The Barter List is a list of items in good condition that are listed in exchange for other items. Lastly, the Social Market is “at the neighborhood level, identifying facilities that meet and support eco-social criteria. It would create a web platform with a map of the neighborhood where these businesses locate. This promotes responsible consumption and contributes to the maintenance of these facilities.”
These are only a few examples of the work being done in the neighborhood assemblies. The assemblies take on a life of their own and work on a variety of different tasks through committees and working groups. Thus, the neighborhood assemblies really become micro-level movements working under the banner of the larger 15M movement. The assemblies have varying amounts of committees/working groups but all have at least a local and a global working group. This indicates that each neighborhood assembly is focused on acting locally without forgetting to be aware and promote globally. Madrid clearly understands this is a Global Revolution and they watch the rest of the world closely. With the creation of the neighborhood assemblies there have been some issues, one of which is still being worked out as we speak but judging on the conversation I believe it will be worked out very soon.
First of all, the neighborhood assemblies add a whole lot more talking to the mix. Each neighborhood has a neighborhood assembly as well as their various committees and working groups, so there is a dramatic increase in the amount of time spent talking. I believe overall this has been a good thing as I have seen the conversations producing tangible results. With increased conversation there is also the problem of communication and coordination between the different neighborhoods and at the larger General Assembly level. This has created problems in a few different ways that I believe we can, and must, guard against. The first of these problems is scheduling conflicts which keep people from participating in larger scale actions, meetings or events due to the need to attend to matters from their neighborhood assembly, or vice-versa, the neighborhood events draw a small crowd due to larger actions going on. To some degree I think this is unavoidable and not even necessarily the worst problem in the world to have. Furthermore, I think if there was a “Scheduling” work group or sub-committee in the 15M Coordination Committee to help the different assemblies schedule their meetings and events when there was less going on, it may help so many things from being scheduled on the same days and times. Aside from scheduling conflicts, coordination is also very important to establish as the beginning of creating a neighborhood assembly structure to avoid the current and most-pressing problem in Madrid: dual macro-level groups.
Because of previous posts you know they hold a large General Assembly in Madrid once a week. What I did not mention is that there is also a monthly assembly known as the APM, or People’s Assembly of Madrid. The APM functions much like the GA, serving as an information hub and macro-level consensus forum for the different neighborhood assemblies. Yes, I am sure you already see that this makes no sense if there is still a General Assembly. The people in Madrid recognize this redundancy and are working to unite the APM and GA into one group under the banner of the General Assembly. Obviously, the people involved in the APM are not too happy with losing the prestige they feel they have and so they are not making the process easy. I have, however, seen 2 neighborhood assemblies reach consensus to do away with the APM and utilize the General Assembly as the only hub for neighborhood assemblies. So my suggestion: keep the GA as the hub of information and reduce the amount of committees in the GA. If not already created, organize a coordination committee and plan coordination committee meetings at a time when a randomly chosen representative from the neighborhood assemblies can go and process the information from their neighborhood. Utilizing the neighborhood assemblies is extremely productive but we must guard against scheduling too much all the time and against losing sight of the larger picture and movement.
Okay, enough negative. Let’s finish this post with some positivity. The neighborhood assemblies are awesome and great and we should absolutely establish a neighborhood assembly system as soon as practically possible. I do not advocate rushing into this system as it will take some time to decide how to effectively install it in your cities and towns to best serve the needs of the people and the movement there. However, I see this structure as pivotal to the success of the movement in the United States for a number of reasons. 1. Increases awareness of the larger movement and increased motivation to become involved among the citizens of that neighborhood. This is because what we are doing is more visible to the people whom it affects. Furthermore, it cements and propels the idea that we are here to stay and not going anywhere until our lives and our neighborhoods are ours to manage. 2. Adds focus and clarity to our mission. Having large GA’s nightly or semi-nightly makes it way too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, becoming bogged down in petty issues and losing forward momentum as many positive things can find themselves in a continual circle of working groups, blocks, working groups, blocks, etc. 3. Adds more responsibility to each member of the movement enhancing their ability to have an impact and voice their opinion. Smaller groups encourage more active participation in order to get things done. Almost everyone is working on some project or another and the meetings cannot work without different people speaking and voicing their ideas and opinions. Plus, the smaller forum enables those voices and opinions to have more weight than when competing against a group of hundreds or thousands. 4. Creates a very positive, community-centered public image of the Occupy Movement. When families are gathering with other families from their neighborhood to make positive changes and events the media can no longer portray our movement as “hippies,” “potheads,” or “jobless whiners.” Perhaps, this is the most compelling reason to establish this structure for our movement.
There is so much information about neighborhood assemblies that this post could go on for days. As you have seen though there are many positives to be gained from this structure with the only drawback being coordination difficulties. If you ask me, the Pros far outweigh the Cons. I think the assembly of Malasaña sums it best best describing their assembly as “a public space and landscape in which neighbors can participate and make decisions on issues that affect us, from the closest that can change our neighborhood to the most global that can interest all our society. And of course we are all invited :)” Good luck my friends and fellow Occupiers! I look forward to hopefully attending my own Neighborhood Assembly of City Heights when I return home to Occupy S.D. Love from Madrid.