May 2. 2012.
No sleeping bags, no blankets, no mattresses. The outdoor tent is bare but for Garth and me. Occupy Amsterdam arrived at midnight. While we slept, they dragged everything out of the tent and piled it just inside the hall. Garth was already asleep when they began their sweep, so they couldn’t get rid of us.
The heavy canvass door falls to as I step out onto the dirt, into the chirping sunshine. A cardboard sign leans against the outside of the tent. “Sorry, this tent is Occupy Amsterdam only,” it says.
Really? Garth and I helped set it up. Garth and I tarped the roof. Garth and I rolled out the carpet. Perhaps we should remove all that too. If they don’t want to share their tent, we shouldn’t share our labor.
I grab a red marker and donate my 2 cents to their sign.
“When was the assembly that decided this?” I write. “Where is the Spanish tent? The U.S. tent? The Canadian tent? The Frankfurt tent?”
Heather arrives. Helliquin and Julia wake up.
“We should burn their sign,” Helliquin says.
“We should set up our tent inside theirs,” I say. “Then we could say we aren’t in their tent, we’re in our tent.”
“Occupy the Occupiers!” Helliquin says.
We’re evicting each other left and right. So much for community. That tent won’t be there long anyway. It’s a fire hazard.
“If they remove my stuff, I’m dragging all their stuff out,” Garth says. “People are gonna start doing stuff just to spite each other now. It’s gonna get really interesting.”
The kitchen is always a disaster. Garth and I never cook there. We only use it in the morning, before everyone else wakes up, and only to heat water for instant coffee. Three different signs stick to the wall above the sink. They all say, “Wash your dishes.”
But there’s no soap. Nobody considers communal needs. They care only about their own projects. It’s not that people here are too lazy or too selfish to act as a community; I think they actively resist the concept.
We are just like those against whom we rebel. We claim to act on behalf of the common good while being completely selfish.
At 6:30pm there’s an assembly. The topic: How shall we use this space? Will it be an exhibit or a working area?
They’ve had this conversation ten thousand times, but I feel I have to be here anyway. I know someone will bring up the sleeping room vs. hack lab issue. Garth, Heather, Pedro, Santi and I join the circle of wooden chairs. A sign hangs from the Autonomous University curtains. “What would you change first?” it asks. “This room,” someone wrote in reply. It takes a half hour to decide what we will discuss during the assembly. Unfortunately, no one managed to chain Erez to the railroad tracks before the meeting. He will dominate the conversation with his redundant, drawn-out diatribes.
A newly-arrived French fellow, named Michelle, says he wants to organize workshops on civil disobedience. The group cuts him off. They re-generalize the conversation so that it will be less concrete, less resolvable. Someone actually wants to do something in this space, but the group won’t even let him speak.
Garth and I brought a 2-euro bottle of wine and a couple of glasses to the assembly with us. It tints the tedium with comedy. Thank God. Instead of progressing, the conversation goes backward. We go from talking about what we will discuss to talking about whether or not this assembly will actually happen at all. Technically, it already is.
“This movement is built upon three or four basic ideas,” Hector says. “The assemblea is one of them. We should respect the date and time of the assebmlea. It is clear that we are in an exhibition. We need to discuss it.”
Hector is one of the rational people in the group. He’s one of those who brings everyone back to reality when they’ve wandered off into therapy-land. He starts the conversation we were originally meant to have. Then Erez chimes in with his “This whole room is a moving sculpture” spiel. We’ve heard this so many times that I’ve memorized it. Then Lu’s white-haired man-friend brings up the sleeping room vs. hack lab issue.
“It’s important to discuss the assignment of rooms,” he says.
It’s about time. I knew someone was going to mention it. It’s been the only topic of discussion since the “relocation.”
“Common consensual agreement from all people involved is absolutely essential,” White Hair says.
The facilitator suggests we go around in a circle, allowing each person present to speak for one and a half minutes about what they think should be done with this space.
A fellow immediately raises his hand. He has set up a television in the hall which displays images of demonstrations and interviews with activists. “Video Atonale-” he begins. “Should it stay or should it go?”
People draw squares in the air. In Berlin, this is the Point of Process symbol.
“That’s off topic,” the facilitator says.
I want to say that we shouldn’t have things in this space which are just for looking at. I want to say that we should compile a list of working groups and their schedules of events and keep it at the info point station. But I know that speaking will be a waste of breath. Everyone hears only their own voice. They are not here to listen. They are just waiting for their turn to speak.
Lu and White Hair go off into a corner. They talk gravely. White Hair’s chins jiggle as he nods in emphatic agreement with what Lu is saying. She never speaks for herself. She only communicates thru him.
Everyone who speaks says they want this to be a workspace for planning and executing political actions, not an exhibit for passive consumption. As they say so, visitors come in and look at us as tho we’re performing a skit. We should make a giant sign. It should say, “We’re not here to entertain you. We’re here to interact with you.” But that would have to be debated for three days before it could be installed.
Everyone who speaks says there should be workshops and discussions. Everyone who speaks says that we should greet, inform and interact with the guests who come into our space. But every word they utter is hollow. They make suggestions expecting everyone else to act upon them. They have no intention of doing things themselves. I know this because all these suggestions have been made at every assembly I’ve been to since Garth and I arrived in Berlin, and nothing has been done.
A non-Occupier speaks. “As a visitor, I can tell you that the issue of expo versus action space doesn’t matter. It’s communication that matters. You need to make people think. All I saw when I entered this space was a mess.”
A woman from Occupy Amsterdam speaks. “I want to see things that motivate new actions,” she says. “The things that we have in here speak of actions already past. They are relics. We have a huge banner that says, ‘This is not our museum,’ but this space is full of relics. I would rather have nothing at all in this space than the things we have now.”
I take my turn. “It’s all well and good to sit in an assembly and say, we should do this and we should do that, but if you’re not going to do it, don’t waste time talking about it. There are no leaders, no managers, no supervisors here. No one is going to give you permission. No one is going to take you by the hand and tell you what to do. If you think something should be done, you need to do it yourself. Don’t suggest it if you’re expecting everyone else to actually do it.”
Garth snickers. Half the group raises their hands in approval, but I know that none of them are going to act on their own suggestions. They don’t wanna do work, they wanna hear themselves speak.
Santi talks after me. “This is a functional issue. I just got here, but I can see that the best solution would be to create autonomous working groups and to trust them to make good decisions. Every decision can’t be brought to the general assembly. That doesn’t work. We especially need a group to deal with the dynamics of general assemblies.”
Everyone laughs, but I know they’re not gonna form working groups. Just like many others, this suggestion has been made at every assembly I’ve been to since I arrived in Berlin. Yet it has never come to fruition.
Carolina arrives. She gestures at our cheap wine. “You bring the whole bottle to the assembly now?” she asks. She thinks it’s hilarious.
Garth leaves and she takes his chair. “Are you gonna say anything?” I ask her.
“No. I only shout. I need to be nice and gentle.”
Carolina doesn’t take any bullshit. She doesn’t waste any time. She gets right to the point and she doesn’t do it gradually. Most people can’t handle it. I admire it.
“I want people to actually be here and do something,” Paula says. I don’t know what she’s talking about. She’s only here one hour a day.
My prediction is that, after this assembly, no changes will be made. The art which is meant only for passive gazing will not be taken down. Groups other than The Autonomous University and The Global Square will not organize discussions, lectures or workshops. No one will show up here to greet the guests and give them information. Everyone will speak their mind here, but no one will take any action. Everything will stay the same.
Most of the people in this circle have suggested interacting with the guests. That, too, has been proposed at every assembly I’ve been to since I arrived in Berlin. It’s never been done. I don’t care. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I just want to do work. Those who are concerned about it should be doing it.
I want to start a working group for Occupying abandoned buildings. I feel happy. I am laughing. I should always be drunk… Says the stereotypical writer. It makes things easier, more entertaining.
Carolina leaves after five minutes. When the circle ends, one or two people try to make concrete proposals for specific workshops and projects. Again, they are shut down in favor of a generalized, roundabout discussion which generates no practical solutions to any of the problems we’re facing.
Extreme situations are sieves. Shake them and all the the talkers fall thru the net like fine, silky flour, while the those who actually act are left rattling around like diamonds.
I leave just after the circle is completed. A sax honks and wails in the courtyard. I feel like the rubble and dust left blowing in the wind after an atom bomb falls. I feel sorry for the poor bastard facilitating the assembly. He’ll be there all night.
I sit down at my gray table, my square workspace. My brain is a chocolate rabbit in an Easter basket. The only medicine for this scenario is Van Morrison, Astral Weeks. I click on the music folder. The gentle breeze of the fan ruffles my skin. I feel the heavy numbness of my cheeks. I grip the bic pen until it becomes one of my fingers. I sway in my chair. As my hand moves toward the end of the page, it scoots the wine glass over just a little. I remember that I will dance in one of my own authentic dreams tomorrow at 3pm. If I can find the right subway, it will lead me to a lens which will suck me in and preserve me just as I am.
The Assembly, with all its contradictions, is okay. The thickness of my eyeballs is better than okay. A person who thinks emotional intelligence bows and kisses the sweaty toes of intellectual intelligence is okay. The world is soft and broken like an egg shell after a chick hatches. All my imperfections fly from my neck like Steven Tyler’s colorful scarves. If the “Executive Summary” in my proposal for funds is complete shit, that’s okay.
Everyone is trying. Some make sense to me and some are seagulls eating Alka Seltzer. But they’re all heaving their weight against the wall, and I can feel it in the bones of my skull like I can feel the bread squishing against my gums. The old berries burn on my tongue and my shaking, screaming veins catch the black shadows of trees. Soon the wine fades from my brain like red fades from a rose in fall. Christmas Blubmein- 99 cents a bottle. It’s the Night Train of Berlin.
One working group springs from the general assembly. It’s focus is to propose a solution to the sleeping room vs. hack lab problem. Garth and I sit in. Since we’re the only representatives of Global Square, they press us for answers, opinions, suggestions. They are going to propose that the hack lab be turned back into a sleeping room. On one end of the room between the kitchen and the radio, a new wall should be built. It will become the new hack lab.
This will remain an unsolvable issue for the next two months. The sleeping room is too small for all the people who want to live on the property. There will have to be another sleeping space. And even if we do consent to moving our project into the room between the kitchen and the radio, they still want us to limit our use of it so that it can be used as a rehearsal and workshop space. That will never work. Coders, hackers and The Global Square need a dedicated space. We’re never going to get any work done. I don’t know what we’re going to do.