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Inspired by Occupy Wall Street gatherings in New York City, a counterpart forms in Albany

by Ali Hibbs on October 6, 2011

In just three weeks, the leaderless grassroots protest against a widely perceived corporate takeover of federal government known as Occupy Wall Street has seen significant growth in New York City and across the country. More than 200 movements held in solidarity with the New York protesters have sprung up in at least 48 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The first general assembly for the local movement known as Occupy Albany took place Sunday in Townsend Park on Central Avenue, where attendees worked together to propose ideas and reach a consensus as to the actions and goals they intend to pursue.

The first local call to action came in the form of a Facebook post. A dedicated Occupy Albany page was established, and local activists began organizing via various social media. The inagural meeting originally was intended to take place at the Social Justice Center of Albany, but the turnout was so large that the group found it necessary to move it outdoors, spilling its approximately 150 attendees into the park across the street.

“Word went out just one day before,” said Andrew Lynn, the founder of Troy Bike Rescue and a longtime activist who recently spent six days at the occupation in New York City. “This was all started by a handful of young people in New York City. The size of the turnout in cities across the country is, I think, really significant. People who have seen this on the Internet and are realizing that it’s their struggle too. People who may have always worked hard are now working together; middle-class parents, college kids, union workers, grandparents. The essence of that is really hard to put into words.”

The goal of the first meeting was to establish consensus about how the group would proceed. Participants made decisions on the phrasing of a statement of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protesters, which upcoming events would be supported by the group, and how to find places for everyone who wished to be involved. The methods used to reach consensus were democratic in nature, if confusing at times. Volunteer facilitators took proposals from anyone present regarding motive, message and/or means. Proposals were heard calling for various dedicated working groups to handle things like media, logistics and community outreach. Someone asked for a commitment to keeping the language positive, another to keep the message inclusive; and several wanted to express support for related efforts such as the SUNY walkout and teach-in that occurred yesterday (Wednesday) afternoon.

The proposals were then heard and debated by the group; anyone was allowed to voice any concern. Proposals could be blocked or amendments could be proposed. Communication happened largely through gestures, and nothing was passed without a clear majority. (A list of the decisions that were reached can be found on the OccupyAlbany.org website or its sister Facebook page.) A video message of support for Occupy Wall Street was then recorded and published on YouTube and various other sites.

“I think one of the things that unites all of us,” said Jackie Hayes, one of the facilitators and an organizer of the SUNY walkout, “Is that we feel like we aren’t a part of the political process and that political representation has been bought. We don’t have the money to buy it, and we’ve been isolated or marginalized from that process. So we’re trying to take it back into our own hands and begin to make decisions about our education and about our communities in a local, democratic way. We want to start that process and see how it goes.”

Which partly answers a question put forth by much of the mainstream media over the last three weeks: What do these people want? For those who attend these meetings and risk arrest at the protests, there is a prevailing belief that solutions to problems will arise organically from the democratic process. “We can start to find the answers together about how we can build a better, more just world to live in,” said Ryan Jenkins, a Troy resident who has worked on the media team for the protests in New York and was present at the meeting in Albany.

“The democracy is tangible,” said Lynn. “The conversations that we’ve been having are something I’ve never experienced, there’s no room for them in our current political system. There’s a lot of talk about demands, and that’s down the road, in my opinion. These are the building blocks of a new movement.”

Mainstream media outlets seem to have finally realized that this movement has grown too large to ignore. Speculation that the Occupy movements will translate into a cohesive liberal-left organization able to rival the Tea Party has been raised by some left-leaning pundits and even a few members of Congress, while others warn that the movement could be co-opted the way many say the Tea Party was taken over by billionaire Republican operatives. But no one claims to know where this is all heading.

“There’s a lot of cynicism out there,” said Lynn. “I’ve felt it too. But this is a time to set that aside. This is a time for solidarity and for patience. We have a long way to go and there’s a lot of teaching to be done.

“Democracy is messy,” he added. “There’s a lot of work to be done in the next few meetings. I can’t say that I know exactly what it’s going to look like here.”

The next meeting of the Occupy Albany general assembly is scheduled for Sunday at 5 PM at the Grand Street Community Arts Center, 68 Grand St., Albany.