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A Mediator's Reflections on the Occupy Movement

by Grace Eagle Reed
January 2012 Grace Eagle  Reed

Mediation in its best form found its glory every day at 7pm in Occupy (Portland, Oregon) as the voiceless (99%) got together, mediated, and negotiated their next move and their next plan as a unit.  The unwashed were awesome! To them mediation was organic and effortless.  Egalitarian group consensus was their process and process was not up for debate. As a professional mediator it was a privilege to be there as a witness to ongoing events. For instance, it was against the law of the parks department to have a microphone set up without a license so the group leader would say something and the whole audience repeated the words so all could hear. This was true group unity for the benefit of all and it was wonderful to witness.

As a broadcaster for KBOO.fm radio, we were embedded at the Occupy site downtown at two large parks. For over a month, people who are mostly voiceless (the homeless, drunks, street kids, mothers with children in hand, students, low income workers, identified as the 99%) came to the front and replied to the question, “Why are you here at Occupy?” with, “I (we) have no future, we have nothing to lose.” 

Eventually we had district attorneys, police, news media, high income, those pegged as the 1%, ask, “What is Occupy anyway? What are their (those voiceless 99%) goals, their focus?”

It seems that the mediation/negotiation tactics of Occupy scared those who did not get what the movement was about.  The simple act of gathering every day and voicing concern was both powerful and misunderstood.

Dr. Lee Anne Bell, at Barnard College, Columbia University, addresses these two viewpoints as stock-story and counter-story (or also known as concealed story). She says that stock stories can be damaging because they allow assumption without question and keep societal imbalances of the inequities of wealth and poverty built into government systems (Stock Story: Perpetrator of Myth, 2010). The counter-story created dissension and conflict, but also provided the opportunity for change and betterment.

Frances Moore Lappe (Diet for a Small Planet) dropped by the Portland general assembly meeting one day to donate boxes of her new book, ‘Getting a Grip’.  She addresses the importance of clarity, creativity, and courage in a world gone mad.  She asked, “Why can’t we have a world we’re proud of?  Why can’t we stop wringing our hands over poverty, hunger, species decimation, genocide, and death from curable disease that we know is all needless? The truth is there is no reason we can’t.” She praised Portland Occupy for its intelligence, dignity, and patience. (www.smallplanetmedia.org)  In other words, she praised them for their bravery to voice the counter-story, to stir up conflict in the hopes of change.

To me, Occupy is asking that old question that pops up from time to time, “Has society had enough of the same old, same old? Have we had enough of polarization and the conquer and divide strategies of politics and business?  Is it time for a major change?"

It seems this is an opportunity for mediators to be poised and ready to address these deep chasms of conflict.  We as mediators might be wise to follow the pure selfless motives and intent I saw practiced at the Occupy site.

Portland’s pepper spraying incident (Elizabeth Nichols was being pepper-sprayed in the mouth by a police officer) has further widened the chasm of conflict (Lynne Terry, OregonLive.com). I had an opportunity to attend a general meeting and offer some ideas on the conflict between the police and community on this issue. On one hand, there were Occupy movement marchers, mostly students, who were focused on the greed of the banking system, lack of jobs, injustice of university financial aid kickbacks, homelessness, lack of housing for the poor, etc. and on the other hand the police ordered to do their job to keep large crowds on the sidewalk.

I was at that march, on the front lines.  It was peaceful, large, loud, and busy but absolutely non-violent on the part of the protestors. Nevertheless, Elizabeth got pepper-sprayed directly in the mouth. This produced a movement within Occupy movement (Mothers Against Pepper Spray) www.globalpoetry.net . MAPS is where mothers, grandmothers, women of all ages and from many places are discussing the use of violent tactics against peaceful civic protesters. My opportunity to take contact with the police, as a member of the police review board, and continued ongoing involvement with Occupy Portland gave (and is giving) a great opportunity to use my mediation skills to help bridge the gaps and continue ongoing dialogue between both groups.

Of course that gap is still large but little by little things are getting sorted out. First, Occupy has been able to march the issues, the couner-story, to the surface and insist they be addressed. Second, the police are learning to do their job with response rather than reaction.  Third, Portland’s activist community keeps pressure and gives feedback on police violence and demands accountability and change. Fourth, Mayor Sam Adams and Police Chief Mike Reese worked directly and consulted with Occupy liaison spokespeople regarding serious issues over a span of several months. Finally, Occupy was instrumental in bringing these issues to the surface of consciousness and, as of today, is giving the general community an ongoing chance to investigate better choices.

The police in Portland, unlike other cities this size, became examples nationally of progressive community policing.  They are open to ongoing community feedback, are continuing to look for ways to do a better job and are using better judgment when they have to restrain protestors.  Their patience and openness is appreciated by all involved. It is also the perfect example of a counter-story peacefully challenging the accepted stock story, for the betterment of all involved.

The Occupy Wall Street movement seems to me to be an extension of what we used to do in the 60’s. Back then we (activists) wanted social change, were warning people to gain more human and transparent values and pointed out there would be no peace if certain things didn’t happen.  We failed due to lack of unity, lack of equality of women, racism, naivety on polarized political issues and absence of World Wide Web.

It’s winter here, it’s cold and rainy. Occupy’s tents are down and gone. The police are busy doing their job. Streets are less noisy but Occupy is not going away. Occupy’s continuing focus is to give voice on what needs to change. Soon the weather will get warmer and Occupy will become more active. There is still conflict out there that needs to be addressed.  Mediators, get ready---here they come.

Biography


Grace Eagle Reed has a MA in Conflict Resolution, is a broadcaster on KBOO.fm community radio, and founder of MAPS. She has written ‘Needs’ and Negotiating Shadows: Journey to the Sun.  Her next book, “Old Lady Rolling: My Year with Occupy” will be available soon.

Ms. Reed has been working with extreme conflict for over 30 years with addicted people, especially youth at-risk and their families, within diverse communities both in Europe and US. She has  a BA in Drama Therapy and MA in Conflict Resolution.  She does outreach work in Portland, Oregon with the gang violence task force with youth on the streets, in juvenile justice and the community. She conducts seminars and training courses using creative expression research techniques for mediators or others who want to work with extreme conflict.    



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Website: www.negotiatingshadows.com

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