One year later: Lessons from “Occupy” on communal living

Guest post by Megan Kinch

Photo by Kristyna Balaban
It’s hard to believe that this time last year, I was “living” outside in a park downtown at Occupy Toronto, with several hundred other people. The experience was pretty intense — living in a massive open community situation that we simultaneously built while knowing it could only be temporary, kind of like building an awesome sandcastle while the tide is coming in.

It’s hard to look back at such a complicated experience, but as we hit the one-year anniversary of Occupy, I think there are some general lessons that can be learned, not only for political occupations but for more mundane but ultimately more lasting kinds of communal life. Here’s some of what I learned at Occupy Toronto:

The dishes/kitchen/garbage:
As the saying goes “everyone wants to change the world but no one wants to do the dishes.” At Occupy, there were several such unpleasant tasks — making sure the port-o-potties had enough toilet paper, cooking, garbage, and of course, the dreaded dishes themselves. I think that the lesson was that you have to organize committees to get the stuff done, use a combination of shame and collective goodwill to motivate people into doing it, and deal with the unpleasant reality that you’ll get more participation when things have got to emergency levels.

Megan at Occupy Toronto.
Drum circles/parties:
It’s not secret that I’m a bit of a hippie — but even I started losing it with the drum circle who played constantly day and night causing sleep deprivation and problems with people who lived near the park. But the drum circle people loved what they were doing and wanted to dance their way to the revolution. The compromise was a ban on drumming after a certain time of night. The lesson is that sometimes everyone can’t get what they want all the time.

Alcohol and drugs:
Occupy was in a park where people had always slept and drank. But alcohol and drugs were a growing problem, and things started getting a bit violent in the wee hours of the morning. The cops were not going to help, and rumours said they were even dropping off drunk people near us and telling them to mess with the hippies. At the same time, some people were harassing harmless people who were drinking quietly in their tents and not bothering anyone. We learned having everyone deal with things in a diffuse way didn’t work, and that we needed to have our own safety teams, which we called “marshals,” to try and deal with those problems in a good way. Drug and alcohol policies, as well as ways to deal with violence, became critical to our ability to function as a camp. I’ve seen the same with collective houses — some have a lot of drug use but very clear safe space and harm-reduction policies, and other houses with strict no substances rules. Whatever works for people has to be negotiated and there has to be some clear, enforceable, agreed upon boundaries for a really successful community to develop.

Consensus is beautiful. But failed consensus is really ugly. Occupy Toronto ended up with an unworkable 100% consensus process. Which meant that everyone had to agree and work together, but also that any random person could block [veto] any motion. This, predictably, meant that hardly any decisions were ever made. (One particular guy became known as “block-y Mike” because he blocked everything.) The General Assemblies, especially the night-time ones, became super chaotic especially when important stuff was on the table. The dysfunction of the general assemblies led to some interesting means of solving problems… Like the time the kitchen went on strike and refused to serve food until a guy who’d thrown hot soup at one of their people was removed from the park. It kinda sorta worked, but there are better ways to deal with stuff.

Photo by Kristyna Balaban.
Practical ways of making decisions are a pre-requisite for a healthy community. There are times when consensus can work great for decision-making, small groups with a fixed membership and lots of affinity and common purpose — Occupy Toronto was not one of them (Intentional Communities magazine has a great piece on consensus, decision-making and community here.) Living situations function the best when they have regular meetings with functional processes the work for their particular situation.

Intense discussions:
Occupy Toronto was a space where all kinds of deep philosophical discussions happened. This was awesome, but it could also get wearing. In any collective living experience its great to have interactions but its okay to take some time for yourself and take some mental space even if you don’t have physical space.

Because it didn’t face severe police repression like many of the other Occupy encampments, Occupy Toronto lasted an almost-mythical length of 40 days and 40 nights. It was even better when the unions donated three yurts and we actually had some inside space, like a retro-medieval village. Because I am a huge nerd, I did some studying on village social organization in University, and it’s harder than it looks — community justice systems, and customary use practices for communal stuff, social events that bring people together. Any community living experiment is going to have to create similar practices from scratch, and it’s not easy. If we learn from our experiences we can move forward and create healthier and more functional collective projects that are better bases to work from as we try and change the world.

Comments on One year later: Lessons from “Occupy” on communal living

  1. I’ve noticed how difficult it is to get consensus on things in a house of just six people, and we all pretty much have our own rooms and were friends beforehand too! I think the best thing we do is play to our strengths. Some people care a lot more and are more likely to take out the trash/sweep up/do dishes, while others are much more willing to go to the store and restock our pantry. Anyway, it’s super impressive that a bunch of random people managed to create a living space in a park for 40 days without killing each other!

    • Ya for sure- we use consensus in my collective house as well at the time and it was hard even with 5-7 pre-selected friends (although pretty functional ultimately in that situation). Ya- I’m also impressed we managed not to kill each other. Eventually those of us who had more organizational experience (of any sort- people who’d been in the army before, few of us as there are, were also pretty involved in a useful way in camp logistics) ended up focusing on more of a harm-reduction approach than a utopia one, and we tried to make sure that occupy toronto wouldn’t end with a stabbing or something horrible like that and combine a failure to protect people with a bad feeling in the collective consciousness of the city. Once we had more reasonable goals of basically keeping people safe instead of trying to make everything perfect and do a ton of political work, it was easier for us.

Join the Conversation