A Local Experiment – Reclaim Power, Cochabamba, and the G20 Convergence – A Story of Grassroots Organizing and the Toronto People`s Assembly in 2010-2011
09/28/2012 § Leave a comment
By Julien Lalonde and Brett Rhyno
Dec 15th, 2009. Copenhagen. The day before what CNN referred to as “the most hotly anticipated action of the summit”, nearly a thousand activists huddled together in a Danish squat – which became the focal point of grassroots mobilization against the United Nations’ annual Climate Change Conference [COP]. Lisa, an American activist and veteran of Seattle, gave a final pitch for the plan of action: “We will use the combined mass of our bodies to push through the police lines and then break through the fence. Once we are inside the U.N. grounds we will secure a safe space where delegates coming out from the conference can join us and together we will form a People’s Assembly.”
Cindy Milstein writes that “this prefigurative politics is, in fact, the very strength and vision of direct action, where the means themselves are understood to intimately relate to the ends.”3 In other words, this type of two-pronged action is not simply a direct action just for the sake of a direct action, but to generate through the action the types of alternatives we would like to see in everyday life. Hence, an occupation extends into a people`s assembly.
Maps were distributed. Blocs were in the final stages of formation. There was one last heated debate over the adopted consensus of ‘confrontational non-violence’. Participants filled with anticipation at the thought of being part of a plan to change the course of history.
These actions in Copenhagen were the beginning of the Toronto People’s Assembly. As much as has been written and said about the day of Reclaim Power, it was the two weeks of frantic meetings, alliance building, and constant striving to create an inclusive and horizontal process which created a new model for organizing that could be exported around the world. That model, which did subsequently make its way to several corners of the world in the two years following Copenhagen, is the People`s Assembly; a horizontal and collective dialogue and decision-making process made for diversity in community, and flexible to shape itself to the local specificities of all types of communities.
Next, seeds were sown for the People’s Assembly in Cochabamba, where Bolivia hosted the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in April of 2010. Toronto activists in Cochabamba observed a conference that, while engaging the grassroots participation of 30,000 activists from across the world, was largely institutional in nature with one of its chief mandates as a drafting of declarations to present to the United-Nations by Bolivia, in the name of the world`s climate justice community. The working groups themselves, where these declarations were drafted, were profoundly democratic and participatory, even horizontal, aside from the small fact that the topics of the working groups were predetermined by the conference organizers, though their content was built by participants online for months leading up to the conference. Still, Cochabamba yielded a document that was the collective work of 30,000 people from around the world, and a manifesto-of-the-moment of sorts for the global climate justice movement at a time when that movement was making significant strides towards a generational rebirth. The People’s Assembly drew much inspiration from Cochabamba and the conference also acted as a compass for the Assembly to be critical of its own process.
The main development which came out of Cochabamba for Toronto was a collective understanding of the beginning of a new effort to answer the international call by building your local struggle. One of the lessons drawn from Bolivia, was the need to put in place impactful structures and formations to maintain and build a movement that is more substantial, consistent, and long-term. The call from Cochabamba was to begin the building of a worldwide climate justice movement. The Toronto People`s Assembly set out to do that in its local environment.
Back in Toronto, the weeks in May immediately following Cochabamba, and in June prior to the G20 were a crucial and transformative period for the social and climate justice community. Talks and discussions were ongoing to evaluate which elements could be drawn from Cochabamba. Raul Burbano, an organizer of the June 23rd Assembly, explains how “the People’s Assembly is an extension of the dialogue, organization, and mobilization that took place in Cochabamba. It’s an instrument through which local activists can create new spaces, and generate new possibilities.”4 As conferences, panels, and report-backs raged on, local organizers, young and old, converged with a fresh and renewed sense of purpose; an understanding that they needed to start building. Consciously or not, the People’s Assembly kept evolving through new and different channels.
In Toronto after the COP, during the early months of 2010, post-Copenhagen burn-out was a factor for many organizers, and initial attempts to reconstruct the People’s Assembly process never materialized. This was due partly to the need to convince Toronto-based organizers that an Assembly needed to be a priority, that one organized around a completely horizontal process could be successful, and partly because many organizers shifted their efforts to that other summit on its way to town, the G8/G20.
As June and the G20 grew closer, a call was put out through the Toronto Community Mobilization Network for a day of resistance for climate and environmental justice. Responding to this call, a circle of non-aligned climate justice and environmental organizers started meeting weekly in a park outside the 519 Community Centre on Church street. Two plans for action emerged. One was a rally that would become known as the Toxic Tour. The other was the People’s Assembly on Climate Justice. Together with allies as part of the growing community mobilization against the G20, the first People’s Assembly was formed on June 23rd, 2010, in the midst of the G20 madness unfolding in Toronto.
The G20 hit Toronto like a storm, and in the aftermath the organizing community suddenly found itself in a new environment, with new conditions. The collective response in Toronto was quick and widespread, and the resounding call to establish new relationships was not only heard, but understood. In July and August with the intensity of organizing remaining high, with action camps happening across the country, and with various groups in Toronto together stressing the immediate need for movement building, there was no longer any doubt that a second People’s Assembly would take place.
The People’s Assembly on Climate Justice
Enter the Toronto People’s Assembly on Climate Justice (PACJ). Taking elements from Reclaim Power and Cochabamba, the Toronto manifestation of the PACJ held two successful Assemblies in 2010, one immediately before the G20 summit as mentioned, and another on December 4th, 2010, Worldwide Day of Climate Action. The first focused on defining the meaning of Climate Justice, while the second focused on the collective work of building a stronger movement for Climate Justice in Toronto. For both Assemblies the starting point was the ‘Framing Question’, a direct importation from the Reclaim Power Assembly. The framing question is simply a general suggestion for direction, a starting point from which participants can begin to generate ideas.
The main innovation introduced in Toronto was an additional round of breakouts, which allowed more space for the Assembly’s horizontal process to both generate ideas and to orient itself for action. Beginning with the second Assembly, Toronto activists took the working group model that emerged from Cochabamba and re-framed it as a series of permanent action-oriented bodies known as People’s Councils. This was done with permanent community organizing in mind, to establish the people`s councils as long-term capacity and action building groups.
Inside the People`s Assembly: The Brainstorming of Radical Horizontality
The movement inside the Assembly was an open collective dialogue which organizers termed radical horizontality. Within the Assembly, radical horizontality was a two-pronged process which allowed participants, through two rounds of break-outs and intermittent plenaries, to first generate ideas, and then to develop and form them together in order to establish mandates for the People’s Councils. The idea with the concept of radical horizontality was to extend to everyday life, beyond the Assembly, and to seek to establish shared responsibility and accountability in the entire community in order to make local resistance and organizing more sustainable.
From the beginning the Assembly stressed the need for a point of convergence inclusive to a wide range of organizations, from women’s groups and anti-poverty, to environmental justice and food security, cyclists, migrant justice, co-operatives, collectives, etc. To effectively transform communities, the Assembly posited a lack of separation between activism and everyday life. Raul Zibechi, a Uruguayan sociologist, explains how “in the new pattern of action… mobilization starts in the spaces of everyday life and survival, putting in movement an increasing number of social networks or, that is to say, societies in movement, self-articulated from within.”5 The People’s Councils were modeled on the hope of facilitating the establishment of this sort of organizing on a permanent basis; to make the leap from simply activism to organized communities.
Unfortunately, the people`s councils were never able to coalesce long-term in the months following the second assembly, partly due to the organizing community in Toronto not fully grasping the substance of movement-building, and importantly because activists and organizers were still learning how to operate within a decentralized organizing structure with no leaders. Indeed, horizontal organizing under a collective structure was an idea that was still new to most; this open and floating space was still unstable ground to many.
Another main reason why the people`s councils were unable to materialize long-term was due to the absence of tangible ongoing projects. In the case of the experience in Argentina, Marina Sitrin writes that “many of the assemblies lacked concrete projects and ended up talking a great deal more than doing… without concrete projects to ground the assemblies,” and in this case the councils, “many people people drifted away.”6 The situation is very similar with the experience of the second and third people`s assemblies in Toronto where some mentioned and attempted to push for permanent projects such as a community spaces and kitchens, gardens, direct actions, etc, to extend a collective and ongoing participation beyond simple events and conferences. Marina Sitrin writes further, of the Argentine experience, that “of the assemblies that continue to exist, almost all are involved in a variety of neighborhood-based projects, and some continue to function in occupied buildings.”7
Unfortunately in Toronto, most were unable to grasp the relevance of organizing projects long-term and in the context of everyday life. The idea of community assemblies and alternative projects and structures was an attempt to move outside of a dizzying, repetitive, and often redundant cycle and barrage of emails, documents, events, conferences, manifestos, and facebook messages. Some have to come to look at this space of social justice organizing as `periphery organizing,`–an exercise that fails to bridge activism to real life–by no means doubting the sincerity and genuine intent of its work, but questioning its nature and the true impact of its substance. The Toronto People`s Assembly–together this collective expression of the climate justice community in the city–demonstrated a great deal of initiative and vision, but perhaps was attempting to take on a great deal of very complex work before the time was ripe.
The post-G20 realities of community organizing in Canada presented us with a challenge, and a dynamic that calls for activists to develop, out of necessity, new methods of organizing. This requires ingenuity, responsibility, and a long-term willingness to sculpt a new grassroots paradigm. Small beginnings of creative examples were observed in Canada during the following months.
Various action camps took place throughout the country during the summer of 2010 themed around climate justice, indigenous solidarity, non-violent direct action, and Tar Sands/pipeline resistance. Organizers worked to build links between cities and to strengthen regional networks. Simultaneous people’s assemblies were held in December, 2010, throughout the country, organizers in Montreal began to develop the idea of a climate justice co-op, and the climate justice community in Toronto started establishing the People’s Assembly on a permanent basis. Climate Justice organizers used the momentum coming out of the G20 to create their own grassroots infrastructure.
The People’s Assembly in Toronto emerged on the tide of a paradigm shift towards popular assemblies as an alternative to the complete failure of international institutions and nation-states to address the urgent global threat presented by the climate crisis. At the same time, a new and young Climate justice movement has grown organically in North America, determining its own shape through horizontal structures and differentiating itself from mainstream environmental voices through a deeply rooted anti-capitalist analysis.
The year 2010 also presented the organizing community in Canada with two major mobilizations to mount, one in Vancouver for the Olympics and one in Toronto for the G20. Toronto organizers took this confluence of factors as an opportunity, and the People’s Assembly was one element of the outcome.
By eschewing traditional hierarchical forms, the open and inclusive process of the People`s Assembly is an invitation for community members and organizers to come together in an effort to build solidarity, share skills, and develop increased coordination. The aim of the People’s Assembly in Toronto is for the climate justice community and its allies to utilize it as a vehicle or a space through which it can operate as a movement, a self-articulated space that will allow it to remain a movement.