On day 25 of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, there was an announcement during the GA that “Someone named Abe as been trying to follow the movement online but is having a difficult time. He would like the meeting minutes posted online.” Oddly enough, this comment from Abe was recorded and posted by the meeting minutes team who had already been fulfilling Abe’s request since the very early days of the occupation. It must have been that Abe did not know where to look, because, after a few minutes of looking around the main site for the NYCGA, I found them at http://www.nycga.net/minutes/.
The minutes served as an important touchstone for many of those who want to feel connected to Occupy but who were unable to be present at Zuccotti Park. A comments section followed every minutes posting, and on the page containing minutes for day 3 of the occupation, one commenter mentioned that “the minutes give a window into the soul of OWS.” Another commenter added that he’s only been able to attend one OWS and the minutes allow him to “know what is unfolding in the many discussions.”
Given that “access” was one of the key themes of Occupy, something that most Occupy participants took seriously and tried to achieve, the manner in which minutes were recorded and circulated was very well thought out. Posted minutes should be easy to read and should reinforce the sense that important decisions happen publicly, not behind closed doors. Minutes takers understood very well that the posted minutes functioned as outreach to people who could not come to Zuccotti but who wanted to participate. Therefore, on occasion, the recorder of the minutes would “break the fourth wall” and speak directly to those reading. On day 12, for example, the minutes contain a direct message for readers of the minutes: “Everybody reading this, please donate sweatshirts, sweatpants, and socks!”
One working group within Occupy which was fully devoted to properly taking and circulating minutes from the meetings of the General Assembly. This working group collaboratively came up with a template for taking minutes, as well as a list of “best practices” for those who would become minutes takers. On day 12, a member of that group explained that “minutes are kept so that occupy can share its decisions and events with all the world.”
Their group started off very small, so small that some GAs did not have any coverage — there were no minutes takers who were available to attend and so, either nothing got recorded, or the facilitation team was forced to take down some sloppy and incomplete notes. They were constantly trying to get good typers to join their WG so the work can divided reasonably but on day 25, the Minutes Working Group acknowledged that meeting minutes weren’t taken at all from oct 5 through 9. At that point in the occupation, there were only two people devoted to taking minutes and if either of those two were unable to attend the GA, meeting minutes would not be taken. Later on in the occupation, even after the Minutes group had grown to a reasonable size, inclement weather kept all the typers away. Heavy winds and rain made the General Assembly inhospitable and poorly attended on day ___. The facilitation team tried to fill in and record the minutes, but they had no template to work from and left large gaps in the proceedings. Although the meeting only lasted 50 minutes, a very short GA comparatively, the sloppy, incomplete minutes suggested more like a five minute meeting.
It wasn’t only the General Assembly that attempted to be transparent. Working groups were also expected to keep minutes and post them online. In fact, working group, in order to receive funding and recognition from the GA, were required to send their meeting minutes to email@example.com so that they could be posted online. (An important exception to this was the Direct Action working group, which felt the need to restrict information about some of its upcoming plans to those who had proved themselves worthy of trust. The direct action working group was more ardently anarchist than any other group, more concerned about police informants, and therefore fostered a “security culture” which sometimes created conflicts with those committed to a “culture of transparency.)
Transparency was a difficult goal to acheive for the General Assembly and also working groups. If working groups were not fully transparent in reality, at least they were working towards it. For example, the alternative banking group announced on day 37 that their working group had been conducting a lot of their work on private email accounts that were not accessible to non-insiders. When they finally realized the folly of this, that their communication practices had broken with the spirit of transparency, they brought their mistake to the attention of the GA and announced that all future communications would be happening in publicly available online forums (nycga.net) so those outside the inner circle could access these conversations and participate.
It wasn’t only Abe who was having trouble using the meeting minutes to follow the movement online. On day 34, a commenter complained that the minutes were posted to late for people to feel connected to movement. I felt this frustration at times as well. Since I was not a coordinator within OWS, I did not feel welcome at the daily coordinators meeting, yet I found their meeting minutes to be very illuminating and attempted to read them on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the minutes were only posted sporadically. When I would email the contact person requesting that he post them, he would kindly comply, but I got the impression he was overworked and overtired — he may have been sleeping in the park every night, after all — so I did not nudge him very often. Someone writing for a periodical called “The OWS-inspired Gazette” had a similar experience to mine. He reported that, as his passion for Occupy was growing, “I resolved to read the meeting minutes online only to find out they hadn’t beeen posted. So much for transparency.”
Despite the occasional snafu, Occupy shared with Wikileaks and the Free Software movement the idea that information should be free, not privatized. Information that might be valuable to others, whether it is a formula for creating life-saving medication or the sourcecode for a cool piece of software or the proceedings of an Occupy working group meeting, should be made public and accessible to as many people as possible. In a transparent movement like Occupy, there should be no leaks given that leaks can only spring in a closed container. Occupy attempted to be open with no secrets for anyone to leak. Occupy’s affinity with Wikileaks, a group that aims to make public the secret dealings of the rich and powerful, was made evident by the fact that a Wikileaks van was parked next to the occupation for much of the two months. Wikileaks made the van available to occupiers so they could quickly move items back and forth from the storage space down the street from Zuccotti. The fact that the can had Wikileaks printed in huge letters on the side of the van made it a frequent target for being pulled over by the police and the driver of that van had to be bailed out of jail on several occasions.