The NYC General Assembly uses a form of ‘pure’ democracy. Unlike a representative democracy in which an individual or group is elected to speak for you and may actually not do so, direct democracy ensures that all voices are heard, none above another.
Instead of utilizing a voting system, which ensures a minority group is ignored or oppressed, the NYC General Assembly utilizes a consensus process to come to decisions on important issues. Consensus, based on the consent of individuals within a larger group, is a participatory dialog used to reach a general sense of agreement by all members of the assembly.
The earliest known form of the direct democracy process was an Athenian Democracy (5thCentury BC) which was not a ‘pure’ democracy as women, foreigners and slaves were excluded from the process. Later the Roman Republic (449 BC) practiced citizen lawmaking where the people created and enacted laws. This ended with the death of Julius Caesar (44 BC).
Some modern examples of groups that use direct democracy are:
- The Landless Peoples Movement (South Africa) – A social movement of people who have been disenfranchised by their government and forced off of their land.
- Students for a Direct Democratic Society (USA), the largest radical student organization in history, strives to bring back direct democracy to university culture and the world at large.
- Change 2011, a Finnish political party formed in 2009, that stands for direct democracy, freedom of speech and protecting the interests of the citizens of Finland.
Direct democracy has proven to be an effective and efficient method for managing large group meetings while maintaining an inclusive and progressive environment. Utilizing direct democracy and some other radical concepts we’ve managed to foster a unique leaderless movement unlike any other in American history.
Hand Signals – These are used a method of non-verbal communication. This ensures people are not interrupted and that everyone is respected.
Agree (Wiggle Fingers in the Air, ‘Jazz Hands’) – This means I like this, or I feel good. In a consensus process, it also can mean ‘I agree’.
Unsure (Hands out Flat) – This means I am unsure, on the fence or don’t know.
Disagree (Wiggles Fingers, Hands Down) – This means I don’t like this or I don’t feel good. In a consensus process, it also can mean ‘I disagree’.
Point of Process (Diamond with Hands) – This means the GA process has been derailed, someone is off topic, we need to get back on track.
Point of Information (One Finger in the Air) – This means I have pertinent information about what is currently being discussed. It is not a question or a concern, it is merely information.
Wrap it Up (Pointer Fingers Orbiting Each Other) – This means that we hear you, we understand but you’re talking a lot, please be concise and to the point.
Block (Arms Crossed in an ‘X’) – This means that you have a severe ethical or safety issue with what is being discussed. If it passes, I will leave the movement and abandon our cause. This is very serious!
- A block is only used during a consensus process to prevent a proposal from being passed. If a meaningful consensus is reached but you have a severe ethical or safety concern then you should block.
- If a block is presented, the individual is asked to address the general assembly and explain their block. If the block cannot be resolved with the proposer or is not rescinded by the blocker then the assembly moves to a 9/10 vote.
Supplementary Hand Signals – Additional hand signals used as needed.
Speak Up (Pointer Finger Pointing Up Repeatedly) – This means you cannot hear the speaker or the ‘people’s mic’.
Temperature Check (AKA ‘Vibes Check’) – This is used as a gage to show the facilitation team how the members of the GA are feeling. On occasion voices have hijacked the general assembly process and made others feel oppressed. A temperature check is a way to determine if the GA is in need of a short break. The ‘agree, unsure, disagree’ gestures are used to show an individual’s current emotional state. If the response for the members of the GA is mixed, a short break will be issued.
Clarification (Forming the Hand into a ‘C’ Shape) – This shows the speaker or the facilitators that you need some clarification on what is being discussed. This generally is presented in the form of a question.
Retired Hand Signals – Some hand signals are no longer used at the NYC GA due to misuse and abuse. Other general assemblies may use these hand signals and it may work well for them.
Direct Response (Pointer Fingers of Both Hands, motioning back and forth between you and the Speaker) – This gesture was used to indicate that you have important information regarding the discussion topic. Individuals often used this gesture as an opportunity to get off topic or ask questions that could be answered properly in a direct conversation.
To ensure that the general assembly operates in an inclusive and progressive environment there are critical concepts that are employed. It is, of course, the personal responsibility of individuals to utilizes these concepts in their own lives but everyone is encouraged to engage in discussion about these ideas.
Step Up, Step Back – This concept is used to ensure individuals check their privilege and step back to ensure that those who have been silenced all their lives are encouraged to step up. It also means those who have spoken a lot, recognize that and step back while encouraging those who have not spoken to step up.
Progressive Stack – This concept is utilized to ensure that the general assembly stack, a list of speaking order, is diverse and consists of a variety of voices. Individuals from traditionally marginalized groups or who have not spoken may be moved ahead in speaking order to create balance and fairness.
Facilitation and the General Assembly:
The facilitation team works to help support and moderate the general assembly by utilizing various mediation tools and concepts.
Facilitation Team Roles – Facilitation roles are leadership roles but that doesn’t mean anyone on the team is the ‘leader’. Facilitation team members are simply there to keep the meeting on track and ensure people are being respected. It is best, as a facilitator, to remain neutral and unbiased.
Co-Facilitators – The verbal component of the facilitation team. Generally male and female but not always that binary. If you are uncomfortable with public speaking or large crowds this role is probably not for you. It is important for the co-facilitators to be precise and clear as they help support the discussions of the general assembly. Co-facilitators should never interrupt speakers or ignore individual needs but instead politely and actively engage with individuals on a personal level to ensure process is respected and the general assembly isn’t derailed.
Stack – This person keeps a speaking order list for each item on the agenda and ensures everyone is heard. A stack taker should practice ‘progressive stack’, which means ensuring that the speaking list is diverse and fair, staggering individuals from traditionally marginalized groups with others, not from those groups, that wish to speak.
The stack taker should always introduce themselves and make it clear to the general assembly what their preferred method of stack tacking is.
- Passive Method – The stack taker remains stationary and asks that individuals who would like to be on stack raise their hand and remain where they are. The stack taker then makes eye contact and writes down some identifier they can use to remember the individual when it is there turn to speak.
- Active Method – The stack taker requests that individuals who would like to be on stack come to the front of the general assembly and get their name on the list. The stack taker then announces each individual when it is their turn to address the general assembly.
Minutes – A record keeper, types the dialog of the GA. Also, ensure that the minutes are given to the proper person to get them online. When taking minutes it isn’t important to type every word that is said but simply ensure all important information is included in the record.
Time Keeper – Makes sure everyone stays on time and ensures the GA stays on schedule. Each item on the agenda is allotted a specific amount of time based on it’s perceived importance and the time keeper should let speakers and facilitators known if they are running over long.
Support Roles – On occasion, additional roles are filled to ensure the general assembly runs smoothly and that the facilitation team has as much support as is needed.
Stack Greeter – This role is used to ensure that a stack taker can practice progressive stack. The greeter receives individuals who would like to be on stack and then relays the information to the stack taker.
Vibe Checker – The individual in this role should be on the look out for how the members of the general assembly are feeling. If needed the vibes checker can ask for a temperature check to gage how the general assembly feels. If needed, the vibes checker can ask for a short break so everyone can relax, talk and get back on the same page.
Human Mic – On occasion a facilitator may call for volunteers to act as a human mic. The volunteer should stand on the edge of the general assembly and amplify the voices of the speakers outward.
The general assembly is an opportunity for everyone to gather and discuss important matters that impact the movement. It is also a decision making body that operates utilizing a consensus process. Outlined below is the order in which the NYC general assembly is generally held.
Opening (10 MIN):
- Introduce the Facilitation Team (Ask for Consensus on Team)
- Review Hand Signals
- Review Step Up, Step Back
Agenda – Items that require a group consensus to decide on or break-out groups to generate new ideas and potential fixes. Agenda items might be proposals, break-out groups, initiatives or speakers.
Proposals – Items requiring the consensus of the GA. These are well thought out, written down or typed out, proposals that require group feedback and approval. It is encouraged that proposals are worked out in a working group or have the support of a large group before being brought before the GA.
Order of Presenting a Proposal
- The proposer reads the proposal, twice if necessary.
- The floor is open to clarifying questions or concerns, speakers should get on stack. The proposer can answer questions or address concerns directly as they come.
- The floor is then open to ‘friendly amendments’. These are amendments to the current proposal, not a new proposal or question/concern. It is up to the proposer to accept or decline friendly amendments.
- Once everything has been discussed and friendly amendments have been address the facilitation team will move for consensus by asking for a temperature check.
- If the check is a mix of agree and disagree, that is not a meaningful consensus and the item will probably need to be tabled, set aside until the next GA, and refined. If it is about 70/30 in agreement with the proposal and the proposer isn’t interested in tabling the item, the facilitator can move for a 9/10 vote.
- If there is consensus, everyone seems to agree, the facilitator must asks for ‘blocks’. Anyone presenting a block will need to explain why and if the block is not rescinded or the proposal is not removed the facilitator will move for a 9/10 vote.
- We DO NOT want to vote, that means some people are excluded or ignored. But if the issue is critical we will do a straw poll, raising of hands in agreement, and if the facilitation team sees 9/10 agreement the proposal passes.
To contest an old proposal that has already been passes, draft a new proposal that would remove or invalidate the old one.
Working Group Report Backs (15-20 MIN) – Report backs for already formed working groups to inform everyone of events, actions or meeting times.
Announcements (15-20 MIN) – General announcements about events, initiatives, etc. Not a chance to soap-box or push an agenda, that comes at the end of the GA.
Close GA – Makes sure everyone knows the GA is closing with a rally cry or cheer. Let everyone know the people’s soap-box is next and that they can stay or go if they like and the soap-box will not be facilitated.
People’s Soap-Box/Open Forum – A chance for anyone who wants to talk at length to do so and have their opinions heard.