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What Is A People’s Assembly?

by Carlos Huerta
San Ysidro, California

“Aquí el pueblo manda y el gobierno obedece.” (“Here the People rule and the government obeys.”) Many Indigenous communities in Mexico have been on a struggle for access to food and land as multinational corporations, with the help of the government, keep constantly pushing them off their lands. Through their collective efforts and global support they have been able to set up self-governing horizontal communities run and schooled through direct participation of the community itself creating a sense of autonomy. In countries such as Greece, Spain, and Colombia, among others, government’s failures to address the people’s needs and grievances have led to the realization of a shared struggle and have seen a rise in collective community organizing to address such failures through a process known as People’s Assemblies.

What is a People’s Assembly?

A People’s Assembly is a gathering of members of the community to discuss and analyze the conditions of their local neighborhoods, share their grievances, and engage in a dialogue to come up with a collectively shared vision of what they would like to see. It is a horizontal democratic process run and facilitated by the people, thus direct participation by members of the community (local or regional) is crucial. This includes but is not limited to union members, activists, professionals, educators, and community members.

How Does it Work?

People’s Assemblies can take place on different levels. It’s up to the participants of the Assembly to set up the agenda and the way to facilitate. The dialogue can start by participants answering a survey and engaging in a discussion regarding any issues in their communities. Participants come up with solutions or alternatives through a consensus-building process, meaning that if there are two opposing or related ideas then through further discussion a new idea might be born that embraces the collective consciousness of the group. Participants might decide to establish commitments to action and if needed, take up tasks or committees before they re-convene. An Assembly can take from a couple of hours to several days.

In Spain’s “Indignados” movement, the People’s Assembly would meet on public space on an almost daily basis. After months the people disbanded the encampment and decided that smaller, locally based, Neighborhood Assemblies would be more suitable but they would convene once a month as a larger assembly to talk about the projects they are involved in, the progress being made in their communities, and to strengthen the network.

People’s Assemblies in Action

In Barcelona, the PAH-Platform for those Affected by Loans, was created in 2009 with the purpose of helping individuals facing eviction. Concurrently, Neighborhood Assemblies all over Spain have established committees dedicated to collecting data on homes in danger of being foreclosed on. The Spanish government has now stopped evicting families facing extreme financial hardship.

In the British city of Bath, the People’s Assembly gathered signatures in an attempt to force city government to change banks. The city did not, so the people simply changed their own banks to a local bank stimulating their local economy and uniting the community.

People’s Assemblies have been used as an alternative to the already established “democratic” venues when they failed to give the people a voice in the decision-making democratic process. They give a voice to the disenfranchised members of the community by providing a platform for people to express their grievances. They encourage and empower participants in a decision-making process that impacts their lives and their neighbors. It builds community. It strengthens and creates a collective culture as people join in a shared struggle towards a common vision. It gives people the power to govern their own lives based on a collective consciousness and community morality.

Conclusion

In a time when state corruption is no longer hidden: governments don’t provide the necessary help to the victims of natural catastrophes and families get thrown to the streets due to shady bank loans. In San Diego: half a million people lack proper access to food and must wager between food, medicine or education; families are torn apart by racist institutions; multinational corporations use their money to both invade communities driving away local business and they lobby against grassroots organizing to label GMO’s; and the city council no longer represents the interest of the people, opting to sell out Balboa Park. It’s imperative to realize that the only ones that stand in the way between us and the world we dream of is ourselves. It is through a dialogue with our neighbors, when we see where we stand, that we realize that although we might be different we share the same struggle. It’s through our collective thinking, coming up with solutions and alternatives, direct participation and cooperation in our communities, that we can move our communities forward. A better world is possible if we work together.

Published in In Motion Magazine - January 29, 2013.

This article was previously published in Volume 1, #1 of the newsletter of the Growing Discussion About Food.


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