The community art of working with “blocking”

Working groups, just as General Assemblies and other organs of Occupy’s direct democracy know their faire share of blocking, the making consensus fall short by one person stopping it. The moment of blocking is frequently dramatic, with all attention on the blocker. It’s like a moment when a train is just about to leave the station, people in the wagon get ready to relax into white noise of the clicking wheels, and… somebody suddenly pulls the emergency brake.

We don’t know what’s the issue of the blocker; whether the danger that our attention is directed to is real or exists only in the blocker’s imagination. How mindful the community is in that moment has consequences. We cultivate the community art of direct democracy through self-reflective practice, one meeting at a time. This blog is dedicated to all Occupiers, who want to become wiser about “blocking” and how to relate to it.

What is “blocking”

Ben Cavanna, an activist with occupy London wrote:

As I understand it a block used correctly means this:

“This proposal that we are discussing is fundamentally against what the movement stands for. If this proposal goes ahead in its present form, then it will lead me to consider having to leave the movement.”

Before someone ever blocks a proposal, they would raise their objections to the proposal at GA and would be invited to come forward and make that objection known.  Then there would be a period of discussion in the GA to ascertain whether or not the proposal could be modified to satisfy the objection. If this cannot be achieved, then the person is asked if they are prepared to stand aside.  Again this means something specific. Standing aside means “I do not feel strongly enough to block, but I do not support the proposal and have no obligation to help put it through and also will not bear any consequences of the proposal being put into action.”

They either stand aside or if they feel strongly enough they block. Then they are asked to attend the next working group of the proposal to see if the objection can be overcome, or a solution found.

So the block is very specific and should be undertaken only in serious cases where one believes that the proposed course of action would be detrimental to the movement.

This is not always clearly understood (big understatement), but is how it should work.

I have seen working groups bring things to GA for consensus, find quite a number of objections from GA, then go back and work on the proposal further taking into account the objections, and this may happen on more than one go-round. Almost always the working group reports back that the proposal that gets consensus finally is much stronger than it was at the start. This is consensus in the model we use and is how it should work.

Just a clarification as best I understand it. I am sure the collective intelligence will correct where I am in error.


In a short time, a fellow Occupier wrote to Ben:

This is completely correct.

The Corporations Working Group’s first statement was blocked and we went off with the blocker, classic “reformist versus revolutionary” dialogue.

After two meetings, one 8 hours and one 5, we came back with something 100% way better. I now feel deep love and respect for my blocker 😉


Then somebody reminded us on the distribution list of Starhawk’s thoughts about the same issue:

Blocking Consensus 

In classic consensus, any one individual can block the group from moving for-
ward — but only for very specific reasons. A block is not a disagreement or an
objection. It’s not a way to express general dislike. A block is only accepted when
it is a moral objection, that is, a block says: “This decision would violate the
shared values upon which this group is founded.” When someone does block a
consensus, they must be able to state their principled objection.

The values must be ones core to the group and to which the group subscribes.
If RootBound ecovillage has not formed around animal rights, the most ardent
vegan member can’t block the farmers from raising chickens. The vegans are free,
however, to register their opinions, concerns, to advocate for their position, to
educate their friends and to say that they personally will not come to dinner if any
meat is served. In classic consensus, a block is something you might do once or
twice in a lifetime. Another way to look at a block is to say, “Is this so serious that
I would have to disassociate myself and leave the group if they go ahead with it?”
The only other reason for blocking would be that the discussion and decision-
making process have been so unfair or so badly done that the decision is not a true
one. A process block does not kill the issue, but sends it back for more discussion
and a more fair presentation.

Groups may decide to limit blocking. Some groups decide, for example, that
a lone individual cannot block, but only a representative of some subgroup that
has itself reached consensus to block. For example, in a mobilization for a direct
action the group might decide that any blocks must come from an affinity group
or a working group, not just a single person, to protect the organization from
potential disrupters who might parachute in and stop the work from going for-
ward. Other groups might limit blocking to people who have been members for
a determined period of time, or who fulfill other requirements. Some groups
require anyone who blocks a proposal to offer an alternative.

When the discussion of an issue is carried out openly and thoroughly, block-
ing rarely if ever arises. Deep feelings and strong, moral objections are dealt with
as the proposal is being formulated, and projects that might violate the group’s core values are amended or dropped long before they reach the stage at which a
block is put forward.

The clip about "blocking" starts at 2:42.

Starhawk wrote, “A block is only accepted when it is a moral objection, that is, a block says: ‘This decision would violate the shared values upon which this group is founded.’ When someone does block a consensus, they must be able to state their principled objection.” But what if the group doesn’t have explicit values and principles, not even a concrete enough set of objectives to assess their violation? Then that’s a field day for all those who just just need some attention and enjoy blocking for blocking sake. Ideally, in a movement that wants to be the change it shouldn’t happen, but it does because people join Occupy with very different personal needs and levels of consciousness.

When it does, then what? Well, hopefully, there’s a facilitator, who is protecting the spirit of the accepted process and a strong enough community to stand with it. That question stresses the need and importance of training in the Occupations for respect and consensus. Let me leave you with the best source I know for such training. It is the “Five-Fold Path of Productive Meetings”, from which the Starhawk quote above is borrowed. It is a chapter of her recent book on The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups, which you can download here:


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Categories: Direct Democracy, Working Groups


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2 Comments on “The community art of working with “blocking””

  1. February 7, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    From the first official statement of Occupy Wall Street, I understood that the Occupy Movement was about direct democracy and would help other groups working in the spirit of direct democracy.

    Had the Democrats in San Diego brought things like waving the capitalist imperialist US flag, an emblem of a hierarchical and undemocratic system of government, registering voters to work within that system, or making demands on that system, to GA for consensus, I would have blocked each proposal, as they are not in the spirit of direct democracy.

    But they knew that. And as their plan to co-opt Occupy San Diego (of which I overheard them saying, “We need to keep a low profile and take this step by step) unfolded, they first did a lot of fear-mongering about anarchists blocking things and taking over, although no anarchist here had ever blocked anything and anarchists are the only people who aren’t seeking power and do not wish to take over, and then pushed through a 90% majority rule to deal with their mythical blockers. Then a long-term Democratic Party operative set up a table to register voters, knowing that the cops wouldn’t allow the table, and several Democrats began saying that he’d been arrested for registering voters, not for setting up the table. Canvas for a Cause also organized voter registration drives, and Occupy San Diego became political instead of nonpolitical. And more recently, they celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement in San Diego, when Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, the Wobblies, and other anarchists were run out of town, by standing on soap boxes urging people to register to vote in the very spot where Goldman and the Wobblies were run out of San Diego 100 years ago for saying, “If voting could change anything, they’d make it illegal,” and “Don’t vote–it only encourages ’em.”

    The patriotic vigilantes who nonviolently drove out the anarchists here, 100 years after their forebears did the same, have shamelessly abandoned the principles of direct democracy and made Occupy San Diego into a flag-waving fascist farce. They’re not into global social and economic justice, they want the US imperialist government to start more wars and kill more people of color so that they can have better jobs, higher salaries, and other selfish benefits of genocide that the capitalist 1% isn’t going to give them anyway.

    I don’t need to go to Occupy San Diego to see the US imperialist flag, voter registration tables, and people talking about what’s in it for them, I can find that at any political party’s headquarters.

    Remember the old joke about democracy being two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner? Well, it can work, but only if the lamb has a solid block, and not just once in their lifetime, which would be very short if that were the case, but each and every time that vote is on the agenda. Given the fact that there are many healthy dogs living on vegan diets, and that wolves are related to dogs, I think that if the only other alternative was to starve, those wolves would soon agree to having something other than lamb for dinner. But not if the lamb only gets one block and is then sacrificed in the name of majority rule and efficiency. If you want efficiency, fascism is the best political system there is and will make the trains run on time, but don’t act surprised when many of those trains are full of people being carted off to extermination camps. If you want humanity, if you want social, economic, and environmental justice, then you have to let go of fascism, and join the global struggle for and with the much less efficient system of self-governance. If you delegate war powers to government, you’ll always get war, but if you have to reach consensus first, it is much less likely. That’s the point.

    Yes, it is reformers versus revolutionaries. Systems like the US which are based on genocide for profit, are not susceptible to reform and must be replaced with systems that have human values. Take away the block, and the wolves will always feast on the lambs. The block was there for a reason, because direct democracy cannot function without it. When the majority falls for a CIA/MSM false-flag operation and starts howling for war, there has to be an opportunity for a sane voice to stand up and block it until the forged documents and lies of the intelligence agencies, the politicians who were (and once their terms in officer are over will again be) defense contractors and who own stock in the defense corporations that start wars for profit, can be exposed. Killing millions of innocent kids with drone bombs isn’t “collateral damage,” it is the way that capitalist get their collateral.

  2. February 14, 2012 at 6:37 am #

    The block favours the status quo, but for the consensus model to work, it must be understood that all participants must be willing to negotiate for consensus. This is where the issue of blocking becomes contentious, because it is here where you can tell whether or not an individual using the block is willing to compromise, and their grounds for doing so.

    Because of the negotiation aspect of the consensus model, you do sometimes get issues regarding personal politics coming into play, whether they are real or imagined. For example, in a recent Occupy London GA on Saturday 11th February, I was compelled to block amendments to the Online Safer Spaces Policy, because I felt that this had not had sufficient input from the online communities for which it was to be implemented. I was a lone blocker in this case, and there was the argument that this should be passed using “Consensus -1” – however, since I was speaking out for the Online Communities to be affected by this policy, it would have been unfair to use this policy as I was not the only person to be potentially affected, but also the entire Online Community that hadn’t been consulted in this proposal.

    It was argued that I was blocking because of personal politics issues, as I have been somewhat outspoken on certain issues that I perceive as flaws within the way Occupy London is being run, and how certain people and groups are not being represented. This is an example of the types of personal politics that can sometimes mar the issue of the block – I believe it is fundamentally against the principles of what is a global, inclusive movement to be so exclusive and so lax on representation of certain demographics. The hardest part of free speech is affording those rights to others, even if they do use it to troll. The choice will always be free speech or no speech, and I know which I’d prefer – I would rather everyone having a voice than nobody having one.

    This is the fundamental issue about blocking, and that is to be able to ask ourselves why are we blocking. We need to be honest here. If a proposal for Occupy to become political comes up (which has been subject to some intense debate of late within Occupy London), are you blocking it because you are against Politics, or because there is something wrong with the proposal? If it is the former, then there will be no compromise, short of not doing the action, which can be tricky when you can also get people who “block for yes” – that is, they feel that NOT doing something is so against the movement that they will leave. If it is the latter, then you can negotiate for consensus.

    I have participated in and helped refine facilitation workshops within Occupy London to help differentiate between these types of blocks. Consensus is based on negotiation, and without that, the model collapses, so if there is no intent to negotiate, then the consensus model cannot work and another method needs to be used to resolve things. This is where systems like majority voting comes into play. Otherwise, you fall victim to the tactic known as the filibuster, and when inaction is generally one of the options at proposals, it is unfair to side with inaction simply because people can prolong the debate indefinitely through this tactic.

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