Let’s organize a town hall meeting about Gaza

People's Assembly of Carbondale

Members of the City Council of Carbondale, Illinois recently said at a public meeting that they won’t pass a resolution supporting a ceasefire in Gaza.

This is a wrong-headed decision from both a “conventional” municipal governance perspective and a social change perspective that encourages greater democratic participation at the municipal level. I plan to send correspondence to City Council members with a brief overview of my rebuttal to their statements on the subject and my analysis of why a ceasefire resolution would, in fact, be an appropriate business item for the consideration of a small municipal government in Southern Illinois.

In the meantime, before I expend any time or energy on that correspondence, I want to speak directly to the people who I feel should actually be making this decision: the people of Carbondale. To that end, I have a suggestion for a next action step for everyone in Carbondale who is concerned about this issue.

The people of Carbondale who are concerned about what’s happening in Gaza should hold a town hall meeting on the subject.

Why should we hold a town hall meeting?

What I have in mind is a particular type of town hall meeting called a people’s assembly, popular assembly, or community assembly.

This is a type of meeting where members of the public run the meeting ourselves. Everyone has an opportunity to speak, whether that may be in small groups, in brief statements to the entire assembly, or some combination of the two, Time constraints may limit the number of speakers and length of their speech, but the goal is to ensure that all voices are heard. Everyone should also have the opportunity to participate in any decision-making undertaken by the assembly. In other words, rather than the City Council voting, we the people vote on the issue(s) raised at the meeting. For example, we could take a vote to see how many people at the people’s assembly support the City of Carbondale adopting a ceasefire resolution.

There are many benefits to this approach:

  • Community control. City Council can’t limit our speaking time or the subject of our speech at a people’s assembly because we run the meeting ourselves. We can decide for ourselves how to structure speaking time to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. We can also decide what limits to place on speech that may be hateful or otherwise counterproductive to the issue(s) being discussed. This creates space for much more thorough and substantive discussion of the issue than we can achieve during the public comment period of a City Council meeting.
  • Diversity of tactics. We can use this people’s assembly to address the problem with a diversity of tactics. One such tactic is asking City Council again to support a ceasefire resolution. Another tactic is encouraging the public and/or city government to support humanitarian fundraising events such as the community meals for Palestinian relief funds. Another tactic might be organizing at the local level to apply pressure to our members of Congress or other public officials in support of a ceasefire. Another tactic might be supporting local people who are directly or indirectly impacted by the situation. We can discuss all of these options and vote on them.
  • Dual power. A well-attended people’s assembly can create a “dual power” situation. If a hundred people show up to a people’s assembly, and most vote in favor of a ceasefire resolution, this demonstrates a clear conflict between the people’s vote and the City Council’s vote. The City Council will then have to decide if they want to ignore the people’s vote, or introduce a ceasefire resolution, or introduce some other motion that addresses the public’s desire for the city government to take action on what’s happening in Gaza.
  • Local democracy. This could also be the start of a series of people’s assemblies on a variety of subjects that the people of Carbondale find important or concerning. At the most recent City Council meeting, Councilmember Loos said that he wished that the people of Carbondale showed this much interest in some of the other big local concerns that the City Council is addressing right now — and I agree wholeheartedly. I would like to see people’s assemblies discuss our local housing situation, the city budget, and many other issues that the City Council addresses on a regular basis. But since we have such an outpouring of local support for a ceasefire resolution, let’s start with that. And if the public feels that their voices are being heard by the City Council on this issue, they may engage with City Council more on other issues.

How do we organize our own town hall or people’s assembly?

Since the city government won’t be organizing this meeting, how do we go about organizing it ourselves?

There are many different approaches to organizing people’s assemblies. People’s Movement Assembly has a handbook that can help local communities organize their own people’s assemblies. Fearless Cities, Municipalism Learning Series, and Cooperation Jackson have more background information about why people’s assemblies and other community-led initiatives are important and how to go about organizing them.

The basic details are simple. Not necessarily easy, especially on short notice. But simple.

  • Committee. Form a small organizing committee to start the process and handle the logistics of the meeting.
  • Space. Reserve a publicly-accessible space for the meeting. My personal preference is to reserve space at the Civic Center. This choice of venue affirms that this is a public meeting organized by and for the people of Carbondale rather than the pet project of any particular organization or venue.
  • Accessibility. Choose a day and time that’s accessible for as many people as possible. Consider including opportunities for remote participation, accommodations for parents/guardians with childcare needs, etc.
  • Agenda. Prepare an agenda, including details of how exactly the meeting will be run — small group discussions vs one big assembly, speaker time limits, how to handle meeting facilitation (including how to handle tangents/disruptions), etc.
  • Community involvement. For this to be a meaningful people’s assembly, people in the community have to know about it, have a voice in the planning process, and show up for the assembly. Contact community leaders. community groups, and the media to let them know that the meeting is happening and that the public is invited to have input before, during, and after the meeting. The organizing committee should ask community members for input and involvement rather than just telling them a predetermined date/time/place/process and asking them to show up.
  • Notetaking & reporting. Designate someone to take notes. If the assembly votes on any proposals, make note of the vote count. Ensure that a specific person is in charge of any follow-up actions such as notifying City Council and the public of the results of the vote.
  • Future meetings. If the assembly needs more time to deliberate and decide, set the next meeting date as soon as possible and start preparing again.

Who’s interested in this proposal?

Since I’m the one proposing this approach, I’m willing to convene an organizing meeting so that people who are interested in this approach can meet and discuss how to make it a reality. You can contact me through a variety of means or talk amongst yourselves if you’d rather organize it without me.

I would be more than happy to pass on the convener role to anyone who feels passionate about this issue and wants to respond to it by organizing a people’s assembly. I’m not attached to any particular details about who convenes the meeting, how it’s structured, etc. I’m just deeply concerned and outraged about what’s happening in Gaza right now and want to encourage local people to get organized and take local action in as many helpful ways as possible.

If there’s public interest in this idea, it shouldn’t be the project of any one individual or group. It should be a project of the entire Carbondale community — to work together to respond to the crisis in Gaza, and to keep on responding in a democratic manner to any other problems and concerns raised by the people of Carbondale.

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