A night in the park: Occupy Wall Street observed

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Jeremy Brecher reports on the minute detail of what’s happening at Zucotti Park in New York City, including how the occupiers are organising themselves, and how they are making decisions – literally.

I spent 12-13 October at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park. I had already written in a piece for The Nation about the historical background of such movements, but I wanted to get the feel of the occupation on the ground, as well as to add my widow’s mite of support. I was particularly interested to see close up how the occupation’s oft-described organisation and communication processes really worked.

There is no way that in just two days I could fathom the complex social organism that is Occupy Wall Street. Rather, what follows is intended to give you some idea of what you might experience if you made an equally brief sojourn to see for yourself.

First impressions

When I arrived Wednesday morning it was just starting to rain and things were moving slow. I was struck that the couple of hundred people standing around in ones and twos and threes represented a wide range of age, race, and apparent ethnicity. They also represented a wide range of the appearances that so often are the markers of class in our society: A few were dressed and groomed as if on their way to the office; a good number had the ragged and unkempt appearance stereotyped as homeless “street people” (an appearance I’m sure I would have shared after a week or two of sleeping in the park); the majority were casually dressed somewhere in between. In short, they looked like a pretty wide subset of the people you would see on the streets of New York.

I noticed immediately that lots of people were giving raps to their neighbours. Listening in, I could hear that many of them echoed the public themes of the occupation: the unfair distribution of wealth, the bail-outs for bankers, the need for direct action and for a movement. It was clear that the people there understood and themselves could articulate the goals of the protest. I listened to the OWS media spokespeople as they were interviewed by reporters with notebooks and cameras; it was clear that they and the rank-and-file were on the same page.

A few people with brooms or garbage bags passed by periodically cleaning up the ground. Others laid out bagels and freshly baked bread along a food table. I noticed that both groups wore sanitary gloves. There was an area covered by tarps where media folks were working, but no place to see what they were sending out over the web. At one end of the park a dozen drummers pounded away, occasionally accompanied by dancers and other instrumentalists. Although the park was surrounded by police, I was not aware of any security operation by the occupiers except when I overheard a young man tell a friend, I’m on security right now. Over the course of the two days I occasionally saw people with apparent mental problems who became very angry and belligerent; I rapidly saw people go over to them, engage them in conversation, sometimes give them a hug, and very successfully calm them down. At any given time quite a people were standing alone speaking into cell phones in a way that would have made it look like the crowd was full of autistics if you didn’t know what they were doing.

Occasionally I would hear the famous “people’s microphone” that had been improvised because amplification had been banned in the park. Someone would call out “mic check!” which would then be repeated in unison by those around them. Then an announcement, broken up into chunks of a few words, would follow, again echoed in unison by those nearby.

Facilitation

There was an information table with a list of events posted, and I noted that there was a “facilitators meeting” at 4.00 at a church-run drop-in centre a couple of blocks away. Since I knew all meetings were supposed to be open, I went there and slipped through the door of the conference room where 25-30 people were jammed in. The facilitation working group was preparing for that evening’s General Assembly, the decision-making open meeting for all Occupy Wall Street participants. There didn’t seem to be any one person chairing, but rather several people performing different parts of that function. I saw people accompanying the discussion with a whole lot of rather weird hand and finger motions.

The facilitators were discussing a proposal to make the colour purple the emblematic colour of Occupy Wall Street. It was brought to the facilitators by an earnest young man who reported on his research about the colours identified various movements and their significance. I gradually began to piece together the protocol the facilitators were following. There was a facilitator and sometimes also a co-facilitator who were sort of running the meeting. But there was also someone else – the “stack keeper” – who was making a list (a “stack”) of those who wished to speak, then calling on them. Sometimes a “progressive stack” was announced in which individuals who had not yet spoken were recognised first.

First people asked questions of the proposer. If anyone else had relevant information they could offer a “point of information”. After questions were finished a new stack was opened for the expression of “concerns.” At a certain point it was indicated that the stack was closed. When all the concerns had been expressed, a facilitator asked if there were any “blocks” – a sort of veto indicating that there was not a consensus. (I learned elsewhere that one-tenth of the participants in a meeting were supposed to be able to block a decision, but I never saw even one person actually execute a block in any meeting.) If there were no blocks, the facilitator declared that a consensus decision had been made.

All of this was frequently accompanied by hand signals. I figured out that hands raised in the air with fingers wriggling upward – known as “twinkling” was an indication of support, a message that “we like what we’re hearing”. The same movement with the hands pointing down meant the opposite. Fingers wiggling horizontally meant uncertainty or ambivalence. A diamond made with thumbs and index fingers meant something like “point of order” or “is this really relevant?” Forearms crossed in front of the chest indicated a block or an inclination to block. Sometimes a facilitator would call for a “temperature check”, and people would indicate with their hand motions their current position.

At the facilitators meeting there were virtually no pro or con statements about the substance of the proposals. The questions and concerns were directed to procedural questions of whether the proposal was appropriate for General Assembly decision and how it and its proposer could be best prepared to present it and answer questions and concerns in a way that could be acted on effectively by the General Assembly. As someone explained to another newcomer, “You’ve come to a meeting of the facilitators, so you’ve come to a meeting of process freaks.” They seemed to take very seriously the idea that their responsibility was to create a process that would allow the General Assembly to decide, rather than to bias the decision in the direction they thought best.

In the case of the colour purple, someone suggested that the proposer simply hand out purple ribbons and spread the idea virally. Someone else noted that he was indeed already doing so, but that he was seeking an endorsement of the General Assembly so that it would be incorporated in the official communications and symbols of the Occupation. Someone noted that proposals to the General Assembly were supposed to come from “working groups”. Someone else observed that they were operating with a very loose definition of what a working group was, and that the proposer in this case had done enough research that he might be considered a one-person working group. Ultimately it was decided that the proposal would be held over till the next day’s General Assembly.

My first General Assembly

That night I attended my first General Assembly. A team from the facilitation meeting stood at the wall of the park while several hundred people crowded in front of them in the rain. A facilitator called out “mic check!,” those nearby echoed “mic check!,” and a second wave beyond them echoed “mic check!” again. From then on, each speaker said a few words and waited while they would be repeated by first, second, and sometimes even third waves of echo. Echoers were surprisingly easy to understand and they reproduced the words and even the intonation of the speakers with surprising accuracy. But everything took two or three times as long – like non-simultaneous interpretation, only even slower. Twinkling and other hand motions broke out at many points.

The main agenda items for the General Assembly were motions brought by working groups. For example, the media working group brought a proposal to spend $25000 for computers and video equipment to immediately upgrade the live feed that ran 24/7 from the encampment and add channels so that movements from around the world could use it for Saturday’s global day of action. There were many questions: Couldn’t it be done more cheaply? Would it be operational in time? What if the equipment were stolen or broken? Would there be diverse producers using the equipment so the messages weren’t all controlled by one top producer? What was the total amount of money Operation Wall Street had? The proposer or others gave detailed answers that fully addressed the questions that were being raised.

After all questions had been addressed, the facilitators “closed the stack” and started a new one for “concerns”. For example, one person said that proposals to spend money had to go through the finance working group. He said he would block the proposal if it didn’t. I think that was the only time I actually saw arms crossed over a chest for real. Someone from the finance committee immediately spoke on a point of information and explained that the finance committee had indeed approved the proposal. Some of the “concerns” were not clearly directed to the proposal at hand; “point of order” diamonds would go up in the crowd and the facilitator would explain that after the General Assembly there would be a “soapbox” session in which people could talk about whatever they wanted. After all the concerns were addressed, the facilitator asked if there were any blocks and seeing none, said that consensus had been reached. A lot of cheers and twinklings of relief ensued.

After the meeting I crawled into my sleeping bag and covered myself with a tarp (tents were banned by Brookfield Properties, the private corporation that owned the park) to keep out the periodic downpours. I was entertained by the drummers at one end of the park and the heavy construction equipment tearing up the road at the other end. As I crawled out in the morning, my respect for the dedication and determination of the occupiers had increased several-fold.

Dealing with a crisis

My second day I could see a little more clearly the occupation’s low-key but active organisational network. When I stood by the food table, someone working there asked if I wanted to help and, when I said yes, gave me a series of tasks. When I wandered by the home base of the sanitation working group, someone asked me if I wanted to help and, when I said yes, gave me a garbage bag and said go pick up. In both cases I was told to first put on sanitary gloves. The instructions were clearly expressing the “authority” of the food and cleaning committees.

That morning, gentlemen in suits came through the park and handed out a printed document. The first page announced the owner would be cleaning the park the next day. The second page announced rules for the park, including no lying down, no sleeping bags, and no tarps.

Informal discussions of how to respond sprang up immediately. While many people were initially willing to cooperate with the cleaning, the view that the cleaning was only a pretext to end the occupation grew steadily stronger. Then a hundred or so people gathered for what was described as an “occupiers meeting” just for those who were actually occupying the park. It was interesting to see that without the trained facilitators, participants had difficulty using the techniques of the General Assembly and focusing on the issue at hand. The meeting also revealed a potential for conflict between the current occupiers and the wider circle of people who participated in the General Assemblies. Someone came by and announced that the legal committee was considering what to do; another came and said the Coordinating Committee had agreed to an emergency General Assembly at noon. Both kind of encouraged the occupiers meeting to disband till then.

I enquired about the “Coordinating Committee” and was told that it was a sort of “spokes council” at which representatives from the various committees met each morning. It was not very much of a decision making body, however – in fact, it exerted even less authority than the facilitators group. There was also a sort of informal leadership network – “something like an affinity group” one of its members told me – that had precipitated out of various street actions in the months that led up to Occupy Wall Street. Many of them were active in the various working groups, and they touched base with one another, but they did not meet or make decisions as a group.

The emergency General Assembly began a little after noon. It started with a reading of the letter from the park owner – a lengthy process over the people’s microphone. Then came committee proposals. The sanitary committee proposed that the occupants conduct an extreme cleaning of the park themselves and asked for $3000 to buy mops and rent power washers. The assembly filled with twinkles, but it took quite a number of questions and concerns before the facilitators could declare consensus had been reached.

The direct action working group proposed that, when the park owners’ cleaners came, everyone who was willing to should link arms around the perimeter of the park and refuse to move. They also announced two training sessions on non-violent action to follow the General Assembly. Labour and other supporters from around the city were asked to show up next morning at 6:00am to help non-violently defend the occupation. (Later a request was made that supporters start showing up immediately and spend the night, even though “we shouldn’t expect to get much sleep tonight”.)

A working group concerned with community outreach announced that they had been meeting with the Lower Manhattan Community Board and that it wanted to support the occupation and oppose any attempt to suppress it. But they also had concerns that they wanted the occupation to address before they would do so. Above all, they wanted a limit on the incessant drumming. It was proposed that the General Assembly should endorse a far shorter drumming period, then go over en masse to talk with the drummers about it. Question: how would it be enforced? Answer: We’re not cops. All we can do is talk with them and explain what we think.

Discussions with the drummers over the previous three weeks, sometimes professionally mediated, had been largely unsuccessful, and I had heard a lot of expressions of despair about persuading them from various facilitators. But apparently the threat of eviction, or the continuing efforts at mediation, had brought them around. Instead of mass action, negotiations began behind the spot where the facilitators were standing.

Representatives of the legal working group reported that they were exploring the possibility of bringing a suit to prevent the eviction of the occupiers from the park. They emphasised that Occupy Wall Street had never sought a permit or otherwise requested permission for its actions, and they had no intention of doing so now. But they did want to ask the General Assembly to approve conversations – not negotiations – with the police community relations department exclusively about the next day’s events. They pledged not to make any offers to the police without the prior approval of a General Assembly. Their proposal was rapidly passed. As the new mops began arriving, the General Assembly adjourned to begin the occupation’s own clean-up of the park.

I had to return home after the General Assembly, but I awoke to the astonishing news that the park owners and Mayor Bloomberg had abandoned their plans and that the park owners would try to reach an accommodation with the occupiers. The mayor attributed the shift to pressure on the park owners from other politicians. Whatever may have gone on behind the scenes, it is clear that the strategy chosen by the General Assembly – the clearly pro-social (and highly photogenic) act of cleaning the park, the willingness to address the concerns of the neighbours, and the threat of thousands of New Yorkers pouring downtown to defend the encampment – had proven highly effective.

On reflection

The organisation of Occupy Wall Street is radically different from the normal form of representative democracy. Its rules are radically different from Roberts Rules of Order and variants derived from it that order decision making through votes (including the cutting off of debate) by majorities. But that doesn’t mean that it was without rules. Quite the contrary, it was a highly structured process whose rules were explicit and closely followed. It was far different from the revolt against rules of procedure that I experienced in the latter days of Students for a Democratic Society, for example, when those calling for following established rules of procedure were often shouted down.

The process was designed to ensure everybody could speak and that decisions represented consensus (though not necessarily complete unanimity). During the General Assemblies it was easy to feel that much of the discussion was an unnecessary waste of time, and that it would have been good to have some way to “cut off debate” as in more conventional democratic procedure.

But there were counterbalancing advantages. Just about everybody indeed felt their views had been heard – and thereby to some extent their personality and humanity recognised. At the end of the process, almost everybody was behind the decisions that had been made and willing to help implement them. There was no enraged minority ready to storm out. It is not clear that this would be the case if there were real factions like those that tore SDS apart. But for the time being the process seemed to defuse non-functional conflict.

I worried that the more important and more political decisions that needed to be made were not being made because the discussion tended to focus on what were more administrative and procedural matters. But the process in fact seemed to produce good decisions, which in fact addressed the political issues the occupation faced – for example, how to deal with the threat of eviction. Perhaps a smaller, more strategic leadership might have called earlier for New Yorkers to come in and protect the encampment. But it is doubtful that such a group could have so effectively drawn the hundreds of occupiers – coming from diverse cultures and experiences – into supporting and conducting the strategy that proved so successful.

I think the hand signals are great and could be adapted for almost any kind of democratic procedure. They provide a way to conduct a continuous straw poll that greatly facilitates the process of consensus-building – and could also be used (far better than booing or shouts of “Hear, hear!”) to guide more conventional decision-making systems as well.

The people’s mic is a brilliant adaptation to the banning of amplification – without it any kind of democratic procedure would have been difficult at best. It also had some positives in its own right. It countered the bored withdrawal that is characteristic of large meetings by giving everybody something to do. I also had the sense that, because people willingly repeated statements that they might not support, they felt and communicated a sense of respect for those people and ideas they didn’t necessarily agree with. But it is not something you would be likely to do if you didn’t have to – the cost of doubling or tripling the time everything takes is simply too great. It would be worth thinking about whether some of the positives could be realised in other ways.

There remain some issues that could become more problematic in the future.

It is easy to see how conflict could arise between those actually living in the park and the wider leadership group. (I remember conflict developing between the rank-and-file and the leadership at Resurrection City, the Poor People’s Campaign encampment established in Washington, DC after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr) But the openness of the General Assembly quickly defused such tendencies as everyone received their chance to speak.

There is also the problem of “power in leaderless groups.” In principle, more conventional, if hierarchical, organisations with elected officials provide means of holding leaders accountable. I didn’t see instances where the informal leadership functioned in undemocratic ways during my sojourn with Occupy Wall Street, but it is easy to imagine how they could.

Finally, the current size of the occupation seems to be near the limit that can work with this kind of direct democracy. Even with amplified sound, it is hard to see something like the General Assembly working with thousands rather than hundreds of people. At the least, some kind of “spokes council” or other representative structure would likely be necessary for actions on a substantially larger scale. And that leaves aside the question of how to operate democratically on a multi-site, national, or international scale.

But whatever future problems may be, in the real world of the Occupy Wall Street encampment today I can say: I have seen the present, and it works.

Source: 1st of the Month.org

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