Good News First
New York City’s financial district, notorious for devious deals that crash economies, witnessed a more harmonious transaction last week. Hundreds of people came together with distinct goals in mind, and shared in a more democratic, dialogic, and egalitarian cultural exchange than what is ordinarily experienced in our society. In just twenty-four hours, the hallmarks of a true people’s movement began to develop: medical centers, media centers, food delivery, sub-committees, affinity groups, and a General Assembly.
When I first heard that there was going to be a week-long demonstration of people’s power in downtown Manhattan, I decided I’d go if it lasted more than one day. On the first day, the demonstrators were blockaded from Wall Street and settled in Liberty Plaza’s Zuccotti Park, where they stayed overnight.
On day two, the organizers of the movement called to order a General Assembly, a forum for participants to propose ideas, set an agenda, and establish demands. The demonstration, which had been advertised online months in advance, had yet to articulate specific demands. I had hoped that the movement would echo what is presently the most popular and credible demand in the world right now: “ash-sha’ab yurid isqat an-nizam” (“the people demand an end to the regime”). Demanding this is not a cry to the oppressors to be kinder to the oppressed, but a call for action from the oppressed to overthrow their oppressors.
The First General Assembly
I arrived on day two, Sunday, September 18—in time for the first General Assembly. The assembly mostly consisted of the individuals who felt the movement should take unified action—roughly half of those in the square. Most of the other half had formed smaller “direct-action committees” that marched through the Financial District separately. Had the cops felt that the marches represented a threat, this division would have been extremely dangerous for everyone participating in the movement.
A group of “facilitators,” a dozen or so people who were instrumental in mobilizing protesters in the first place, addressed the assembly through megaphones and wrote down the names of individuals who raised their hands for a chance to speak, on a list known as “the stack.” Through the course of the discussion, it became clear that two goals dominated the General Assembly: one was to create a Tahrir Square-like movement in New York. The other goal—the one espoused by the facilitators—was to disrupt Wall Street for the sake of disrupting Wall Street. The main tactic for achieving this, at the time, was to gain media-acknowledgement of their agitation.
In an effort to push through their agenda, the facilitators used the typical anarchist organizing-tool: forging “consensus.” With over a hundred participants in the General Assembly, total agreement on the issues at stake would seem impossible. Here’s how they did it:
One of the first items on the agenda was where the movement would go should the police attempt mass arrests in Liberty Plaza. Instead of putting it to a vote, the facilitators concluded that the decision should not be left to the General Assembly, but to an “action committee” that would meet separately. Decision-making authority on most issues was siphoned away from the General Assembly into smaller committees. This decision led to a debate about whether the action committee should keep the secondary location secret from the rest of the movement in order to avoid tipping off the surrounding police. I pointed out that—as a practical matter—there would be no secrets when it came to mobilizing hundreds of people. Another participant gave an impassioned speech about how our power came from unity and openness, whereas internal divisions and secrets were the tactics of our enemies on Wall Street. Veering somewhat from the topic at hand, he urged those in the crowd wearing bandanas and masks to remove them, saying they scared away potential allies. His speech drew more applause than any other during my four days in Liberty Plaza. Shortly after he finished speaking, however, about a hundred marchers returned from Wall Street, stealing all the momentum. While everyone was distracted, the facilitators—who evidently disapproved of the direction of the General Assembly—huddled together for a couple minutes, telling eavesdroppers to go away. They subsequently abandoned their attempt to resolve how to prevent the entire movement’s arrest and “switched gears” into a discussion on what the next “direct action” should be.
Within minutes, the discussion turned to who was willing to be arrested and how. Many felt that the quickest way to make the news was to get arrested, and that this alone would make the movement more socially relevant. Most people at the square understood that arrests are a consequence of any significant social movement; some seemed to believe, however, the converse was true: if there are arrests, it will be a significant social movement.
When the facilitators realized that the General Assembly did not approve of this, they tried to disband the General Assembly by asking if everyone needed a break. The participants made it clear that they did not need a break. When the floor reopened, I suggested that the reason for the crowd’s unrest was that the leaders of the movement seemed more interested in getting on television than creating an alternative society based on equality, dialog and democracy in the square. I argued that this itself would attract the amount of people needed to remove the institutions that hold together a society based on domination. Shortly afterward, another participant gave an eloquent speech about the foolishness of trying to occupy Wall Street with only three hundred people, and the need to first occupy the hearts and minds of our fellow New Yorkers, fellow Americans, and fellow humans. After nearly five hours, only one motion had been brought to a vote: that the “consensus” be modified to require a mere ninety percent majority. Spirits, however, remained high.
In the end, there was to be one big vote on whether or not we should march on Wall Street, yet again, the next morning. Most participants seemed to want to stay in Liberty Plaza to develop the culture of a mass movement. The opposing position was—shockingly—to confront the police on Wall Street. At one point, the lead facilitator pled that we occupy Wall Street because “it’s pretty clear everybody wants to.” When the suggestion received little support, the facilitator exhorted, “but the name of this movement is ‘occupy Wall Street”’: a name chosen by the facilitators, not the General Assembly. To forge a consensus in their favor, the facilitators engaged in creative “synthesizing.” Instead of voting between the two contradictory proposals, a facilitator announced that the General Assembly would vote on a synthesis of the two: those who wanted to hold down Liberty Plaza could stay, while the “majority” (which was actually a minority) would march on Wall Street. The General Assembly was clear about its hostility to this proposal. Overwhelmingly, the participants demanded unity. Instead of deciding which proposal the entire group should follow, the facilitators came up with a “new synthesis.” The great majority of the movement would stay in Liberty Square, while a small group of direct actioneers would occupy Wall Street. The Facilitators then put this second formulation of their first proposal to a vote.
The “everybody just do what they want” proposal was liberal enough to appeal to the liberals, and anarchical enough to appeal to the anarchists. About fifty-seven people voted in favor. I think I was the only person who bothered voting against. The final decision was so uninspiring that about one-third of the people in the square paid no attention to it, and most of those who were involved didn’t bother voting. Even though those advocating the march were a minority, the procedural coup was complete. I predicted that—in the heat of the moment—everybody would end up marching, simply because it was the only mass action available.
The Direct Action Committee
After the General Assembly, I sat in on the direct-action committee. Like I had done at the General Assembly, I let everyone in the action-committee know that if the point was to get media attention at the cost of dwindling the numbers of the movement through mass arrests, the direct-actioneers should confront the police on Wall Street, one of the most militarized parts of the first world since 9/11. Then I suggested marching north along Broadway. This would get the attention of actual New Yorkers and possibly build the movement. But the marchers refused to look past Wall Street. I tried convincing them that they weren’t going to disrupt the capitalist system, that the police outnumbered us, were heavily armed, and were quite experienced in dealing with marches on Wall Street. I pointed out that most people who worked on Wall Street showed up at five in the morning, so marching at nine was useless. I pointed out that Wall Street is a mere symbol of capitalism, and that the movement was currently occupying one of the most strategic and symbolic locations in Manhattan, and perhaps the world. Whenever I brought up practical matters, the response was that the action was supposed to be symbolic. When I said the symbolism of occupying Liberty Plaza was powerful enough, the response was that it was important to disrupt the capitalist system, if even for a minute. My last attempt to sway the action committee was by sharing my opinion that it should not be our goal to disrupt the capitalist system with no alternative solution. I argued that Wall Street represented just one group within the global capitalist system, and disrupting it would only benefit America’s capitalist enemies. I argued, furthermore, that if they didn’t have something better to put in its place, even if they destroyed the capitalist system completely, it would rise violently from its ashes. There was no way for me to know what most participants thought of my ideas. Shortly after I made my point, the direct action committee’s facilitators decided there was enough of a “consensus” made on the strategy of marching to Wall Street, and it was time to talk tactics.
The Facilitation and Process Workshop
Later, I sat in on the first “facilitation and process workshop.” This was organized to train individuals to replace the current facilitators of the General Assembly, who wanted a break from their self-imposed duties while ensuring the continuity of the hierarchy.
When I sat down, I learned that the facilitators had obtained a consensus that gave them the power to interject at any moment, whereas everybody else would have to take turns to speak. This procedure was, in theory, starkly different from the prevailing method of the General Assembly—taking turns to raise arguments or proposals through “the stack.” Effectively, there wasn’t much difference. The General Assembly—like every anarchist meeting I’ve ever attended—left loopholes to avoid taking turns. A person could circumvent the stack’s order by making one of several specified hand gestures to signify either a “point of procedure,” a “clarifying question,” or a “direct response.” The keeper of the stack could choose whether or not to acknowledge the interruption. These rules all but guaranteed that the insiders, those who were least open to a diversity of viewpoints, most impatient, and traditionally empowered would dominate the conversation. During the hour or so that I participated in the workshop, four non-facilitators addressed the group for about ninety seconds each. The remainder of the hour consisted of the facilitators talking among themselves, extrapolating on how vague procedural rules might apply to hypothetical situations and congratulating themselves by repeating that their process for the General Assembly was the most decentralized, democratic one imaginable.
In fact, the procedure for bringing anything to a vote in the General Assembly was highly centralized and hugely inefficient. First, a “working group” had to be formed to demonstrate that a participant’s proposal had some support. The working group had to reach a consensus on the proposal’s final form, which was then rearticulated before the General Assembly. The facilitator then asked whether there was a consensus from the General Assembly, at which point supporters would raise their hands and wiggle their fingers. The facilitator next asked whether there were any “blocks”—a sort of individual veto, expressed by crossing one’s arms. The blocker could then explain his or her opposition to the proposal. If there was a block, the facilitator was supposed to put the proposal to a vote that required a 90% majority to pass. In practice, however, the facilitators’ affinity for consensus often caused them to give in to the block without further voting, sacrificing the majority’s will in the name of democracy.
Frustrated by this, I proposed to the workshop a democratic, decentralized and more efficient procedure for the General Assembly, free of any designated facilitators:
Instead of someone “in charge” scanning the crowd to see whose hands were raised and writing down the order in which participants would speak, the “stack” would be formed by whoever wanted to talk forming a line. This was the only part of my proposal that was implemented.
My proposal also prohibited “direct responses” and other means of circumventing the stack. Addresses to the General Assembly would be limited to concrete proposals; those who seconded a proposal could speak briefly in its favor; those who opposed could speak against it. Then the proposal would be put to a majority vote. The next person in line would then get a chance to speak. No facilitators. No stack-takers. Equal rights and opportunities for all participants. As I spoke, several of the facilitators wiggled their hands at me in a way I hadn’t seen before: hands down, wiggling fingers toward the ground. This apparently meant they disagreed with my proposal. About sixty seconds into my proposal, the facilitators started rolling their fingers at me, a signal that they wanted me to hurry up, or risk getting cut off. I ignored this and completed my proposal. When the facilitators did this to the woman who spoke after me, another woman chastised them for this demeaning scare tactic. The facilitators’ failure to articulate their objections to my proposal except through sloganeering betrayed their fundamental distrust in a truly democratic process. They accused me of advocating for the “tyranny of the majority,” the counter to which is easily the tyranny of the minority. They said that facilitators were needed in case somebody came up with a bad proposal, further proof that they did not trust the General Assembly to vote for themselves.
The workshop ended with plans for a second workshop, after which the participants would be given authority to facilitate the General Assembly. I decided to maintain opposition to the process.
Revolutionary or Bourgeois Democracy
A revolutionary mass movement needs a set of unifying goals, and a unified body that can carry out the necessary actions to reach these goals. If these conditions are not met, the mass movement is merely a collection of groups that happen to be carrying out somewhat similar actions in the same place, at the same time. This type of mass movement is quite susceptible to harsh suppression by a modern nation-state. The General Assembly is the natural place for the movement as a whole to decide upon actions to be carried out together. Because of the extreme procedural flaws of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the General Assembly became the main place for public dialog, even though it was the least conducive place for dialog, being that only one person could speak at a time.
The smaller organizations, action committees, informal dialogue circles and duos are the natural place for dialog, where politicking happens, where the mood is set, where the culture is created, where people synthesize their ideas into concrete proposals, where people who are prepared to propose a plan of action to the General Assembly gather enough popular support for it to be passed. The action committees, however, became the primary vehicles for deciding upon and carrying out action, in spite of the fact that their diminished size made them the least effective bodies for carrying out mass action.
The Occupy Wall Street movement was supposed to be a revolt against a hierarchal, dehumanizing oligopoly. In reality, all that was created was a microcosm of the same system, but with new leaders. Like our nation’s leaders, Occupy Wall Street’s leaders listened to everyone’s grievances, then decided upon a pre-determined plan of action that cleverly borrowed the language of their constituency. The leaders then allowed the participants to decide between this plan of action and an even worse proposal: in this case, marching on Wall Street to an unspecified end, or doing nothing. When this failed, less democratic methods were used to mobilize people.
The Morning March
I didn’t sleep in Liberty Plaza Sunday night. I was confident I could make it back for the 9 AM General Assembly, before the 9:30 march on Wall Street. A friend of mine texted me at 7:09 AM, letting me know that the General Assembly was starting surprisingly early. By the time I got there—before 8 AM—it looked like ninety percent of the people had already left Liberty Plaza.
From what I was able to gather from the disheartened people left in the square, the leaders woke everybody up at around 6:30 AM with the promise of a General Assembly. After everybody was assembled, a couple announcements were made. At one point, somebody got up in front of the General Assembly and shouted that they should march on Wall Street immediately. Instead of voting on this proposal, those in favor started marching. As I predicted, almost everybody followed. Forgetting, for a moment, the movement’s complete ineffectiveness, I tried imagining what would happen if it succeeded in shutting down Wall Street. I couldn’t help looking north, to Ground Zero, where ten years ago a small group of people carried out a highly successful operation that disrupted Wall Street for an entire week. What good came of that? The destroyed buildings are still being rebuilt. The families are broken forever. The culprits were not just vilified by the American public, but by those they considered their allies—the international Muslim community, including Islamic nation-states in militant opposition to the US. I was wrong in my prediction that the police would use the movement’s internal division to commence mass arrests. The marchers were so non-threatening to the police and to the capitalist system that instead of blockading Wall Street, the police spent the night organizing a maze of barricades for the march to proceed through. A convergence of interests took place whereby the protestors got to prove to the world that the USA is not entirely comprised of war-and-financial-criminals; whereas our nation’s rulers got to prove to the rest of the world, as a backdrop to the General Assembly of the United Nations, that the United States is still the one place in the world which allows its citizens to protest: as long as they’re predominantly white, middle-class, male citizens. The police’s facilitation of the protest didn’t stop the marchers from claiming, upon their triumphant, yet exhausted return, that the cops were scared of them—these two-hundred unarmed, untrained, unorganized, somewhat disenfranchised youths. One marcher gave a speech about how nobody could tell them that six of their comrades had been arrested for nothing; for they had disrupted trading, if only for a minute. The bell on the stock exchange, after all, had rung at 9:31. With the current state of the people’s movement, America is in for a long winter.
To read more of Fritz Tucker’s work visit his blog at fritztucker.blogspot.com
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