The big question for the Occupy protests has now become: What next? With the multiple evictions across the country, the Occupiers have been given an ultimatum of sorts by the powers-that-be: protest and rally all you want, but you can’t “occupy” these places any longer by erecting tents and making them your residences.
Of course, this could wind up being a silver lining. Because a lot of the Occupations were getting bogged down in the minutiae of the occupation itself, which seemed to draw the focus away from why they were there in the first place. If the cops and the mayors aren’t going to tolerate an encampment, then that (in a way) solves all the problems arising from that encampment itself. Which could free up the protesters to focus more on the larger movement, rather than the details of each individual protest.
There is no guarantee, though. This could still wind up very badly, if the Occupiers decide that occupying is more important than any other goal. Which could easily lead to even uglier confrontations between police and protesters than we’ve already seen. And if the protest devolves into just fighting cops, it is going to lose both support and legitimacy among the general public. The protesters may be OK with this, but it certainly would be a shame.
But plenty of others have been asking the “What now?” question this week, so instead I’m going to take a look backwards at Occupy Wall Street, rather than offering up too much speculation on the way forwards. Because no matter what happens next, this could be the chance to make some fundamental changes to the movement’s structure. Which is where I’d like to offer my humble suggestions.
To understand what changes may be desirable, we have to look at what has already been set up. The Occupy Wall Street movement has, at its core, a governing structure. They have set up their own government, in other words. This is fascinating to students of political science, because opportunities to see a new governing structure being born are actually quite rare. Especially one started from scratch, and one started with idealistic goals for how it should operate differently than what Americans already have.
The governing structure of Occupy Wall Street is a unicameral, uni-branch pure democracy with the astoundingly-high requirement that 90 per cent agree to achieve “consensus.” The functions of the Executive and Legislative branches are combined into one General Assembly, with rotating “facilitators” who organise the debates (don’t call them “leaders” — it is a taboo word). The Judicial functions seem not to exist, or are taken care of by the same General Assembly when they arise.
There is only one General Assembly, although they were attempting (before the raid) to perhaps streamline their process with what they called a “spokes council” (not “spoke” as in past tense of “speak,” but rather “spoke” like on a bicycle wheel). The creation of this spokes council was contentious, and has only met three times so far, so it’s hard to tell how it would have eventually fit in to the General Assembly structure. I should mention that all my information comes from the official website of the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly (nycga.net), where they helpfully post meeting minutes for the world to see.
Like any government, the General Assembly quickly set up smaller groups for individual issues — it is impossible for one large group to make every tiny decision, after all (the U.S. Congress has hundreds of committees and subcommittees, by way of example). The problem so far (as I see it, this is just one outsider’s opinion, mind you) is that there are currently over 87 of these groups listed, and they seem to have quite a bit of overlap among certain areas. The spokes council seems to have been created to help streamline the process of all these groups reporting their activities and requesting decisions from the larger governing structure.
So far, they haven’t been noticeably successful, but then the spokes council has only had three meetings, two of which were taken up with which groups were going to be classified as “operational” groups (out of a list of 50 groups) that the spokes council would deal with. The third meeting was almost entirely consumed by questions of process and complaints.
This is the larger problem. Questions of process (and what can only be called “nitpicking”) are consuming almost all the available time. The General Assembly is supposed to only meet two hours every night, although from the minutes it seems they regularly run over schedule, for virtually every agenda item. The facilitators attempt the Herculean task of moving the debate along and achieving a 90% “consensus” from the assembly (in reality a “vote,” although for some reason that’s a taboo word as well).
Reading the minutes of their meetings is no more (nor less) convoluted than reading any other governing body’s minutes — the House of Representatives or the Senate, say. Occupy Wall Street doesn’t run by Robert’s Rules of Order, but they do run by their own standards and technicalities of debate. This bogs the process down, but is necessary to prevent complete confusion.
But the General Assembly itself is problematic, if the protest really is going to morph into a movement that can survive evictions. In the first place, they are exclusive by definition. To participate, you’ve got to physically be present. This is the exact opposite of the model of online social networking, to put it another way. The second problem that the General Assembly has is their insanely-high standard of 10 per cent of the crowd being able to veto anything. This leads to lots of lively discussions, but very few key decisions being made. And since “Occupy Wall Street” will not take a stand on anything that the General Assembly hasn’t pre-approved, this cripples their ability to quickly respond to just about anything (imagine the U.S. Senate only being able to stop a filibuster with a 90 per cent vote, for example). The ability to respond to false media reports, for example, get bogged down in many circular debates over semantics (actual quote: “The word legitimate is, I don’t know, like, is it legitimate? I don’t know.”).
This really shows up whenever one of the working groups tries to propose some sort of statement of what the goals of the group should be. These are, almost inevitably, tabled by the General Assembly (or simply punted to a future meeting without even opening debate, usually due to lack of time). One working group, “Theoretical Praxis” seems to be making a mighty attempt to come up with some sort of overall strategy (there are other groups working on things like possible demands, I should mention). They seem to be making slow but steady progress on their task, but when they ask the General Assembly for feedback (here, on whether to reach out and build bridges to the outside world), they get responses such as: “We are sceptical of our ability to meaningfully engage with the old system on their terms without being co-opted. But we are also sceptical in light of what I just said, of being able to advance our movement without a more active confrontation of that system.” Um, OK. So should you engage with the system, or not?
In two months of occupation, the Occupy Wall Street folks have made some strides towards defining their movement on their own terms. On their site, they have listed a few things the General Assemblies have agreed upon. To be scrupulously fair, setting up a complete governmental structure from scratch is a very hard thing to do, even without coming up with a mission statement as well. America put out her mission statement in 1776, but it wasn’t until 1789 that we came up with our governmental structure — and that was after the first one we tried failed miserably (the Articles of Confederation). The Constitution wasn’t written in a day, or even in two months’ time. This stuff is hard work.
I would personally like Occupy Wall Street to grow into a larger “We are the 99 per cent” movement, that is much more inclusive of the 99-plus per cent of Americans who may agree with them but cannot travel to lower Manhattan. I do not know if this is going to happen or not.
But I do have two suggestions, at a bare minimum. Since the General Assemblies almost always run out of time, why not spend more than two hours a day in session? Have a morning session, an afternoon session, and an evening session — right there, you’d triple your ability to move things forward. Secondly, create some sort of rapid-response media team who can articulate the positions the General Assembly has already taken, to get your message out to the rest of the world in a timely way, whenever your group becomes the centre of the media’s attention. You, quite rightly, decry the media when they attempt to define your movement — but you simply have to reach out to them and define yourselves at the same time, or you are wasting a golden opportunity to communicate — with the very 99 per cent you say you are championing.
Tomorrow, a large rally (with unions marching in solidarity) had already been planned in New York, to mark the movement’s two-month “birthday.” There are plans to create some very media-friendly displays. This is all fine and good. But after Thursday is over, Occupy Wall Street should devote itself entirely to the “What next?” larger questions. In doing so, they should examine what is working and what is not in their own organisation. The movement has a chance to grow (by leaps and bounds) beyond occupying one park. It’s a golden opportunity, and I hope they don’t miss it.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
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