The Occupy Movement: What Democracy Looks Like
by Ivan Boothe
In my last post, I talked about how the “Occupy” movement originated, and its potential to provide a space for renewed social justice and community organizing. In this blog, I’ll take a look at how “Occupy” events are structured and organized, drawing on my involvement with Occupy Philadelphia. I’ll also highlight some of the constructive criticism surrounding Occupy Wall Street and similar events — in particular as it relates to anti-racism and racial justice.
The Process Story
In political campaigns, there’s nothing a candidate’s staff hates more than news coverage of the campaign itself — staff changes, changes to an event schedule, behind-the-scenes negotiations with other campaigns, political party officialdom. It’s called a “process story,” and it’s frustrating to campaign staff because it takes the focus off of the candidate’s message and policies — usually positive, aspirational language — and places it on the campaign bureaucracy, inevitably leading to feelings of cynicism when people read about the “sausage making” of running for office.
For Occupy Wall Street and related events happening across the country, the process is, if not the main point, certainly co-equal with anything that might be identified as “campaign goals.”
Occupy Together events are, in most cases, aspiring toward a process of direct democracy, in which decisions are made in a participatory, communitarian process, and everyone works together to keep the encampments running. Sometimes called “prefigurative politics,” the process is meant to carry forward Gandhi’s entreaty to “be the change we want to see in the world.”
This version of direct democracy has two primary pieces: consensus decision-making and a working group and spokescouncil structure. Not all “Occupy” encampments are using these, and many are using modifications to traditional conceptions of them — but beginning at Occupy Wall Street, it was these two processes that most significantly marked the movement. If you’re not familiar with them, the video below, produced for Occupy Wall Street, does a great job outlining them:Neither of these pieces, of course, is brand new.
Consensus has a long history, being used in some form by the Iroquois Confederacy in the 12th century, and more recognizably by Quakers and Mennonites beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries. As a model for activist groups, it was popularized during the women’s liberation movements, and the fight against nuclear power begun by Movement for a New Society and others in the 1970s and ’80s.
Working groups and spokescouncils also came out of work done by Movement for a New Society. Both this structure and consensus decision-making were largely popularized in global justice circles as a result of the 1999 protest against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Visitors to “Occupy” events are often amazed at how organized everything is — in Philadelphia, for instance, there are working groups for direct action, facilitation, food, sanitation, education and training, organized labor, and a dozen more. The result is a community ecosystem of individuals contributing to a larger project, a far cry from the dismissive “unemployed kids sleeping in tents” sometimes put forth.
As David Graeber wrote about the 1999 protest:
“When protesters in Seattle chanted ‘this is what democracy looks like,’ they meant to be taken literally. In the best tradition of direct action, they not only confronted a certain form of power, exposing its mechanisms and attempting literally to stop it in its tracks: they did it in a way which demonstrated why the kind of social relations on which it is based were unnecessary. This is why all the condescending remarks about the movement being dominated by a bunch of dumb kids with no coherent ideology completely missed the mark. The diversity was a function of the decentralized form of organization, and this organization was the movement’s ideology.”
(To read more about the structure and decision-making processes of events such as Occupy Wall Street, be sure to check out David Graeber’s book, Direct Action: An Ethnography.)
Rather than putting forward a single list of demands or as their most urgent concern, “Occupy” encampments have focused on building up the capacity for participatory, direct democracy. Some encampments, including Occupy Wall Street, have been collectively determining a list of demands or objectives — but it’s clear that this isn’t the singular goal here.
A People’s Microphone
Much has been made in media reports of the development of “the people’s mic” — the process initiated at Occupy Wall Street, where amplified sound was forbidden, that allows for any statement to be turned into a call-and-response. A single person talks loudly a few words at a time; these words are then repeated by the crowd so that all can hear. (In especially large crowds, there may be concentric rings of repeating rippling out from the speaker.)
As Mark Read notes, the technique has been used before in the global justice movement — he reports that David Solnit had previously called it “the First Amendment sound system” — but it is being used with much greater purpose among Occupy encampments. Many of the videos I’ve included here show the people’s mic at work. Apart from its utilitarian function, it has several political purposes as well:
- It reinforces community solidarity, with the unspoken pact, “I will repeat your words even if I disagree with them.”
- It encourages everyone to speak up, at least in principle, and allows those without a natural stage presence or loud speaking voice to participate equally.
- It engages people directly, rather than positioning them as mere spectators of an expert or leader.
- It encourages purposeful statements, as people speak a few words at a time and hear them repeated back — during which time speakers are often seen crafting their next phrase.
- It encourages short statements, as a long speech will grow quickly tiresome for both the speaker and the crowd.
The people’s mic is simply a technique, of course, and can be used unproductively too. There were complaints that Occupy LA organizers were using it unnecessarily, for instance, “enforcing opinion as fact through repetition.”
It also can wear out a crowd in the midst of a decision-making process, when important concerns are raised for which the crowd has no patience, anticipating even more time spent collectively reciting the debate on a given proposal. And if that process isn’t well facilitated, “good” speakers can still dominate the discussion, shutting out individuals who can’t articulate their thoughts as pithily as the crowd demands.
Where the Color Is
After the WTO protests in 1999, Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez wrote an important critique called “Where was the color in Seattle?” While several activists of color have noted the relatively greater diversity at Occupy Wall Street than in previous global justice demonstrations, the movement — and especially the core organizers — remain overwhelmingly white. In talking with activists of color and reading some of the critiques of the “Occupy” encampments, I think there are a few reasons for this blind spot.
White activists often have few connections to organizations of people of color
Many organizations have been involved in economic justice campaigns for decades, and in many cases both grassroots organizations and labor unions have played major roles in supporting “Occupy” events. Unfortunately, new organizers haven’t always been aware of these existing networks. Occupy Boston, for instance, was timed to start directly following civil disobedience initiated by the Right to the City Alliance, rooted in communities of color in the Boston area.
While this might have seemed supportive, the effect was to draw media and public attention away from organizers who had been active for years, in favor of the new interesting thing — mostly made up of white activists.
An unfamiliar decision-making process excludes those without experience
In an ideal community, participants would collectively decide how to debate and pass proposals, and would learn from one another about how that process operates. In most cases, however, differences in experience lead to some people having more familiarity and comfort with things like consensus and spokescouncils. Since those “some people” are usually white college-educated activists, community organizers with decades of experience among working class neighborhoods and people of color can feel culturally marginalized.
Organizers often want to undermine the traditional hierarchy of leader-oriented movements. Without adequate transparency, however, this quickly becomes the “tyranny of structurelessness,” in which existing ties between individuals become unofficial — and therefore unaccountable — decision-making structures in which others find impossible to participate.
An unfamiliar process combined with poor facilitation, poor communication, and the inevitable rush of activist planning leads to a unaware but pervasive racism and classism that makes the setup feel far more oppressive than majoritarian voting systems with which people are familiar. A person skilled in the consensus procedure can bring forth points of process and other tactics which can overwhelm new participants with what looks like another bureaucracy stacked against them. As Mark Read notes:
“The very idea that an historically marginalized person should be expected to feel confident enough to participate in an alien and confusing process, much less powerful enough to block a consensus decision is just plain ridiculous. So, in practice, the very people that are intended to be emboldened and empowered by a consensus process, are in fact marginalized and silenced. They cede the floor to the loud and the confident and the certain. That is not what democracy looks like.”
The counter to this tendency is careful community-building with skilled, participatory facilitation and training — but that’s a tall order for any community, especially ones under threat of eviction and pressed by activists’ stretched-thin time. More organizers will have to be more aware of these structural inadequacies — and commit to working against them — in order to build a sustainable movement.
Theoretical debates are exercises in privilege
“Occupy” encampments take an enormous amount of privilege. The privilege to take time off — from family, work or school — and participate in an overwhelming and sometimes confusing community. The privilege to, in some cases, risk arrest simply by participating. But more than anything, the privilege to debate things like “an ideal community” in the midst of life-or-death struggles going on on the ground.
Occupy Wall Street was begun by people with concrete grievances, and the connections between the encampments and existing economic justice movements have been remarkable to watch. But idealists marveling at their temporary autonomous zone can retreat so far into their direct democracy process that it alienates those who can’t choose whether or not to fight back. As Andy Cornell wrote of a similar dynamic in New York City during the 2004 Republican National Convention protests:
“The object of building social movements is to fight specific instances of injustice and create concrete institutional changes. Processes are important, but only if they are used to create movements that have a real transformative impact. Good process is necessary, but it’s not enough. This seems to get lost sometimes, especially among individuals who aren’t directly bearing the brunt of the forms of oppression or exploitation they are working against.”
Aren’t we against occupations, anyway?
The argument goes something like this: For too long corporations have been occupying our democracy and the military has been occupying other lands. We, the people, have to occupy and reclaim the spaces that belong to us, and in so doing, remake our democracy into something that works for “the 99%” and not the elite. Explicitly modeled on the occupations of public spaces like Tahrir Square in Egypt and the Spanish and British student occupations of the past year, “Occupy Your Mind” is an oft-seen sign at the events that tries to articulate the double meaning of the name.
This argument would be a little more coherent if encampments were trying to concretely reclaim the word “occupy” in the context of a country built on actual military and political occupations. Instead, most “Occupy” events have only belatedly started talking about the history of the land as American Indian territory, worked by the labor of African slaves and enriched by military conquests to places like Hawai’i and Panama and the Philippines. (Kung Li, for instance, has been working to publicize the divided and oppressive history of the space in which Occupy Atlanta is occurring.)
It’s likely a full-scale shift will be necessary here — either organizers need to acknowledge their blind spot and use different terminology, or they need to prioritize working to systematically undermine the whitewashed historical narrative prevalent throughout our society. As Rinku Sen, publisher of Colorlines and head of the Applied Research Center, argues, understanding how economic control operates is critical, and “building movements that include groups that explicitly address the racial, gender and sexual dimensions of our economic system is key to that process.”
Political goals ‘for everyone’ still promote privileged interests
Unaware racism and white privilege shows up in many organizers’ framing of the goals they’re reaching for with Occupy Wall Street and similar events.
At Occupy Wall Street, unintentional racial marginalization silenced the voice of a black woman, “the only person speaking with a personal relationship to police brutality at a level almost unimaginable to the people occupying Zucotti Park, and her voice was not heard.”
A proposal for “The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” initially included the phrase “there is only one race, the human race, and our survival requires the cooperation of its members.” Manissa McCleave Maharawal describes how she pointed to the erasure of oppression contained in this sentence.
“Let me tell you what it feels like to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Sometimes it is exhilarating. Every single time it is hard. Every single time I get angry that I have to do this, that this is my job, and that it shouldn’t be my job. Every single time I am proud of myself that I’ve been able to say these things because I used to not be able to and because some days I just don’t want to.”
An initiative of people of color organizing in connection to, but separate from, the Occupy encampments is Occupy the Hood, which as Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin describes, is working to make the events “accountable to [people of color] instead of just white middle class workers who have lost their jobs, homes, or money in this period. We have suffered far worse.”Adrienne Maree Brown, former head of the Ruckus Society, is optimistic about the historical moment she saw happening at Occupy Wall Street:
“some [participants] were speaking from their privilege, and others from their own economic struggles. but to have masses of white people in the streets talking about the economy with a progressive decentralized grassroots perspective, and have it not be the tea party, is a tipping point signal…. The crises are becoming clear even to those not being directly oppressed, or those directly organizing. and people are ready to stand up and dream of something different.”
Ivan Boothe is the creative director of Rootwork.org, working with nonprofits and social change groups about how to build online movements; engaging, supporter-driven websites; and real-world activism that takes advantage of online social networks. Ivan is a community organizer with Casino-Free Philadelphia and the online communications coordinator for the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Ivan co-organizes Philadelphia NetSquared, which brings together nonprofits and tech experts for discussions about using social technology for social change. He has a degree in peace and conflict studies from Swarthmore College and authored a thesis on third-party nonviolent intervention. Ivan also serves on the American Friends Service Committee Nobel Peace Prize Committee. This article originally appeared on the FOR blog.