Occupy's challenge: Reinventing democracy

Behind the scenes with rogue drummers, homeless, liberals and the black bloc as OWS grapples with self-government

Published February 27, 2012 5:25PM (EST)

Occupy Wall Street protesters demonstrate on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 17.

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Occupy Wall Street protesters demonstrate on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 17. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The panicked emails and texts sounded like a prank worthy of the Yes Men. Occupy Wall Street -- which like some comic book character only grew stronger after each attack by nefarious forces, whether pepper spray, mass arrests or New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s threat to close the park for cleaning – had finally been brought to its knees.

What was about to kill the most successful American activist movement in decades? The drum circle.

Drummers possessed with a Dionysian fervor were demanding that they be allowed to pound their bongos and congas late into the night because they were the “heartbeat of this movement.” In response, a letter circulated with the dramatic warning that “OWS is over after Tuesday.” With equal doses of Middle East diplomacy and Burning Man theatrics, the writer explained that weeks of negotiations between a drummers' working group called Pulse, the OWS General Assembly and the local community board had collapsed.

The rogue drummers did not recognize the GA as a legitimate body whose decisions they had to obey. In fact, some drummers turned Occupy Wall Street’s rhetoric against itself, claiming that the GA “suppressed people’s opinions” and were "becoming the government we’re trying to protest.” A compromise was eventually reached to allow two hours of drumming in the middle of the day, but everyone I spoke to afterward confirmed that one of the most powerful American social movements in years was nearly undone, not by its political message, but by its rhythm section.

"That was an important test of whether the General Assembly actually had authority over people, or whether it was more like a suggestion box for a collection of autonomous individuals," observes Nathan Schneider, a writer who has been chronicling Occupy Wall Street since its beginnings last summer.

Occupy's authority

The drummers actually did the movement a favor. For nearly every Occupy movement in the United States, the General Assembly is seen as the legitimate decision-making body. But when it comes time to enforce a decision that some disagree with, its authority is often called into question. Nearly every significant conflict that has cropped up in Occupy movements around the country rests on the bedrock issues of authority, accountability, representation and legitimacy.

The issue is central to the movement's future because authority rests on the notion of legitimacy. In a leaderless movement, who – if anyone – gets to call the shots, initiate actions, represent the group, and perhaps most important, hold people accountable by enforcing authority, order and discipline? Exactly how democratic must a people's movement be?

These questions of legitimacy and leadership will return in the next several weeks, as the weather warms and brings possible new outside Occupations, and as a presidential campaign heats up in which both major parties, in different ways, will attempt to lay claim to Occupy's rhetoric and message. The Occupy movement has grappled with these questions in very different ways over the last six months, and lessons learned over that time could be key to the movement's success in 2012.

For example, an attempt by a group calling itself The 99% Declaration to convene a “National General Assembly” in Philadelphia on July 4 was rejected by both the Occupy Philly General Assembly and Occupy Wall Street as the event smacked of co-optation by an outside group that allegedly included a former Goldman Sachs executive. The call received some media attention, but suspicions about the organizers, their plan to replicate conventional politics by electing U.S. citizen-only delegates according to congressional districts and an unhinged tirade by a group member, declaring “OWS is a failure and … a fraud,” drained the idea of any meaningful support.

Meanwhile, Adbusters, which sparked Occupy Wall Street, issued a “tactical briefing” in late January with #OccupyChicago and the line “May 1 – Bring Tent” superimposed over a photo of Chicago police pummeling protesters in 1968. Adbusters is promoting an occupation of the city during the NATO and G8 summits in May. But Adbusters didn’t consult with OccupyChicago or the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda, and that incensed many people.

Serena Himmelfarb of OccupyChicago told one reporter, “I am excited that Adbusters continues to support OWS, but they acted irresponsibly … They acted alone, without regard to what’s already being planned here for the summer.” Another organizer wrote, “If you want to pick a fight with [the police], you should consult those whose name you are using.” In a nod to Adbusters' prominence, Chicago activists swallowed their grumbling because they knew the call could help generate the publicity and crowds they wanted.

Unlike the people behind the unsuccessful 99% Declaration, Adbusters drew from a deep pool of media attention and activist goodwill to create its own source of legitimacy. It went around the Occupy Chicago General Assembly and put it in the position of having to endorse the call or make it appear that the movement was split – which the media would have played up.

A third challenge of Occupy's belief in democracy is whether or not homeless people are a legitimate part of the movement. The instant any occupation set down stakes in an American city or town, it attracted society’s dispossessed in search of food, shelter, medical care and counseling. Many perceived, often unfairly, that the Occupy demonstrators had introduced the drug abuse, violence and mental illness that bedeviled many camps. The occupiers insisted, often correctly, that these social maladies had existed all along, studiously ignored by news organizations and right-wing bloggers. (In fact, as Rebecca Solnit reported, crime in Oakland actually went down 19 percent during Occupy Oakland.)

Nonetheless, the challenge of the homeless for the movement was profound. So-called street people are consummate members of the 99 percent. Their troubled lives are the outcome of decades of public policies calculated to deindustrialize the economy, emaciate cities, ghettoize the poor and minorities, and shred the safety net. But in Occupy camps all across the country the same split emerged between those who felt that the homeless, runaways, train hoppers and itinerants were central to the movement versus those who felt that they drained resources and diverted energy from the task at hand.

This divide played out at Occupy Los Angeles at City Hall, mere blocks from thousands of homeless who bed down every night in the largest skid row in the country. Ruth Fowler, a journalist, screenwriter and member of facilitation team at Occupy Los Angeles, told me via email that “Skid row residents were extremely vigilant in self policing the encampment, and running out the inevitable dealers, thieves and violent individuals who made their way over there.” Of the seven U.S.-based occupations she visited, Fowler said “Occupy L.A. didn't have any more incidences of drug and alcohol use than other encampments.”

But tensions still surfaced. Fowler saw a conflict between “radicals who believe the worst thing you can ever do to anyone is call the cops on them, given the brutality and corruption of the police and the prison industrial complex, and liberals who would rather call the cops, sweep an issue under the carpet, and focus on legislation reform.”

Fowler also offers a dose of perspective: “People smoked weed in Occupy L.A. Big deal. In London they got shitfaced drunk and punched the crap out of each other in the middle of the GA.”

 "Diversity of tactics"

The debate about homeless people is a microcosm of the movement's continuing debate about the legitimacy of the broader U.S. society: Can we change the existing political structures, or is the system so rotten we need to build a new society from scratch? This conversation pits the reformists, such as those who believe the goal is to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which means working through the established order, against revolutionaries who want to transform society, which means putting the most marginalized sectors at the center of the struggle.

Jesse Kudler, a 32-year-old arts administrator with Occupy Philly, sums up the dilemma: “A lot of people in the movement think they know exactly what Occupy Wall Street is about. One group thinks it’s about the Volcker Rule [which seeks to curb Wall Street speculation], another thinks it’s about ending the Fed and another thinks it’s about insurrectionary revolution. They all have a sense of ownership over the movement -- that it is about their specific philosophy or position. But the positions are often contradictory.”

This brings up the fourth case: the movement's faction known as the black bloc. This debate has been going on since black-clad anarchists smashed the windows of chain stores in Seattle in November 1999. This was a sideshow to the huge protests that nonviolently shut down the World Trade Organization ministerial and launched the anti-globalization movement. Black bloc proponents argue that legal protest is so neutered of effectiveness that illegal actions like disruptive street confrontations and property destruction are necessary but still within the bounds of nonviolence as they will not hurt another living being. To no one’s surprise, the conflicting positions on the black bloc are more about one's views about changing the system from within than specific tactics.

Enter Chris Hedges, who fanned the smoldering debate into a conflagration with his essay “The Cancer in Occupy.” He took the black bloc to task after a disastrous attempt to occupy an unused convention center in Oakland on Jan. 28 ended in petty vandalism inside City Hall and 400 arrests. Hedges depicts the black bloc as a disease that would consume the movement if left unchecked. Hence, it must be excised down to the last black-hoodie wearing, circle-A flag-waving masked cell.

As a prominent journalist, Hedges positions himself as the representative of the movement by decreeing who should be excluded. He illustrated how the media has been the best friend and worst enemy of Occupy. A movement can’t live on Facebook, Twitter and Google alone. It’s the despised corporate media that made OWS a star, and this attention comes with a price. While there is no reason for the Occupy movement to embrace messaging, polls, talking points, focus groups and the other marketing tools of the heavyweight but feeble liberal groups, all sectors need to be aware that those who act in its name have the power to damage it. An idea that sounds great in a General Assembly and looks justified from the vantage point of protesters may appear absurd, chaotic and violent when refracted through the camera eye. That’s precisely what happened in Oakland on that fateful day where representation and accountability were as much part of the street battle as tear-gas projectiles and plastic shields.

Hedges essay spawned hundreds of responses, with many skewering him for shoddy reporting. In a thoughtful response that spares no side criticism, Susie Cagle demolished Hedges, reporting that the sole black bloc action as part of Occupy Oakland was during the Nov. 2 general strike, not the Jan. 28 attempt to take over the empty building. Cagle also observed that the “peaceful but militant blockade of the Port of Oakland on December 12 … garnered Occupy Oakland more criticism than the black bloc actions on November 2.”

David Graeber justifiably dressed down Hedges for failing to explain that as the black bloc is a tactic, not an anarchist grouping, it crosses the left’s rambling spectrum. Moreover, Graeber corrected the former New York Times correspondent’s record by noting that far from being a destructive fringe, proponents of black bloc tactics have been elbow deep in organizing Occupy Wall Street from the beginning.

Nathan Schneider chides Hedges as well for being “indicative of what happens when someone who is not involved in the movement weighs in on internal questions.” As evidence for what a black bloc is capable of, Schneider recounts the role it played in an Occupy Oakland march on Nov. 19. During “an amazing action,” says Schneider, a “black bloc-like group led thousands of people through the streets of Oakland. They went to this park surrounded by a chain-link fence they were going to take for a new encampment. They went to the fence, opened it up, and led the march into a giant party inside. Within 10 minutes they took down the whole fence and neatly rolled it up. A black bloc can be problematic and authoritarian, but it also can be a disciplined force capable of tactical victories.”

The critiques boil down to a few points. One is that when black bloc actions are successful, such as the November park reoccupation, there is little debate about tactics. Two, nonviolent actions, such as the port blockade, often provoke far more criticism than a smashed window. And three, the black bloc is a legitimate part of the Occupy movement. The issue is not the tactics per se – Hedges wrote approvingly two years ago of rioting in Greece – it is whether the movement has space for proponents of “diversity of tactics.”

Making the 99% more than a slogan  

However, even if the legitimacy question is solved, it leaves unaddressed issues of representation and accountability. A former black blocker who lives in Portland, Ore., explained it’s a predicament when any group organizes in secret, and takes actions in the name of the movement but without any transparent mechanism for accountability. Self-selecting “affinity groups” take actions under the Occupy umbrella, but accountability is largely based on informal social networks, moral suasion and pressure.

This is not only Occupy’s current organizing model – for better and for worse – it’s how the movement began. Schneider says the original Occupy Wall Street action “involved a tactical committee composed of a small group of people working partly in secret.” He explains that the announced target for the Sept. 17 occupation was Chase Manhattan Plaza in the heart of Wall Street, but the committee “knew that it probably wasn’t going to work, so it was more of a decoy.”

“Now, there are a lot more power dynamics in the movement that are kind of shadowy," Schneider adds. "You might be able to see who is in what working group, but you don’t always know what affinity group they are in and who is hatching what ideas. There aren't the traditional forms of accountability in which responsibilities are clear and someone can be removed.”

Peter Bratsis, a professor of political theory at the University of Salford and author of "Everyday Life and the State," asks, “How do you create authority within the movement, how is that authority going to act, do we have groups working in affinity with each other or one disciplined group recognizing the authority of the GA to make strategic decisions?”

The problem, according to Bratsis, is “how to find macro-level coordination but recognize the autonomy of all the individual left groupings. Should the radical feminists have to go to the GA to make a particular decision? No, they have their own structures and can make their own decisions.”

In a movement like Occupy, which is more like a cosmic haze of subatomic particles than a luminous celestial body, democracy is fuzzy. Democracy is not “everyone does what everyone wants to,” says Bratsis. And that is the heart of the matter. Some people want to drum. Others want to toke up or shoot up. Some want to work within the system. Others want to fight the state. And these actions all impinge on other people’s rights or visions of the movement.

Consensus – the lifeblood of the General Assembly which is the beating heart of the Occupy movement – is about getting everyone to agree. This sidelines legitimacy. Referencing the philosopher Max Weber, Bratsis says “legitimacy refers to seeking a probability that a command will be obeyed.” In consensus, however, if everyone agrees, there is no need to issue a command. In the few instances where a crisis must be resolved, it is exceedingly laborious to issue a command, which promptly gets ignored as proved by rogue drummers and pot smokers. The state has riot police, jails, courts and armies. The Occupy movement has downward twinkling fingers, and so it ends up using other social and psychological methods to elicit compliance.

Perhaps a few dozen active encampments remain around the United States. Freed from the burden of maintaining a daily society, hundreds of active Occupy movements still have to wrestle with the philosophical issues of democracy and legitimacy even as they strategize for what comes next. For now, the source of legitimacy is the General Assembly operating by consensus based on “We are the 99 percent.”

The 99 percent is a great slogan, but even in a best-case scenario, there will be winners and losers whenever a decision is made. Progress requires democratic mechanisms of legitimacy and accountability and an awareness of who represents the movement and how to represent it. But that can be easier said than done, as the fragmented history of the American left shows.

It would be easy for radicals and reformers to part ways, which is already happening from Philadelphia to Southern California. The tougher part is making the 99 percent more than a slogan and creating new systems of democratic power in which everyone is invested. This will determine if the Occupy movement is a flash in the pan or the dawn of a new era.

By Arun Gupta

Arun Gupta, a New York writer and co-founder of Occupy the Wall Street Journal, covers the Occupy movement for Salon.

MORE FROM Arun Gupta

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Occupy Wall Street