Occupy's Challenge: Reinventing Democracy
Behind the scenes with rogue drummers, homeless,
liberals and the black bloc as OWS grapples with
By Arun Gupta
Feb 27, 2012
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Arun Gupta, a New York writer and co-founder of Occupy
the Wall Street Journal, covers the Occupy movement for
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