After the Scream: Occupy Wall Street Reforms Itself

After the Scream: Occupy Wall Street Reforms Itself

The Murry Bergtraum High School For Business Careers, a massive, modernist citadel that stands directly opposite One Police Plaza, the NYPD’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, was, protesters agreed, an odd place for Occupy Wall Street to hold a meeting. But the evening’s work needed privacy, quiet, and a good chunk of unbroken physical space; the school’s second-story cafeteria, cleared of students and lunch tables, offered all three. So, on November 7, hundreds of occupiers—many of whom were only months ago strolling the halls of their own secondary schools—converged on the cafeteria’s scuffed linoleum floor, sat down in a circle, and set about the messy business of reforming a political movement.

Since its first day, the occupation has employed the general assembly, or GA, as its governing body. As it is practiced in Zuccotti Park, the GA is a salmagundi of impassioned dissent. It both a soapbox and a chorus, a leaderless collective that is at once communal and individualistic—the movement in microcosm. Participating in a GA, you feel yourself initiated into something singular and slightly audacious. An observer compared the experience to that ecstasy of unity described by Whitman in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” (“The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme—myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme.”) Protesters revere it as the closest thing the occupation, not yet two months old, has to a civic tradition.

Adhering to a philosophy of direct, not representative democracy, the GA is open to anyone. Rather than conduct up-and-down votes, the assembly makes decisions through a process of consensus. Under consensus, a group acts unanimously. Anyone can submit a proposal, but it will only pass and be adopted if the entire group endorses it; if anyone blocks the proposal, it’s vetoed or tabled for later consideration. To accommodate its many participants, Occupy Wall Street uses a slightly modified consensus process, in which a block is overridden if nine-tenths of the GA votes against it. Such a system, GA proponents say, provides everyone a voice and prevents the tyranny of a simple majority.

Yet most protesters contend that, as a decision-making body, the GA is a shambolic failure. Meetings drag on for hours, often stalling over niggling disputes or picayune questions of procedure. A few committed obstructionists will often hold up funds necessary for camp operations. Critical concerns—for example, what to do about the looming winter—go unaddressed, as the assembly finds itself overwhelmed by logistical issues. As a result, many of the movement’s most experienced, committed supporters, believing GAs useless, have stopped attending, effectively ceding its control to newcomers.

The GA’s dysfunction is, in a perverse way, testament to Occupy Wall Street’s success. In the months leading up to September 17, a small group of activists met regularly in New York’s Tompkins Square Park, during which time they used a modified GA to discuss ideas and plan the occupation. The group decided that when the protest began, the GA would continue to act as a space to hold political conversation. Marissa Holmes, a graduate student at Hunter College, attended the pre-September 17 GAs. She explained that the GA had never been designed to function as a decision-making body. No one expected the occupation to last very long, so no one thought to create a structure to manage it. “We didn’t think all this was going to happen,” she said. “We were totally unprepared. We thought, ‘Oh, we’ll have this GA and it’ll be great and everyone will be able to speak and then we’ll go home.’ We thought that it would just be an event, a protest. We were creating a space—we weren’t creating an organization.” In the absence of another body, the GA not only guided a political movement but attempted to govern a burgeoning small town.

ON NOVEMBER 6, I, along with about 200 other people, attended an assembly. The wind was up, and we sat huddled in a raggedy sprawl across the steps on the eastern end of Zuccotti Park, everyone packed in coats and scarves, cold but eager. Before the meeting officially began, a man asked to make an announcement about fire safety. Over the last several weeks, the park, doused with rain, sleet, and a salting of snow, has sprouted a motley crop of tents. Most occupiers have moved indoors, and the tents take up more space per capita than al fresco sleeping bags. When the tents press against each other, the danger of a spreading fire, were one to catch, is real. Against this backdrop, the man stepped onto a low stone parapet and asked everyone who occupied the park to raise their hands.

With the exception of maybe a quarter of the audience, everyone kept their hands warming in their pockets. This revealed an ongoing problem with GAs: the people who attend generally don’t live—or even work—in the park. Actual occupiers gripe constantly about the GA’s infiltration by day-trippers. While some of these interlopers stay on and contribute to the movement, the majority hang around just long enough to weigh in a few proposals and maybe ask an uninformed question or two. Most people who do the movement’s heavy lifting never attend GAs, or attend only when they want to make a proposal. As a result, most votes at the GA are now cast by tourists.

The first item of business at that evening’s GA was to be a discussion about a preliminary list of demands, developed by a small group of occupiers, that the assembly might endorse. However, the meeting was quickly interrupted by a tall, skinny man in a white hoodie who said he had an emergency proposal. The man, flanked by members of the People of Color Working Group, said he represented a band of people occupying a building on 142nd Street, in Harlem. His description of the occupation’s purpose, chopped up by the people’s mic, was difficult to understand. The group was battling predatory lending and mortgage fraud, he said, and the building’s owners had sabotaged the building’s boiler and locked out the tenants. His group, the occupiers, had secured a new boiler and broken the locks, but needed money for food and supplies. He then asked the assembly for $2,000 to continue the occupation—$500 to help reimburse expenses already incurred in the occupation and another $1,500 “for survival.”

After a proposal is introduced at the GA, the assembly is given time to ask questions. A man stood up and asked the speaker how, precisely, the money would be used. His reply came from a member of the working group, who shouted back that the money would be going toward various uses—utilities, bills, food, cleaning supplies, towels, toiletries, and “metro.”

“This battle has been going on for over seven years,” the man continued, cryptically. “The judge locked us out of the courtroom, and the other attorney is in prison because he is not an attorney.”

Next, a women asked why the proposal was an emergency. This question was fielded by another member of the group, also a woman, who wore a pink scarf and spoke in a voice of abject outrage. She explained that if the money was not made available now, the pipes in the building would freeze. She thundered on, emphasizing each of her points by stabbing her fingers in the air, making of the people’s mic a powerful call-and-response.

“This is the reality!”

This is the reality!

“Of living in the hood!”

Of living in the hood!

“In New York City!”

In New York City!

“This is the reality!”

This is the reality!

“Of people fighting! ”

Of people fighting!

“For their homes! ”

For their homes!

“And their lives! ”

And their lives!

“Because of Wall Street! ”

Because of Wall Street!

“And predatory lending! ”

And predatory lending!

She concluding by saying that, were the proposal not passed and the aforementioned boiler not installed, children and old people would freeze.

The assembly had heard enough. A middle-aged man, calling the occupation a matter of life and death, declared that the proposal should be immediately approved. A woman, introducing herself as an occupier from Chicago, argued that the group should receive either the amount it had requested or half of Occupy Wall Street’s treasury, “whichever is more.” (At the time of the meeting, the movement had about $300,000.) Another suggested the group receive $3,000 instead of $2,000—an amendment that the group, laughing happily, accepted. When a few attendees stood up and raised concerns about whether funding another occupation might be too costly or whether this might lead to Occupy Wall Street being approached by more groups seeking funds, they were met with death glares. After about a half-hour of debate, the amended proposal—the group would now receive $3,000—was finally put to the assembly and was greeted with a sea of wiggling fingers. It passed, and everyone cheered.

Later, asking the members of the working group about the building, I learned that their occupation involved Wall Street and predatory lending only tangentially, if at all. As it was explained to me, a large loan had been extended to the owners of the building several years ago, upon which they’d soon defaulted. The owners were using this default as a legal pretext—precisely what kind of pretext, no one could say—to push the tenants out, with the intention of bringing in new, wealthier, whiter tenants. The sabotage of the boiler, it seemed, was part of this ploy. However, it’s hard to know for sure, because no documentation was provided to the assembly, nor was any asked for.

I asked Justin Strekel, a long-time occupier, who has raised a question about the proposal during the assembly, what he thought of its passage. “It disturbs me,” he said, “that we just set a precedent that anyone who comes together to occupy a building can get up to $3,000 from the GA. If we fund 100 of these buildings, that’s almost our entire budget.”

He pointed out that many of the supplies that the group was requesting money to purchase were already available, for free, from the storage working group, of which he was a member. The problem was, no one had asked him.

“I was this close to blocking the proposal,” he said.

I pointed out that he would get a lot of flack if he went against the crowd.

“Absolutely.”

TO ADDRESS the GA’s flaws, protesters drew up a plan for a new, complementary body: the spokes council. First contrived centuries ago by the Iroquois Nation, and used by numerous resistance movements since (see “From GA to Spokes Council” on page nine of the new issue of the Occupy! gazette), the spokes council differs from the GA in two important ways. First, while anyone can participate in the GA, the council limits participation to people who live or work in Zuccotti Park. Second, whereas the GA is composed of individuals, the spokes council is composed of groups. Every meeting, each group selects a representative to speak and cast votes on its behalf. These representatives sit in a circle, with their groups clustered behind them, like the spokes on a bicycle wheel—the “spokes” in “spokes council” referring doubly to this layout and to the notion of a spokesperson. By reducing the number of participants in (though not spectators to) meetings and ensuring that all have a strong connection to Occupy Wall Street, the council’s architects expect it to help the movement make better decisions, faster.

On October 29, after days of debate, the GA formally authorized the spokes council’s creation and ceded it responsibility over the occupation’s finances and logistics. In doing so, the movement took a step toward becoming a formal organization rather than a loose coalition of like-minded individuals. Such a transformation may better position Occupy Wall Street to endure and grow.

As protesters gathered at Murry Bergtraum High School for the spokes council’s inaugural meeting, they formed working groups—groups of volunteers that have adopted specific tasks at the park, like cleaning or serving food. Each chose a representative to sit in a circle in the middle of the room holding a sign bearing his or her group’s name. Behind them the rest of their groups sat clustered in loose wedges. All of the most prominent working groups and caucuses, such as Direct Action, Kitchen, and People of Color, were in attendance, as well as some more obscure ones, such as Architecture and Tea & Herbal Medicine.

The first task of the council was to decide which of these groups merited admission. Groups could apply for entry as one of two types of groups: operations groups and caucuses. Operations groups provide logistical and financial support to the occupation, while caucuses represent occupiers “with a shared experienced of marginalization,” such as women and racial minorities. This would be done, as in the GA, through a process of consensus. Behind the working groups, a penumbra of protesters, unaligned with any specific group, hung around and watched.

To speed things along, a half-dozen resolutely upbeat facilitators roved around the center of the circle and held court. Armed with microphones—clearly more efficient than the human mic—the facilitators called out the names of each group seeking admission. The representatives then took a moment to turn around and consult with their own groups. If any group wished to ask questions or raise concerns to another group’s admission, their representative raised their sign. Groups for which no one raised a sign were admitted to the council.

Packed with bodies, the cafeteria quickly grew stifling, but the process clipped along smoothly. At the end of two hours, two caucuses—People of Color Caucus and Queering OWS—and a dozen working groups had been approved for admission. The protesters only had use of the space until 10 p.m., so debate over the other forty groups, which had received raised signs, would have to be postponed for a few days, when the council was scheduled to meet again. The only major interruption came when Georgia Sagri, the representative for the Direct Democracy working group, stood up and spit out a sharp rebuke to the spokes council.

“I think through the spokes group process that working groups become organizations and become parties,” she said, “and I’m totally concerned about that. I think this puts us in a very difficult and vulnerable position.”

Sagri’s statement was met with a mix of the hand signals that occupiers use to signal their feelings: some up, some down, and some in the middle. Indeed, while most protesters supported the creation of the spokes council—when placed to a vote in the GA, it was approved 280 to 17—many dissenters worried that it would make the movement more fragmented and less democratic. For some, the council was dangerously close to a traditional representative democracy, something antithetical to the spirit of Occupy Wall Street.

EVEN AS the spokes council takes shape, the GA will continue to exist, becoming a forum primarily for debate and discussion. While the GA didn’t always function well as a deliberative body, it has remained a place in which people can speak and be heard. In explaining the use of the GA, Marissa Holmes cites the Marxist sociologist John Holloway’s concept of “the scream.” According to Holloway, before true change can occur, there must be an abject refusal—a scream. Holmes says that the GA is a “voice for people who just want to air their grievances.”

Max Hode, a member of the sanitation working group, told me that though he admired the GA, adopting the spokes council was the right move. “It’s actually one of the more beautiful things,” says Hode, “that some guy could come in here and say ‘I propose we spend 300 grand on this thing that I came up with—any objections?’ And then no one blocks and we do it. But I think the spokes council model is the result of us believing that we’re going to be here for a while and wanting something more representative of what we’re trying to be.”

Matthew Wolfe is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.

Image: NYC General Assembly (Bogieharmond, Flickr creative commons)