Occupy Wall Street is Transforming its Participants, Our Country, and Democracy

By Manissa McCleave Maharawal

Originally published on AlterNet

Monday night at a bar in Brooklyn my friend Alex and I looked through pictures on his phone of the “early days” of Occupy Wall Street. He had pictures of the General Assembly from Day 5 and we laughed together about how empty it looked, how ramshackle and tenuous almost, how we could still see the pavement and there was still space between the people. We had just biked back from Occupy Wall Street and we were commenting, again, on how different the space seems every time we are down there. This time I had been surprised to see tents everywhere, something I hadn’t seen before and honestly between the tents, the problems with the drumming in the past week and the debate about moving to a spokes-council structure it felt like the movement was in a moment in which it was trying to deal with its own internal dynamics. Growing pains almost.

It makes sense for a movement like Occupy Wall Street to be having growing pains right now. It is still a surprise to most people, those inside the movement and those observing, whether in solidarity or not, that it is still there and that it is growing. It is still a surprise that in places like Occupy Oakland, where their tents were torn down in the middle of the night and they were tear gassed the next evening, they came back the next day in even stronger numbers and called for a general strike. It has become clear in the past month that the political discourse has shifted and it has become clear in the past month that this thing isn’t going away. But some mornings I still wake up surprised about it all.

It actually hadn’t become clear to me how much the discourse had shifted until I taught urban poverty and inequality this past week to my Anthropology 101 students at Baruch College. I have taught urban poverty and inequality every year for the past 3 years and every year have similar debates in my class: when I start the section off by asking them why people are poor the first response I usually get from students is that, simply put, people are lazy and they don’t want to work. I see my job then to be to explain the structural causes of poverty and that simply saying, “People are lazy and don’t want to work” is actually a really problematic way of thinking. Explaining all of this has been so much work in my classes that usually I dread the week on poverty and inequality because it is a week where I am tired.

But last week when I asked my students this question the first response I got in my classes was that “People can’t find jobs” and the next one was, “There is a huge wealth gap” and the the third was that, “We have an economic system that needs poor people”. I was shocked. I have never gotten responses like this before. And then I found myself explaining to my students that it was because of all these reasons that I am anti-capitalist. I felt like I was coming out to them, exposing myself in a way that I haven’t before. And they listened, they were interested, they thought I was being crazy and idealistic but they cared and it felt really good to have these debates with them. I left teaching that evening feeling energized by our discussions.

This made me realize that since getting involved in Occupy Wall Street I have felt myself change. Speaking up to block the Declaration of Occupy Wall Street so that its language was inclusive and didn’t erase historical and current oppressions and inequalities (which you can read about here) was a moment in which I realized, in a way that I haven’t before, that I can do this. That feeling was about that particular moment but also something larger, something that has grown to encompass thinking about ways in which to create a world outside of capitalism. I keep thinking: we can do this.   And I’m not scared to say this stuff anymore, I’m not scared to articulate my hopes and dreams and wishes for the world. I’m not scared to sit down with Eliot Spitzer and debate capitalism, as did I last week for a New York Magazine piece a friend was putting together. Even if he is  defensive and won’t let me finish my sentences and tries to tell me that my thinking isn’t “rigorous,” even  then I’m still not scared of him.

In some ways this fearlessness has surprised me and in other ways it makes perfect sense. The entire time I was having coffee with Spitzer and he was cutting me off and acting more powerful and knowledgeable then me, I just wanted to make him use consensus process. I wanted to tell him not to jump stack. I wanted him to have to take into account historic inequalities and voices that are not traditionally heard. I wanted to tell him to check his privilege. To step back. To listen to me, not in spite of the fact that I am a young woman of color, but because these sorts of voices are not usually heard and should be.

I did try to tell him some of this. I invited him to come down to Zucotti Park and and try making a decision with us. I said, “Mr. Spitzer, why don’t you come down to Zuccotti Park and stand in the crowd and just be another citizen, not someone born with a lot of privilege, not someone who has held a lot of power in his life but just someone whose voice is equal to mine. Come down to the park and try this.” He didn’t actually have much to say to this. In fact he mostly just looked annoyed at me. I mean when I asked him how he imagined getting more people involved in the political process he suggested “technology”.

I guess I would be annoyed at me too if I were him. If you are a older white man who has traditionally been part of the 1% and who is perhaps hoping to make a comeback in politics, you would feel threatened and challenged by seeing a lot of people start using a process that checks your power, that takes into account your privilege, that makes it so that you can’t shout anyone down or cut them off. I’m not saying that the structure alone does this but consensus decision making, combined with the work of making this process go smoothly, has the potential to.

These are our, Occupy Wall Street’s, experiments in democracy. They are our experiments in a new form of power. Last Sunday I facilitated the largest meeting I have ever facilitated, a 100 person meeting of the Person of Color working group and it was really tough work to make sure that the process of this meeting went smoothly. I know I alienated someone when I told them not to speak out of turn. I know I was personally frustrated that the meeting ran an hour over. I found out how really really hard it is to say to people: “You’ve spoken a lot, let’s hear a voice we haven’t heard yet this meeting” but while I was saying these things I was also imagining how my classes in graduate school would look if I could say these sorts of things to the many men who monopolize them, how different my work meetings would feel if there was this sort of awareness.

And so Occupy Wall Street has been having growing pains in the past week. There were fears that not being able to work with the community board about the drumming would shut down the whole thing. There was a divisive and hard spokes-council decision that we made on Friday night. A decision in which we could not reach consensus and instead had to vote on using a modified 9/10 consensus model.

The creation of a spokes-council is a move away from making all of our decisions at the nightly General Assemblies. Instead there will also be a spokes-council where “clusters” of people from the various working groups (of which there are now upwards of 50, encompassing everything from “sustainability” to “media” to “education and empowerment”) will meet together every day and connect with each other and make day to day decisions.

Here any large decisions, financial or about the movement, would still go to the open and large General Assembly meetings and the spokes-council would take on the more day to day aspects of governing, running and decision making. This was a hard decision because many many people were worried about a spokes-council creating a de-facto power structure, creating a hierarchy of decision making or creating more bureaucracy. I understood these concerns– a spokes-council can look a lot like the sort of representative governing that we are trying to move away from, but also from working in the movement I think we need a better way to communicate across working groups and a better way to make day-to-day decisions. To put it simply: 300 people at the General Assembly do not need to make a decision about whether or not the comfort working group should buy recycled plastic trash bags or not.

I also think that a spokes-council structure, in which working groups meet together every day and discuss issues, is also a great way to communicate across working groups that issues of racism, patriarchy, oppression and inclusivity are not just something for the people of color working group (and women and people of color themselves) to take on but for all working groups to be thinking about. So I was in support of the spokes-council.

And so I spent my Friday night standing outside for hours listening to the discussion about it and finally at around 10pm voting in favor of it. The vote was needed because, like I said, we couldn’t reach consensus. There were two “blocks”, both for ideological reasons: that in this movement we should not have any sort of body that acts as if it is representing others one that could be mistaken for a power structure or that could be mistaken for a “leader”. I think these concerns and these blocks are completely valid and necessary critiques.  Standing outside in the cold on Friday night, listening to people passionately express these views, I was so so glad that the process forced everyone to hear, and attempt to deal with, dissent before we made our decision.

I was glad to be reminded that we should proceed with how we structure ourselves with care. With immense care. And I was glad that when we couldn’t consensus fully on this decision that we voted knowing that we needed a 9/10th majority for this to go through. In the end there was a 95% majority who voted for the spokes-council. Not full consensus but close enough. As we carefully counted the votes (17 no’s and 300-something yes’s) I thought about voting and consensus and democracy. It felt good to know that this structure allowed for people to block things, but it also felt good to think that a 95% consensus was still a victory for the process and for everyone who took part in it.

There are other growing pains too: there is the work of making the space of Liberty Plaza safe and non-oppressive for everyone there. There is the constant work of making sure that questions of economic justice are connected to racial justice, that conversations about oppression are tied to conversations about privilege. There is winter and cold and snow looming in the distance, something that we had to deal with last night. But there is still a tremendous amount of hope and possibility.

On Thursday I went to a Community Watch meeting at 60 Wall Street, or “The Atrium” as it has been called. The Atrium is another one of these “density bonuses” like Zuccotti Square is: a privately owned but publicly accessible space. This one seems like a cross between a corporate lobby (it is indoor) and a bizarre sandy park. There are fake palm trees. There are white plastic chairs and marble benches. The ceiling and walls are weirdly textured and mirrored. To get from Zuccotti Park to The Atrium you have to walk south on Broadway for two blocks. You can either enter The Atrium from Wall Street or one block closer on Pine Street. Even though Pine Street is closer I like to enter from the Wall Street side because there is something about running past the Stock Exchange, around the barricades they have put up, through the crowds of tourists and business people, past the Tiffany’s and past the Trump building to finally duck into the Atrium for a working group meeting that makes me feel really powerful and excited about the world.

And in the past two weeks there have been multiple working group meetings meeting here at all times. Last night the Community Watch meeting met next to a Media Training, which was next to the Demands Working Group, which was next to the Security Meeting, across from the Sustainability Meeting which was next to the Anti-Racism Group. On a Thursday night there were over a hundred people in that strange corporate lobby public space meeting and working together on various different aspects of the movement.

As I looked around all on Thursday I realized that we are also occupying this space now, that by being bodies assembled together in this space we are occupying it and by learning how to work together in doing this we are making this Occupation, this political shift, this chance at a new ways of being in the world, possible. Of course this process has growing pains, it wouldn’t be what be revolutionary if it didn’t. It wouldn’t be revolutionary if it wasn’t complicated, and messy but also inspirational. The facilitator at the Community Watch training I attended last night said something that struck me as she was outlining the steps of response for how to  deal with unsafe situations at Zucotti Park.  She said: “this process isn’t perfect yet and we know that, but this is what setting up a town, a movement in four weeks, using direct democracy looks like”.

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