I was one of the dismissive ones at first. I was even, I am a bit sorry now to say, on Ginia Bellafonte’s side when she wrote, in The New York Times, that “the group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgeably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face – finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out.”
A former graduate student who is underemployed and struggling to repay student loans myself, I connected personally with Bellafonte’s lament. I even bought into her critique of the protesters for using Macbooks and iPhones to do their organizing. (Later, when many people basically told me that anyone who got behind that critique obviously had his head up his ass, I started to wonder if I should be embarrassed about my earlier position. I’m not entirely, though.) My skepticism was kind of a recoil from previous bristles with this kind of activism. I love anarchism as a way of living and as a utopian vision, but I have participated in horizontal activism before and seen ugly Ego rear its head and tear the whole thing down. When Occupy started, and even as it began to prove its tenacity, I wanted to believe in radical politics but I desperately needed proof.
I still do. Though I’ve now visited Zuccotti Park about fifteen times, sometimes spending hours absorbed in Working Group meetings or participating in and documenting the General Assembly, I am still looking for something that will help me truly believe that this will lead to change.
Often, I cannot distinguish between the Occupation itself and what the press is saying about it. Some afternoons, after sitting through a frustrated and bungled two-hour meeting of a Working Group meant to develop OWS’ “visions and goals” where the facilitators bickered about the consensus process the entire time and nothing was actually discussed, I take comfort in the eloquence of writers who have taken up Occupy Wall Street as their cause du jour. OWS has become the crutch of the liberal and Leftist press, who can use it as a voicebox through which to voice their demands, their visions and goals. But what about the demands, visions, and goals of Occupy itself?
On the second day of the Occupation, the General Assembly reached consensus that they would not be issuing demands, and would have no platform, in order to allow for a plurality of positions. Now, many of the original organizers complain that there is “a lack of institutional memory” in OWS about this previous decision as people keep trying to push the movement toward demands. At Sunday night’s General Assembly, when the Demands Working Group presented their proposal that Occupy adopt “Jobs For All” as a demand, the group’s legitimacy was questioned. The G.A. could not even get past Clarifying Questions after an hour, because nobody knew what to do about a proposal by a group that many thought shouldn’t exist in the first place, but many seemed to want to exist.
No one could get the facts straight. Was the Demands Working Group supposed to exist? Was this one demand or multiple demands? (It contained sub-points that elaborated on the main demand). It was also unclear to many in the crowd how they could resolve the contradiction of demanding something from a government they condemned as evil. “All revolutions started by making demands to a state that could not fulfill them,” the presenter replied. “We cannot ignore that government exists and has a chokehold on us.”
In a movement that emphasizes autonomy, some of the reactions to the Demands group’s proposal seem oligarchic. Does a decision remain intact as official policy when new people join a movement? If I say I am in allegiance with Occupy Wall Street, am I therefore agreeing that there will be no demands? I was not, and many others who are now sleeping in Zuccotti Park or attending assemblies were not, at that second General Assembly. And here is another matter creating political tension in Occupy. The gap between the original organizers who first took up Adbusters’ call to take Wall Street, and those who are now joining Working Groups or holding down the park space, is widening every day.
These days, the park occupiers are hardly to be seen at the G.A. They say it’s irrelevant, it takes too long, nothing gets done. Hopefully, many say, the Spokes Council will be more efficient at dealing with operational tasks once it’s up and running. When that happens, the G.A. can be a space for more philosophical conversation. But on some nights lately, the G.A. has been nearly half-full of people attending for the first time, getting their kicks from a brush with radical politics. Hand signals and the codes of “progressive stack” and “step up, step back” are explained anew, each night. No wonder the occupiers don’t want to attend. Imagine if every meeting you had at work began with an introduction of all the speakers and a recap of basic speaking etiquette.
Things may be on the upswing. Every afternoon, the public atrium at 60 Wall Street is filled with Working Groups planning actions, revising documents, and strategizing about the future of Occupy. And many proposals that go through the G.A. are successful: an order of sustainably-produced, union-made T-shirts for the screenprinters to sell for revenue for the movement; a battery bank that will provide power and public wi-fi to the park. Break-out groups help provide feedback for works-in-progress so they can become foundational texts for the movement.
But nature might provide the true test for Occupy. Last week, the Medic Working Group reported dealing with twenty-five cases of hypothermia in one night. After Saturday’s snowstorm, they grew reticent and would not report any numbers, but people told me that there had been a few visits to the emergency room due to weather-related incidents. On Thursday, the Medics asked the G.A. for funds to buy herbal medicine, which they said was providing about fifty percent of their medical care to the occupiers. It may happen, however, that as the divide between the organizers and the occupiers grow, it will become harder to keep the needs of the park in check. Or that task may overwhelm any political activities.
Right now, Occupy is facing a more imminent danger than the cold: potential eviction, the nearness of which there are rumors. On Thursday night, the Direct Action Working Group gave a training in methods of non-violent resistance and park defense. The caterpillar, a sort of sitting-up spooning position where one person links arms and legs from behind another person, was demonstrated. It was emphasized that occupiers should show solidarity to one another in any way they could, using a “diversity of tactics” as they saw fit while being aware of risks their actions posed to themselves and others. A person explained that a mixture of Mylanta and water was a remedy for pepper spray, and advised occupiers to call for a Medic if they were sprayed. The D.A. Working Group also announced that we could text @occupyalert to 23559 in order to get on the emergency text network. I tried it three times and it never worked. Looking around at the crowd, I saw very few people that I knew lived in the park. Those people, rather than attending the G.A., were playing guitar, eating dinner, rolling cigarettes, or huddling in their tents. If the police do show up to evict people in the night, solidarity is going to be crucial. Linked arms require that the people attached to them believe in one another and believe that they are doing it for a reason beyond themselves, something bigger than hatred of the cops. Does it matter if that reason is vague? The park, and the relatively comfortable community it has become for many, could be enough to hold the movement together for now. But perhaps not forever.