I've been worried since my last post that it might have been too negative, or given the mistaken impression that I'm not a huge fan of OWS after my visit, which is anything but the truth. Looking back, though, I think it's a pretty honest assessment of the camp itself. The main point, of course, was that there's a significant difference between the physical occupation of Zuccotti Park and the protest movement it symbolizes.
But now get ready, because this is going to be a long freakin' post, and roughly halfway in I start gushing like a weird little fangirl.
After spending some time in the park, we went to 60 Wall Street, a cavernous lobby space open to the public that protesters have been using for teach-ins and working group meetings. (This weekend they'll be having a public reading of Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" there). We went there to attend a teach-in, and sat down near a likely-looking circle. As it happens, they were OWS, but not the group we were looking for.
They were one of maybe ten or a dozen working groups meeting in the space. Each circle included about 15-20 people, depending on what they were doing. Groups like Structure and Facilitation, which deal with the relatively dry stuff like, well, how to structure meetings and communication and how to keep the General Assembly organized and on task tended to be smaller (although there was a proposal to introduce a "spokescouncil" model on the table at GA that evening which gave Structure some draw...more on the spokescouncil later). We ended up popping in on a number of groups, ultimately landing on what I think was the Direct Action group who really re-engaged my faith in the movement after a disheartening impression of the camp.
Take a moment if you will to engage in a little exercise. Suppose you really wanted to support your local Occupy, but when you went to volunteer, they said, "You know, what we really need is people to plan direct actions and lead teach-ins." Now, I like to fancy myself a thinker and a creative-type, but when faced with this proposition my brain starts behaving like a squirrel: It freezes and scans the landscape, darts in one direction, stops abruptly, tries another route, stands up and looks around, forgets what it was doing, panics and runs away. In other words, I blank. I am completely incapable, at this moment, of thinking of a direct action that doesn't seem trite and listless. I know how to do a lot (A LOT) of really arbitrary things, but none of them seem useful to the cause and the thought of teaching them makes me feel like I'm actually a poorly trained neanderthal in every field in which I've ever claimed competence. In all likelihood this second bit is just me indulging my bitter, morbid self-doubt, but we'll leave that for now. The point is, it seems like protest just sort of happens spontaneously, that the masses gather somewhere and just start marching, but it's actually incredibly complex to mobilize huge groups of people and even harder to have the vision to mobilize them in a way that is meaningful. Point taken? Cool. Let me tell you about the most inspiring visionaries I've encountered in quite a while.
They were an unassuming sort. One girl was sewing an applique on to her T-shirt during the meeting. They made proposals in an off-handed sort of way: "We were thinking of putting out a call for a flash mob at [indoor public space]. And...we'd have people recite something in unison, like...we were thinking the Declaration of Independence." Then he shrugged.
They all sat there in silence for a second digesting, and then an older woman, who I gathered was a sort of visiting activist consultant having devoted several decades to progressive movements said, "Well, one thing I'd say is that we did a similar action one time and we all gathered in the space in a huddle and when the police came in in riot gear, it was easy for them to just close right in and in a couple of minutes it was just all of us with a ring of police around us. I'd say think about how you want people to be positioned in the space before you put out the call and have them staggered throughout. Also, you might want to figure out the exits, then assign groups and designate an exit for each group so that if it looks like trouble there's an orderly exit and you can all leave separately and convene outside at a predetermined spot.
I know I've lived a pretty sheltered life and maybe I'm just naive, but does this strike anyone as way more nuanced and fragile and deeply considered and gorgeously structured than you ever imagined it would be? Didn't you think a flash mob would just be all spontaneous energy and devil-take-the-hindmost on subjects like exits and arrests? Am I weird fossilized shut in that I didn't understand this before? I have no idea who reads this blog and whether you'll share the childlike glee of this ephiphany or dismiss me a sad, sad out of touch spinster. Anyway. One more example:
Someone proposed a march, and while the details of the march were ingenious and designed to involve actions at several locations along the way culminating at a single point, I'm doing my best here to share the genius of the planning without putting the schematics up on the interwebs like a neon sign for the police to discover in a random google search, knowwhatImean?
Anyway, the same woman suggested that there needed to be a culminating action when the group reached its destination. "People like to feel like they're doing something, like there's a part that they play. If you march somewhere, something has to happen to give them a sense of closure or you're just going to have this energy that never gets dissipated. Do a teach-in or a die-in or something, but give people a chance to participate."
A younger woman who was facilitating the meeting agreed and offered an anecdote: "We did a march on a bank a while ago, and we were really explicit that there would be no violence, no mischief, that we would go in, not touch anything, and go. But we had a teach-in in the lobby and it was really inspiring and people were getting really agitated, like, 'Let's get 'em,' so I had everyone pull out their cell phones and said, 'We're going to call the board members of this bank and tell them what we think about what we just learned!" and people funneled all their energy into that. But it could have been ugly."
So again, is this not a level of professionalism and insight that blows your mind? I totally wanted everyone in the group to be my best friend and mentor and neighbor and whatever other proximal relation you can think of.
The meeting wrapped up in time for everyone to head back to the park for General Assembly. And if my gushing appreciation for the thinking of the Direct Action group seemed outsized to you, you'll probably be inclined to dismiss my impression of the GA, too, but hear me out.
I think most everyone is familiar, by now, with the "People's Mic" but for those who haven't, here's the long and short of it: A person who wishes to address the assembly (on the night we visited maybe 150-200 people) shouts, "Mic check!" and anyone who hears it repeats it, which in turn alerts a wider group that someone is trying to get attention. The speaker shouts, "Mic check!" a second time, and now everyone within ear shot repeats it. The meeting then progresses in 3-5 word phrases from a facilitator or speaker which are repeated by the assembly, allowing even those at the back of the crowd to hear. On paper, this sounds incredibly cumbersome, an ingenious but impractical solution to the city's decision not to allow amplification, but in practice, it's an incredibly potent and visceral experience to be part of it.
For the people who have their knickers all in a twist about explicit goals and whatnot, I will posit that one of the goals and one that's been quite successful, is to snap people out of the civic coma they've been in for quite some time, and, more specifically, to deprogram the brainwashing that tells us that it's "them," the Democrats, or Republicans, or poor, or black, or gay people and their sinister agendas that are ruining things for the rest of country and reminding everyone that "they" are actually "us." Like anyone running a scam, corporations and politicians understand the value of the red herring, something to keep you looking over there while they pick your pockets.
The People's Mic is a very simple device in the service of solidarity. No one's asking you to repeat their mantra or accept their doctrines, they just want some help communicating facts: "Hello, my name is Anna...[hello, my name is Anna (x200!)]...for the past couple weeks...[for the past couple weeks]...we have been discussing...[we have been discussing]...spokescouncils...[spokescouncils]. This isn't fuzzy feel good rhetoric, but I'll be dipped if it doesn't feel fuzzy and good to participate.
You know, I'm having a change of heart here, and not just because the sun's going to come up soon. I think it's worth discussing the spokes council at moderate length and it feels separate from this post. So here's this. The spokescouncil post will most likely go up this evening and bore the everliving shit out of all but the wonkiest of you. You're welcome.