By Matt Stoller, the former Senior Policy Advisor to Rep. Alan Grayson and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. You can reach him at stoller (at) gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @matthewstoller.
Journalist Amy Goodman arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention
What do the people at #OccupyWallStreet actually want? What are their demands? For many people, this is THE question.
So let me answer it. What they want… is to do exactly what they are doing. They want to occupy Wall Street. They have built a campsite full of life, where power is exercised according to their voices. It’s a small space, it’s a relatively modest group of people at any one time, and the resources they command are few. But they are practicing the politics of place, the politics of building a truly public space. They are explicitly rejecting the politics of narrow media, the politics of the shopping mall. To understand #OccupyWallStreet, you have to get that it is not a media object or a march. It is first and foremost, a church of dissent, a space made sacred by a community. But like Medieval churches, it is also now the physical center of that community. It has become many things. Public square. Carnival. Place to get news. Daycare center. Health care center. Concert venue. Library. Performance space. School.
Few people, though an increasing number daily, have actually taken the time to go through a general assembly, to listen to what the people at #OccupyWallStreet actually want. General assemblies are the consensus-oriented group conversations at the heart of the occupations, where endlessly repeating the speaking of others is the painstaking and frustrating way that the group comes to make decisions. I spoke with a very experienced older DC hand who told me that he hasn’t been because he doesn’t have the patience of the young. This is as different a way of doing politics as distributed computing was to the old world of mainframes. So it isn’t surprising that the traditionalists are reacting as perplexed and dismissive of this new style of politics as the big iron types were with the rise of PCs.
I have been through a few general assemblies now, and they are remarkable because the point of the assembly is to truly put listening at the heart of decision-making. There’s no electronic amplification allowed in Zuccotti Square. So the organizers have figured out an organic microphone system. A speaker says a half a sentence, everyone in earshot repeats, until the whole park can hear that half a sentence. Then the speaker says another half a sentence. People use hand signals to indicate approval, disapproval, get a move on, or various forms of objections and clarifications. During these speeches, speakers often explicitly ask for more gender and racial diversity, which is known as “progressive stacking”.
At first it’s extremely… annoying. And time-consuming. But after a few hours, it’s oddly refreshing. I felt completely included as part of a community forum even though I had not been a speaker. But what I realized is that the act of listening, embedded in the active reflecting of what the speaker was saying, created a far richer conversational space. Actually reflecting back to one another what someone just said is a technique used by therapists, and by pandering politicians. There is nothing so euphoric in a community sense as truly feeling heard. That’s what the general assembly was about, not a democracy in the sense of voting, but a democracy in the sense of truly respecting the humanity of everyone in the forum. It took work. It took patience. But it created a communal sense of power.
At the forum, two fairly simple decisions were made. One, a nurse’s union endorsed #OccupyWallStreet, and pledged some food and offered nurses to train some of the protesters on first aid. The group accepted this endorsement. Two, some drag queens endorsed the protest, and offered food. They also said they would perform the next day. The group accepted this endorsement. That was it. These groups figured out ways they wanted to help, and did so. The groups that offered the help gained power based on what they did to build the space. A few days earlier, someone had offered to do a newspaper for #OccupyWallStreet and asked for volunteers. The group gave its approval. And now there’s an “Occupied Wall Street Journal”. There are people who offer to build the space, and then don’t deliver. But they don’t gain power. And that’s the way #OccupyWallStreet has structured its decision-making. Find ways to build the public space, and then gain the trust of the public that occupies the space you’ve helped build. The nurses helped deliver health care. The drag queens made the carnival more fun. This kind of power, the power that comes from the trust and love of other people, doesn’t emerge from a list of policy demands. It comes from the formation of a public, through the appreciation and sharing of a public space. It takes work, but the result is… #OccupyWallStreet. Or the camps in Israel, or Spain, or Wisconsin, or elsewhere there are mini-civilizations sprouting up.
This dynamic is why it’s so hard for the traditional political operators to understand #OccupyWallStreet. It must be an angry group of hippies. Or slackers. Or it’s a revolution. It’s a left-wing tea party. The ignorance is embedded in the questions. One of the most constant complaints one hears in DC about #OccupyWallStreet is that the group has no demands. Its message isn’t tight. It has no leaders. It has no policy agenda. Just what does “it” want, anyway? On the other side of the aisle, one hears a sort of sneering “get a job” line, an angry reaction to a phenomenon no one in power really understands. The gnashing of teeth veers quickly from condescension to irritation and back. Many liberal groups want to “help” by offering a more mainstream version, by explaining it to the press, by cheering how great the occupation is while carefully ensuring that wiser and more experienced hands eventually take over. These impulses are guiding by the received assumptions about how power works in modern America. Power must flow through narrow media channels, it must be packaged and financed by corporations, unions, or foundations, it must be turned into revenue flows that can then be securitized. It must scale so leaders can channel it efficiently into the preset creek bed of modern capitalism. True public spaces like this one are complete mysteries to these people; left, right, center in America are used to shopping mall politics.
I’m not a booster of #OccupyWallStreet. I don’t have to be. I’m not there right now, and there’s no way to really agree or disagree with a carnival or a church. It is going to be an interesting to watch how the organizations that are working, either formally or informally, on Obama’s reelection campaign, work first to praise and then to co-opt these protest campsites. It’s unclear to me how this will happen, if it will happen, and how those groups will change in the process. One organization, called Rebuild the Dream, is focused on a message organized around “The American Dream”. This organization was started by former White House staffer Van Jones, and is packed with former Obama boosters who proclaimed their love for Obama in 2008. They are similarly ebullient about #OccupyWallStreet, to them the people are finally rising. Interestingly, the first speech I heard at #OccupyWallStreet during soapbox time was a fairly explicit rejection of the notion of an American dream. Many people draw their inspiration from Tahrir Square, hardly a fount of Americana circa 1950. In other words, many of these people simply do not seem to be traditional liberals; they seem to see themselves as a transnational leftist class who believe gender, race, and economics are bound up into one struggle against oppression. The general assembly, their main organizational and power distribution mechanism, is organized around ensuring equality of voice.
So far, the protests are being received relatively well; everyone from Tim Geithner to Kathryn Wylde says they recognize the frustration of the protests. But of course, the real clashes with the establishment power center are yet to come. Tampa Bay Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who presides over where the Republican National Convention will be held in less than a year, is already making noises about cracking down on protesters. The city is asking the Federal government to appropriate $50 million to use for, among other things, predator drones. Buckhorn says, “These are people who are committed to mayhem, and if we’re not careful they will incite it.” This is somewhat silly; the Minneapolis police have agreed to pay $100,000 to journalist Amy Goodman, whom they arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention (with not a peep from any Democrat).
Power clashes in extremely odd ways. The Democratic establishment is finding itself tied in knots over how to react to the protests. Many want a left-wing version of the tea party, whereas others are deeply uncomfortable with democratic impulses like this one. In addition, these kinds of movements are extremely seductive; at first they are close knit, but then the charlatans of all types move in. The search for meaning can sometimes bring cultishness to the fore; at one point in 2007 a strange cult took over a moderately sized progressive organization, and the rhetoric of the cult just wasn’t very different than the leadership oriented rhetoric of the political group. For now, this isn’t the case, and #OccupyWallStreet is on its growth curve. Where that ends up isn’t clear. But also, this is probably one of many civic uprisings. Should it die down during the winter, another one will take its place, perhaps different in tone but with some of the same people in the core.
So to all those trying to figure out how to engage, here’s my advice. If you want to “help” #OccupyWallStreet, in New York or any place around the country, think about what you can bring to a public space to make it more lively, interesting, or helpful. On a basic level, just bring yourself. If you are a cook, cook food and bring it. If you are a lawyer, offer free legal help. If you’re an artist, make art. If you’re Joe Stiglitz, go by and host a brief teach-in (as he actually did). If you can publish, make a newspaper. One idea is to bring a laptop with internet access, and open it to the spiffy complaint page of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Put up a sign called “Complain About Your Bank” above the laptop, and show people how to use it. That’s useful. That shows people how to interact with their government and take action to empower themselves against banks. Make the space better, and then enjoy what you’ve made. Or, if you want to fight politically, fight for the right to this public space. Try and make sure predator drones aren’t at either political convention. Advocate for keeping parks open.
The premise of their politics is that #OccupyWallStreet isn’t designed to fit into your TV or newspaper. Nothing human really is, which is why our politics is so utterly deformed. It’s why they don’t want to be “on message” – what kind of human society can truly be reduced to a slogan? I’m not sure I agree with their political premise. But in the carnival they have created, in the liveliness and beauty and art and fun and utter humanity of it all, they make a damn good case.