Friday, October 7, 2011

Initial observations about Occupy LA

      Most of the fairly limited amount of people reading this blog have been following the rather large to-do about the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.  There's been a lot of writing on this subject, and I've read a fair amount of it.  For better or for worse, it has been the central focus of conversation for both the liberal-left, reformists, and revolutionaries.  I've largely stayed out of the conversation until this point because my engagement with the struggles has been limited to the variety of written communiques of the group and the variety of critiques produced inside and outside the movement.  I guess I could have taken up my role as a literary critic and produced an ideological critique of those documents, or perhaps take up the fashionable 90's pose of deconstructive reading, but I find the prospect of writing such an analysis almost as boring as most of its readers would find reading it.  After all, the most powerful aspect of the event, and its rebranding across the country, is its creation of political space and its creation of assemblages of people, not documents.

       While I'm excited about this shift in the political environment, I'm a little confused by the cacophony of claims that this event marks a new day in political protest.  Don't get me wrong, it's good to see a lot of folks out on the streets, taking action.  The occupy movements can possibly represent a shift from the melancholy and defensiveness that defined radical activism since the collapse of the anti-war movement and the reelection of President George Bush.  A lot of folks are excited and they're making their presence felt.  At the same time, there isn't anything particularly new about the kinds of tactics and political organization that are at the heart of this series of events.  One can go back to the formation of SNCC in 1960 and its to find the kind of horizontal organizing discussed by David Graeber and others as so unique to the occupation events.  SDS activists basically borrowed the 'beloved community' model from SNCC and spread it across the nation.  From there, the tactic has been taken up by anti-nuclear activists, environmentalists, ACT-UP, and the anti-globalization movement from there.  Each of these groups have modified the horizontal structures, making it there own, generally shifting away from some of the formalized structures contained in the original SNCC formation.  In this sense, rather than constituting a break from earlier counter-systemic movements, the occupy formulation stays resolutely in that set of post-68 practices, drawing particularly from the anti-globalization movement.

      I'm not bringing this up because the movement lacks some sort of antiquarian respect for the past, but because some of that social memory might help the movement.  This fact became immediately apparent during the short period of time that I spent at the OccupyLA site, attending meetings, and observing the daily life of the event.  From that short period of time, a couple things became immediately apparent, 1. there's a fairly small, top-down leadership structure, and 2. that leadership structure is pretty detached from the vast majority of the day to day life of the people involved in the occupation.  I was already aware from a number of conversations with comrades involved in the action that there were some substantial problems with the activities of the camp.  A number of well-known veteran activists were singled out as 'violent agitators' by the leadership, and fliers were passed out with names and photographs.  Rather than being cliched debates about 'violence vs. non-violence', the arguments that led to these actions were largely focused on taking actions that risked arrest, and the relationship of the occupation movement to the police.  The critics of the leadership felt that the movement needed to make its presence known through non-violent, confrontational protests, directed towards disrupting the daily life of the financial system, while the current leadership thought that the movement should focus on getting more people in the camp.  A legitimate debate, but one the 'appointed' leadership structure was never willing to openly engage in.

      Even with that foreknowledge, I really wasn't ready for how badly the meetings were run.  The 'action committee' met under a small pavilion, a space that clearly didn't fit the 15-20 people who were in attendance.  In addition, the facilitators made no real effort to create a sense of community within the space.  There were no introductions, no attempts to get people introduced to each other through icebreakers, or attempts to define community rules for the meeting.  Instead, the facilitators opened with a set of tasks that needed volunteers, creating a distinctly top-down atmosphere.  When the meeting moved into a discussion of possible actions, any action that could possibly lead to arrest was shot down on the basis that a general assembly had decided to avoid arrests about 6 days ago.  Perhaps, but the meeting wasn't created to pass resolutions, but to make a set of proposals to the general assembly.  There is no conceivable reason why the committee couldn't suggest that the assembly revisit the question, particularly when the population of the camp had changed so drastically in the past few days.  But beyond these political concerns, the meeting was miserable and inefficient.  With a change in location, and the introduction of some basic rules, the whole thing could have ran much more smoothly.  It also gestures towards a structureless environment that effectively constructed a leadership without any real formal responsibility to the rank and file of the movement.

      Which leads me back to my earlier comment, these aren't exactly new problems, and a lot of smart people have been thinking about these concerns in a variety of contexts.  These discussions range from how to run a meeting, how to a participatory environment, to larger critiques of racism and sexism in movement structures.  And some of those problems were pretty evident.  The camp was pretty diverse, but the leadership structure really didn't reflect that, remaining fairly white, and often male.  If you want to claim you're representing the 99%, you might want a leadership that looks like it.  Additionally, there was some pretty sexist behavior at times in the camp, which clearly wasn't getting dealt with.  The New Left put together some interesting material on these topics that could be talked about in discussion circles, stuff that's pretty smart and accessible like Audre Lorde's critiques of the white feminist movement or Jo Freeman's "The Tyranny of Structurelessness."  It was also help to create a set of much more transparent rules around running meetings, to create a friendlier environment for them to occur, and to work at making those meetings more friendly to the participation of folks new to activism.  Furthermore, the collective agreements of the occupation need to be revisited from time to time, precisely because of the transitory nature of the movement.  In short, rather than needing less process as Doug Henwood's thoughtful critiques indicate, I think the movement simply needs better process, process that would acknowledge the forms of representation and leadership going on in the occupation, and would make that leadership more formally responsible to the rank and file.

      At the same time, there is a wide swath of the life of the camp that remains fairly removed from the political intrigues of the meetings, people talking, holding signs, discussing how to transform the country, etc. It's a pretty diverse lot, a lot of radicals, reformers, with the some Larouchies, Ron Paul supporters, and believers in lizard people thrown into the mix.  (One of the stranger moments that I saw was when a particularly belligerent and possibly mentally ill Barack Obama supporter was told to chill out by a believer in the lizard people, 'because people protest in their own way.'  It's never a good sign when the lizard people guy is the voice of reason, especially when all the ostensible security people did nothing but rile the guy up.)  I think that if there's something really great about the protest, it really might be this, and I'd recommend that folks go down to the encampment to chat with some of these folks.  It isn't really a political community yet, but it could be come one with some work.  However, as long as the existent political structures of the occupation don't facilitate the incorporation of this group, we aren't going to see the creation of a genuinely political community.

       Despite my fairly low opinion of the 'leadership', and some of the fairly atrocious things that some of them did, notably driving out some of the veteran activists of color out of the camp and copbaiting, they struck me as a fairly hardworking and serious group of folks.  I never saw them sitting down.  They were always on the move, always planning, always working, but that activity seemed to lead to a kind of proprietary attitude amongst them, treating OccupyLA as a name-brand that needed to be protected, rather than a living, social movement.  The simple fact is that you can't control the messaging and political direction of a social movement.  You can try to influence it and direct it, but movements are movements because they're way bigger than any individual group.  In their attempt to control OccupyLA, these folks could very well kill it. 

       There are a lot of references to sources that I should make, but I think that I am going to leave that for a rather substantial links page that I will create tomorrow.


  1. graeber doesn't think the tactics are unique. in fact, he attributes them to feminism and quakers.

  2. sexism in occupy boston:

  3. I'll have to take a closer look at Graeber's writing in the next couple of days.
    The posting from Boston was a really good read. I think the issues of trust and patience are really at the heart of the consensus process, neither of which were going on in LA. Unlike the Henwood/Dean access, I think that this horizontal organizing is a good idea, but the stuff going on in LA could use some transparency and structure to make it work better.

    (we passed this at our General Assembly in Boston) It may be useful for LA (we basically ripped it off the st paul principles with a bit from the pittsburgh ones. You can use Boston as precedent if you want to push it in LA