When two Occupy Wall Street activists meet

Earlier this year, we invited two Occupy Wall Street activists, Manissa McCleave Maharawal and Chris Maisano, to participate in a dialogue about the possible futures of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here’s what they had to say in our special Overland Occupy edition.

Manissa McCleave Maharawal

What does it mean to be a part of Occupy Wall Street?

For me, the meaning has changed and shifted; it changes and shifts every day. Today: co-editing a press statement about ‘Occupy our Dreams’ on Google Docs with people I have never met. Yesterday: teaching my college students about the consensus method and how our classroom would be different if it were run that way; talking about what horizontal power looks like; and then later, in bed, watching the live stream of Occupy Oakland shutting down the ports. Tomorrow: a spokes-council meeting on racial justice training. This weekend: a re-occupy all day event/party/protest at a park on Canal Street and Seventh Avenue. Sunday: meetings all day in the Atrium at 60 Wall Street. And then there are the constant emails, the constant keeping up with it all, the constant planning, the constant thinking. And, sometimes, the question: is this what being part of a social movement feels like?

Of course, what it meant to experience Occupy Wall Street was very different in the ‘early’ days. When Zuccotti Park was still Liberty Plaza (when it was warm out), being part of it was sometimes as simple as meeting people on Friday night, waiting in the food line for dinner, listening to the General Assembly, sitting on the steps leading into the park, seeing old friends, making new ones, talking about activism, politics, race, inequality and, most importantly, what this whole thing meant.

But we were evicted. Where there once was a library, a meeting space, a food area, a medic tent, boxes of warm clothes for people to borrow, an art area where I learned how to silkscreen and painted cardboard signs. Where there once was a drum circle, people dancing on the sidewalk, a tree with candles surrounding it that served as a spiritual space. Where there once were tents, tents and more tents. Now, there is the brutally banal return of normalcy: a concrete park with marble benches and trees planted in neat rows. The police have placed metal barricades around the park and they stand around to guard it. A mobile NYPD surveillance tower still looms over it. Because now the park is mostly empty it seems as if there must be some invisible, very precious thing there that is being guarded. Or as if something very dangerous were trying to get out. Or just something dangerous trying to get in.

Zuccotti Park was evicted. Occupy Oakland, Portland, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia were all evicted. But somehow Occupy still exists. Of course Occupy still exists! They thought that evicting a park would mean we would disappear – but the issues that we are talking about and organising around, and the powers that we are fighting against, are still here. And so we are still here.

What makes Occupy a new kind of political activism is that our issues are simply everything. Most fundamentally, Occupy is about the objective conditions of economic inequality and persistent wealth polarisation. But there is also a subjective, visceral feeling that persists: things are unfair, have been unfair for a long time, and continue to be so. At times, Occupy is this shared visceral feeling; at other times it is a sophisticated critique of capitalism: that in concentrating the means of production in the hands of a few – in the hands of the 1 per cent – capitalism has failed the 99 per cent and has created a near-universalised system of precariousness and insecurity; that this is a system that relies on racism and gender inequality to perpetuate itself; that, if we want to change it, we must fight it; that, if we want to change it, we have to try to find ways outside of it; and that maybe, maybe, Occupy is a way to start building this ‘outside.’

Chris Maisano

Manissa, your elegy for the ‘early’ days of Occupy Wall Street reminded me of the mighty roar that reverberated off the financial district’s hulking glass towers as day broke on 14 October 2011. That’s when thousands of us packed Zuccotti Park to turn back the NYPD’s first attempt to evict the encampment, and it was the moment I realised that Occupy Wall Street wasn’t just another ritual protest. The long fuse of popular discontent has burned out at last and, for the first time in my life, Americans are fighting back against their dispossession at the hands of capital and its henchmen. I am exhilarated and, perhaps more so, relieved.

Like you, I mourn the loss of the encampments in New York and elsewhere. But I’m far from demoralised. They served their purpose, and it’s time to move on to the next phase of the struggle. In a certain sense the evictions may be a good thing, particularly if they force us to expand our outreach and coalition building, take up specific demands and deepen our involvement in local struggles, and establish new occupations in institutional settings like universities or – dare we hope? – workplaces.

While the 1 per cent may take heart in the wave of evictions, the genie is out of the bottle and it won’t be jammed back in. The processes that began in the encampments will not come to a halt, especially when we consider that most of the important organising is now carried out by working groups operating primarily outside those specific physical spaces. If trade unions and community organisations continue to offer activists spaces and staging areas to use over the winter, then we will almost certainly see a resurgence of the movement in the spring. That’s when states and cities around the US will propose another round of massive cuts to education, health care and other critical public services which will summon masses of people back into the streets, squares and state capitals of America. Such a turn towards the defence of public services could broaden the social composition of the movement and give it deeper roots in local communities. Not everyone is free to do politics 24/7 – the loss of the encampments should compel us to regroup in ways that facilitate the long-term participation of people with obligations to work and to care for their families, and who depend on what’s left of the welfare state for support. If this remains a movement dominated by precarious but well-educated and largely white youth, it will fail to achieve its considerable promise.

I think the movement is going to have to supplement (not replace) its much-vaunted horizontality with more ‘vertical’ organisational and leadership structures. What served us well in its formative stages may not necessarily be useful moving forward. We’ve found our voice. Now we need to start winning tangible political victories, not only to meet the immediate needs of the poor and the unemployed, but also to sustain the movement’s sense of efficacy and direction over the longer term. I’m not yet convinced that the organisational methods currently hegemonic within the movement, particularly the use of consensus decision-making processes, are adequate to that task.

My experiences with consensus as practised at General Assembly (GA) meetings in New York have led me to the conclusion that the movement will have to scrap, or at least significantly modify, this process if it is going to perpetuate itself. It confuses and alienates newcomers, who understandably don’t want to sit through hours-long training sessions to understand the jargon and procedural minutiae used at GAs. It prolongs meetings far beyond a reasonable time frame, especially for those who have to work and care for families. And it empowers intransigent minorities to block whatever they deem unacceptable, even if an overwhelming majority are in favour of a particular course of action. Because nothing can be done without the approval of at least 90 per cent of the assembly, the discussions tend to avoid potentially controversial matters and lack political substance. A tendency towards the lowest common denominator continually asserts itself.

Even before the police evicted the campers, the dysfunctional nature of the process drove many people away and helped to reduce the number in the park at any time. Sensing a problem with this model, Occupiers recently established a ‘spokes-council’ body, separate from the GA, comprised of representatives from each working group. Its purpose was to take up the administrative and logistical issues that tended to dominate GAs, thereby allowing them to focus on strategic and political questions. But because it also operates on the basis of 90 per cent consensus, the problems that have plagued the GA are also true of the spokes-council. Little has been resolved, and the movement’s internal dynamics remain unwieldy and dysfunctional.

Those of us who are dissatisfied with the movement’s decision-making processes should not, however, simply hurl criticisms from the sidelines. The current lull in activity is an ideal time to regroup, pull together like-minded Occupiers and establish new assemblies that can, if done right, offer an attractive alternative to the current dysfunction. Personally, I would like to see the adoption of majority voting and more formalised, representative leadership structures. However, such decisions will have to arise from the course of people’s experience and common activity. Anything that works better than the current system would be a big improvement.

Such a shift in internal processes would likely portend a shift in the movement’s political orientation as well. In ‘Building Solidarity’, a piece in his essential essay collection Class Notes, US political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr distinguishes between two approaches to political activity: the witness-bearing approach and the ‘organising model of politics’. So far, proponents of the former have tended to hold sway in both the GAs and the spokes-council. If Occupy Wall Street is to persist and become a real mass movement with transformative potential, it needs an infusion of activists oriented towards the organising model of politics. As Reed defines it, this approach is based on ‘intensive, issue-based organising of the old-fashioned shop-to-shop, door-to-door technique. The paramount objective is to reach out to people who aren’t already mobilised in Left politics, to build a conversation that builds a movement.’ And that kind of organising will require some form of engagement with the state and the political system, even if we reject its legitimacy and work to build centres of popular power outside of its framework.

If we can set our house in order during the winter, then we’ll be better prepared to confront the cuts that are coming our way this spring.

Read the rest of the OWS dialogue in Overland Occupy.

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  1. Pingback: When two Occupy Wall Street activists meet « Overland literary journal | Occupy Wall Street Info

  2. That first answer to “what does it mean” reminds me of Gloria Steinem’s statement years ago, something to the effect of: “We don’t attack the goal; we surround the goal.”

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