‘We are at the beginning’

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.

Manissa McCleave Maharawal

Chris, I too am far from demoralised. I agree with you that, while our encampments are mostly gone, this is far from over and has in fact only begun. Let me say that again: ‘we are at the beginning’. I, like you, am relieved and exhilarated; I, like you, was there on 14 October when we first faced eviction; and I was there again a month later when we were actually evicted.

Both times I went home in the early morning hours, glassy-eyed from being awake all night, dodging office workers on their way to work, feeling embattled but also inspired. Yes, inspired. Even after being brutalised by the police and watching my friends brutalised. Even after standing a block away behind metal barricades and watching them pressure-wash the park – even that time I went home inspired because I knew I had just participated in something that was not over.

How do I know that this is not over? Because yesterday, like many evenings, I was at the Atrium at 60 Wall Street in planning meetings, discussing where we imagine ourselves in the next three months, in the next six months and in the next year. We talked about slowing down the movement, something that I’ve heard mentioned a lot recently. By slowing down, we don’t mean that we slow down our organising, but that we think carefully about everything that we have accomplished and plan carefully everything that we want to accomplish.

In a few short months we have accomplished a lot: we have shifted the political discourse from a focus on the deficit and budget to a focus on inequality and poverty; we have created a broad movement that connects the local, the national and the international; we have brought more people onto the streets protesting than I have seen in years; we have resisted media attempts to make us seem a bunch of disorganised kids; and we have done all of this while maintaining our commitment to consensus-based decision making and horizontal organising. In fact I would argue that we have done all of this because of our commitment to these forms of organising.

You make the argument that we need to shift away from a consensus-based decision-making structure in order to be a sustainable movement. This argument is not new and it is not a critique that we brush aside easily. It is a critique made from all corners of the Left and the Right, from all corners of established activism. It is the question I field from my mother (‘but how can you get anywhere if you keep trying to agree with each other?’) and from my students (‘that might work with a few people but it can’t work with a lot of people’).

If this movement is about anything at all, it is about the idea that we can live in a world different from the one we live in now. That we can live in a world that is more equitable; a world in which we aren’t defined by how much money we make but rather what we can contribute; where what we can contribute is redefined; where the ways in which we are valued are redefined. This is the idea that we can make a world in which our currency can be compassion rather than greed, wealth or power. These are big, idealistic, perhaps hopelessly naïve ideas. We are saying that capitalism is a system that creates poverty and disenfranchises people in order to exist. We are looking for ways outside of capitalism and we understand that the first step to achieving an outside is to create it ourselves – to create alternatives.

And so we use consensus as our decision-making structure. Yes, it is slow; yes, it is often frustrating; yes, sometimes I have seen people walk away from a meeting or a General Assembly because they are frustrated. I have been frustrated. But I have also been inspired. I disagree with you that, because nothing can be done without 90 per cent consensus, we avoid controversial issues. In fact, I believe the opposite. I’ve seen meetings come to some of the most nuanced and careful decisions possible: decisions that incorporate everyone there and that stretch our imaginations about what sort of decisions are even possible.

It is this stretch that is important. Arguments that we are dysfunctional and that we drive people away because of our method ignore what works and overlook the fact that no-one even imagined a movement like this was possible in the United States six months ago. Such arguments ignore the fact that part of the reason this movement is what it is, and has achieved what it has achieved, is because it is doing something different. We are engaging in a political process that is fundamentally different from the one that has disenfranchised millions of people around the world. We are engaging in a conversation with these people, and amongst ourselves, about what it means to take part in direct democracy, in a process that is inclusive and in which each of us takes on the responsibility to make decisions together, for our commons. This is what makes us different and this is why we have shifted the conversation and achieved what we have achieved – it is because we are challenging ourselves to stretch our political imaginations. I refuse to believe that the only way we can move forward is to abandon this challenge.

Last night I also attended a meeting about the New Years Eve party we are planning in Liberty Square: Occupy New Years 2012. We discussed what we could do at midnight that would be symbolic of our movement and our accomplishments. Someone suggested that we release ninety-nine balloons; someone else suggested that we raise something up instead of dropping something; someone else suggested that we destroy something that represented greed and capitalism. Finally someone suggested that we all stop and have a ‘laying of hands’ ceremony, in which we put a hand on the back of the person closest to us and send energy to the ideas we have created and the people we have met this year in the movement. The meeting paused for a moment while we thought about what this would look like. We didn’t achieve consensus about what we would do at midnight because we didn’t need to; because we are still having the conversation.

Chris Maisano

Manissa, in my frustration with the organisational structures and decision-making processes that the Occupy Wall Street movement has adopted, I hadn’t adequately recognised the fact that the process has given people the opportunity to be heard. It has ensured that people’s positions are not disregarded by those with a different point of view.

In the course of our lifetimes, every institution in our society, from the government to the workplace to the media, has been reshaped to disempower and disenfranchise the vast majority of the population. People today have very little control over anything that happens in their lives. They feel like they are the playthings of powerful but intangible forces beyond their reach, or even their comprehension. In the spaces the movement has constructed, where every single thing needs to be hashed out to everyone’s satisfaction (or at least to the point where everyone will simply accept what has been proposed) and any individual can exercise veto power in the decision-making process, people gain a sense of control over the rules of the game. It gives them agency. And I think that’s why there’s such a revulsion towards coming up with demands or an articulated political program to organise around – because doing so necessarily assumes engagement with the state and other institutions that make people feel they have no power.

As one of my favourite signs from Zuccotti Park put it, money talks too much. You’re certainly right that one of the movement’s chief virtues has been its insistence that the people have the right to talk back (and, to my frequent chagrin, at great length). Though I’m not yet thirty years old, I have been a committed and active socialist for well over a decade. I feel like I found my voice long ago. I know what kind of society I want to live in and I think I have some idea how we might go about getting there. I want to act; I want to win. But most of my fellow Occupiers probably aren’t at that point and are just starting to come to the realisation that they have it in their power to imagine a new world and to actually achieve it. So I’d like to thank you, Manissa, for reminding me that my frustrations with the movement are not always justified, and that I should be more appreciative of what has been accomplished in such a short time.

Still, I look at the magnitude of the challenges confronting the movement, and the planet as a whole, and remain convinced that if we are to even make a dent in them our modus operandi will have to change in the months and years to come. As Mike Davis reminds us in his survey of the events of 2011 for New Left Review, ‘spring is the shortest of seasons’, and we have barely even begun to prepare ourselves for the titanic struggles that we will need to overcome if humanity is to make it through the rest of this century in one piece. I recently listened to a radio interview with Cindy Milstein, a prominent anarchist activist and one of the leading voices of Occupy Philadelphia. During the interview she spoke about how a new society organised along strictly horizontalist lines would operate. She illustrated her vision by detailing the ways in which adjacent neighbourhoods within a city might band together to build a bike path that ran through each of them, all without higher levels of authority and planning. All well and good – I am rather an avid user of bike paths myself, and I certainly accept the feasibility and desirability of making these sorts of decisions in the manner that Milstein proposed.

But Occupy Wall Street is talking about things that are much bigger and infinitely more difficult to grapple with than the planning and construction of bike paths. If we are to break the stranglehold that money has over our political system; if we are to build a global energy infrastructure that does not threaten to destroy the ecological underpinnings of human civilisation; if we are to create an economic system oriented towards the fulfilment of human needs and the free and full participation of workers and communities in the production process; if we are to finally put an end to oppressions based on gender, racial/ethnic, sexual and national identity, we’ll need to build the kinds of agencies that will give us the capacity to pursue these staggering goals. And since the implementation of such visions presupposes the exercise of political and economic power on a truly massive scale, I question your conviction that we can move past capitalism by ‘achieving an outside’. Perhaps I am older in spirit politically than my age suggests, but I still think that our goals are unattainable without the construction of political parties and organisations of the working class (as broadly and inclusively defined as possible), in alliance with all the other oppressed and marginalised sectors of the population, that can confront the power of capital on its own terrain and win the power we need to make the changes we want. That process is going to be messy and is going to involve conflict – and there’s no way it can take place strictly on the basis of consensus-based decision making and localised forms of direct democracy. It seems to me that the divided nature of class societies precludes such a possibility, no matter how attractive it may appear to be.

But enough of that for now. We’re not yet anywhere near the point where such differences in political perspective would mean anything, and I’m much more interested in working with you and the rest of the movement on common goals than I am in scoring polemical points. In the Mike Davis piece I mentioned above, he encourages his readers to revisit the writings of Marx and Engels in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848. I did, and found a piece of advice from Marx that we would do well to keep in mind as we move forward: ‘You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and national struggles not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power.’

As recently as a few months ago, such a prospect would have inspired in me a sense of grim duty. Now, I read these words with a sense of joy and optimistic determination. For the first time in our lives, we have room to hope.

Manissa McCleave Maharawal is a writer, activist and graduate student in the Anthropology department at the CUNY Gruduate Center. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Chris Maisano is a member of the Young Democratic Socialists New York City chapter. He currently works as a librarian at a large public library branch in Brooklyn.

© Manissa McCleave Maharawal and Chris Maisano
Overland Occupy – special online supplement 2012

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Manissa McCleave Maharawal

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