Occupy Wall Street: Some observations and concerns #OWS

After three visits to Zucotti Park, one of which included participation in the General Assembly, a lot of live-stream watching and online engagement with adherents, my feelings about Occupy Wall Street remain somewhat mixed, though not so mixed that I can’t endorse it.

After participating in a General Assembly and observing some of them online, I am fairly won over to the Horizontal Organizing and Collective Thinking practices used by the group, at least in theory. It has its faults, but I doubt that there is any formidable activist organization in New York where one can just show up and get as deeply involved in both generating activity and making decisions as is possible at #OWS.

I know that a lot of rads hate the process stuff, but I have never been sympathetic to them. It does seem to distribute power better and I like that there are built-in safeguards against the egotists and freaks that so relentlessly drive sane, self-preserving people from activism. I have a hunch this represents a culture shift in organizing that is likely to influence civic life permanently and for the better. That said, I am less enthusiastic about the people who seem to be predominating in the action-taking and decision-making.

Which brings me to the somewhat schizophrenic character of the New York occupation scene.  When you originally arrive at Zucotti, it seems a bit like an anarcho-hippie encampment redolent of  Thomkins Square in the 90s. There is always a very loud drumming circle and all the various things that go along with it, except you don’t smell pot or booze, both of which are banned by the group.

Around the perimeter of the park are people doing agitprop – mostly making or holding posters – who run the political gamut of all political tendencies that have been marginalized from two-party duopoly, including a fair smattering of conspiracy theorists and cranks. The park grounds themselves are covered with the camping gear of  the actual occupants, which is alleged to be 600 people, though it does not look that large to me. The hive of activity seems to be the food line, and, in fact, from a distance anyway, food and agitprop-making seem to be the focal points of occupation life.

Now the strange thing is, once the General Assembly starts, the prevailing demographics seem to shift rather dramatically. Overwhelmingly the people most involved in the General Assembly – the people who facilitate, who offer reports from working groups and who pose questions, seem to be largely of the management class – though many are still students – which is betrayed instantly by their appearance and communication style, their savviness in directing discussion and giving instructions, and by the preening, extroverted style that marks many of today’s professionals and pre-professionals from both working stiffs and their stodgier predecessors. In other words, they look exactly like the kind of people who went literally insane for Obama in 2008 and many, if not most, probably did.

Though I find this class of people extremely unappealing as a matter of personal taste, their predominance, at least at this stage, is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of them have genuinely wised up and, more importantly, have skills and resources that less advantaged people frequently don’t have, as well as the patience for the grunt work side of revolt.  But they also bring the baggage of their conformism, professional ambition and general trust in state authority, as well as religious faith in the inane strains of identity politics that have run interference for the ruling class since the 70s.

The result is that there is WAY too little evidence that this movement is ready or willing to do what the international movement with which it is aligned has done: which is unequivocally repudiate the whole corporatist racket, not just the financial sector, but also the fraudulent democracies that go with it. It is an outright lie to say that this agnosticism is not radically different from the other big players in this global revolt. In Spain, for instance, yes, they are politically heterodox, but they are united in their rejection of the dominant political parties. They have made not voting into a form of active protest by raising hell en masse during elections. Right now, it’s hard to imagine the New York General Assembly signing off on something like that.

The narrative that you get from liberals all over New York, that Obama means well but has been bullied by the right-wing or The System, is not at all uncommon among people who have embraced #OWS including its founding members.  One occupation resident I spoke to estimated that about 3 in 10 people in the movement are very much in favor of Obama. Furthermore, the movement is on extremely friendly terms with Moveon.org – a top-down partisan Democrat campaign organization – and the most Dem-friendly factions of organized labor. Both the 10,000 strong march of a few weeks back and the marches to billionaires homes (which, by the way, only make stops at Republican bogeymen like Rupert Murdoch) were Move On/labor events with what managers would call a dotted line to #OWS.

Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be too much official confrontation activity coming out of the General Assembly or the established Working Groups. If you glance at the Occupation calendar you’ll see that Arts and Culture is the most active group in the batch. The others seem mostly dedicated to consciousness-raising and keeping the thing going. I didn’t hear much in the way of politics in the General Assembly I attended, which was dedicated to approving an emergency purchase of a $2000 generator and a $25,000 allocation for video production and streaming costs, the latter made largely in response to Spain’s call for a global rally on the 15th.

You could surmise that for at least some of the participants, #OWS offers a certain number of perks – a place to live and eat, a sense of meaning and belonging, and, also, for some, career development – and that they’re aware that all of this is being made possible by donations that have been flooding in since they started. As of last night’s General Assembly, the group had about $160,000 and it seems the rate of donations is accelerating. The Assembly did not applaud much last night but they certainly whooped and hollered when this sum was announced.  It’s fine that they recognize the necessity of money to moving along.  That the movement offers all kinds of sustenance is a good on its own and also necessary for its longevity.

But certainly the activists must also know that this funding dries up or flows depending on what they do. Right now, they have a very strong material interest in being something of a tabula rasa for fed up people, and it’s unlikely that they enjoy the cozy confines of their own asses considerably less than other Americans. Hence, for the moment, #OWS is, like the Obama ‘movement’, very much more about itself than about anything else. Since I think the global confrontation with the predator class is going to be long and also need a lot of technical savvy and resources, it might be ok to keep things a little open-ended for now to keep the money and the love flowing.

However, the risk here is obvious, and I don’t need to spell it out. Nonetheless, by wrapping itself in more genuinely true and confrontational signifiers than any other campaign in recent memory, and by hooking up with more confrontational movements elsewhere, #OWS has created the space for a lot of forward movement as well as some immunization from co-option with no strings attached.  As organizations go, it’s about as porous as you will see in your lifetime. For those who are afraid of it taking a wrong turn, the best thing to do is to check it out for yourself.

NOTE ON EDIT: I recently updated this post with qualifying language about the social makeup of people dominating at the General Assembly. When I said professional class previously, that seemed to be interpreted as ‘professionals’; that is not what I meant. I was speaking of a social class and type, which is inclusive not just of managers but of their children.

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19 Responses to Occupy Wall Street: Some observations and concerns #OWS

  1. great post, I appreciate the time and effort it took to go to the park and prepare it

    here in Sacramento, I’ve only seen the encampment outside of the assembly, and, of course, it is much much smaller, but there are a few things worth noting

    first, in the absence of a major activity, the participants are homeless people (there was a major action by the homeless here about a year ago when they took over a vacant lot about 3/4 of a mile away, so I’m guessing some of them are involved here, too), anarchists and hippie/punk kids

    second, they are some, for lack of a better term, marginalized people, people who haven’t had jobs for a long time, or have barely survived on public assistance, the kind of people that Marxists used to pejoratively call “lumpenproletarians”

    Sacramento has been hit very hard by the recession (unemployment is still “officially” over 12%, close to levels that one sees in Michigan), and the occupation shows this harsh reality

    hence, there appears to be a split between the employed, much more secure participants that you encountered at the general assembly and the ones who are on the front lines, and periodically get arrested, 37 here in Sacramento since last Thursday night

    if the objective of MoveON/Rebuild the Dream is to manipulate these people into participating in the electoral process and supporting Obama and the Democrats, I don’t think that is going to happen

  2. ohtarzie says:

    Hi Richard:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the thoughtful comments. It is interesting to hear how this is playing out in other cities.

    I am not as confident as you about co-opting, possibly because we may disagree on what’s being co-opted, among other things. The actual physical occupations need not be thoroughly infiltrated with moveon tools for this movement to feed into Obama’s reelection. The actual occupiers are only a small part of the movement they kicked off. The real action is in how people and other groups read their signals or answer their calls.

    If this energizes people, but does not educate them enough to reject lesser-evilism, it won’t matter what the movement core themselves do, which, here in New York, honestly, doesn’t look to be a whole lot. I expect we will hear more of the Amy Goodman ‘Make him do it’ bullshit that you cited on your blog and that for a lot of folks it will make sense in the absence of a strong, aggressive counter-movement.

    • I very much agree with you and in fact, linked to this post. First, I’ve felt that the Adbusters types are about “performance as art” all along, and have felt that way about Adbusters for, ooohhh, a good decade?

      As a Green Party voter (tho not registered member) I totally agree with the “lesser evil” line, too.

      Finally, going beyond you … this is NOT “leaderless.” If you have an inner circle patrolled by security guards, if the 99ers website was launched in June 2010 (it was) and with some “obfuscation” on the WhoIs, etc., you’re NOT “leaderless.” That, too, is part of the mythmaking involved here.

      Finally, MoveOn (and CAP, per Greenwald), are *political whores* just like Gang Green enviros.

      http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2011/10/obamiacs-leaders-of-ows-political.html

      • ohtarzie says:

        I think you may be misreading me.

        I don’t think that the prevalence of the management classes (and by that I do mean a class and social type, not necessarily just managers) is part of a nefarious co-option plot. I am just limning the lay of the land as I see it. I think some of these people may actually be quite radical. However, I see no strong indication that many of them are.

        Though I don’t place the same emphasis on culture jamming that Ad Busters do, I have no beef with them. I was just observing that even some of them are keen on the well-intended but hamstrung Obama myth. While I find this myth objectionable by virtue of ignoring his unilateral killing sprees, it could constitute enough of a break with the System, since that’s what gets blamed for his failure. To me, though, anyone who is still crediting Obama with a soul and conscience is somewhat naive to say the least.

      • wjacobr says:

        My observations–first hand and as a participant–more briefly for Wall Street, full time in Philly, have been of a growing militancy, such that has taken me by surprise again and again. In the decisions made in GA’s, and the lengthy discussions that precede them, I never imagined–not since the Weatherman coup of SDS more than 40 years ago, that I’d find myself in a group this large, more militant, if not more radical, than myself.

        I’ve been in & out of radical & progressive movements and protests for 50 years and have never seen anything remotely like what I’m seeing in the Occupancy movements. There’s a self-generating momentum toward more comprehensive & radical goals that’s driven by a deep seated will to resistance–to being co-opted, to being absorbed into the existing structures of power, and those who you hear this from in decision making bodies are people who you would never expect to be giving voice to such ideas.

        The very, at least superficially permissive reception by authorities here in Philly, seems to have deepened, not mollified or appeased this will to resist, even to provoke opposition. A kind of hunger for confrontation. There is something happening that we would all do well to recognize doesn’t fit the patterns we might reasonably expect by analysis drawn from historical models. The responses of Power (including here in Philly… where internal politics explains pretty well their relative tolerance so far) being the exception–they are all too predictable.

      • ohtarzie says:

        That sounds great. This is all in its infancy so no telling where it will go. One thing worth noting is that since it is decentralized all the different Occupations will have a very different flavor. Despite all the horizontal leadership stuff, certain groups and individuals will get traction and dominate and others won’t. Depending on location, the GA will be convenient for some and not for others. Philly is less expensive than New York. That affects demographics also.

        What you describe is very different from what I see here and what I hear about from other cities. i am not simply speculating that there are Obamaphiles here. There just are. Nevertheless, what I see and hear is certainly more radical than anything Americans have done since the 60s. There is no question of that. I think you may be onto something with self-generating momentum to greater radicalism. It could be that everyone’s heading toward the same place but at different speeds.

        I am curious, are they using the Horizontal leadership meeting facilitation stuff in Philly? Have been wondering if that’s been embraced all over. Would also like a little more details over what is specifically radical about the Philly group and what is their general movement bent: anarchism? socialism? Are they inclined to agitate for policy changes like tax hikes on the rich? Criminal investigations of the banksters?

      • wjacobr says:

        The only apologists I’ve heard for Obama have been from a few Afro-Americans, who want to give him some slack for being asked to do an impossible job, but even there–his Wall Street cabal comes up. Over all I’d say he’s held in about as much esteem as Jr. Bush.

        Philly has it’s wealthy enclaves and suburbs, it’s hipsters and yuppy micro-brew beer bars,, but is overwhelmingly a working class city with a long festering discontent with the political establishment, local state & national. Mayor Nutter is a pro-business Democrat who’s in deep trouble with the unions–a potent factor in his kid glove treatment so far–the unions love us. TWU (public transit) is paying for 2 PortaPoties–and have their ear close enough to the temper of peeps here to have one of them wheelchair accessible.
        There are a significant number of the occupiers in NY from around the country–Philly is overwhelmingly local, with many of us regulars commuting daily from neighborhoods, making for a strong organic outreach that helps spread the word and draw in new people (We had 312 tents as of yesterday’s morning count–hard to say how many overnighters–some tents have 4 or 5 peeps, some are one person mountain tents–but has to be over 600 and could be as many as 1000–which makes our actual occupation quite a bit larger than NY). And neighborhood support in Philly means labor unions & working class–a strongly disaffected demographic that doesn’t blink at radical, militant proposals. The young tattooed mufti-pierced kids here (their kids to me! I’m 70 years old!)… don’t look like that cause they have corporate management jobs in mind for their futures). I’d guess that might be true in NY as well. I can’t offer any statistical verification, but in conversations I’ve had–they are always from working, low middle class, municipal service families. They don’t have now and don’t envision having any sense of entitlement or stake in what they see as the established order. This is not movement of future young Democrats!
        We use pretty much the same process model as OWS. Working Groups (committees–about 40 now in Philly) send reps to the Coordinating Council (CoCo), if they want to bring proposals they’d like to present to the GA. CoCo votes on those they feel are ready. Basically–if the purpose is clear, the WG is well able to explain and defend them, they are put on the agenda for the WG. CoCo meets two hours before the GA. They take the proposals to Facilitation, whose sole purpose is to step back from advocacy and guide the meeting through the agenda, and see that Process is observed. It takes a team of 6 to 8 facilitators. We make an effort (so far pretty successful), to have different faces up front for every meeting, and bring new people in every GA. Both Fac and Coco are open to anyone, to participate fully. WG’s also bring brief reports (& appeals for Occupants to join) to every GA.

        Transparency is a huge issue–peeps come from outside with near paranoic fear of hidden power in any form whatsoever. City wants to meet with us–GA has rejected proposal after proposal for how to meet with them, from a liaison committee with legal team, from a select group to “listen” & explain to them our process.. why we take so long to make decisions (clash of horizontal and hierarchical power cultures) … seems to have come down to–they can either just be part of the GA, observing process like everyone else–or agree to a meeting preferably livestreamed, or at minimum, with a video posted and available immediately after. The more we learn to trust one another, seems the less trust we have for THEM.
        As for the general bent–there’s a handful of very genial anarchists, fully committed to democratic process. They all of them came before the GA, introduced themselves–this, to reassure everyone and defend themselves after one or two trolls attacked them on the web, accusing them of all sorts of nonsense. Everything else you can imagine. It’s a VERY big tent. Ending corporate personhood would prolly get a unanimous support–strong recognition of linkage–that can’t isolate cause from cause. Everything is related. One reason why no specific set of demands or manifesto has come out of this. This will take time… we’ve been at this less than two weeks, and have managed to build a build a community, 300 + tents, feed 1500 peeps a day, include several hundred homeless–many of whom are part of the camp (they lived around City Hall before we came). I don’t think anyone can say where this will go or what it’s limits may be. We’re really breaking new ground. .

        .

  3. I think that the real peril is that the people who would otherwise be disengaged will get demoralized, not that they will be drawn into the Democratic Party apparat. It is not so much that I am confident, but, rather, that people are being driven to these acts by desperation, by the failure of the political system to respond to them. So, unless something is done for them, which is unlikely, I doubt that they will put much effort into the political process, especially if economic conditions get worse. Just the fact that OWS has happened, and has drawn so many people, when it was organized by people outside the pseudo-direct action world of groups like Rebuild the Dream and MoveON.org, is already a major achievement. Now, they are rushing to catch up, and doing things that would have been unimaginable a month ago. I agree with your point about the need for education, but that is process that is going to take awhile, and requires people to relate to their experience within a broader social context over time. For example, consider that, when World War I started, the Bolsheviks infiltrated the Czarist army, and by 1917 many troops were in open rebellion. It was the combination of events and Bolshevik organizing that brought this about. OWS may be the beginning of such a process here in the US.

  4. oh, by the way, quoted part of your post on my blog

    hope you don’t mind

  5. ohtarzie says:

    Richard,

    I think you may have a better feel for the overall political temperature than I do. Appreciate the comments. You are also more in tune with how extraordinary this all is. I get jaded very easily.

    One thing I find interesting are the various approaches being taken by different occupations. I am encouraged by some of the activity around providing services to people who are struggling. In addition to being good on its own, that could build solidarity, work for morale and other good things.

    As to education, lately I have been really struck by how quickly people come around on stuff and also by how much conversation has been altered by these events. At the same time, so surprised at the number of people who have no idea what #OWS is. I am entertaining in-laws this weekend and they’re fairly reactionary people. They didn’t know what OWS# is but having heard about it, they completely support it. The SO and I are taking them there today after they visit the 9/11 memorial.

  6. wjacobr says:

    Acutely observed. Seeing less of the managerial face up-front here in Philly. This sprang up so fast–tents covering Dillworth Plaza, which is 4x the size of Zuccotti Park–that more truly marginalized peeps have stepped up out of dire need–far too exhausting for any elite to hang in there without major help from the ranks… so necessity comes to the aid of ideology.

    I want to see the international connection grow as fast as possible–it’s our only hope. I don’t mean just ad-hoc digital communications–plenty of that already. I mean, building a movement that can maintain itself OUTSIDE the established order, resist being co-opted and absorbed into the fucking bad joke of electoral politics. We’ve begun organizing an Occupy Internationale here with that in mind. .

    I’m not wildly optomistic about what’s going to happen to us… power don’t give up power willingly… but feeling deep down it don’t matter what happens to us. This will live past us.

    Thoughtful observation and critique like your post here is needed and welcome!
    Peace & Solidarity!
    –Jacob Spirit Stick

  7. Lisa Simeone says:

    Quoting:
    “The result is that there is WAY too little evidence that this movement is ready or willing to do what the international movement with which it is aligned has done: which is unequivocally repudiate the whole corporatist racket, not just the financial sector, but also the fraudulent democracies that go with it. It is an outright lie to say that this agnosticism is not radically different from the other big players in this global revolt. In Spain, for instance, yes, they are politically heterodox, but they are united in their rejection of the dominant political parties. They have made not voting into a form of active protest by raising hell en masse during elections. Right now, it’s hard to imagine the New York General Assembly signing off on something like that.”

    I can only say that’s NOT been my experience at Freedom Plaza in DC, where we know damn well both political parties are fucked, the entire system needs to change, and there’s no way in hell we’re going to allow Obama, any politicians, or any Dem shill group such as MoveOn use this movement for their own ends. We know they’re liars. We know they’d sell us down the river just as soon as look at us. We know voting is pointless. That’s why we’re occupying.

    And yes, it’s going to take a long time. Years. This is only the beginning.

    • wjacobr says:

      Quoating: “The result is that there is WAY too little evidence that this movement is ready or willing to do what the international movement with which it is aligned has done: which is unequivocally repudiate the whole corporatist racket,” Nor has that been my experience in Philly–5 days sleeping on the site, everyday working, attending all but one evening GA. This is going to be a long process of building and learning.

  8. ohtarzie says:

    Hey Lisa and wjacobr:

    Thanks for for dropping by with heartening news from your two camps. I find the variation between locations very interesting. There is some possibility that I have made a judgment about New York based on too little evidence, but I don’t think so. Perhaps the Occupies that are working more deliberately toward building sustenance and respite for those most fucked over by the system – like the homeless for instance – are also more militant. That seems the way to go for all kinds of reasons. There are homeless people in the New York Occupy, but overwhelmingly it’s students and young people who don’t need to be there. I base that assessment mostly on two lengthy conversations I had with two homeless people. One of them is living at Zucotti full-time. The other divides it with couch-surfing.

    I was at the big demo in Times Square today and talked to a lot of people and read a lot of signs. Unless New York is some kind of weird anomaly, I am sticking to my guns about the indeterminate political temperature of this movement. Conceiving of it as not just the people occupying parks, but the far larger number of people interpreting and interacting with its signals and calls – I have to insist that it is still far from a massive, vocal repudiation of the whole sick mess.

    This sign summed up what a lot of people said: ‘Hey Obama: Want another term? Join the 99%.’

    Also continually disappointed by the disproportionally small concern with the war and the gutting of civil liberties.

  9. wjacobr says:

    Hope you don’t mind if I post your questions and my reply on my blog–as well as link yours. It’s very difficult in the confusion of action and crisis management to find opportunities to sort things in such a way you can think about them critically. Thanks much for offering this forum.

  10. wjacobr says:

    Richard,
    You’ve prolly seen this, but maybe some here haven’t. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence’s list of grievances to George III. Pretty inclusive.

    http://www.dangerousminds.net/comments/first_official_statement_from_the_occupy_wall_street_movement/

    • ohtarzie says:

      Hi Jacob:

      First of all, just a friendly note that the name is not Richard. Richard is another person who comments here. I stay anonymous and call myself ohtarzie for reasons too stupid to enumerate.

      Second, yes I’ve seen that statement. I have no real quarrel with it but I am not in love with it either. I tend not to like these grandstanding laundry lists that emerge anywhere lefty people gather. Won’t go into why. It’s a topic I’m sick of and since I don’t think these manifestos matter much to mass movements, I don’t belabor it. I am much happier with Oakland’s concise fuck you to the rulers both as a message and an organizing principle. I also think it’s more inclusive by being more general.

      Most of all, I would like the New York occupation and those in alliance it to stop seeing it as the big cheese setting the tone and direction. First of all, deferring that role to any one group is at odds with a horizontal movement. Second, from where I sit the New York occupants are among the least diverse, the least militant and least accomplished. I don’t even think #OWS the largest. It’s strongest point is that it’s conveniently located in the belly of the beast. Apart from that, I remain not a fan, though I answer its calls including those to protect it from the NYPD. I had first bristled at the idea of other occupations springing up elsewhere in the city, but now I am very much in favor, having revised my outlook on what these occupations should do and mean and recognizing limits that I see as possibly inherent to a Manhattan occupation.

      • wjacobr says:

        Sorry about the name…
        “Most of all, I would like the New York occupation and those in alliance it to stop seeing it as the big cheese setting the tone and direction”

        That one I can heartily second and third..
        Peace&Solidarity!

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