I’ve got this question that I always seem to come back to yet never answer: is the occupy movement a mere tactic for attracting people into a common space for protest? or is it a radically original community with its own procedures for collective decision-making growing right inside a state it rejects? Due to the horizontal, leaderless principles upon which the it operates (in theory), answers to these questions depend on who is asked. The respect for personal autonomy of opinion and action is a shared *principle* that works to keep any one person, group, committee, or body from crystallizing the occupy movement into a unified party. Yet there are still principles that we have in common: no demands, no leaders, no hierarchy, just a transparent public space and a respect for the (non-inpinging) differences of others. These principles are not easily upheld in practice however, they require diligence and much tiresome arguing to prevent a power dynamic from becoming a power structure.
I’m constantly drawn to the community vs. tactic question which was more obvious when the camps were still raging. If the movement is just a tactic, it will lose relevance in absence of a name (would anyone care if I, you, we are ’occupiers’ otherwise?), if the movement is a new community, it risks conformity into binding principles of behavior isolating the autonomous element. How can this ’we’ maintain respect for each other’s autonomy when ’we’ must reach some form of consensus on what is officially endorsed by this-or-that occupy? Is such a consensus necessary at all, or can these assemblies be merely action announcements and places for radical tactics discussions without losing the name?
(tactics – movement – community)
(autonomous bodies in space vs consensus-based commune)
That this is a movement is without doubt. It marches, it camps, it is wildly creative in the slogans, chants, costumes, and it consistently draws masses of people to protest the injustices of today. It is invigorating and intense to march with both strangers and friends, asserting our collective power in the face of overwhelming oppression in plain sight (police) and lurking behind the scene (1% bankers & lobbyists wielding economic authority for political gain). The righteousness of the cause, the bonds that form in these open spaces all lend to the revolutionary spirit drawing crowds together and ensuring this idea will not be evicted. It is rather the internal quarrels and/or co-option from established groups or parties that pose the greatest endangerment to continued participation. Maintaining the motivational liveliness that encourages people to come on to the streets in the face of blatantly aggressive police and surveillance strategies is of the highest concern. This is mainly done through internet articles & videos and direct, gonzo-style journalism (because lord knows the mainstream media is doing everything it can to suppress it) which provide unprecedented access to the action on the streets. This sense of righteousness could be lost along with the number of bodies marching in the streets if the decisions consented on are by and for a mere group of General Assembly goers.
The main impediment to keeping people coming back and gaining new support is self-destruction by way internal conflicts that don’t get a chance to be aired out in open discussion. There’s been a number of people who ”quit occupying” before writing incendiary articles on why they became frustrated with meetings, tactics, principles and so on. This is alarming considering their dedication now being lost to the movement, but is this movement only shedding people with a vision for the whole community, who simply can’t abide by the autonomous actions of others, or is something else going on here? If these attacks are out of despair from a feeling of voices not being heard, if the consensus process itself is passing proposals that only cater to what a comparatively small group in attendance can agree on, then this process is silencing dissent. Collective dissent, disobedience in the face of corrupted political (mis)representation is what got us moving together; if we have people criticizing the process but also leaving, we are no longer channeling critique to change the world but spiraling into a black-hole.
The process, the means, the model we are building must remain critical of the governing forces we may reject while simultaneously embodying the change we wish to see. This name we have adopted – occupiers – holds us loosely together seeing as it is a tactic which really just means taking up space. As the name becomes more notorious throughout the world and the friendships we have made strengthen, we too also risk degenerating into an insular group if we ’fetishize’ the GA – as folks have been saying lately. The openness, transparency, and inclusiveness many of us pride ourselves on becomes difficult to keep propped up if dissenting opinions are rooted out by a model seeking maximal agreement. The agreements reached could pander to the lowest common denominator which then represents the official stance of ”the occupy x movement”; the name helps attract people, but that could be reversed to repulsion if the consensed proposals only get those who voted to show up (if they even do themselves).
I hear the problems raised about consensus and understand the frustrations of holding people accountable when mistakes are made, along with the dangers of mob rule. But these issues demand attention that cannot be given if people don’t show up. I’m arguing for a minimalist interpretation of what it means to occupy and putting faith in the relationships that are forged by convening in the streets. I’ve never really taken the decisions consensed on by the general assembly as absolutely binding, for the real impact comes from showing up. This takes nothing away from the committees and working groups that plan, coordinate, and report back to the GA whose work is vital to keeping us moving. This opening statement of Oakland’s General Assembly is important: ”the bulk of the work at Occupy Oakland does not occur at the GA”.
To sustain this energy, to continue gathering people for liberation of the commons that have been ripped away by capitalist forces backed by oppressive police enforcement, I believe we need to remember that the name ’occupy’ is little more than an attractor for getting bodies out to assert their rights. What happens when we get there can be hashed out and argued on-site and leading up to it, but is ultimately up to individual decisions. The arguments that ensue actually help fuel the fire and build relationships as long as they don’t come to blows; but a structured exclusion of certain people or behaviors would be more violent (says me). The warning message I’m trying to get across is of exclusion as well as co-option: affiliation with occupy, the name, should mean little because there will be less to seize by third parties with their own agenda.
So far, the line between community and tactic has been straddled pretty well. Falling off on either side would weaken our resistance, but an exclusive community distinguishing the ”real occupiers” from the fake seems the greater risk now.