Thursday, October 13, 2011
Occupy Wall Street entered its fourth week of protests yesterday in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, and despite claims of at least 800 arrests so far nationwide, the movement is showing no signs of winding down. Undeterred by rain, hundreds of demonstrators packed the 33,000-square-foot park of sparse trees and blue tarps again this afternoon -- standing, singing, sitting huddled under blankets, sharing donated food and texting from the ground.
The protest swarm that emerged there via Facebook on September 17 has now spread to many cities: Wikipedia counts more than 70, from Salt Lake City and Seattle to Providence, Rhode Island. About 130 people were arrested at Occupy Boston early Tuesday; the Occupy groups in Atlanta and Seattle, among others, were reported on Slate to be digging in at their sites for the long haul. Politicans and the media, meanwhile, have been forced to take notice and to take sides. On Tuesday, a group of demonstrators from Occupy Wall Street took to the road and marched from lower Manhattan to NYC's uber-wealthy Upper East Side, in what they called the Millionaire's March. The group walked and chanted past the homes of people like Rupert Murdoch, Tea Party financial backer David Koch and JP Morgan Chase Chairman Jamie Dimon. [Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a billionaire, was spared; his East Side townhouse was not on the visitation list.]
More marching is planned for this weekend: Occupy Wall Street is organizing a series of flash mobs at Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Chase bank locations across the country. Though Facebook, YouTube, livestreaming and Twitter have been key in organizing and perpetuating the movement, organizers also have been distributing "old media" -- paper fliers and a broadsheet newspaper called Occupied Wall Street Journal, published in English and Spanish.
"We're taking what worked in Cairo during the Arab Spring," says Jonathan Hull, 26, a protester who arrived in Zuccotti Park last week from Portland, Ore. A freelance graphic designer, Hull says the movement is less about the future of capitalism and much more about the need to create new models of leadership for a digital world. "These protests are kind of like a first effort by members of my generation to use social media to help create a new, consensus-driven model of self-governance," Hull told Cause Global. "We call ourselves leaderless but we're really fighting to create a shared kind of leadership, kind of like how Wikipedia works. It's a group effort. It's consensus-based. We're working to create a new way to give everyone a voice and apply those voices to solving what's not working" in society. (As Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in this week's New Yorker, observed: "The process, not the platform, is the point.")
Hull isn't the only protester to speak passionately about the need for new forms of leadership -- both to organize digital groups and then to grow and sustain them. Justin Wedes, 24, an Occupy Wall Street founder/organizer, spoke Wednesday with WNYC Radio host Brian Lehrer on his live, call-in talk show about the group's goal to create "a new form of direct democracy" enabled by social media.
What follows is an edited transcript of that interview:
LEHRER: Who are you and why are you involved?
WEDES: I'm an organizer with the New York City General Assembly, one of the organizing bodies behind the Occupy Wall Street movement. We started three months ago, when Adbusters and Anonymous put out the call to flood lower Manhattan in protest of Wall Street. We have been organizing in parks and local spaces, holding horizontal open, public meetings for anyone interested in joining the thousands of people we have in New York now and across the country. I trained as a high school science teacher and do part-time work designing Web sites and community activism.
LEHRER: Are you the person behind #OccupyWallStNYC on Twitter?
WEDES: Yes, I'm the captain of that tweetstream but not the only one.
LEHRER: Will you soon need to put out a list of demands to keep the movement from fizzling?
WEDES: I don't believe so. I think it's a goal of the movement to enunciate some serious demands, but organizing people is a process in and of itself. It's taken us now over three weeks just to get where we are, and we're still growing -- now at our fastest rate ever. If you look at the immense amount of solidarity and support and growth of our movement, it's not because we're enunciating any particular demands but rather because we are reaching out to people who are frustrated, who are really saying 'enough is enough.' Meanwhile, every night, we are meeting and talking about what our [specific] demands should be and building solidarity.
LEHRER: Enough is enough of what?
WEDES: Corporate greed. The political influence of monied interests on Wall Street in Washington and in our local and state governments. People are just fed up. It's not fixing our economy. It's destroying our country and people have had enough.
CALLER: Are you using Gandhi's ideals to influence your movement?
WEDES: Yes, absolutely. This is in the vein of Gandhi's nonviolent work of peaceful protest. The world we're trying to create in these general assemblies [Occupy groups] across the country is all about nonviolence and consensus. These general assemblies we're creating are now being built spontaneously in up to 100 cities. It's a mirror of what we're trying to get to in the end.
CALLER: Is this anti-capitalist?
WEDES: There is a broad spectrum of perspectives and agendas. We claim to be the 99 percent [of the population] and if we are, that represents a very wide spectrum of beliefs, so I don't want to narrow it down to one or another ideology.
CALLER: What is the process by which you all arrived at the organizational roles you play? How does the election process take place to form these general assemblies that choose you and others as leaders of this movement?
WEDES: I can't stake a claim to be a leader any more than anyone else. I call myself an organizer, as I've been there since Day One, helping to bring spirit and organization to this movement. We are a leaderless, horizontal movement, in the sense that there are no hierarchies of roles in this group. We are constantly rotating through facilitators in our general assembly [a daily mass meeting], so there's no ability of any individual or organization to co-opt us.
I think the magic that I believe is happening right now in Zuccotti Park (and really, across the country) is that the general assembly is a consensus-based process. It's not an elected or representative democracy. It is an attempt to bring consensus -- agreement to a group of people. And it works in a really amazing, magical way. Everybody has a voice in the general assembly. Every voice is heard. It's a slow process and at time, laborious, but people are patient because they know their voices will be heard and valued.
LEHRER: Consensus is a high standard. You can't always get a consensus in a marriage, much less among thousands of people in Zuccotti Park.
WEDES: No, that's right, and when there isn't consensus -- when there are blocks, for example, in proposals -- we move to what we call 'modified consensus.' But even before that, we try to modify our proposals with friendly amendments. The problem with representative democracy is that it has up-and-down votes. You know, 51 percent of the people may be in support of an idea but then the other 49 percent are then immediately marginalized. That doesn't work. Politics isn't working because it has become so confrontational. So our approach is rather than try to find the 51 percent agreement and leave the other 49 percent in the dust, let's do the extra work it takes to build consensus and unity.
CALLER: But if there is no one leader, this movement won't go anywhere. Every group needs a leader.
WEDES: The idea of a leaderless, horizontal movement is really difficult for a lot of people to grasp because it's only in the last few years that we've started to harness technology and social media and the possibilities that it all brings in order to facilitate communication and flatten communication hierarchies. I like to rather call [our movement] leader-ful -- a leaderful movement rather than a leaderless one -- because what it means is that everyone is empowered to take a role of leadership. Everybody is empowered to step forward and lead a cause or an initiative. And the way that we're able to do that is we're harnessing technology to open up streams of information --to keep from having information bottlenecks, for example, where too few people know too much and they are able to have access to resources that other people in the group don't.
LEHRER: If you're a tight little group of protesters in each city, you can do that. But if you want to become a major political party, or if you want to have a major mass influence on America, then you can't do it like a tight-knit little family, can you?
WEDES: I'm not sure whether we can or cannot. I think that's a little bit unpredictable. What I DO know is that what will grow out of this is being supported by the work of some very, very smart people on the software development end and the hardware development end, who are working on tools to be able to coordinate these movements all over the country -- and really all over the world -- so that we can collaborate in real time and hold things like simultaneous polling. We live in a world where technology has long surpassed the political realities of this country. We have a representative democracy that is so unparticipative right now, that everybody's democracy muscle is not being flexed. So let's find creative solutions to that.
LEHRER: How long will this movement keep going? It started September 17.
WEDES: There was never a deadline for when we go home. We always said we'll be here until our voices are heard and our demands are met. Those demands are being created right now. We will release them soon.
LEHRER: Will there be something like a news conference?
WEDES: I'm not sure, as that would be pretty old school and I think we're a bit beyond that now with our social media. [To follow Occupy Wall Street NYC, go to the livestream, search the calls to action on YouTube or go to Occupy's YouTube page. Or, go to Occupy Together to check out actions across the country and jump into the Twitterstreams at #occupywallstnyc, #ows, and #sep17 -- among others.]
-- Marcia Stepanek
[Photo, top, by Lukas Johnson/Reuters]
[Poster, above, by B.L. Singelton for Occupy Together]