Friday, September 23, 2011

Notes from the Wall Street Occupation!

Fall 2011 has crashed in! Crashing into new program at USC, crashing into Burning Man, crashing into my 32nd birthday! Crashing into the world: right now, the occupation of of Wall Street.

Max Hodes, one of my closest friends, is participating in the demonstrations. This is his report from the front. Get IN!

Letter from the Occupation of Wall Street
by Max Hodes

Questions abound on the street here and in the media, what little of it has reported these events, as to what the intentions of this protest are, how it is organized, what it wants.  From what I have seen that is because the narrative of the status quo, of what protests should look like, simply does not contain a logic for this event.  It is not exactly a protest, not exactly a march, and doesn't have a defined goal.  It looks more like Tahrir Square than any US political rally, though it lacks the focused demand of a leader to resign.  It has international support, a supply chain, and a democratic organizational structure that arose spontaneously.  My thoughts here represent an attempt to understand what is happening on Wall Street.

The General Assembly

The NYT confuses this with an organized group. It is not. It is the name for a gathering of participants who need not be named or declare any affiliation or ever have been here or anywhere else before. It uses a consensus-building model to make discuss and make decisions democratically. Nearly everyone who is at the site seems inexperienced using this model. There are frequent arguments over abuse of process. These conflicts diminish with passing days. New committees and working groups are formed every day to deal with whatever issues have recently arrived. For example, when we arrived there was already a media team. They took it upon themselves to create a 24-hour broadcast on the internet, in addition to shooting and compiling footage with multiple cameras, also on a 24-hour schedule. It was later determined by the GA that there should be a separate Media Outreach committee, dealing with inventing PR tactics and training participants in same. There is a comfort committee, dealing with blankets, cardboard supply, soft things, to increase longevity. There is a medical team. There is a sanitation committee. All volunteers who notice problems and fix them as they see them. Anyone who has an idea is basically free to enact it unless someone in the GA has some principled concern about it. Each participant is given full license to use their time however they see fit. Volunteers are called for where needed, and usually appear in droves. There is a committee of facilitators who might, to the untrained eye, appear to be leaders of the outfit. While facilitating, they do not participate in discussion in the offering of opinions.

As far as larger organizational structures go, this is as good a model as any, but it does have limits which become evident as the group grows.. There simply isn't time for everyone to offer themselves to a discussion and those that feel more inclined to lead than follow seem to end up facilitating. However, that level of participation is still more democratic than a simple yes or no vote. Individuals determine the level of participation they want to see from themselves. Gaps in leadership are filled as soon as someone wants problems solved, because they need to do the solving themselves. The GA seems to create a less inert population because people with the inclination against slow decision making are free to speak up and seem rarely shouted down.

I think that on a large scale, the consensus model could be used in well-trained groups of up to 500. Smaller groups, being more agile, might serve larger communities better by volunteering representatives, training them, and sending them to larger consensus-bodies. In such a way I can even imagine an alternate societal organization to our current one. Over the course of 100 years with sufficient participatory training, unilateral action on the part of a large body of people might be entirely eliminated because the process has the feeling of fusing individual and group identities. Maybe that's wishful thinking. I'm well trained already in the process, and this one was excessively frustrating. When I disagree with the group at large, I don't want to participate at all. And my lack of contribution goes entirely unnoticed. This has it's advantages and disadvantages, but I ultimately like it more because of the choice one is forced to make moment to moment. In the film The Matrix the Architect describes the same choice to Neo: act, or do not act, choose. Without this choice, no process is democratic. Compulsory participation is fascism plain and simple. It's one of the million things we're protesting against.

Why are we protesting

No one knows. Everybody is enraged and everyone has a unique focus. We have not decided on a single demand, and I don't want to. I would like this to turn into a Burning Man-esque event. An ongoing party of the political, artistic and spiritual avant-garde, that becomes an ever-updated cultural institution; a continual protest against the status quo with real political consequences. For that to happen, we will need to find ways of becoming genuinely disruptive. That means we will more than likely be struck down, unless we can somehow strike a perfect balance of necessity and aggravation. If the world demands we stay because we are stirring up right conflict, then we've got a chance at perpetuation. More likely, the cold will get us before too long. The blue-shirt cops seem to like us. The city cut their overtime hours, possibly as a way to get at their pensions, and this is the best chance they've got to log hours before retirement. It's the police lieutenants who are doing the dicking around.

Still we keep getting asked, what we are doing there. And still no one knows. We are occupying because the world is outrageous, we blame greed, and those who feel entitled to their greed. Wall Street is the center of greed. It's that simple. We didn't keep Troy Davis alive. We haven't fed anybody who was hungry, we haven't stopped the monster or done more than create a slightly spectacular nuisance. No one has thrown themselves into the gears of the machine. Maybe what we're protesting is that we can't even see the gears. The machine is a phantom beyond any measure of control except perhaps this one. We are actually trying to alter culture by pushing and shoving it with phantom hands, which turn out to be the only tool available, since the culture is itself composed of phantoms, ideas, fleeting moments, rather than anything concrete and destructible.  There is not, for example, any factory to strike against and shut down.  The machine will continue with or without our participation.   

My arrest on Monday morning was the first that I know of.  It was carried out, as reported by the Wall Street Journal and The Colbert Report, under an obscure law from 1848 against the wearing of masks at public gatherings.  The arrest, like many at protests, was possibly illegal, but of course legality is not the point of these arrests while disruption and intimidation absolutely are. It snowballed in many more, each more brutal than the last. This got people down there. That and the free pizza. Now the slog war begins. Get bodies in there every day and every night, marching, singing, laughing, being. Not too loud or they'll shut us down, but loud enough and long enough and we'll be undeniable, and then we can become unstoppable. Unless we issue a demand, which I'm pretty sure would get ignored. This is perhaps the point which is missed by the GA: why issue a single demand? Why not continue at this noise making, this occupation, with no singular demand and thus no end in sight?  Why not confound the whole model of protest with an absurd action?

So we press on, activating ourselves ever more despite all the forces that tell us to stop.. That's what we're protesting. The middle of the road with it's long yellow line. That's what we're protesting. A million little hurts and ten-thousand big ones. That's what we're protesting. That we're not allowed to protest aloud. That's what we're protesting.  That public space, the space where thousands of tiny, healthy, necessary, revolutions can take place, has been stolen from us and remade as controlled space, sanitized space.  That’s what we’re protesting.  That the police, and by extension the state, do not protect us, the majority of the people, but the tiny greedy minority which conducts its business on Wall Street.  That’s what we’re protesting.