Monday, October 03, 2011

#OCCUPYWALLSTREET: Pacers, and leaders & spokesmen! Oh my!

As an early supporter of the #OCCUPYWALLSTREET protest movement, I wrote a request a few days ago to the protesters involved with that movement. While waiting to for a good time to make that request public, an online acquaintance put forward a statement (from a conservative perspective) which covered some of the same points I wanted to make... so I put it off a bit more. But now, I feel I need to put out the statement in a timely manner -- because my concerns expressed therein suddenly feel more justified. I will post that statement immediately before this one and point out, once again, that I was spreading information about this protest while few others were and have consistently done so from the beginning. And while I certainly claim no ownership of this movement (I can't and wouldn't), I humbly request that those involved with the movement read these messages from an early supporter.

Today, while looking at the Guardian's "live coverage" of the protest, I came across some statements and words which heretofore I had not regularly seen in association with this movement. The first was a statement by someone name Christopher Longenecker who was identified as the "head of march planning and tactics." This title in itself struck me as odd in the context of a heretofore leaderless movement but then the quote given from this person was even more shocking: "We don't do illegal actions."

What? Double take. Really? So all the people up until now, on the first days of the protest, who made this occupation happen from the first day, who left the sidewalks and took to the streets in violation of official orders, who were they? At best, this Longenecker person seems confused. Civil disobedience has been a known ingredient and accepted tactic of this protest movement from the get go. And, surprise, civil disobedience is illegal. So... who was this Longenecker speaking for when giving quotes to the Guardian? How was this person given such authority and such a title as "head of march planning and tactics." I highly doubt such a title and role was granted by the consensus process. I'd bet dollars to donuts that it certainly wasn't granted at a meeting with all of the protesters heretofore involved with the occupation.

So then this Longenecker person continues to accuse "provocateurs" of misleading the march onto the Brooklyn Bridge Saturday when 700 people were eventually arrested. He speaks of "pace-keepers" who were "scattered throughout the marches, including the one on Saturday," and says that "One of the pace-keepers was standing between the march and the highway and she was yelling as loud as possible that what was on the road was an illegal autonomous unplanned action – that the legal route was over the walkway and they weren't supposed to take the highway." Well, if that's the case, if these protest officials, under the title of "pace-keepers," were at the march... then why weren't people listening to them? Could it possibly be that the protesters simply ignored their directions and chose to take the more bold route where a bigger story would inevitably be made? One person at the protest on the bridge had a sign that read, "NYPD, please respond civilly to civil disobedience." Why would this person have such a sign if illegal civil disobedience was entirely unplanned? Are we to believe this person might have been an agent provocateur? Get real.

And so then... another person, Thorin Caristo, was identified by the Guardian as an "OWS media spokesmen" and apparently said they were working through video to identify provocateurs. But, at the same time as pointing out so-called provocateurs, this person said, "We are a really open democracy here. Saturdays situation happened really quick and showed the vulnerability of a group that has no leaders." So what if these supposed "provocateurs" are merely offering a more appealing course of action? What if people are choosing by their own volition to take the more aggressive and unpermitted protest routes -- with the implied understanding that it might entail more risk? What if some people calculated the risks for themselves and knew that the Brooklyn Bridge march would even further put this protest on the map? And so what if someone is arguing for such action, direction, and tactics? That does not make them a provocateur in the negative sense, it makes them an agitator -- and fairly successful ones at that.  It's possible, and they might have been provocateurs, but that hardly seems proven and actually seems to the contrary.  

So... I'm sorry (not really) if other protesters aren't heeding the "heads" and "spokesmen" and "pace-keepers" and other supposed leaders of this movement. But obviously they don't need you and are putting this protest on the map despite you. And while I might be accused of being divisive, I'm not the one accusing those who don't heed your orders (or those who are offering different plans) of being agent provocateurs. And I'm not the one attempting to hamstring the movement by making such spurious claims about it not engaging in illegal actions. And while I'm also not making any direct accusations, I'm reminded of the anti-war protests a few years back in Oakland where the police actually took on the leadership role in protest marches. That's something to keep in mind.

In my other article on this subject I wanted to bring up the recent demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin. Those protests had potential but they essentially failed because of the leadership. While the recall election didn't really change much, a general strike was in favor amongst a lot of the rank & file and would have shut the state down until Walker was ousted from office. But that's the thing... the Wisconsin protests were hindered by the leadership and an unwillingness to truly inconvenience business as usual. This has not seemed to be the case so far in NYC -- and this protest movement is growing as similar occupations pop up around the country.

By all means... stay Gandhian if that's what you, and the other protesters are cut out for. But don't confuse Gandhian non-violence with pacifism. The weakness of non-violent activists in recent years, however, has been precisely because of that confusion. Non-violent does not mean obedient and within the confines of legality. If you want to have a non-violent protest, or even a non-violent revolution, people are going to have to take risks and be prepared to sacrifice. But you don't need a figure-head or a leader like Gandhi, or MLK, or Ralph Nader, or Christopher Longenecker to act together in solidarity.

I'd go further to say that those who don't go along with the non-violent tactics should not be condemned out of hand, but I don't know if my point will be understood. I'm thinking about the unemployed guy whose brother died in Iraq, whose grandfather had his pension stolen, whose grandmother had her house foreclosed, whose sister is imprisoned for trumped-up drug charges, and whose mother lost her job to downsizing despite record profits at the corporation she works for. Such people exist, and may act rashly, but who are any of us to condemn them for acting out in that context? I'm not necessarily saying I would condone any or all actions they take, but I might not entirely disown or condemn them. Further... I don't see harm to non-sentient inanimate objects as violence. I see property destruction more along the lines of civil disobedience. But I digress, and don't want to confuse the issue. My simple opposition to corporate fascism by itself opens me up to criticism by itself (as it does others) without being criticized by those who I would consider as my allies.

So, by all means, you people involved with the #OCCUPYWALLSTREET movement should keep up the good work. Continue with your Gandhian tactics as you see fit. Consider tactics that might disrupt business as usual without so many of you getting arrested. And be wary of leaders who would hamstring your movement, marginalize you, and claim to speak for you as a whole. This arose as a leaderless movement and should continue to be so! Keep up the good fight! Your numbers are growing, the public supports you, and you just might get the revolution you seek.


Anonymous said...

(1/3) I think, unsurprisingly, that this whole debate has been marred by confusion. While I am nowhere near any of the ongoing occupations, I have been following them since the initial call-out was made by Adbusters (and I'm an anarchist if that matters). Apologies in advance for the long-winded response.

Watching videos from the Brooklyn Bridge, you can clearly see those at the front of the roadway disobeying police orders and taking the bridge. They know what they are doing and are proud of it. That, in and of itself, is not a problem, and I've heard very little criticism of that act as such. On the contrary, what I've read is that when the march started going that route, members from the direct action committee began yelling to marchers that they had both options (footpath or roadway) but that they were risking arrest if they chose the road. Unfortunately, since only the first fifty people or so heard the police warnings and the direct action people were only heard by a few, a lot of people followed the march onto the road with the belief that the police were allowing it. It's easy to see why they believed this since NYPD made no attempt to block the protesters and were in fact blocking traffic for them. I'm sure this was an intentional tactic by the NYPD to kettle protesters, but the situation resulted in a lot of people being arrested who weren't necessarily informed about that risk nor would have agreed to it had they known. Among the arrested were single mothers with young children and I believe at least six people with outstanding warrants. It seems pretty obvious that these people did not intend to take part in civil disobedience on that scale. I think this explains the narrative of "the cops tricked us" that came out immediately after the arrests.

I think the actual issue here is a separation of time and space. From what I've gathered, the direct action committee is organized as a small working group like all the others and is open to all. They decide on a general plan of action for each march that is then brought to the general assembly where it is debated and amended until a consensus is reached. All of these actions involve civil disobedience to some degree as no permits have been requested for marches or the camp. However, no large scale plan of civil disobedience was agreed upon for the bridge march. That's not to say that people can't do those things on their own initiative, but to lead unconsenting people into it is wrong.

Anonymous said...

(2/3) I can think of two things that could help alleviate this problem. First, something similar to the the St. Paul Principles ( should be adopted by the occupations on Wall Street and everywhere else. These were an extremely effective method of maintaining unity among the protesters at the 2008 Republican National Convention while encouraging a broad range of participants and actions. It allowed people to participate only to the extent to which they were comfortable, but still allowed those who chose to carry out road blockades or property destruction to have their space. It kept dissent and division over these tactics to a minimum and almost entirely internal. Beyond the immediate needs, I believe a statement like this can go a long way toward preparing the movement for its first windowbreakers. As of now, I see the first act of property destruction completely debilitating and splitting the movement, so these things need to be planned for.

While something along those lines can lay the basis for more successful planning of future actions, I think obviously some lattitude has to be allowed for spontaneous on-the-ground decision making in this kind of movement. The problem here is a lack of tactics and methods that allow for quick decision making in a democratic way. The protesters in Spain, who have had much bigger marches and much more difficult situations with police, solved this problem by simply bringing the general assembly process to the field. If there's a point of confusion during a march, fuck it, sit down and have a mini-GA right there. Without the use of megaphones, this won't reach everyone. But at the very least, the sight of lots of people sitting down will indicate that something's going on, and people will realize they need to figure out what's happening. Hopefully with some modified form of mic check and maybe the livestream this can inform almost everyone of a quickly changing situation.

Those two points aside, I think all talk of provocateurs should be rejected outright. This is also in line with the St. Paul Principles, and luckily, I haven't heard this language from anyone at the park aside from the Guardian article you quoted. I have run into this language much more frequently in the internet discussions surrounding the occupation, but we all know the limitations and negative aspects of anonymous internet forums. As to the other terms brought up by the Guardian article, "pacekeepers" and "head" of whatever, this article is the first time I have heard those terms anywhere. Indeed, the idea that any of these working groups have heads or spokesmen is contrary to what I know about the functioning of these committees from multiple other sources. I would suggest that this is a combination of the Guardian pushing to find narratives it is comfortable with (since corporate media organizations clearly can't fathom direct democracy) along with people being interviewed at a time when the whole situation was unclear and confusing.

Anonymous said...

(3/3) You are right to bring up these issues and be wary of emerging leaders, but I simply don't think this article is a fair representation of the way things are happening there. Concrete steps can be taken to improve the process, and it is in fact the process which is most important here. It is essentially anarchist in practice and is the most effective defense against all the tactics the powers that be and the liberal establishment will bring to bear against this movement. Fortunately, a number of committed anarchists have been involved since the beginning, and they seem to have helped instill a strong sense among almost all early participants of how important process actually is. I've always thought anarchism was about spreading models and methods to circumvent normal power relations, as opposed to spreading the gospel of Anarchy, so I think this is great. I think it is important now, however, as the movement spreads to other cities, to protect the process by laying the methods out in plain English. The guide to group dynamics from Puerta del Sol ( is a good place to start. I've also heard talk about potentially sending people from the Wall Street occupation to tour other camps and explain how they've made the process work so far. Of course, another important element is the immediate and consistent involvement by local anarchists.

I implore anyone who seeks to be involved in this movement to propose concrete steps to solve tactical and strategic concerns rather than allowing a blame game to occur in the same way it has handicapped radical politics for decades. The reason this movement is catching on is because so far it has been the exact opposite of the sectarianism and strife that has burned out generations of people who want to be involved.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I don't understand why nonviolence in the U.S. seems to mean non-provocative or legal. It can't all be kumbaya and drum circles. Or it can, and nothing will be accomplished. Anyone who read anything about various civil rights groups like CORE and SNCC know that in order to engage successful, meaningful nonviolent direct action, you have to be willing to do 2 things, which obviously not everyone can do: 1.) Get their asses kicked (at the least) 2.) Go to jail, get a rap sheet.

Any strong tactic is going to be illegal. If you allow yourself to be kettled, even when you have popular support, you're not helping your cause, you're hurting it. You're recuperating public anger at the oligarchy.