Occupy 2.0: Initial Reflections

99% bat signal

As is now becoming consensus, the overwhelming feeling among those keeping tabs on Occupy Wall Street is that last week's Zuccotti eviction represents a significant turning point for the movement. (A good one, if you're an OWS supporter.) Invigorated and adrenalized, protesters stormed NYC streets and bridges along with their allies across the nation and the world in an impressive display of vitality. In the following days, as if on cue, an increasingly militant police force continued to feed its own developing narrative, highlighted by an utterly perplexing display at UC Davis of all places.
Now that the dust has settled and Occupy 2.0 is officially underway, it's time to reflect, starting with the encampments themselves. What was their value? Obviously, physical encampments were the essential incubators of the movement. Aside from providing the fertile ground necessary for the multifarious exchanges that would forge the ideological bedrock of the movement, camps were a physical representation of the most powerful message of OWS – a full-fledged rejection of the current zeitgeist. If the media wanted to cover it, they could. If interest groups wanted to try and co-opt it, they could try. If celebrities wanted to be seen, nothing stopped them. This wasn't about engaging any of the pre-existing institutions on their terms or seeking their acceptance. It was about creating a real alternative, with its own set of values, completely separate from them.
That said, the shortcomings of physical occupation became more magnified in recent weeks. Health and sanitation complaints, whether justified or not, offered a convenient point of entry for OWS opponents, as did the questionable legality and civility of a 24/7 public occupation. Regardless of the shaky notion of appealing to the law in a country where politicians are for sale and crime is a profitable industry, the fact of the matter is that the absence of a physical presence in Zuccotti Park instantly removes some of the sharpest arrows in the quiver of those seeking to sway public opinion against OWS.
Additionally, the General Assembly, though pure in its intent, was perhaps becoming a victim of its own fetishization. With more occupations now decentralized, new, more agile models of consensus and decision-making will emerge. Last and perhaps most obvious – the energy required to simply maintain the encampment was energy deducted from more important tasks, owing to a subtle yet substantial feeling that the movement had outgrown the occupation tactic. That's not to say physical occupations are a thing of the past or don't have a future in the Occupy movement. Many still remain and more will surely pop up later with different form factors and purposes. But now that the movement’s spearhead has been uprooted, the days of the remaining initial encampments appear numbered.
So where do we go from here? Many will attempt to answer that question, and the answers will be numerous – from good ones to bad ones, arising from face-to-face meetings to forum posts to ramblings in cyberspace. Indeed, the biggest asset, and obstacle, for OWS is processing the embarrassment of passion and ideas and possibilities originating from all corners at breakneck speed – yet there are only so many hours in a day, and only one step can be taken at a time. Some will insist on leadership, deeming it essential in sifting through these possibilities and providing an overhead view of the chessboard. Others will insist the opposite, asserting that to assume a more conventional stance would open up the movement to more conventional attacks. Some may relent in their idealism and try to play the political game one last time, others will simply call for more protests. Either way, decisions will have to be made.
I realize now that I could fill a novel's worth of my own opinions on how I personally think the movement should proceed on various fronts, but I understand that long scrolls tend to scare people away, so I'll save those ruminations for future posts. For now, I'll keep it general and say that the most important thing for OWS to do is maintain its identity. This doesn't just mean avoiding getting co-opted. It means remembering and not straying from the core value on which I feel OWS was founded – awareness.
Why is awareness so important? Because that’s what got us here in the first place. People who count themselves supporters of OWS did not always hold the views they do today. Most can pinpoint a time in recent memory when, though still unsatisfied with the status quo, they still believed the existing institutions could be effectively petitioned to bring about the will of the people. It was only after serious thought and reflection that they arrived at the unfortunate conclusion that the primary objective of these institutions had nothing to do with people’s welfare, and was only concerned with self-preservation.
The kind of thought required to arrive at such a realization had nothing to do with emotion, bias, or laziness. It would have been much easier and preferable to just believe in the current system, and it took a lot of work to dig deeper and truly investigate why all our big problems are perpetually locked in stagnation. That work was guided by a genuine interest in the truth, whatever it was – not a truth we wanted to see manifested. It was also guided by a belief that truly understanding the way things are would naturally inform the appropriate next steps to take, which would in turn lead to the best results for all – both collectively and individually.

So it’s that kind of unemotional awareness, intuition, and regard for truth, whether convenient or not, that must guide OWS into the future. Don't hesitate to call out police brutality, but don't egg it on either, or look for something that isn’t there in the hopes of becoming the next viral video purveyor. Condemn corruption and aberrant behavior wherever it occurs, but be equally eager to condemn it if it occurs within your own ranks. When considering matters such as leadership or specific action items, understand the value of unorthodox structures, but don't simply submit to newly established dogma that says anything remotely resembling established protocol must be automatically shunned, or that a small victory isn't worth pursuing. Give it the same seriousness of thought that led you to acknowledge the viability of the Occupy movement. It's a movement that was founded on truth and honest reflection – not emotional, reactionary, haphazard thinking. Given the incredibly difficult task of reaching a highly indoctrinated society too busy maintaining the operation of the 1%'s well-oiled machine to give serious thought to anything, our own capacity for this serious thought is essential. To betray it now would be to betray the cause. 

 

This post also appears at Primitive Times, a new media platform currently focused on the Occupy movement.

Still Winning: Occupy Wall Street & the World We Want

A Brief Account: The Growth and Repression of OWS

Occupy Wall Street celebrated its two-month anniversary by taking the streets of New York City in a full day of mass direct action. We celebrated the hundreds of occupations that have sprung up across the country and around the world. We celebrated the hundreds of thousands who have participated by marching, carrying out civil disobedience, and putting their bodies in motion. We celebrated the millions of people across the globe united in their willingness to join this movement in whatever ways they can. We celebrated in the many thousands in cities all around the world.

At the same time, much of the status quo goes on. New austerity measures are being passed right under our noses, the homeless remain without homes and the jobless without jobs, the wars carried out in our name continue, wealth goes on being concentrated further and further into a few hands at the expense of the many. And in the face of this movement rising in opposition, the state and capital have responded with violence both physical and ideological, intended to suppress demoralize us &#151 camps being cleared out by riot police, organizers targeted for arrest, teeth and noses broken, kids and grandmothers pepper-sprayed.

It’s only a drop in the bucket in comparison to the violence experienced in marginalized communities or at the hands of American imperialism, but it represents a critical moment in the development of this movement. It is not a coincidence. We are being taken seriously. Maybe we should be flattered.

Reassurance: We Are Still Winning

We are building a global movement, and elites are beginning to mobilize the incredible power at their disposal to do it whatever damage they can &#151 media and scholarship to discredit us, laws and regulations to constrain us, and sheer violence to repress us. Yes, they are paying their think tanks to undermine us, collecting their mayors on conference calls to strategize about us, mobilizing their shock troops to beat and detain us, and whistling to their lap-dogs in the press to tell the stories they want heard.

This is what happens when genuine movements emerge with enough force and potential to be taken seriously by those with power and privilege. This is what happens when movements grow stronger and more diverse. This is what happens when movements take root in the public consciousness. Make no mistake about it: They are fighting us now because we are winning.

In moments like these &#151 when protest becomes resistance and power mobilizes to confront it &#151 it becomes important again to stop and remember why we started fighting in the first place, and what it is we want.

A Reminder: Why We Fight and How We Win

We each come to this movement with our many different scars and traumas, our many goals and dreams. We come from different places, with different needs. We are here together because we share an understanding that our different issues come together, that the systems of oppression we are challenging not only intertwine and coexist but actually produce and define each other, that we can only defeat them by having a deep, holistic analysis and by presenting one another with a real vision for what might be instead. We agree that we need to build something new in the here and now, while fighting those forces that keep us from doing so.

We fight because people’s needs really aren’t being met, because there are simple and systemic reasons for that, because it is unacceptable, and because there is an alternative. We fight because we oppose injustice intellectually, but also because injustice makes us sick to our stomachs. We fight because a system in which homeless people freeze outside of empty homes does not deserve to exist, because a system that allows for people to go hungry while there is an overabundance of food is unacceptable. We fight because the economic and social systems governing our lives have proven themselves to be totally incapable of meeting the minimum criteria for a just and humane society, and because we are sure as hell it doesn’t have to be this way. We fight for other people, but also for ourselves &#151 because none of us get to live out our full human potential within the institutions that dominate our lives today. We fight because another world really is possible, and because we demand it for the people around us, our friends, our kids, and ourselves.

The stakes are high. We have a responsibility not only to fight, but to win.

We win when we build diverse mass movements led by the most oppressed people in society. We win when that movement becomes a dual power &#151 a movement able to prefigure the values of a free society and laying the seeds for it, while fighting the institutions that oppress and exploit. We win when that movement becomes one where groups have the autonomy to carry out their own struggles while finding solidarity in a shared analysis, vision, and strategy. We win when we manage to transform the struggle from the symbolic to the real &#151 a struggle that reclaims land and space in order to truly create an alternative and meet peoples’ needs, one that truly disrupts business as usual and prevents the classes that dominate and exploit from continuing to do so.

Yes, this new world is being born &#151 slowly and painfully &#151 and in order to win it, we have to tell its story.

The Story: Another World is Possible

Perhaps the first story we must tell is about the world around us. These systems that encourage us to compete and exploit, that force us to make war and torture, that compel us to literally wipe ourselves off the planet by damaging it so thoroughly, have no future. They are not only unethical and unnecessary: they are simply and truly impossible.

But the most important story is one of possibility: Another world is possible.

A society that is ecologically sustainable, liberating, intimate, warm, and creative is possible. Not only is it possible, but it must be. We can have a political and economic system that we all control together, one that is equitable and humane, one that allows for people to self-manage and act in solidarity, one that is participatory and democratic to its very roots. We can live in a world where people have the right to their own identities, communities, and cultures, and the freedom and support to express them. We can have a society with institutions that take care of and nurture our youth, elderly, and families in ways that are liberating and consensual. We can have a world where we actually get to live out and express our full human potential. We can, and we must.

We tell a story that shatters the myth that there is no alternative, that people don’t fight back, that we can be bought off. We tell a story that smashes cynicism and identifies it as nothing more than a defense mechanism to protect us from following the rabbit hole that leads to rising up. We tell a story of autonomy within solidarity, equity alongside diversity, peace bound with justice, struggle intimately linked with beauty. We tell a story of how our scars give us the wisdom and courage to change the world.

We tell the story ourselves, tweet and tag it, film and sing it, write it with our arrests and our bruises. We tell it at work and in school, on the picket lines and during demonstrations, at our occupations and sit-ins, in the jail cells where they put us when they are truly afraid of the power we hold. We tell it by fighting in a way that reflects the values of the world we are dreaming of, and by creating as much of that world as we can while we fight.

We are not alone. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and we stand among friends.

Conclusion: Hope

Throughout history, people have struggled, risen up, and succeeded. All over the world, there are people fighting, building, and dreaming. All around us, people are laying the seeds of the world we are fighting for &#151 from their bedrooms to their workplaces, from the ways we produce and consume to the ways we teach and learn. All around us, workers are going on strike or taking control of their workplaces, students are walking out or taking control of their schools, communities are rejecting the political and social institutions that oppress them and creating their own. People are taking control of their lives, their communities, and in some places, their governments. And it is only the beginning. A movement is being born, and there is so much beauty in that &#151 so much potential, so much hope.

Then, also, there is hope in you &#151 hope in us. The world is waiting.

Yotam Marom is a political organizer, educator, writer, and musician based in New York. He has been active in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and is a member of the Organization for a Free Society. Yotam can be reached at Yotam.marom@gmail.com  

The Power of the People to Stand and be Counted

We have been brought to this moment through the momentum of centuries of struggle and resistance, fighting to create alternatives to the accumulation of power and wealth by a minority who horde the resources of our finite planet for their personal profit and pleasure. Our so-called “modern” societies are intentionally structured to maintain deep imbalances of power in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality, and our natural environment. We’ve marched, voted, petitioned for laws, maxed out our credit, and played the game. But its naive to think that a government and economic system built with the blood of genocide and slavery would ever hear our cry. So we rose up, again and again and now we rise once more to continue the liberation of our minds and lives. This current moment of resistance is growing into a global movement devoted to reclaiming and building free societies.

Occupy Wall Street has captivated the global imagination. It began with the literal occupation of the heart of global capital, and, just as the arteries and veins of the system stretch to every part of our lives, so must our occupation. Liberty Square is just the beginning. We need a Liberty Square in every neighborhood in America for things to change! And by a Liberty Square in every hood, we mean strategic occupations that fundamentally challenge existing structures of power and create a forum for the community to address its own concerns, free from the corruption of exclusionary economics and elite government systems.

I reject the notion that this is a leaderless movement, because i know that the opposite is true. In the so-called West, we are socialized to play our position, marginalized to lanes of professional specialization, as if we are only as good as our job. But in this movement we are all leaders, no longer defined merely by our education, “profession”, the things we can buy, or our contribution to the economy. This idea is given its greatest expression through the assembly process. The process of friends, neighbors and members of our broader community coming together in public space to engage in meaningful dialogue about the issues that matter most to us; this is what democracy looks like.

I have voted in every national and local election since I turned 18. I vote out of a deep sense of devotion to the ideals of democracy. Several years ago I was privileged with the opportunity to collect and produce stories as part of the largest oral history project of its kind dedicated to recording the stories and experiences of African-American’s for StoryCorps Griot, The Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. We traveled the country in the spirit of Zora Neale Hurston, and the Lomax family, creating a space for people to let their stories be heard for posterity. I heard some of the most devastating and awe inspiring stories of struggle, survival, and resistance I could ever imagine. Listening to Ms. Theresa Burroughs in Tuscaloosa, AL, remember having to guess the number of black jelly beans in a jar in order to vote, or Johnny L. Flowers (http://storycorps.org/blog/griot-booth/selma-alabama/the-right-to-be-counted/) telling his 13 year old grandson about what it was like to stand on the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965, a day that became known as Bloody Sunday, for the vicious attack on nonviolent protesters marching for their human rights, made me promise myself that I would continue to vote for all those who have fought and died for this fundamental right.

But despite all that, i have no illusion that my vote really counts for anything. At least I know it doesn’t count as much as the people and corporations that have the privilege to back their vote with money and the power to influence legislation that privileges profit over people, corporate person-hood over human rights. It is the checkbook of the 1% who is heard not the vote of the 99%. I’d even go as far as to say I feel my vote only counts for three-fifths of all other “corporate-persons.”

So, it is with this understanding that i believe that the power of this growing movement is in the practice of people gathered together in peaceful public assemblies and consensing on how to address our grievances, not least of which is through nonviolent civil disobedience targeted at strategic objectives. Creative radical direct action is integral to this phase of the movement.

Currently the movement is organized through General Assemblies (GA’s), which are public forums for people to gather together to address concerns and make decisions through collective agreement, also called consensus. Since we are socialized to understand leadership and power centers as decisions makers, there is a common misconception that this is some type of hierarchical governing body. On the contrary, this is simply a fluid process that attempts to create a forum for the inclusion of anyone who chooses to participate. As is the case with any community these forums have developed their own culture, in the form of hand gestures and other habits that emerge from group settings. But these are just subtleties of circumstance, that can and must change and adapt to reflect the cultural expressions of the community engaging the forum process. For thousands of years societies around the world have engaged in variations of democratic decision making. The beauty of this movement is it is implicit that these distinct histories and cultural ethos will evolve the General Assembly’s method of consensus building. The GAs are ours to make our own as we see fit.

Because our minds are not yet free, this space is also not free of the frictions and misunderstandings that result from inherent privileges associated with race, class, gender, able-ism, and sexuality. These are the growing pains of a new society. Of course these realities still exist, but now is a moment to stretch our imaginations with an open mind and an open heart, and dream new ways into the world through positive participation and active engagement.  

Two months into the occupation General Assemblies are spreading across the country. In New York City, GAs have sprung up or are on the verge in the Bronx (Borough-wide), Washington Heights, Central Harlem, East Harlem, Brooklyn (Borough-wide), Sunset Park and Bed-Stuy. I’m sure there are others that I just don’t know about.

The beauty of neighborhood GAs is that they provide a forum for a variety of local constituencies within a community to come together. And in the light of so-called anti-gang laws and State terrorism against black and brown communities the act, alone, of peaceably assembling in mass numbers can be an act of defiance. But communities have been divided as much through state terror as subtler forms of co-option. One of many forms of division is often supported by the proliferation of the non-profit organizing model that segregated organizations and community groups into issue silos, often excluding potential allies, as similar groups began to compete for limited funding, and similar members or resources. Now is the time for those silos to give way to renewed opportunities for mutual collaboration. There are a lot of people doing a lot of good work but since we still seem to be facing the same old problems, why not try something different?

One example of the spreading GAs is Occupy Sunset Park. The first meeting was a gathering of about 10 residents, activists and parents from the immediate and surrounding community captivated by the energy of the moment and interested in taking action to find creative solutions to stubborn problems. At the first planning meeting it was decided that the community would begin regular weekly General Assemblies, to establish continuity. In the spirit of each one, teach one, participants were encouraged to bring at least one friend to each meeting. The following week, at the first official Occupy Sunset Park General Assembly, participants discussed facilitation processes, alternative banking options, began to address local issues like gentrification and housing, and even made plans towards their first direct action. The sheer simplicity, inclusiveness, and adaptability of this process is what makes its potential energy so powerful. In America we believe that bigger is better, but all it takes is a small group of committed individuals working together to begin to change the world.

It would be amazing to see General Assemblies spread to every building, neighborhood, town and city evolving and adapting the collective agreement process as it grows. Liberty Square is just the beginning. The act of peacefully assembling to reclaim what has been taken, making decisions about our collective future through direct democracy and engaging in nonviolent direct actions of occupation and liberation must continue to spread until a new day dawns. This is a demonstration of the power of the people to stand and be counted.

Michael Premo lives in Brooklyn, NY. As an artist and cultural worker he has worked with the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, EarSay, Inc, The Foundry Theatre, Penny Arcade and NPR’s StoryCorps, among others. Michael is co-producer of Housing is a Human Right (www.housingisahumanaright.org), an associate artist with The Civilians and serves on the Board of Directors for The Network of Ensemble Theaters. Currently his is a member of Organizing for Occupation (www.o4onyc.org) a group of New York City residents from the activist, academic, religious, homeless, arts, and progressive legal communities who have come together to actualize the human right to housing through direct action and non-violent civil disobedience. His radio documentaries and photography have been distributed internationally.

The Tactic of Occupation & the Movement of the 99%

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If we are to launch from a moment to a movement, we will have to broaden the “us”. We must win in the arena of values, and not allow ourselves to be narrowly defined by our tactics.

A month and a half ago a few hundred New Yorkers set up an encampment at the doorstep of Wall Street. Since then, Occupy Wall Street has become a national and even international symbol &#151 with similarly styled occupations popping up in cities and towns across America and around the world. A growing popular movement has fundamentally altered the national narrative about our economy, our democracy, and our future.

Americans are talking about the consolidation of wealth and power in our society, and the stranglehold that the top 1% have on our political system. More and more Americans are seeing the crises of our economy and our democracy as systemic problems, that require collective action to remedy. More and more Americans are identifying as part of the 99%, and saying “enough!” This moment may be nothing short of America rediscovering the strength we hold when we come together as citizens to take action to address crises that impact us all.

Occupation as tactic

It behooves us to examine why this particular tactic of physical occupation struck such a nerve with so many Americans and became a powerful catalyzing symbol.

On some level we have to separate the reasons for this broad resonance from some things the physical occupation has meant to the dedicated people occupying on the ground. Within Liberty Square there is a thriving civic space, with ongoing dialogues and debates, a public library, a kitchen, live music, General Assemblies, more meetings than you can imagine, and all sorts of activities. In this sense, occupation is more than just a tactic. Many participants are consciously prefiguring the kind of society they want to live in.

But it is also a tactic. A tactic is basically an action taken with the intention of achieving a particular goal, or at least moving toward it. In long-term struggle, a tactic is better understood as one move among many in an epic game of chess (with the caveat that the powerful and the challengers are in no sense evenly matched). A successful tactic is one that sets us up to eventually achieve gains that we are presently not positioned to win. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire asked, “What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?”

By this definition, the tactic of physical occupation in the case of Occupy Wall Street has been enormously successful already. We have, at least for a moment, subverted the hegemonic conservative narrative about our economy and our democracy with a different moral narrative about social justice and real democratic participation. We are significantly better positioned than before to make bold demands, as we can now credibly claim that our values are popular&#151even that they are common sense&#151and connected to a social base.

Occupy Wall Street as “floating signifier”

I want to suggest that the primary reason the tactic of occupation has resonated so far and wide is because it has served as a symbol about standing up to powerful elites on their own doorstep. To most people, the “occupy” in “Occupy Wall Street” essentially stands in for the F word! Millions of Americans were waiting for someone or something to stand up to Wall Street, the big banks, the mega-corporations, and the political elite. Then one day, a relatively small crew of audacious and persistent New Yorkers became that someone or something &#151 became the catalyzing symbol of defiance we’d been waiting for.

Thus, Occupy Wall Street has served as something of a floating signifier &#151 amorphous enough for many different kinds of people to connect with and to see their values within the symbol. Such ambiguous symbols are characteristic of new populist alignments. Many objects can serve as the catalyzing symbol, including actions (e.g. the occupation of Tahrir Square or of the Wisconsin State Capitol this spring), individual politicians (quintessentially Perón in Argentina), or even constructed brands (e.g. the “Tea Party”). As the above examples suggest, this phenomenon can be seen in all kinds of broad political alignments, across the ideological spectrum. In all cases though, a degree of ambiguity is necessary if the symbol is to catalyze a broad alignment. If the symbol’s meaning becomes too particular&#151too associated with any one current or group within the alignment&#151it risks losing its powerfully broad appeal.

It’s important to note that although the signifier is floating (i.e. not peg-able), it is not empty of content. It has to be meaningful enough to resonate. Moreover, different symbols tend to pull things in different directions. Candidate Barack Obama as floating signifier, for example, pulled a lot of grassroots energy into what has turned out to be an establishment-reinforcing direction. Occupy Wall Street as floating signifier, on the other hand, seems so far to be pulling a lot of establishment forces in the direction of the fired-up, social justice-oriented grassroots.

When a challenger social movement hits upon such a catalyzing symbol, it’s like striking gold. One might even argue that broad social movements are constituted in the act of finding their floating signifier. Hitherto disparate groups suddenly congeal into a powerful aligned force. Momentum is on their side and things that seemed impossible only yesterday become visible on the horizon.

It becomes imperative then for the forces defending the status quo to tarnish the challenger movement and its symbols &#151 to destroy their popular appeal. This tarnishing strategy is accomplished by nailing down the floating signifier &#151 by fixing it to particular meanings, associating it with particular “kinds of people” and to narrower frameworks, so that it can no longer function as a popular symbol.

This is the phase we find ourselves in right now.

Expanding the “us”

We are engaged in a battle over values and ideas. Our idea is that our political structures should serve us, the people &#151 all of us, not just those who have amassed great wealth and power. This idea has struck a chord and millions of Americans have quickly come to identify on some level with Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement.

In this epic battle over values and ideas, our opponents have already mounted a sophisticated public relations offensive to nail down the floating signifier and negatively brand the emerging movement. They are attempting to caricaturize, stereotype and “otherize” the most visible actors&#151the occupiers&#151in order to inoculate more Americans from identifying with “the 99%” and keep them from joining the movement.

“Character assassination” is a primary tactic that the powerful wield against challengers. It’s about tarnishing a person’s reputation, so that no one will listen to anything they have to say. It can be used against groups and movements too. When Mayor Bloomberg attempted to “clean Zuccotti Park”, he was making the first move in an ongoing character assassination campaign that has not ceased. Bloomberg and others have thrown everything in the book at us.

In the face of a character assassination campaign, our task and challenge is to expand the “us”. Our opponents want to portray the movement as a particular kind of person doing a particular thing (e.g. “dirty hippies”). Thus, it’s critical that we continue to bring more kinds of people, visibly engaged in more kinds of things, into the movement. The 99% movement has to be more than a protest, more than an occupation, more than any given tactic, and more than any “type” of person. We must not allow ourselves to be typecast.

The good news is that there’s already a lot in motion to buck our opponents’ strategy. Since September 17 (the start of Occupy Wall Street), the “us” has expanded exponentially. The movement has become far broader than those who are able to participate in physical occupation. The 99% movement is Elora and Monte in rural West Virginia who sent hand-knit hats to occupiers at Liberty Square. It’s 69-year-old retired Iowa public school teacher Judy Lonning who comes out for Saturday marches in Des Moines. It’s Nellie Bailey, who helped to organize the Occupy Harlem Mobilization last week. It’s Selena Coppa and Joe Carter, who marched in formation to the New York Stock Exchange last week with 40 fellow ‘Veterans of the 99%’. The 99% movement is everyone who sends supplies, everyone who talks to their friends and families about the underlying issues, everyone who takes some form of action to get involved in this civic process.

Tactic, message, movement

We are moving in the right direction, but we must keep moving. We can’t let this expansion of the “us” plateau.

In the past week and a half, we’ve seen more and more news stories focusing on the physical logistics of occupation, including the problems and challenges. News outlets are presenting the tactic of occupation as if the tactic were the message and the movement itself. And our opponents are making some headway in negatively branding occupation and occupiers.

To navigate this challenge, it is important that we recognize a few things about our relationship to the tactic of physical occupation:

  • It has already accomplished more than any of us imagined.
  • It is incredibly resource-intensive to maintain.
  • It will not serve us forever (indeed, it’s utility may already be waning).
  • We will have to come up with other popular expressions of the values of this movement.

We have to distinguish conceptually between our tactics, our message, and our movement. Of these three, our tactics should be the thing we are least attached to. In oppositional struggle, it is critical to maintain the initiative; to keep one’s opponents in a reactive state. This is not accomplished by growing overly attached to any particular tactic&#151no matter how well it worked the first time&#151and thereby doing exactly what our opponents expect us to do.

Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to conceptualize the need to be innovative and keep our opponents on their toes than to actually come up with the right thing at the right moment to make it so. Moreover, it’s wrongheaded to get caught up in the elusive search for the perfect silver bullet tactic. Movements are, more than anything else, about people. To build a movement is to listen to people, to read the moment well, and to navigate a course that over time inspires whole swaths of society to identify with the aims of the movement, to buy in, and to take collective action.

“Occupy Wall Street” is the tactic that has launched a movement for social justice and real democracy onto center stage. It has served as the initial catalyzing symbol. Hopefully ten or twenty years from now, when we look back at all we’ve accomplished together, we’ll credit Occupy Wall Street as a critical moment that helped to spark and then build a lasting movement.

However, if we fail to find other successful tactics&#151and other popular expressions of this movement’s values&#151we will be pronounced dead as soon as the tactic fades. Fortunately, Occupy Wall Street&#151and the tactic of occupation&#151is neither the primary message nor the movement itself.  And, fortunately, we don’t have to invent the message for the movement from scratch.

“We are the 99%” has become a core message of this burgeoning movement. It emerged in tandem with the deployment of the captivating tactic of occupation. The framework of the 99% accomplishes a number of important feats:

  • The 99% frames the consolidation of wealth and political power in our society &#151 the central grievance of this movement and a central crisis of our times.
  • The 99% frames a class struggle in a way that puts the 1% on the defensive (whereas the common accusation of “class warfare” has somehow tended to put a lot of people in the middle on the defensive).
  • The 99% casts an extraordinarily broad net for who is invited to join the movement. Most everyone is encouraged to see their hopes and dreams tied to a much bigger public. Thus it frames a nearly limitless growth trajectory for the movement.
  • The 99% even leaves room for the 1% to redeem itself. There are many striking cases of “1 percenters” speaking out as defectors who are as vocal as anyone that the system is broken and needs to serve the 100%!

The 99% meme is a real winner. Its message and framework may prove better at helping  us weather the winter, both literal and metaphorical, than any one tactic could. It points the way toward a necessary expansion. It encourages us to not just act on behalf of, but alongside of, the 99%; to look beyond the forces already in motion, to activate potential energy, to articulate a moral political narrative, and to claim and contest our culture.

No framework will automatically deliver &#151 not without a lot of hard work and smart decisions. Thankfully, there’s a whole new generation of leadership stepping up to do just that. Together we can turn this moment into a movement that’s here for the long haul.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker is a grassroots organizer, trainer and strategist. He directs Beyond the Choir. He has been active in Occupy Wall Street working groups for the past month. He posts at occupyWINNING.com and BeyondtheChoir.org.

How to pitch news outlets to cover your action

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To pitch a reporter or assignment editor about an action or event you’re planning is to call them up&#151typically after sending them a news release&#151and attempt to persuade them that they should come out (or send a reporter) and cover what you’re doing. A good pitch call is at least as important as sending a good news release. With a call, unlike a news release, you are creating a memory of a human-to-human interaction. It’s your opportunity to make a strong impression so that when the reporter or editor goes into their morning or afternoon meeting&#151where they’re deciding which stories to cover&#151they are more likely to advocate for covering your event.

Reporters and editors are busy people. They often sound as if they are unhappy that you reached them by phone, and sometimes you’ll be lucky to get a full minute of their time. An effective pitch call makes a strong impression within the first five seconds, and makes at least the start of a compelling case within ten seconds.

For comparison, here’s an example of an ineffective pitch call:

Hi. My name is [name]. I’m calling about an event that we’re organizing. The event will be here in Manhattan. We’ll be having a march. It’s part of Occupy Wall Street. Veterans will be joining the protest today.

The caller would be lucky to get to the veteran part&#151which is the news hook&#151without the reporter or editor yawning or interrupting. Now, here’s an example of an effective pitch call:

Hi, I’m [name], calling on behalf of ‘Veterans of the 99%’. Tomorrow, military veterans dressed in uniform will march in-step from the Vietnam Memorial in lower Manhattan to the Stock Exchange. Then they’ll join Occupy Wall Street &#151 where they’ll use a “people’s mic” to talk about why, as veterans, they are participants in the 99% movement. Did you receive our press release?

While the second pitch is actually slightly longer than the first, it is packed with words that command attention and stimulate the imagination. Everything in the pitch floods the mind with powerfully vivid images. The first example, on the other hand, is bland. There’s no indication of what the caller is even talking about until a few sentences in.

The effective example ends with a question: “Did you receive our press release?” The reporter or editor has to respond, and will typically do so in one of three ways: 1) Yes, 2) No, 3) Maybe/I don’t know. You can respond to their answers in the following ways:

  • Yes: Great. Will you be sending someone to cover it?
  • No or Maybe: I’ll resend it right away. What email or fax number shall I send it to?

No matter how they answer, you should close the call by making another brief, compelling pitch. You may want to try a pitch that speaks explicitly to production considerations, such as:

Veterans in uniform standing at attention in front of the Stock Exchange will be a powerful visual &#151 you’ll definitely want to send a photographer [if print media]. Will you be sending someone?

If the reporter or editor is non-committal, ask them if there is any additional information you can provide that would help them decide.



‘Veterans of the 99%’ in front of the New York Stock Exchange. 11/2/2011

Writing an effective news release has some things in common with making an effective pitch call. It’s important to stack the most exciting stuff at the top: the most exciting language possible to describe the most compelling people and to spotlight the most captivating visuals. In a news release though, it is also important to weave the issue more substantially into the story. The modern media tends to be disturbingly lazy, and sometimes they simply quote from&#151or even print whole sections of&#151news releases, rather than send a reporter. A good news release starts with the strongest news hooks (the stuff that really catches reporters’ or editors’ attention) but weaves in the campaign message (what you want to communicate about your issue), so that, ideally, any one sentence could stand strongly on its own if that were the only sentence a news outlet chose to print. Be sure to keep copies of releases about upcoming events onhand for journalists at your occupation’s info or press table.

A few more tips:

  • When to call: early and often. Send your first advisory to get your action on editors’ radar screens (and calendars) as early as possible. Make a first round of calls to accompany the advisory. Send it again a few days before and then again the morning of your action. Whenever possible, send the release and make follow-up calls first thing in the morning (7-8am) &#151 to hit morning meetings where assignments are often determined. Additionally, if you are organizing an event where you want a lot of people, then find out if your local papers, weeklies, etc. have a public community calendar where you can list your event to help build turnout.
  • Who to call: If you don’t already have a press list, see if you can “borrow” one from another local grassroots organization that does. If you can’t borrow a list, don’t worry, just look up all your local media outlets online or in the phone book, and start calling. The default is to call and ask for the assignment editor. However, pitching specific reporters can be more effective. So, it pays to familiarize yourself with the reporters from your local news outlets. Notice who covers what “beats” and start calling the reporters who you think will be interested in your story. If a reporter covers you once, call them next time around. Be sure to add to your list any reporters who visit your occupation site. Think of your press list as a dynamic document. Keep good notes, including links to past coverage.
  • Who should call: Ideally the folks who are doing the pitching are folks who can speak compellingly about the issue. Callers should be prepared to do an interview on the spot, should the opportunity arise. When possible, it’s good for the pitch caller to have a level of authority on the issue. In the example above, veterans participating in the event would be ideal folks to do the calling. However, someone making pitch calls is better than no one making pitch calls. And it’s important to train new people too. One thing you can do is assign calls to news outlets that are “lower stake” (typically smaller readership or audience) to new folks, so that they have the opportunity to make their first pitch calls without so much pressure. It’s always a good idea to practice role playing a few pitch calls &#151 to build confidence and to refine your pitch.

Facilitating in the Occupy Movement

As the Occupy movement spreads globally, models of large democratic gatherings are also being shared and adapted. Here are some reflections on General Assemblies at one Australian occupation, and tips for making future meetings go well.



Occupy Melbourne General Assembly, October 15 2011.

It’s hard to believe it’s only been a fortnight since Occupy Melbourne first kicked off. On the 15th October, as part of a global day of action in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Melbourne started at City Square. People gathered, working groups met, workshops were held, information stalls, a library, and a functioning kitchen were set up. Multiple tents went up and estimates of 100 – 150 people camped out. Less than a week later, under the direction of the Lord Mayor, police moved in and ‘evicted’ the occupiers.

Of course, that’s not the end of it. Occupy Melbourne, like similar occupations around the world, continues. The form of the actual ‘occupation’ changes, but a commitment to direct democracy is constant.

Many people are having their first taste of direct democracy and ‘consensus building’ through the General Assembly at Occupy Melbourne. People completely new to facilitation are stepping up to try it out. Experienced facilitators are being challenged by a different process, large groups, and a fair amount of chaos! A lot of learning is going on, in a dynamic and at times very difficult context.

I’ve been a part of the facilitation team at two general assemblies, observed others, attended some facilitation working groups, shared my thoughts on the email list, and recently ran a facilitation training for ten folks involved in Occupy Melbourne. Here are some notes on what I think contributes to effective facilitation at general assembly meetings.

Purpose

For a gathering to go well we need to be clear on its purpose. The purpose of the Occupy Melbourne General Assembly is to:

  • Share information relevant to the functioning of Occupy Melbourne
  • Make decisions relevant to the functioning of Occupy Melbourne
  • Build the group – bringing together people involved in Occupy Melbourne

The General Assembly is not the only forum to address these purposes. For example:

  • Information is shared on the website, Facebook, Twitter, in smaller groups, by word of mouth etc
  • Many day-to-day and smaller scale decisions are made at the working group level.
  • All sorts of activities are contributing to ‘building the group’ – such as actions, workshops, music, and social networking.

It is significant that the General Assembly is the time when everybody comes together to focus on Occupy Melbourne. This makes the time precious and also pressured. A lot of people want to get a lot out of the General Assembly, and the facilitation team needs to work hard to juggle those demands.

What participants are looking for

However clear the facilitation team may be about the purpose of the General Assembly, individuals rock up with their own expectations and needs. These may include wanting to:

  • Find out what’s going on – what’s this all about?
  • Get involved – how do I plug into this thing?
  • Be heard – hey everyone, listen to my political perspective/pet peeve/emotional expression/confusion/questions… right now!
  • Connect, make friends, get to know each other.
  • Push a political agenda and gain support for particular campaigns and groups.
  • Sabotage or undermine the process for political or personal reasons.
  • Feel a part of something big and exciting.

What helps:

  • Introducing the purpose and process of the General Assembly at the beginning of the meeting. What the General Assembly is, and isn’t.
  • Providing a range of ways for people to be heard and ask questions at Occupy Melbourne such as talking in pairs or small groups during the Assembly; participating in and running workshops; joining working groups; feeding in to online discussions; addressing people through a speakers corner for ‘soapboxing’.
  • Having clear information about Occupy Melbourne available on the website, info desk, as wells as signs, agendas and programmes of activities.
  • Involving experienced people as contact points and ‘welcoming committee’ for new people, to explain process and give people background on discussions.
  • Setting up shared experiences which aren’t too daunting but break the ice – like chants, songs, jokes, and structured introductory activities.

Building a container

Training for Change, US activist educators, talk about the need to have a strong ‘container’ in order to have a well functioning group where people can take risks and engage in rigorous group work. A container is strengthened by building relationships in the group, providing opportunities for people to show themselves (disclosing at their own pace), and having the safety net of a well structured workshop or meeting.

container: a word for the degree of safety the participants are experiencing. A workshop starts with a weak container – not much safety – so participants are concerned about how others see them and have less attention for learning. The stronger the container, the more participants become authentic and take risks to learn.  From the Training for Change glossary

It would be hard to find a more challenging context for building a group’s container than a General Assembly! So far they’ve been held in City Square, outside the library, from the back of a truck in Lygon St – all with significant background noise, people coming and going, a constantly changing group with different levels of involvement and understanding of the process, rain, acoustic problems with megaphones, time pressures, with police looking on!

Given these challenges, what are some things facilitators and participants can do to build the container at Occupy Melbourne?

  • Open with intent. The General Assembly is a particular experience with expectations of a particular kind of participation. Starting clearly, getting people focused, is key. Opening can be ritualised – for example gathering everyone with a song or a chant, making space for Acknowledgement of Country, starting with the description of the purpose and process of the General Assembly.
  • Have a clear agenda. Knowing what’s going on, when, helps folks relax and settle in to the meeting. Preferably this should be displayed visually such as on a whiteboard.
  • Structure the space. Gather participants in to a defined area, have ‘corridors’ for easy movement, set the facilitation team up where they can be seen well.
  • Allow people to get a sense of who else is there. This can be as simple as asking people to raise their hands in response to some questions eg: ‘Raise your hand if this is your first General Assembly’ (very useful information!); ‘Raise your hand if you camped at City Square’; ‘Raise your hand if you were present at the eviction’, etc.
  • Encourage people to meet each other. For example while the group is gathering you could invite people to talk with someone they haven’t spoken to before, and share what drew them to be involved in Occupy Melbourne.
  • Know the limits of the Assembly. Recognise that the General Assembly is not going to have the container to handle some stuff. Smaller groups with stronger containers may need to hash out the details and handle more conflict.
  • Just keep building. Recognise that the container is often built outside the Assembly – through deep and meaningful conversations in the kitchen at 10pm, through ‘a-ha!’ moments in workshops, through buddy relationships forged in the face of police violence.

Sharing the facilitation role

A General Assembly is typically a large gathering with a lot going on. It would be impossible for one individual to hold the whole facilitation role. At General Assemblies the facilitation team is made up of:

  • Moderator – the visible facilitator of the Assembly, who welcomes people, leads the group through the agenda, restates proposals after speakers, checks for consensus etc.
  • Moderator Support – supports the moderator, shields them from distractions, helps them synthesis proposals and keep the process on track.
  • Participants Team – interacts with participants in the Assembly, taking proposals and speakers for and against, and feeding these back to the coordinator.
  • Coordinator – the intermediary between the participants’ team and the moderator support person, ordering proposals consistent with the agenda, and selecting speakers for and against proposals.

This splitting of the role means that each person gets to focus on their aspect of the process – but also means that clear communication between roles is essential. Folks making up the facilitation team need to know each other in advance – through participating in the facilitation working group, and talking through the roles together. It helps if people who are stepping in to a role for the first time are able to talk with people who have done it before. Practising through a realistic role-play helps.

There has been some pressure from participants to vary who makes up the facilitation team. This is useful for skillsharing and making different people visible, but it should also be noted that it tends to take some practice to get into the rhythm of each role and the overall process, and having experienced members of the facilitation team is beneficial to the whole Assembly.

Setting the tone and modelling norms

The Moderator, as the most visible member of the facilitation team and constant presence throughout the Assembly, plays an important role in setting the tone for the Assembly. What does this mean?

  • A relaxed, calm Moderator communicates to the group that things are ok and on track, when people may be tense or anxious.
  • Working towards consensus can be hard work, and some participants will question the process when it doesn’t deliver quick results, or when they have a political opposition to the process itself. It’s the role of the Moderator to communicate a belief in the process and the capacity of the group to navigate it and come up with good decisions. Using humour and providing the occasional pep talk or motivational comment can help the group hang in there.
  • If the Moderator swears a lot or talks aggressively participants will see that as permission to do the same. The Moderator through their behaviour and attitude models norms of the General Assembly.

The other members of the facilitation team also need to model the norms of the gathering – sticking to the process, being respectful, staying calm. Inconsistencies between different roles in the team will confuse people, create frustration, and potentially lead people to view the team as biased.

Staying present

Being present means being focused in the here and now – not thinking too far ahead, and not being side-tracked or knocked off balance by something that happened in the past.

When all around seems to be chaos how do we stay grounded as facilitators?

  • Be solid in yourself. Putting yourself out there in front of a large groups requires self-confidence and healthy self-esteem. If you’re feeling brittle it’s probably not the best day to get up in front of everyone with a megaphone.
  • Follow a clear Agenda – so you know what’s coming up and you don’t have to figure everything out on the run.
  • Remember other people have your back. The Moderator Support role is there for the Moderator to check in with, check their judgement with, and be reassured by. It helps if this person has experience as part of the facilitation team at other Assemblies and knows the process well. As Moderator you should pick someone for the support role who you have good rapport with, and trust.
  • Reduce distractions. The broader facilitator team should be shielding the Moderator from direct contact with participants, so you can stay focused. It helps to make this clear in the introduction to process – if you wish to speak, don’t approach me directly, please talk to a member of the participant team.
  • Take a moment. If your mind is racing, slow things down so it can catch up. Speak more slowly, add some pauses, if necessary let people know you’re going to take a moment to confer with others in the facilitation team.
  • Breathe. Essential! Breathing deeply calms you and stops your voice quavering.
  • Keep perspective. Take it seriously – but don’t take it, or yourself, too seriously. In the middle of it all it can feel incredibly crucial, but the future of the world doesn’t hinge on one meeting. If the group can’t get to consensus, then they can’t – maybe they will tomorrow – or maybe the issue just isn’t compelling enough.
  • Ground yourself. Starhawk has a guide to grounding and centring for activists which looks like a good practice for actions – but also preparing to facilitate. ‘Grounding is a technique that can help us stay both alert and relaxed when all hell is breaking loose around us.’

Facilitation and Authority

When we stand up in front of a group of people to facilitate we can push people’s buttons around authority. Before we even open our mouths we can become the magnet for various feelings and projections, reminding people of experiences from their past with authority figures such as parents, teachers, or politicians. The likelihood that you may be viewed negatively increases in a crowd where a large proportion of people have anti-authoritarian politics.

How do we deal with this?

  • Don’t take it personally, it’s about the role you’re in.
  • Be clear about your role and the process you are facilitating.
  • Don’t let it be all about you. You’re there to facilitate a group process, to help the group get done what it needs to get done. Don’t frame things in terms of helping you, pleasing you, or disappointing you.
  • Reflect on your own experiences of authority, and how this might show up in your facilitation.
  • Be consistent, transparent and accountable to the group.

Evolving Process

The process used at Occupy Melbourne has gone through minor revisions since the first General Assembly, and this will continue to happen. The current Assembly process isn’t the only one available to these kinds of large gatherings. One great example which is widespread in nonviolent direct action mobilisations, and has been honed by the climate movement in recent years, is the spokescouncil. Check out some insightful reflections about facilitating spokescouncils by Tanya Newman, a social movement educator from Aotearoa.

Want more info and resources?

See the #Occupy 101 post on the Plan to Win blog for some helpful resources for facilitators and educators in the Occupy movement. Rhizome, based in the UK, are a great source of information about consensus, and have also posted some links relevant to the Occupy movement here.

This is an exciting time for people engaged in building social movements and promoting democratic group process. Please contribute what you figure out – your rich learnings can benefit people around the world who are organising for a better future.



This article was first published on the Plan to Win website. Plan to Win is an Australian organisation which assists individuals, groups and campaigns to develop the skills and clarity required to win change in the world.