My View

Occupy movement continues forward with ‘act two’

Occupy has moved on from its “making people aware phase” to embrace systematized planning and action, with legislative consequences. Its second act is not publicity focused, so it is not in the media. Throughout America, hundreds of strategy sessions and conferences are being held to work out a social-action agenda. Delegates are being nominated at these general assemblies to a joint convention in Philadelphia on June 2, akin to the Constitutional Convention. But Occupy is a direct democracy, “civil society” movement, not a middleman-political one, just as the Tea Party was at first.

This national general assembly will highlight the importance of economic democracy and unsung “people’s capitalism” movements, which is never taught in school or reported on the news. Thus far, Occupy has avoided alienating factions in the 99 percent, aside from the 1 percent and Fox News, by not taking a specific political stance and now risks doing so as the Tea Party did by becoming conservative Republicanism. Fox News has labeled it liberal and even leftist from the start, but what isn’t to the left of Fox News?

Goddard College held an Occupy conference last month, combined with a Vermont general assembly where an aversion to gaining political power was on full display. So was the aversion to resuming protests and demonstrations in parks. Three things impressed me most about the general assembly. First, it works. It shouldn’t, but it does. Diverse participants with diverse and conflicting views are able to express them freely, be taken seriously, and be heeded by all. There is an initial facilitator and “silo-keeper” (putting the names of those wanting to speak on a list), but no real leader. The facilitator rarely speaks. Yet the discussion moves rapidly along to conclusions.

Votes and majority rule are supplanted by consensus. Can you imagine? Tea-Partiers participate, no longer listened to in that venue, expressing conservative, rabidly pro-capitalist views, and yet they are not shouted down. Instead they are quizzed on how the market might be used genuinely to decrease egregious social inequalities. Conspiracy theorists blaming “the whole mess” on secret 9/11 plots are also listened to, if with some bemusement.

Isn’t it impossible for large groups to come to consensus? Isn’t this what we’ve all been taught about such a pipedream? I was expecting a cacophony of loud voices going nowhere when I saw the hundreds of participants aching to speak. But it didn’t happen, even when discussants expressed ill-will and an unwillingness to negotiate.

What was responsible? In large part it was these stupid hand signals Occupiers use to show agreement, disagreement, or neutrality as each speaker speaks. These “twinkle fingers” mean never interrupting, which seems the key. Participants signal quietly, but amusingly, when discussion is drifting off point (this gets a triangle), or a speaker is rambling (rotating hands say silently, “wrap it up”). A “we’re number one” sign allows a speaker to jump the list, but only to provide factual correction or crucial information on a point being made. “Temperature checks” are taken by the facilitator to see what the meeting in general supports should the twinkles fade out for a time or group-attention stray. When individual cross conversations go on too long (say 30 seconds), someone takes it on herself to reflect group process in a very loud voice. Everyone in the assembly then repeats each phrase the person says, quite loudly and in unison, snapping to joint attention. Efficiency is prized because the aim is to get things done, not spoken.
The openness to contrary views is remarkable in this process, with its lack of pre-judgment, hostility, or dismissal. This is what changed Occupy’s focus from the 99 percent to the 99.99 percent, contrasted with .01 percenters on the other side. Wealthy Wall Street brokers challenged the Zuccotti Park Occupyers for failing to distinguish hard workers who, over time, merely accumulated wealth from those who use wealth to control the people’s fate in general. Occupiers listened carefully, questioned carefully, and came to believe even amid their youthful drumming and tribal dancing in retro hippie costumes.

A last Occupy “hand” signal, also drawn from anarchist tradition, is the “block,” indicated by crossing ones arms in front of one’s chest or over one’s head. This utterly rare move stops everything because it signals, “I will quit this whole movement before I’m a part of this unjust, disrespectful, or violent strategy.” Occupy is a radically pacifist justice movement and lives this even in its manner of planning and discussion. Most general assembly goers have never seen a block go up.
For a student of democracy and anarchism like myself, it is reassuring to see Occupy’s uncanny ability to put principle into practice and influence society directly without resorting to government permission or legal intervention. It is also reassuring to see folks testing ideas in practice before deciding what’s feasible or infeasible. Occupy websites help reveal what’s going on.

Bill Puka

Professor of Cognitive Science