The Rise and Fall of Occupy Wall Street, Part 1: Planning a “Spontaneous” Movement

The demand to occupy Wall Street originated with a campaign in Adbusters magazine in summer 2011. Adbusters set a time and place, with the goal of “thinking big”, without any clear plan for what would be done hour-by-hour once the squatters had arrived. This was the beginning and end of their involvement.

Meanwhile, over the period June 14-28, a group of professional left-activists based out of CUNY were occupying a sidewalk near City Hall. This movement made the mistake of publishing its list of supporter groups back in March, a mistake that Occupy would not repeat. The list includes some all-stars: Democratic Socialists of America! Socialist Party! Workers World Party! The organizers of this “Bloombergville” occupation held a twice-daily General Assembly. A leader of the group, Larry Hales, spoke to Worker’s World magazine, looking forward to a more serious program of leftist action:

A mass movement is needed: one that understands that these attacks are aimed at permanently destroying public sector unions and vital social services, one that unites all sectors of the working class and uses many tactics with the goal of pushing back this assault.

Indeed, the CUNY group’s method of achieving a feeling of egalitarianism while discreetly managing the protest itself brought new stability to the grand dream of occupying Wall Street. One of the last updates on the Bloombergville website invites viewers to a joint General Assembly with Occupy, which soon becomes a series. When a puff piece promoting Occupy hits the Washington Post on September 15, two days before the squatting begins, we can see the same poster has been modified just slightly to promote Occupy, demonstrating that the use of Assemblies was not a mere suggestion but represented the full integration of the CUNY group into planning.

Some of the August planning was leaked in the form of e-mails leaked by Andrew Breitbart, from a secret mailing list called “september17discuss“. These e-mails demonstrate basic distrust between anarchist and socialist factions of the protest, which is only natural, given that anarchists want to eliminate all control, while socialists want control over everything. Harsh words like “thuggish mafiossi” are exchanged, and hippies advise the list to stop hating so much and “hug [it] out”. Members of the CUNY group, which was primarily socialist, stress that they speak only for themselves and are not trying to create a socialist bloc within the planning list.

When a student leader named Will Russell was criticized for expressing his dissent with anarchist factions of Occupy in the Village Voice, he defends himself in these e-mails, saying: “As an individual I fully stand with the GA, which we have all worked so hard together to build.” (Russell himself, the e-mails reveal, is affiliated with the International Socialist Organization.) This planning team worked hard to shape the protest’s decision-making process so that it would be ready to go on September 17, while maintaining an illusion of democracy. In fact, the e-mails attest to the fact that many aspects of the protest were preplanned and ready for media consumption by the end of August.  The slogan “we are the 99%” (which mailing list members admit “works great as a rhetorical slogan, but unfortunately is not true”) and the Tumblr blog were among the products of the secret mailing list. Legal information was completely worked out to allow the occupiers to remain for as long as possible.

In the Village Voice interview, Russell accurately notes, “Some of our GAs have gone for seven hours”. The General Assembly is not an efficient way to run a protest. Rather, the Assembly is an interesting innovation: it uses the idea of the filibuster as political spectacle, and simply extends it to the entire decision-making process, so that the entire Assembly is a spectacle of people droning on for hours about petty distractions. Everyone is encouraged to share their opinion, even if their opinion is superfluous or nonsense. The use of the “people’s mic”, an idea roughly a decade old, triples the length of every speech. Its model of “consensus” ensures that decisions take a very long time to reach, and when forced to make a decision that effects all its members, the Assembly may splinter into two.

The General Assembly makes for great entertainment for the masses on Twitter. The incessant speechifying built into the system practically invites Internet users to get out the popcorn and follow along, and it leaves the viewer with a sense of thrill, of having witnessed “democracy in action”. But in an emergency, the Assembly would be unable to respond with anything approaching haste. Given the effort with which the CUNY team “built” it, one suspects that it is not meant to. Rather, the goal is to transform the very meaning of the protest. Before the GA, the purpose of protests was to state demands and leave. Before the GA, an “occupation” was built entirely on an external shared goal. With the novel system of Occupy, the purpose and goal of the protest is to draw attention to the General Assembly. If people want the protesters to issue demands, they must come to the Assembly in person and talk it out, or start their own Assembly elsewhere. When occupiers arrive, they do not force attention away from themselves and onto the evildoers, but contrast the evil of the outside world with the goodness of the democratic Assembly.

Without the Assembly, the vague idea of occupying a square to create a refuge of goodness against global evil is too bizarre to work. The protesters have nothing to do with their copious free time, and may indeed be seen as a nuisance. With an Assembly, preferably a very long one, the protesters are seen, at least to possible new members, as having a Purpose. The more attention the Assembly can draw to itself, the more its method can be propagated throughout the country, and throughout the world.

What the government and corporations are not, the Assembly is. On this unstated but firm belief, the movement was born and achieved impressive strength, and on it it will die.

(Continue to Part 2)

Posted: October 14th, 2011 | Politics 2 Comments »

2 Comments on “The Rise and Fall of Occupy Wall Street, Part 1: Planning a “Spontaneous” Movement”

  1. 1 Robert said at 5:45 am on October 15th, 2011:

    I enjoyed reading this and I appreciate the behind the scenes info. I think I would say that the occupations draw attention to the idea that “we” don’t need “them” to control us. We saw that in the resistance to the cleanup crew being coupled with an invitation to join the occupiers in cleaning up the park. I agree that the GA is largely spectacle and that the real work is done on an individual or working group level.

  2. 2 Occupy 101 – We Got 99 Problems But The Rich Ain’t One | said at 6:02 am on October 30th, 2011:

    […] it gets via today’s inept and sound-bite-driven media, it was much more planned than this. This piece by Avery Morrow explains the original occupation’s socialist roots in the summer of 2011, and does a good job […]