What Is Occupy Wall Street? The History of Leaderless Movements

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The Washington Post

What Is Occupy Wall Street? The History of Leaderless Movements

Occupy Wall Street has arrived. Facebook is all-aflutter, and Twitter is all-atweeter, as news of “occupations” and clashes with the powers-that-be spread like wildfire around the country.

Now entering its fourth week, the Wall Street occupation has become a national phenomenon. The president is interested, celebrities are popping by, and pizza shops are adding the OccuPie to their menus. There is even an Occupy video game in development. The movement has spawned hundreds of Occupy locales in a national Occupy Together network. And now there is talk of going global: Occupy the World.

Inquiring minds want to know: Who are these people? What exactly are they demanding? Who is leading this thing?

On these issues, the movement has been clear: This is a leaderless movement without an official set of demands. There are no projected outcomes, no bottom lines and no talking heads. In the Occupy movement, We are all leaders.

This is not just a charming mess. We are all leaders represents a real praxis, and it has a real history.

In the 1960s and 70s, feminists convened consciousness-raising meetings aimed at politicizing the various forms of women’s oppression that were occurring in private. Women in the ranks were tired of being excluded from the inner circles of leadership where the issues and demands were being decided. And, they were sick of the generalized hypocrisy regarding gender roles. For this reason, feminist consciousness-raising eschewed formal leadership because each woman’s experience and opinion had to be valued equally. The personal was the political.

Consciousness-raising was also the heart and soul of gay rights activism. The process of sharing coming-out stories in a free environment helped others liberate themselves from the closet of ill repute. Again, these stories were told in a non-coercive, leaderless environment that empowered gay men and women to fight for their rights and leave behind a debased life of sexual secrecy.

Both of these movements had enormous impacts on American life. Gay rights liberated our sexuality, and feminism fundamentally changed the way we relate to each other as men and women. All this, without a centralized leadership.

Fast-forward to the late 1990s when protest networks emerged around the world in opposition to the World Bank, WTO and G-8. This time uneven development, debt and neoliberalism took center stage, alongside environmental concerns and world poverty. The protesters were “Anti”  globalization as well as “Alter”: Free flows of information as opposed to patenting, free movement of people as opposed to policed immigration, and free trade as opposed to NAFTA.

Alter-globalization networks created a veritable movement of movements, which was not led or controlled by any one of them. In the United States, anarchist-inspired spokescouncils convened hundreds of these groups to organize protest actions, conferences and community work. At the meetings, each group would position a single member upfront, in the inner circle, while the rest sat behind, like a human wheel with spokes. There were no leaders with long-standing assignments because every participant was, in essence, a leader. In lieu of a party line, this amalgamation of movements operated according to sets of core, procedural principles—called Principles of Unity—that reflected their anti-authoritarian, anti-discriminatory orientation.

The Occupy movement operates similarly, with each locale establishing its own set of organizational practices. Locales, and the virtual Occupy communities in cyberspace, are federated according to a simple yet powerful point of unity: “The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%”—an obvious reference to the well-known, yet still appalling, statistic that the top 1 percent of households in the United States own somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of all privately held wealth. And counting.

Occupy Wall Street’s organizational presence is the New York General Assembly or “GA,” which convenes numbers in the high hundreds at its squat-site in Zuccotti Park. Daily GA meetings are led by facilitators who rotate on a regular basis, and facilitation training is open to all. Specific issues, such as food, medical, legal, outreach, security and others are handled by working groups—also open and inclusive—that periodically report back to the GA. Instead of issuing top-down directives, Occupy groups use a consensus process in which anyone can join in the decision-making and propose an idea. Proposers must field questions, justify the hows and whys of their ideas, and engage a large-scale group discussion. Votes are then cast via an innovative system of hand signals, and proposals are revised until a nine-tenths majority approves.

Of course, all this requires a degree of good faith. Embedded in consensus process is an ethical assumption that decision-making is not a competition: It is not about converting other people to one’s way of thinking. It is about compromise. For every person involved, there is a new viewpoint to consider. This can get messy, but efficiency is not the measuring stick of success here. Democracy is.

Similar to the feminist and alter-globalization movements, these groups want to avoid replicating the authoritarian structures of the institutions they are opposing. This is part of what differentiates them from the Tea Party. Occupy will never become an arm of the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party is part of the problem. These protesters want to prefigure within their own organization the free society they seek to create. And they want to demonstrate against the corrupt and hypocritical culture in mainstream politics and Wall Street—by operating with integrity.

The Occupy movement is a laboratory for participatory democracy. It’s a massive crash course in leadership training. Most of these activists have a particular issue, problem or political idea that is meaningful to them, on which they have developed an expert knowledge. Occupy is both a concrete and virtual space for connecting these issues and expertise without any one position or issue taking precedence. This movement is not mired in the competitive mindset of “my issue is more important than yours” that appears to be stymieing Congress as the country slowly crumbles.

Implicit in this structure is also a rejection of the narcissistic, “I know what’s good for you” form of leadership, now pervasive in this country, in which lawmakers fail to consider the needs and desires of the people they claim to represent. The failure of representative democracy in the United States is perhaps one of the most serious problems of our time, and the Occupy movement is a symptom of this crisis of legitimacy. The people no longer trust their leaders and are even starting to indict the system itself. They think we can do better. We are all leaders.

Heather Gautney

Heather Gautney, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University and author of Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era (Palgrave Macmillan).

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