Social Form: Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly

October 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

The Wall Street Occupation is as much a social form as it is a protest.  Like Egypt’s Tahrir Square, it attempts to be a society in miniature, a practical guerrilla version of a Utopian vision.  The evolving physical organization of Zuccotti Park with its public library, kitchen (three free meals a day, ranging from peanut butter to indian dal, biryani, and samosas), comfort station (a free store with warm clothing, tarps, sleeping bags, and blankets), medical tent, sacred space (a tree surrounded by altars and meditators), cigarette rolling group, silkscreen zone, sign painters, drumming circles, people’s stage (open “mic” for 5 minute performances), media center (producing a 24/7 live video stream in addition to photo documentation and movie shorts), and three information booths, is mirrored by an ever increasing number of working groups and decision-making bodies. The most striking of these is the daily (nightly) General Assembly, a structured form of direct democracy in which proposals that affect the occupation as whole are offered up for consensus.

[general assembly in Washington Square]

The General Assembly is both a dynamic working process and a kind of group performance, almost street theater.  In part, this is the effect of the human microphone, developed as a way around police restrictions on amplified sound.  Speakers shout out their words in short phrases, which are then echoed in louder shouts by everyone in hearing range making it possible for people even farther back to hear what’s going on.  In very large groups, there may be two, or even three “generations” of the people’s mic – each phrase being shouted again in progressive waves towards the back of the crowd. “We amplify each other’s voices (WE AMPLIFY EACH OTHER’S VOICES) no matter what’s said (NO MATTER WHAT’S SAID) so we can hear one another (SO WE CAN HEAR ONE ANOTHER), yelled the facilitator at a recent Assembly in Washington Square Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon. “But also, we use this human mic because the police won’t let us use any kind of instrument.”

Repeating the words of whoever’s speaking has a curious effect, sometimes thrilling, sometimes exhausting.  It keeps the speakers concise, which does something to make up for the way it also elongates the process of saying anything. The short phrases give everyone’s speech something the feeling of poetry (maybe ancient poetry – the assembly as homeric epic).  It’s stranger to watch on video than it is to enact (The New Republic called it “genuinely creepy” in a recent editorial [behind paywall]). By becoming part of the human mic, you become a real participant in the meeting, bringing the words of whoever’s speaking into your own body.

The assembly is an attempt at decision-making which is open and porous, democratic in the absolute – whoever is there becomes part of the consensus, or lack thereof.  In theory, a newcomer is as important as someone who’s been there from the beginning, so the process of the assembly is explained at every meeting. Hand signals for communication are reviewed.  A few facilitators run the meeting, focusing their attention on process and refraining from taking positions of their own.  Invariably, as the meeting goes on, their voices become strained from shouting.

How does it work? There’s a specific process, inspired by Quaker meetings, Native American councils, the May 15 movement in Spain, and radical organizing from Chiapas to Seattle, with perhaps an unacknowledged nod to Robert’s Rules of Order which govern direct democracy town meetings in parts of New England today. Proposals come to the general assembly from working groups and individuals – requests for funds, agreements on social conduct, drafts of group declarations, plans for direct action (a list of past proposals and their fate can be found here).  Each proposal goes through several steps.  First, it is briefly explained by an individual proposer (as of this date, proposals are now posted on the nycga website 24 hours before being brought to the assembly).  There is a period of time for “concerns and questions.”  People raise their hands, or step up to a facilitator, and are added to the “stack” which is a list of people who will be called on. The proposer answers both questions and concerns as best they can. After this, there are “friendly amendments” – suggestions for small modifications to improve the proposal – the proposer is free to either accept or reject these.  Finally, there’s a call for “blocks.” Blocks are serious objections on ethical or safety grounds, more like a veto than a no vote – an indication that the person blocking would walk away from the group rather than see the proposal go forward.  In between each of these steps, the facilitators generally do a “temperature check,” asking the group to signal with their hands how they’re feeling about the proposal. Motions pass, when they do, by consensus rather than voting.  90% consensus is the rule of thumb, a vigorous twinkling of upraised hands.

[general assembly in Zuccotti Park]

David Graeber, in a recent piece in the Occupied Wall Street Journal, talks about how this came about:

On August 2, at the very first meeting of what was to become Occupy Wall Street, about a dozen people sat in a circle in Bowling Green. The self-appointed “process committee” for a social movement we merely hoped would someday exist, contemplated a momentous decision. Our dream was to create a New York General Assembly: the model for democratic assemblies we hoped to see spring up across America. But how would those assemblies actually operate? The anarchists in the circle made what seemed, at the time, an insanely ambitious proposal. Why not let them operate exactly like this committee: by consensus.

It was, in the least, a wild gamble, because as far as any of us knew, no one had ever managed to pull off something like this before. Consensus process had been successfully used in spokes-councils  —  groups of activists organized into separate affinity groups, each represented by a single “spoke” — but never in mass assemblies like the one anticipated in New York City. Even the General Assemblies in Greece and Spain had not attempted it. But consensus was the approach that most accorded with our principles. So we took the leap.

You can read the minutes of most general assemblies online.  Some go easily, others struggle.  This one, on October 21, is particularly interesting because it involves both a community emergency (a giant mound of wet laundry from recent rains that no one really wants to deal with, but must be dealt with), and a contentious decision (whether to modify the general assembly structure by adding a spokes-council where working groups could meet to deal with financial and logistical concerns).  Another, on October 20 involves a request from the park’s drummers for $8000 which was rejected (tabled) by the assembly after a heated debate.

[evening assembly at Zuccotti Park]

Six weeks into the occupation, the Structure working group (structure as in social form not tents) has succeeded in passing its proposal for  the “spokes-council,” which will move much of the allocating of funds, as well as logistical coordination, to members of chartered working groups. Debate has been contentious with serious blocks raised and many revisions to the plan.  It’s genuinely hard to say whether this will remove what makes the General Assembly feel so remarkable now – the fact that anyone present can participate in making even the most important decisions for the occupation.

New York General Assembly website.

Nathan Schneider describes the General Assembly in Harper’s

A practical guide to the group dynamics of assemblies.

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§ One Response to Social Form: Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly

  • Bonnie Friedman says:

    Fascinating. Thank you so much for posting this, and giving us at a distance a sense of what is going on there. So beautiful and suggestive, your writing is, as ever.

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