American Autumn: Inside Occupy DC

October 27, 2011

Walking into the Occupy DC demonstration in McPherson Square on a Saturday afternoon is like entering a beehive. Yells and clanking pots emanate from the kitchen tent. The Welcoming Committee greets visitors from the information booth. Homeless men and women stand listlessly smoking cigarettes. Bearded men and women with head-wraps talk and gesture earnestly as they bustle back and forth carrying medical supplies, saws, and whatever else their tasks require.

This past Saturday, a large crowd was gathered near the statue of General James McPherson, having an impromptu discussion of institutional racism. A black Muslim woman was standing on a curb, her pink head-scarf rustling in the wind as she gestured to the crowd. She spoke of the need to address psychological oppression of minorities within the movement and to give these marginalized groups more influence.

The discussion was prompted by group called the Black is Back Coalition. Aiesha Fleary, a member of the group, said they simply came down to the square carrying their racially-themed signs and a debate sprung up.

Like other occupations around the globe, Occupy DC was born in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, a demonstration that began on September 17 at Zuccotti Park in New York City. Inspired by an Adbusters poster featuring a ballerina, the Wall Street bull statue, and an open question—“What is our one demand?”—the occupations are a loose protest against economic inequality and corporate greed.

Much like its sister demonstrations, Occupy DC has become a commune of tents in the heart of the District. Together, the protesters have created their own society essentially from scratch, providing each other with food, tobacco, warmth, security, and government while they protest “indefinitely.” Since beginning on October 1, it has grown exponentially: occupiers said the number of tents has doubled from around 60 to over 120 in just the past week and a half.

Although events like the Black is Back debate can make Occupy DC look scattered and dysfunctional, there is an extraordinary amount of organization and cooperation between the society’s many factions. In less than a month, the occupiers have managed to design a responsive, inclusive government and high-functioning bureaucracy. Although far removed from the traditional American conception, their novel model of cooperative democracy is key to their functioning and survival as a political force.

The racial discussion continued orderly until shouts sprung up from a vacant field behind the crowd. The group started using a technique they’ve dubbed the “human microphone,” where the crowd repeats what the speaker is saying so that everyone can hear, even from far away. “Mic check!” one person yelled. “Mic check!” the group responded. “The general assembly will begin in two minutes!” And in kind, “The general assembly will begin in two minutes!”

At general assembly meetings, decision-making is based on a consensus model, not majority-rule. In discussions and question sessions, traditionally marginalized voices—namely minorities and women—are given priority in the speaking order, or “stack,” along with less-vocal occupiers. This is supposed to ensure no one person or group monopolizes the conversation. In the consensus system, one dissenting voice is enough to block a proposal, and everyone must be satisfied for the group to move forward with a plan.

Occupiers recognize and dislike the amount of time it takes to address issues in the assemblies, but legislative efficiency is at the bottom of the priority list. The intent is to keep the movement unified. In an occupation including so many identities and groups, fractionalization is one of the biggest threats to the little tent society.

Beyond that, the model also works to keep the movement autonomous. The occupiers have already rejected attempts by groups like MoveOn.org to group them into an established cause. Kelly Mears, who quit his job and deferred his student loans to join the tech team, thinks the consensus process protects the group from co-optation. “It makes it very difficult for a radical ad hoc voice to override a lot of tacit understandings of a majority of people,” he said.

Reporting to the general assembly are democratic committees devoted to every aspect of life at the occupation. For example, the movement has set up a full-service kitchen serving free food to voluntary occupiers and the homeless.

Alex, a full-time sophomore at George Washington University living at the occupation, explained that all the food comes from donations—ranging from single orders of Five Guys fries to a recent gift of 300 pounds of apples from a friendly farmer (Many of the protesters declined to give their last names, fearing disapproval from employers or family members.) The kitchen does not have a permit, but that hasn’t been a problem with the police.

“We’ve just reorganized and rebuilt off the trees, which was one of the cops’ stipulations,” she said. “They didn’t want us damaging park property, which we’ve been pretty respectful of.”

The movement is actually operating on a food surplus. Spoilage and waste is a bigger problem than hunger. The biggest problem with the Food Committee is finding someone to wash the dishes.

The Sanitation Committee is responsible for ensuring the occupiers respect their new home. Tom Regis—known as “Tobacco Tom” for his free cigarettes program—is a member of the committee and says it’s essential to make sure litter doesn’t jeopardize the occupation.

“Frankly there’s been a lot of cigarettes, and we’ll find a lot of organic matter like food scraps,” he said. “I made an announcement about three or four days ago to the GA that sanitation is what we need to be concerned about, because other ‘Occupies’ are being evacuated right now for sanitation reasons. … Since then, it’s been better.”

Cigarette butts were noticeably absent from McPherson on Saturday. The activists rotate their tent locations and re-seed the grass they trample down. The committee has also been leading sanitation marches to clean up other parts of the city, like Dupont Circle. “It was great outreach because people tend to engage in conversation when you’re reaching for a cigarette butt under their bench,” Regis said.

To service the inevitable bumps and bruises (and occasional case of trench-foot), the movement set up a medical service for occupiers. Most of the medical supplies are simple first aid, but they are slated to get a number of doctors on call beginning this week, according to Ellie, a medical staffer. National Nurses United also approached her last week, and now they staff the medical tent twice a week. The station offers free care to both occupiers and the homeless. “I would have left if we weren’t helping the people who originally lived here,” Ellie said.

Meanwhile, the Action Committee is responsible for planning protests. Sara Shaw was the facilitator of the Action Committee on Saturday. She still holds a full-time job, despite living at the occupation, and says participation has been strong and growing. One of the committee’s efforts has been a bank action, where occupiers march to banks that received bailout money, close their accounts, and transfer their funds to local credit unions.

There are also burgeoning media and technology teams to connect the D.C. occupiers to movements across the nation and provide the press with accurate information. According to Mears, the media team has become more of a public relations institution, fact-checking reporters, following the news, and managing the Twitter and livestreamed events. They are currently raising money to start their own newspaper. They also work on information generation and dispersion, compiling information on everything from where the good pizza places are to lobbying practices for activists and larger media.

As the movement’s notoriety grows, the protestors find themselves with significant funding. Finance Committee member Rooj Alwazir said Occupy DC has generated $16,000 in three weeks. According to Alwazir, on-site donations are approaching $800 a day, with $1,200 more coming in online. On Saturday, the GA consented to open an Occupy DC account at Signal Financial, a local credit union.

Despite this success, the group isn’t eager to spend. Alwazir said most of the funds are being set aside for the winter ahead and any possible legal fees.

The De-escalation Committee is responsible for working with the Metropolitan Police Department and maintaining order in the camp, running nighttime patrols to protect the group from unfriendly interlopers, and mediating conflict between occupiers. Shaw said that the police have been relatively accommodating of the protests.

There have been no arrests of any McPherson Square occupiers, a fact most participants attribute to MPD’s experience with protestors, the protestors’ good behavior, and strict rules surrounding police conduct. For instance, the police have to give three warnings before they make any arrests.

“They haven’t really given us any problems,” Shaw said. “Once they figure out that we’re marching they usually get some cop cars on the route and block traffic.”

Behind all this organization is the Facilitation Committee, the institution that first decided on the format for general assemblies and trains participants in the democratic techniques of the consensus model.

“The facilitator exists to ensure that we stick to process, that all voices are heard and that voices aren’t dominant over other voices,” said Drew Franklin, one of the original committee members. “They guide discussion but … they remain as neutral as possible.”

This role is not fixed, but rotates amongst different members. No one person is supposed to lead discussion too much in order to ensure equal input.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the movement is that it is completely leaderless. No person interviewed for this story, even those leading the GA, would say they were more than just a member of the group.

Consensus rules and the absence of a leader are supposed to prevent co-optation by one set of interests. There are some de facto leaders who spring up, but they are not given legitimacy by any power other than experience. As quickly as they appear, their power is checked by facilitators moving them down the speaking order.

Like in any governance structure, there are power dynamics at play. For one, the Facilitation Committee has the opportunity for an enormous amount of clout because they designate and train facilitators for each committee.

“A lot of us feel like we are overstepping our role a little bit,” Franklin said. “And we’re doing it with the best of intentions which is to keep things organized and keep things going efficiently.”

A big issue is the lack of accountability—collective responsibility means collective blame. The Facilitation Committee is working on incentive structures to make every committee accountable to one another, but these plans are in their nascent stages.

The De-escalation Committee is also a sticking point, especially when it tries to discipline fellow occupiers. On one occasion, a few members put a sign up on the McPherson statue, and De-escalation members felt it would attract police attention.

“They … declared that they were on the De-escalation Committee as if they were wearing that as a badge, and it gave their instructions more weight,” Franklin said.

The situation progressed to yelling and the sign was removed, but not before prompting considerable discussion on the committee’s power and responsibilities in the camp.

Race has also become a contentious issue, as the Black is Back coalition made clear. Facilitators are supposed to be trained to minimize white privilege by prioritizing marginalized voices, but there has been concern that this was not happening regularly. In response, the Facilitation Committee decided to stop allowing each committee to name its own discussion leaders.

In one De-escalation meeting, a woman also complained that female members were being relegated to more menial roles. On Saturday, a People of Color working group and an Anti-Racist White Allies organization had just formed to discuss diversity issues, but they remain controversial.

Despite the importance of these issues, the biggest obstacle is independent of the movement: the coming winter. The occupiers have considered weatherizing tents, investing in space heaters for the medical tent to warm up those with hypothermia, or finding a big room to hold GAs indoors. Recently, a Winterization Committee has been formed, but its plans are still in the beginning stages. The protestors expect to take cues from Boston and New York, but that strategy guarantees nothing. One thing is for sure though—they intend to tough it out.

“We need more bodies in the park … in order to secure more funding that we’ll need to winterize, and also just to secure more body heat,” Mears said.

As for the motivations and goals of these protestors, there is no easy answer. There is little desire among the activists to settle on a list of demands or even a set of goals for the occupation. They fear allowing outside interests to pigeonhole and hijack the movement, so they simply choose to adopt no single organization’s goals. Indeed, their model of governance is designed to do just that: allow for such a wide range of voices that there can be little hope of explicit demands.

Even so, this does not prevent them from agreeing on many issues—enough to have the motivation to live together through considerable hardship to fight for an abstract notion of political change.

There is one big policy goal they all seem to be behind: corporate finance and lobbying reform. Each protester expressed dismay at the level of corporate control of government and many showed support for public campaign funding. If there is a rallying cry for the movement in D.C. beyond an abstract notion of inequality, it’s this issue. Even so, the group still appears too happily fragmented and opposed to unification to come up with a platform any time soon.

Perhaps that’s not what’s most important. The level of governmental sophistication is nothing short of remarkable for a tent colony that has only existed for 26 days. Along with an array of political desires, this experience is how Alex, the George Washington sophomore, framed her motivation for joining the movement.

“I’m here because it’s almost a social experiment,” she said. “People seeing if we can build a self-supporting, sustainable community. And so far, I’d say it’s doing pretty well.”

Gavin Bade
Gavin Bade is Managing Editor of The Georgetown Voice

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Hey Gavin,

This is the most widescreen article I’ve read about us yet–and I’m on the media team, I’ve read pretty much all of them!

You’ve really captured our successes and our challenges without sugarcoating or resorting to easy caricature. Thank you. Sorry I didn’t get to meet you at the park, but I hope you’ll find the time to come visit as we winterize. There’ll be more to write about by then! :)