While the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy LA movements have a great potential to bring about social change, some of us who participated in the encampment of City Hall and the Saturday and Sunday General Assemblies have become increasingly frustrated with the leadership of Occupy LA, especially concerning their collaboration with police, lack of respect for consensus process and the voices of non-straight white middle class males, and deliberate deception to solidify their power within this so-called “leaderless” movement.
One of the more inspiring aspects of these protests has been that the vast majority of participants have never protested before, and the traditional vanguardists, despite their best efforts, have been largely unable to control the direction of the movement. However, power is continuing to be concentrated into few, albeit unexperienced, hands.
As anti-authoritarians, we have little interest in controlling the movement. But we do have decades of experience. We have organized in summit protests, participated in direct actions, gone to jail, seen our friends beaten by police, organized in our communities and workplaces, studied social movements in school, and generally seen a wide variety of things that have worked very well, and things that have not worked. When we make criticisms of the General Assembly (GA), it is not because we want to instigate violence or derail the movement, it is because we have immense faith in the people to decide things collectively, by consensus, that we cannot tolerate affronts to collective process, domination of the space by the most privileged participants, the silencing of viewpoints differing from those of the “leaders,” and collaboration with the State apparatus, the very thing we are trying to change. If anyone is violent, it is those who continually silence and repress. Unlike others who speak in hypotheticals and speculation, we are careful to speak only from experience. Curiously, the processes that are being used (or rather mis-used), such as consensus, people’s mic, hand signals during the GA, decentralized leadership, etc. are all things that anarchists and anti-authoritarians (some of the very people criticizing the GA, even!) developed over the past two decades specifically around the anti-globalization movement and the 2000 Democratic National Convention here in Los Angeles, although many of these processes have existed in some form or another dating back to the anarchist combatants in the Spanish Civil War and earlier. Thus, to see our own processes valorized and then corrupted, and then to be attacked for trying to follow these same processes, is heartbreaking.
This critique of Occupy LA and the General Assembly is formed in large part from the conversations I’ve had with a variety of people the past few days and from Victor’s post on DisOccupy and comments made on his original Facebook post. But ultimately I can only say that it represents my thoughts, not those of my comrades or anyone else at the occupation, though they may agree in part or in entirety with what I write here.
Each of the issues presented here deserve a lengthier discussion than I can provide here, but I will give each individual attention.
- Mic check or “People’s Mic” — This was developed during street actions for situations in which amplified sound was not an option, but a large number of people needed to be apprised of the situation. It typically follows a call and response model, where the crowd repeats what the speaker says so that everyone can hear. It was used effectively in Pershing Square before the march for announcements from the legal team, but during the General Assembly–as one activist noted–it felt like an exercise in fascist group think. It was often used unnecessarily, and had the effect of enforcing opinions as fact through repetition.
- Police Liaisons — It is at this point clear that the designated police liaisons are more on the side of the police than the movement. Typically, police liaisons put pressure on the police and leverage the power of the movement to negotiate with police to keep people safe and get what we want. Instead, they are taking what LAPD tells them as infallible and then try to impose and enforce these police directives on the movement. To our knowledge, they have never tried to push back. Additionally, in several cases, these directives have been brought to the attention of the GA, but as a finalized decision, not something to be decided on much less concensed upon. For example, we were informed Sunday night that the entire encampment would be moved to the North lawn of City Hall Park due to a police order; there was no opportunity to decide at the GA whether we would comply with the order, and points of order raised on this question were squashed undemocratically. Further, because these police liaisons have never been involved in organizing before, they don’t realize that police lie, and that police can be negotiated with. We can see a clear example of what cooperation with police results in with the recent arrest of 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge; despite promises from NYPD that they could cross the bridge, they were still arrested. This collaboration has the ultimate effect of letting the police lead the movement.
- Permits — Similarly, the “leaders” have the mentality that everything must be permitted, and anything that’s unpermitted must be prevented from happening. The insistence on sleeping on the cement sidewalk rather than on the grass is rooted in this logic. And just as the police liaisons view the police as an infallible authority, the Logistics Committee is insistent on getting permission from the very government we are trying to change. How are we going to win anything by asking our enemy permission to fight them, and under their rules? With all the talk of revolution at the GA, one has to wonder if they realize that Obama will never grant us a permit to revolt.
- Leaderlessness — Ultimately, the two preceding issues are related to the illusion of leaderlessness. While the movement as a whole, and Occupy LA in particular, claim to not have leaders, in reality power is concentrated in a few hands and decisions are largely made by them before the GA. These same “leaders” are the same people taking orders from the police and the city and imposing those orders on the movement. It may be natural for people to take on leadership roles in movements, but here it is completely opaque as to who is deciding and what their interests are. Transparency wouldn’t allow such a level of unilaterality. All of this is done under the banner of leaderlessness. When decisions-already-made were presented to the GA, we repeatedly asked, “Who made this decision?” It wasn’t consensed on at the GA, and no one could say who made the decision or how it was made. At least the RCP is up front about who their leader is. The following issues are directly tied to the desire of these “leaders” to maintain their firm grip on decision-making.
- Individualism — The “leaders” feel ownership over the movement and will do anything they can to prevent others, no matter how much experience or knowledge they have, from “ruining” all their “hard work.” It’s all about them as individuals, not the movement.
- White Privilege and Tokenism — We have thus far not seen any indication that the mostly white male leadership cadre recognizes or even challenges their own privilege beyond their recruitment of tokens to make announcements of police directives for them or take on public roles with strict direction from them. They are oppressed people as a human shield, a curtain to hide who is really calling the shots. Meanwhile, the direction of the movement continues to privilege white, male, straight, able-bodied, and middle class participants.
- Deliberate Lies — Following the “lawn vs. grass” debacle, leaders told us that their scouts saw police moving paddywagons a few blocks away and that they heard on police scanners that the police were going to sweep the park at 10:30pm and arrest anyone who hadn’t moved to the sidewalk. Our own scouts didn’t see any police activity anywhere near the park, and we now know that police had no interest in arresting anyone in the park that night. We can only conclude that the “leaders” purposely lied to us and deceived other participants in order to enforce their will through fear-mongering and misinformation. Such behavior is absolutely unacceptable.
- More Lies — The “leaders” also lied to the participants of the GA about the consequences of sleeping on the grass, for the same reason: to enforce their decisions through fear. Participating in actions for the first time can be scary, but we believe that they should be given correct information in order to allow them to make an informed decision, not further enhance their fear of action.
- Process — Repeatedly throughout the Saturday and Sunday GAs, hard blocks and points of order have been ignored or steamrolled, proposals haven’t been properly dealt with, opposition has been cut short, comments have been made out of order haven’t been stopped (e.g. announcements made during proposal time), and unilateral changes were made to the agenda to prevent individual proposals. The consensus process is designed to give voice to everyone, but this process has been perverted and abused to deny radicals and underrepresented voices to shape the direction of the movement and keep power concentrated.
- Unity — Throughout the GA there has been an insistence on “unity,” i.e. that everyone be bound by the decisions of the collective. This would be fine if the decisions were actually made by the collective rather than the “leaders” and LAPD, and if the decisions were made by genuine consensus. This conception of “unity” is also meant to stifle individual and autonomous actions that may be separated from the rest of the movement by time or space.
- Place and Terminology — In addition to not recognizing their own privilege, the “leaders” also don’t recognize the demographics or concerns of the majority of Angelenos. They also don’t understand why the use of the term “occupation” (which I admit to using throughout this writing) is problematic when the encampment is taking place on colonized land (see http://joaquincienfuegos.blogspot.com/2011/10/decolonize-wall-street.html).
- “We are the 99%” — This is an interesting rhetorical device which has seen a lot of traction in mobilizing people. However, this 99% is by no means a homogeneous group, and to flatten this collectivity tends to reaffirm the existing class, race, and gender dynamics of the broader society. In reality, to say that the millionaires at the top of the 99% have the same interests as undocumented women is to deny the broader social structures that lead to stratification in the first place. To emphasize the plight of the 99% keeps white straight able-bodied men in power and displaces and denies the oppression of everyone else. This rhetoric doesn’t account that those in the 99% often are in the top X% when it comes to things other than tax bracket.
My intent here isn’t to be a cynic. There are a lot of amazing things happening in the Occupy LA organizing space, and as stated above I believe it has the potential to explode into something historic, if it isn’t already. However, there are a lot of problems which are already turning people off and preventing us to move forward and be everything that we can be. This critique is meant to identify these problems. Where I refer to “leaders,” I truly do not refer to individuals, but to the very concept of leadership as it is existing in effect. I believe that if all of the current leaders were replaced with new people without changing the structures in place, there would be no noticeable changes. Criticism is necessary for movements, and this criticism is meant to be constructive. I know that not everyone will respond productively or take these issues seriously, but ignoring serious concerns or responding with personal attacks will hurt the movement rather than defend it.
Some proposed changes have been made before the GA, and were met with inexplicable opposition, and the proposal to institute a spokescouncil was met with heckling and the ironic chant of “we are peaceful” meant to prevent the proposal from being heard. These proposals and others will be discussed below, again not nearly to the extent that they merit. I believe that these changes would open up many of the roadblocks we are currently experiencing and would facilitate the expansion of the movement.
- Formation of a Spokescouncil — The spokescouncil could be created to replace the GA or exist alongside it. Rather than having a large body try to consense individually in such an environment with stacks cut off, points of order and blocks ignored, and lack of information about the proposals, the spokescouncil would be representative of the various interests and affinity groups that already exist and may emerge. Each affinity group (AG) can have representatives attend and participate in each of the committees, representing the groups’ interests in each, but also report back to the AG on the decisions made. This way, everyone has much more say and much more knowledge regarding what is happening. The spokescouncil would also move the decision-making structure more toward real actions and limit pontification and groupthink.
- Immediate dissolution of the Security Committee and recall of the current Police Liaisons, creation of Copwatch/Neighborhood Watch team, and the appointment of accountable, transparent, and pro-activist police liaisons — This is related to points above. The police liaisons currently are acting in the interests of the police rather than the movement and are not acting transparently. The Security Committee (SC), which is problematic even just in name alone, has also consistently acted inappropriately. In repeated cases they have lied to activists about police activities (for example, about imminent arrest if people stay on the grass) and in one instance went into the tents of comrades who intended to defy police and SC orders to move to the sidewalk, without their consent, and may have taken or destroyed personal belongings if they weren’t immediately confronted. Such a Security Committee that exists primarily to police the movement rather than protect activists from the police should not be allowed to continue. Instead, a separate body should be formed to observe the police, scout, and take action to protect activists from police brutality and arrest.
- Child- and family-friendly spaces — These currently do not exist, and would enable much greater participation from the community.
- Restrooms and other facilities that are accessible to all people, not just able-bodied individuals — Currently, the only restrooms on the City Hall grounds are accessible only by stairs, which prevents many activists from our community from participating. It is an arrogant display of privilege not to have wheelchair-accessible restrooms.
- Workshops on the following topics: Know Your Rights, Legal Support, Cop Watching, First Aid, Direct Action, Unarresting, Workplace Organizing — These will give participants the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions about potential actions and the legal and medical risks involved.
I hope that many of these proposals can be implemented without opposition, but some of these proposals will necessarily be implemented autonomously if they cannot be consensed on at the GA.