In the four months since the launch of #OCCUPY, the movement has infected the body politic with uncanny viral speed. Encampments have sprouted in every state, hundreds of cities and dozens of countries. Twinkling fingers, temperature checks, general assemblies, working groups, consensus... the left's model of revolutionary activism has undergone a paradigm shift for the better towards leaderless, anti-authoritarian horizontalism. Now the danger we face is that we will stop innovating and start imitating.
After saturating politics at the city scale, #OCCUPY is splintering downward, becoming corpuscular. Encampments are emerging that target niche communities and causes, a welcome development. There is, for example, Occupy The Boiler Room, an encampment to block gentrification in Harlem. And perhaps the most significant new development is the move onto university campuses with Wednesday's launch of both #OCCUPYHARVARD and UC Berkeley's #OCCUPYCAL.
Sadly, the seven hours I spent at #OCCUPYCAL left me dismayed, cold and concerned about the future of the movement. The excitement I first felt, the intoxication of being in a crowd of passionate youth, quickly dissipated as I saw the tactics of #OCCUPY being debased through ritualization. Participants were imitating what they'd seen our comrades in Zuccotti do without an understanding of why. In one particularly telling moment, the Vice Chancellor made an announcement to the crowd through the "people's mic." His words were repeated twice, mimicking the layered people's mic used in NYC to communicate to large crowds, not because our crowd was too large to hear but because it felt special to do so. The day abounded in these minor examples of the growing trend towards memorializing, ritualizing and imitating the tactics of #OCCUPYWALLSTREET blindly, unthinkingly and to our detriment.
When we no longer understand the tactical reasons behind our actions then we open our movement to being hijacked by those who choose intentionally to imitate poorly. At #OCCUPYCAL, it was obvious that a core vanguard of student activists, the same activists whose antics had largely squandered and alienated campus sympathy in the prior two years of anti-cuts protests, had simply "rebranded" themselves as part of the #OCCUPY movement in order to attract fresh blood and revive their moribund efforts. Thus, as soon as the first general assembly was commenced we were being urged to vote on two proposals that had been drafted privately prior to the assembly and not disclosed until then. Many of us quickly understood that the second proposal gave immense power to these activists.
The power grab was buried in a clause near the end of a page long document. "We will hold General Assemblies everyday at 6pm," it said, "unless rescheduled or cancelled by the facilitation committee." Sounds reasonable until you realize that granting such power to an autonomous facilitation committee violates the core principle of the general assembly model. It isn't hard to guess who is on this facilitation committee that wishes to stand above the general assembly and cancel or reschedule at their whim.
Objections were raised, but ultimately dismissed. "Make an amendment tomorrow," one committee member said. "There are a lot of people here today, but they'll go home and we'll have to do it all like in the past," another was overheard to say. The persons who wrote this clause and tried to push it through the general assembly were absolutely aware of what they were doing: cynical imitation that preyed on the ignorance of the crowd. Although the proposal was ultimately tabled, less than three hours later, members of this self-appointed facilitation committee were already exercising their power by calling for an impromptu, unscheduled general assembly hours before the 6pm GA.
The irony is that #OCCUPYCAL could be a powerful addition to the movement. Because it is a niche cause-oriented encampment, it is uniquely suited to begin the long process of putting forward specific, credible demands. A nationwide campus #OCCUPY movement could achieve forgiveness of student loans, for example. This opportunity is being squandered. Instead #OCCUPYCAL looks like it will become the model for how to take over the #OCCUPY movement from the inside: rebrand, call your clique the facilitation committee, grant yourselves immense power, alienate everyone, speak for them anyway. I have no doubt that MoveOn, the democratic party, and every reformist NGO in America is keenly watching.
If #OCCUPY is to be a revolution, it cannot become a ritual. We must innovate and never imitate. #OCCUPYCAL may stumble onward but unless the general assembly acts swiftly to remove the would-be leaders, it will never succeed.
Note:#OCCUPYCAL has since corrected many of the problems cited in this article. Their general assembly on November 15 was wonderful. We wish them the best. In solidarity, Micah