What will happen at #OCCUPYCHICAGO?

Autonomous action and the fracturing of consensus.

Reuters/Stephen Lam Occupy Oakland, Jan. 29, 2012

Three days after Adbusters put out a call to #OCCUPYCHICAGO for a month during the May G8/NATO summits, spectacular clashes erupted between #OCCUPYOAKLAND militants and armored police. Attempts to occupy an abandoned building were put down with tear gas, less-lethal munitions and baton charges. What was new, and surprising, this time around was that some Oakland occupiers came equipped as altermodern Hoplites with plastic and tin shields. And to everyone’s amazement they performed an eerie quasi-military discipline and phalanx formation that had clearly been worked out beforehand. They came ready and willing to confront police. On a symbolic level, the Oakland street battle struck a chord in the movement because its theatrical staging functioned as an inverted repetition of the Brooklyn Bridge arrests that electrified the first phase of Occupy.

In both cases, a group of protesters engaged in the ostensibly illegal behavior (blocking traffic, occupying space) courageously faced down police while spectators, journalists, photographers recorded the scene from the left flank on higher ground. Both events are watershed moments that define phases of the movement. #OCCUPYOAKLAND’s phalanx and #OCCUPYWALLSTREET’s mass arrest represent different, at times compatible and sometimes conflicting, futures of #OCCUPY. That is why #OCCUPYOAKLAND’s public performance of a West Coast anarchist ethos has sent a chill down the international spine of #OCCUPY, sparking raging debates on many movement email lists.

At stake is not who will determine the future of #OCCUPYWALLSTREET. At stake is who will determine the future of #OCCUPY… which is to say what vision of the movement will emerge during the next big showdown, #OCCUPYCHICAGO in May?

Until now many people have believed that #OCCUPYWALLSTREET is synonymous with #OCCUPY and that the beautiful spirit of Zuccotti will forever dictate how the movement unfolds. But this assumption is fracturing as it becomes clear that the movement is actually comprised of dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of autonomous forces acting in concert. The perfect example is OccupyWallSt.org, the flagship website of the movement which is not itself of, or beholden to, the movement. Coding for the site began weeks before any on-the-ground meetings were held in NYC. OccupyWallSt.org explains that they are an autonomous “affinity group” that is not “a subcommittee of the NYCGA nor affiliated with Adbusters, Anonymous or any other organization” which means that they do not receive orders from nor accept the authority of any of these organizations, including the General Assembly of NYC. They are allies but nonetheless autonomous. Of course, this is the same position that Adbusters, Anonymous and the NYCGA take in regards to each other as well. And, when you think about it, it is also the same position that your local #OCCUPY might take towards the dictates of #OCCUPYOAKLAND, #OCCUPYCHICAGO or even #OCCUPYWALLSTREET.

With today’s hindsight it is obvious that what have been called the core principles of the #OCCUPY movement have been overdetermined by an East Coast vibe inherited from the pre-September 17 meetings of the NYC General Assembly, another organization that predates #OCCUPY but has been considered synonymous with it. It was in these meetings that consensus-based general assemblies were agreed upon as the model. It is interesting to read the various declarations of the NYC General Assembly in light of the waning influence that New York occupiers over #OCCUPY as a whole. In these declarations, for example, one detects a frequent slippage between the NYCGA speaking for itself and speaking for the movement as a whole. This used to make sense but it no longer does as murmurs on the West Coast suggest a growing sentiment that the folks on the East Coast have gotten a bit too comfortable with the NGOs, unions and behind-the-scenes power-brokers in DC that the movement explicitly rejected before September 17. #OCCUPYOAKLAND’s powerful emergence is a symptom of the fracturing of the movement as various autonomous forces push-and-pull the movement in new, surprising directions.

The consensus of the movement over itself has been lost. It will take weeks, perhaps months, for these debates to simmer into discussions and then be settled within the movement. Ultimately, the matter will not be decided until we see what plays out in Chicago when the world’s supposed leaders meet and 2,500 journalists are watching. The situation is made all the more difficult because consensus decisions in New York City cannot dictate the consensus in Oakland, Los Angeles, Portland or Chicago. Inter-occupy conference calls are now happening to address this reality. And perhaps even more significant is the looming possibility of multiple #OCCUPYs in the same city. If there are two #OCCUPYOAKLAND general assemblies, one which embraces militant street battles and one which does not, who is to say which has greater authority over the name? Or, what if there is a defunct #OCCUPYX and a new crop of people move in and claim to speak for #OCCUPYX? What is the relationship between a preexisting #OCCUPY and an autonomous group who comes in later, acts autonomously and claims the right to also speak in the name of that city’s #OCCUPY? The old answer would have been that all #OCCUPYs must abide by the declarations of the NYC General Assembly… but this no longer seems tenable.

Behind this soul searching is the unresolved question of whether a movement that fractures into smaller autonomous groups can still build and maintain a consensus larger than its individual parts. The answer is probably yes… after all, we’ve been doing it unconsciously up until now. What is different is that we’re being forced to acknowledge that autonomy is a core principle of the movement, for better or worse.

Micah White