The Power of Occupy Wall Street Is Not Just What They’re Doing, but How They’re Doing It

Waste your summer prayin' in vain for a savior to rise from these streets

Well I'm no hero girl that's understood…” —Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”

“I know some members say the groups are leaderless. But I have trouble believing this is an entirely organic movement that grew without a leader. I’d push hard to see if there are leaders and to profile them,” Jerry Ceppos, journalism dean at Louisiana State University recently told the New York Times' public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane.

Brisbane was attempting to answer the question “Who is Occupy Wall Street?” It's a question that continues to confound observers of the movement. Reporters, politicians and others used to traditional, top-down, hierarchical movements (or even grassroots movements that are easily boiled down, in history books, to the actions of a single charismatic leader like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) simply cannot seem to wrap their heads around the movement's commitment to “horizontalism,” a form of organization that doesn't recognize one leader, but rather emphasizes the value of each participant equally.

Great men are how we tell our history. Great men, and very occasionally great women, individual accomplishment and heroism. History isn't so different from Twitter's trending topics, acknowledging spikes more so than slow builds and rewarding celebrity more than quiet hard work. Or, for that matter, the biases of the mainstream media and editors like Brisbane and Ceppos, authorities in their field who only understand the world through other authority figures. It's why the US only understands the civil rights movement in terms of the life of MLK, rather than the quiet work of nameless hundreds who trained in nonviolent techniques and were beaten and fire-hosed and attacked by dogs without their names making it into history books.

The way Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement worldwide are structured is drawn from another way of thinking. Marina Sitrin, an early participant in the Occupy movement in New York and the author of the book Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina, describes horizontalism thus:

“Horizontal, as it sounds, is a level space for decision making, a place where one can look directly at the other person across from you, and discuss things that matter most to all of us – we decide the agenda. Horizontalism is more than just being against hierarchy, or people having power over others – it is about creating something new together in our relationships. The means are a part of the ends. The forms of organizing manifest what we desire; it is not a question of demands, but rather a manifestation of an alternative way of being and relating.”

Horizontalism and consensus might seem complicated, especially after watching the houses of Congress descend into a battle of egos and wills. Trying to get a simple majority of the Senate, let alone the 60-vote supermajority that is essentially required for every vote now that the filibuster is routinely abused, to agree on anything is a near-impossible task, so how would 95 percent consensus ever work?

But the fact is that thousands of people can come to agreement on complicated issues. Witness the reported vote of 1720 to three (with six “unsure”) at the University of California-Davis over a student general strike this week in the wake of the pepper-spraying of unarmed students by a university cop. And some of that perhaps comes from the fact that they are not playing power games, jockeying for higher position (and more fundraising dollars), or making grandstanding speeches. The people's mic, the Occupy protesters' amplification system, actually contributes to the horizontal structure by cutting down on the ability of any one person to hold court for too long. Any speech requires the consent of those participating in the people's mic, and they can revoke it at any time by simply not choosing to repeat those words.

The people who seem unable to comprehend horizontalism are mostly those who come from hierarchical institutions themselves. (There isn't a more hierarchically structured media organization than the New York Times, for instance, which also sits at the top of the hierarchy of mainstream media as the “paper of record.”) But horizontalism has proved appealing to the Occupy protesters, I think, because those same hierarchical institutions, from Congress to churches to universities, and obviously, corporations have utterly failed most Americans.

Institutional Crisis

After the recent crisis at Pennsylvania State University, where legendary football coach Joe Paterno was forced out after having covered up the rape and abuse of children by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, a young Iraq War veteran, Penn State graduate, and product of Sandusky's charitable foundation wrote an op-ed that was forwarded around by the likes of Michael Moore. Thomas L. Day wrote stirringly at the Washington Post of his loss of faith in his parents' generation and his desire for new leaders to replace the old, but Micah Sifry at TechPresident responded:

“While [Day] may be right about the failures of the current generation in power, he's wrong in calling for 'a leader' who will fix things. But it's understandable why he might see the world this way—having grown up in institutions that are all run as hierarchies—the Catholic church, the Army, the Penn State system—why expect anything different?”

As Chris Hayes noted on his MSNBC show the Saturday after the scandal erupted, the cover-up within the Penn State hierarchy had a lot in common with the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Hendrik Hertzberg pointed out to Hayes that in the hierarchy, those who discovered Sandusky's crimes simply were required to tell the person above them, who could then choose where to go from there. Hierarchy works the same whether it's a football team or a religious institution—each person's obligation is only to report up the chain of command, leaving terrifying power in the hands of one or two individuals, who are often the object of mass adoration from below. Paterno's departure sparked riots on the Penn State campus from students who simply refused to believe the legendary coach could possibly have done wrong.

In contrast, when sexual assault was reported at the Liberty Plaza camp at Occupy Wall Street, the occupiers had no authority to turn to—the problem had to be dealt with by a variety of people rising to the occasion to try to provide for the survivor, control and monitor the perpetrator, and create systems to deal with future incidents. Not everyone contributed in the same way, but by the nature of the movement, there was no way to simply pass the buck by reporting to a higher-up and then sitting back. When they did report an assailant to the police, he was released from jail and returned to the park, leaving the Security and Safer Spaces working groups with no choice but to figure out a way to protect the rest of the encampment.

Melissa Byrne at Role/Reboot argued, “For the occupation to be successful, we need to transform into a culture that never passes the buck.”

As Micah Sifry noted, quoting Detroit organizer Adrienne Maree Brown, the horizontal structure creates a “leader-full” movement, one where everyone is responsible for themselves, but also responsible to each other. The Right likes to talk about personal responsibility, but in a nonhierarchical structure, personal responsibility mingles with group accountability to, at its best, push individuals to do things they didn't think they could do.

Manissa McCleave Maharawal wrote about this phenomenon in a piece about her “block” on the original Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. She and other South Asian women disagreed with language about race in the document, and rather than leave the movement or sit quietly and accept it, she spoke up and forced the general assembly to listen and to change the words:

“It was hard, and it was fucked up that we had to fight for it in the way we did but we did fight for it and we won. The line was changed, they listened, we sat down and re-wrote it and it has been published with our re-write. And when we walked away, I felt like something important had just happened, that we had just pushed a movement a little bit closer to the movement I would like to see– one that takes into account historical and current inequalities, oppressions, racisms, relations of power, one that doesn’t just recreate liberal white privilege but confronts it head on. And if I have to fight to make that happen I will. As long as my people are there standing next to me while I do that.”

Occupy has learned from the past that individual charismatic leaders are always vulnerable to attack—and it has been more than happy to target such leaders on the other side, from Mayors Michael Bloomberg in New York and Jean Quan in Oakland to Chancellor Katehi at UC Davis. But there is no equivalent leader to take out at OWS. During the march to Times Square, Citizen Radio's Jamie Kilstein tweeted “They arrested Hero [Vincent, a Liberty Plaza regular who's been arrested six times] cause they thought he was the leader. There is no leader.”

The arrest of one “leader” simply allows others to take over.

Maintaining a Horizontal Movement

Horizontal organizing isn't new to the US. It has a long history, particularly in the feminist movement, where one of the most famous critiques of its drawbacks originated. Jo Freeman noted that leaderlessness and structurelessness often masked privilege and allowed some to exercise power over others while pretending not to. She wrote, “But because there are no official spokespeople nor any decision-making body that the press can query when it wants to know the movement's position on a subject, these women are perceived as the spokespeople. Thus, whether they want to or not, whether the movement likes it or not, women of public note are put in the role of spokespeople by default.”

Occupy Wall Street has certainly seen its own share of this phenomenon; taking a sampling of media appearances by members of the movement will turn up certain names and (often white male) faces over and over again. But there is still a difference between a structureless movement and one with a specific structure that operates differently than we are used to, and between a leaderless movement and a “leader-full” one. While the occupations don't have official spokespeople per se, they have a decision-making body—the general assembly—and in many cases working groups whose job it is to handle press. Not only that, but the livestreams and Twitter feeds have done for media what the GA does for government—done an end run around the old, official systems of power and simply created their own.

The general assemblies consist of whomever is there at the tim. As a reporter and observer, I have wondered at times whether it was appropriate for me to participate in discussions over whether there should be a march or direct action taken, or most obviously, in debates over spending money donated to the movement. If I do choose to vote, my vote, in that moment, is given as much weight as that of someone who's been sleeping in the park since the beginning.

This has obvious drawbacks, but also benefits. Not everyone has the ability to give 24-7 of their lives to the movement, for reasons ranging from full-time employment to responsibility for children or family members to fear of arrest. Yet their voices are still accepted as being valid and worthwhile.

In contrast, even most progressive organizations or labor unions rely on hierarchical structure and often charismatic leadership. The people who wound up in charge of the nonprofits and other groups that constitute the institutional Left in the US are often connected to the Democratic Party and dependent on the web of liberal philanthropy for funding, and that requires a leader to sit in meetings and make fundraising calls.

While online petitions have scaled down the amount of commitment necessary for the average citizen to participate in activism, the agenda of most organizations is still controlled by small groups. Though many of those organizations have gotten on board with Occupy (and several of those leaders offered themselves up for symbolic arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge November 17, including SEIU president Mary Kay Henry), a lot of them still have trouble dealing with the way Occupy operates and those same leaders are defensive about the idea that they might be co-opting the movement.

Yet it's worth noting that the young people who make up the backbone of Occupy Wall Street and the movement around the country have blended the skills they have as “digital natives,” used to social networking, with training they've gotten working with the more traditional progressive movement. Many of them got their first political awakening working on the Obama campaign, which was both tightly controlled from the top and also oddly open, easy to join and willing to trust volunteers with a large amount of information and responsibility. Disappointed not only with the personal failure of their charismatic leader but with the entire system in which he functions, those young people are quite literally doing it for themselves now.

As Sifry noted, at the occupations, “[T]he insistent avoidance of traditional top-down leadership and the reliance on face-to-face and peer-to-peer networks and working groups creates space for lots of leaders to emerge, but only ones that work as network weavers rather than charismatic bosses.”

So the media will continue to have trouble locating leaders, particularly here in New York now that the NYPD has cleared Liberty Plaza of its tents and structures (and over 5,000 books) and the movement is shifting to a new phase. And yet the people working within the movement are finding themselves empowered and able to make that shift, adjusting to an even less centralized style, where those many leaders find many tactics and targets, networked and layered within a still-growing, still-expanding movement.