Commentary — October 7, 2011, 12:16 pm

Generally Assembled at #OccupyWallStreet

The nightly meetings of the General Assembly at occupied Liberty Plaza (officially, Zuccotti Park) in New York have been treated by the media mainly as a quaint footnote to the mass arrests and alleged police brutality attendant to the occupation. In fact, though, the open, non-hierarchical assembly has been at the center of the movement. Starting with the planning meetings that took place in parks around the city prior to September 17, it was instrumental to bringing the #OCCUPYWALLSTREET Internet meme created in July by Adbusters magazine into real life. And as the occupation movement has caught on and spread from city to city, open assemblies have been spreading alongside.

Participating in the assembly process can take some getting used to. “It took me a while to figure it out,” a gentleman from Brooklyn confessed to me one day. A TV cameraman by trade, he had already made several impressive speeches to the GA at Liberty Plaza, to the effect that the occupation needed to send a clear, relevant message if it was to reach urban black people like himself. All this sitting around in meetings, he was saying, wouldn’t do. But now he’d changed his mind a bit. “I realized that this isn’t just about making some point out loud,” he said. “It’s about learning how to go back to your own community and organize there.” I heard almost exactly the same thing from a Nordic-looking college student an hour later—and again, and again.

Each night at Liberty Plaza since the occupation began, a few hundred people have clustered in loose, semicircular rows to attend the GA. The meetings always begin with a primer — amplified, like every other public pronouncement at the plaza, through the “people’s mic,” in which those who are nearby echo the speaker’s short phrases so those further away can hear. (The police officers who perpetually surround the plaza have arrested occupiers for using megaphones.) One of the facilitators explains the hand signals: flutter your fingers upward for applause, and downward for discontent; touch your index fingers and thumbs in a diamond for a point-of-order; hold up an index finger for a point-of-information. New signals can be added or old ones changed, as needed.

The meetings proceed with oral reports from the occupation’s various committees (Food, Direct Action, Sanitation, Arts & Culture, and more, with new ones invented daily), then general announcements of a minute or two each, then agenda items and proposals, which cover topics from schedule changes to public declarations. Throughout, someone takes “stack” — a list of those who wish to speak — and adjusts its order if necessary, to favor those representing traditionally marginalized races, genders, and ages, as well as those who haven’t spoken yet. When someone makes a proposal, others can counter with questions, amendments, concerns, and, finally and most seriously, “blocks” — vetoes, essentially. In the absence of a serious concern or a block, the assembly reaches consensus (or close to it, if necessary), and the proposal passes. Then the human amphitheater typically bursts into applause and perhaps a chant, effervescent that hundreds of people have just reached agreement. The GA usually lasts a couple of hours, but it could as easily go on all night.

While the occupiers take their time, the outside world keeps wondering why the “one demand” Adbusters called for hasn’t materialized yet, and whether it ever will. “This is not about the demands,” said facilitator Amin Husain at a recent Liberty Plaza GA. “The demands will come. It’s about the beautiful thing we’re doing here.” The demand, for now, is in process, and the process isn’t easy. It takes practice to work well, not to mention time, which is why duration is a crucial feature of the occupation: it’s not only a sign of commitment, but a practical necessity.

Open assemblies like the GA have roots in classical anarchism, Native American tribal councils, Quakerism, and the post–World War II feminist, civil-rights, and anti-nuclear movements. Ask those who have been at Liberty Plaza since the beginning, and you’ll probably hear about the influence of the assembly-based May 15 movement in Spain, which a few members of Occupy Wall Street witnessed or participated in. In turn, several Spaniards have been helping out at the plaza, especially at the media center — watching, offering advice, and reaching out to assembly movements around the world.

The General Assembly’s most direct antecedent in the United States, though, is probably the “spokescouncil” model used in the mobilization against the 1999 WTO talks in Seattle. Marina Sitrin, a lawyer and activist who facilitated the inaugural GA of Occupy Wall Street, first encountered the process there. She went on to edit an oral history, Horizontalism, about the assemblies that formed in factories, neighborhoods, and occupied spaces after the 2001 economic collapse in Argentina. These assemblies scrupulously rejected the hierarchies that had helped lead to the crash, and they became — and in some cases, remain — a significant political force in the country.

In an alluringly titled book, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting, sociologist Francesca Polletta argues that movements adopt assemblies not simply out of principle but because they’re effective and efficient methods of managing a diverse grassroots organization. Their egalitarianism fosters individual initiative, she writes, while their emphasis on consensus helps to secure everyone’s full commitment, especially when the risk of arrest or injury is present. Assemblies are also flexible, allowing for division into independent but potentially politically cohesive assemblies of assemblies — as with, say, the congregationalist model that prevails among American churches. And they’re resistant to being co-opted by charismatic individuals or sold out to moneyed interests — unlike, say, the Tea Party movement.

The General Assembly has thus far held together Liberty Plaza’s world-unto-itself, with its food for all, incessant music, and celebrity drop-ins. But the occupation’s fate will likely be akin to the “temporary autonomous zone” imagined by the anarchist author Hakim Bey. “The TAZ,” he writes, “is a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen.” Even now, as the occupation movement disperses, grows, and spreads, the assembly process is having to adapt. “It’s untenable, especially with so many new people, to have both real consensus and the possibility of a block,” Marina Sitrin told me. Monica Lopez, who had been traveling back and forth between Liberty Plaza and her home in Madrid, cringed and smiled as she watched Americans repeat the same trial-and-error process the May 15 movement went through. Even the beloved people’s mic, she prophesied, will get old before long and need to be replaced somehow.

In the first few days of Occupy Wall Street, those gathered would sometimes chant, “This is just a practice!” Three weeks on, with assembly-driven occupations beginning in cities and towns all over the country, many more people seem determined to get the hang of it.

Share
Single Page

More from Nathan Schneider:

Personal and Otherwise August 22, 2013, 12:56 pm

Occupied by The Newsroom

On inspiring (probably, maybe) a Newsroom plot arc

Commentary April 30, 2012, 12:01 pm

Mapping Out May Day

From the February 2012 issue

Some assembly required

Witnessing the birth of Occupy Wall Street

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2017

Destroyer of Worlds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Crossing Guards

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I am Here Only for Working”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dear Rose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Year of The Frog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dead Ball Situation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Destroyer of Worlds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option. Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity. In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.

Illustration by Darrel Rees. Source photographs: Kim Jong-un © ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy Stock Photo; Donald Trump © Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Article
Crossing Guards·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ambassador Bridge arcs over the Detroit River, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the southernmost city in Canada. Driving in from the Canadian side, where I grew up, is like viewing a panorama of the Motor City’s rise and fall, visible on either side of the bridge’s turquoise steel stanchions. On the right are the tubular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, and Michigan Central Station, the rail terminal that closed in 1988. On the left is a rusted industrial corridor — fuel tanks, docks, abandoned warehouses. I have taken this route all my life, but one morning this spring, I crossed for the first time in a truck.

Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
“I am Here Only for Working”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

— Karl Marx

Photograph from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall
Article
The Year of The Frog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas
Article
Dead Ball Situation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Chances that an American pediatrician has treated a child for a gunshot wound in the last year:

1 in 6

Researchers found that young teens who witness gun violence are more than twice as likely to commit a violent crime themselves.

Brailsford’s lawyer said Shaver was “not a bad person” but that “his actions” had gotten him killed, referring in part to the defendant’s claim that a hand movement of Shaver’s while he was on his knees made it appear as if he might have been reaching for a weapon in the waistband of his basketball shorts, which at that point had fallen down.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today