Deliberate Occupation

By Michael O'Connor

Occupy Wall Street has held its place in Liberty Square, in the news, and in public conversation for more than a month now and the debates surrounding it remains focused on the movement’s “lack of demands” at the expense of examining its practices of protest: of how and where demands are being formed.

Hannah Cohen/Collegian
Hannah Cohen/Collegian

Occupy Wall Street is a collective outcry against economic inequality but it is also a specific means of organizing with its own divisions and limitations. The demonstrations in New York and world are not only about what occupiers want but who they represent and how they are being represented.

Addressing this reality, Professor Bernard Harcourt has called the occupation an act of “political disobedience,” a resistance to “the very way in which we are governed: it resists the structure of partisan politics, the demand for policy reforms, the call for party identification, and the very ideologies that dominated the post-War period.”

“Political disobedience” has more to do with the methods of organizing than the authority of the speakers or the unity of their claims. To understand the contestations surrounding Occupy Together (one of many names for the broader network of demonstrations), particularly around the role of the people and of corporations in government, it is not enough to sympathize with (or demonize) the movement’s actors or core sentiment: one must also examine the divisions and connections emerging within the movement and ask how the demonstrators are authorizing political claims.

I spent last Friday evening in outside of South Station in the heart of Boston’s financial district, participating in Occupy Together’s primary arena of deliberation: the general assembly. This consensus-based public forum is not only a mechanism for producing demands but a series of political and representational forms which are crucial to Occupy Together’s message.  Participants in the general assembly propose marches, workshops and speeches. They make announcements and challenge the terms of the proceedings.

As Nathan Schneider writes for The Nation: “It [the New York General Assembly] wanted to foment similar, like-minded assemblies around the city and around the world, which would be a new basis for political organizing in this country, against the overwhelming influence of corporate money.”

The multiplication of the protests (including at Amherst Center and at UMass) is justified both by solidarity and locality, taking on specific issues in their area and coordinated through occupytogether.org. Whether fighting student debt in Amherst or mass evictions in Boston, these localized yet interconnected demands cannot be drawn under one placard or one organization. Occupy Together has become a medium for the multiplying practices of political disobedience across the world, realizing a shift in power between electoral politics, corporate interests, and popular voice.

Focusing on the practices of Occupy Together also requires examining its internal divisions and external exclusions. While I was in Boston, members of the general assembly challenged the prevalence of white males in the facilitation team on the grounds that the facilitators did not represent the work groups, the general assembly and the movement at large. Facilitators represent the general assembly only by their heightened visibility and practices of mediation (they cannot raise proposals or voice opinions) but the issue remains significant.

Similarly, a speaker at Occupy UMass asked the crowd to remember the many people who could not appear at these assemblies, out of fear of arrest, deportation or of losing their employment. There were also times when I felt that the assembly in Boston in no way represented me. A proposal to increase the frequency of drums circles, though popular with the crowd, seemed a step in the wrong direction, likely to alienate as many as it excited.

Occupy Together’s participants and observers continually argue that the movement does not represent the people that they claim to and cannot without major adjustments in form. This perpetual incompleteness is crucial to the Occupy Together’s ongoing relevance. Occupy Together’s internal divisions and disputes center around ongoing issues in representation, of the movement’s demographics, and of strategic goals. It remains an open question in what ways these divisions and exclusions will translate to the organization of Occupy demonstrations worldwide: whether Occupy Wall Street will incite a campaign for national recovery at the cost of workers internationally or develop a movement against systemic exploitation around the world.

Articles criticizing the protests generally do so by trivializing its representatives in Liberty  Square and online by pitting them into one of two camps: either political extremists out of touch with “normal” Americans or entitled hypocrites who oppose corporations while tweeting on their iPhones.

However, this is exactly what makes this a democratic movement: participants have no authority to make political claims beyond their capacity to make themselves heard. Representatives of Wall Street finance capital have also challenged the authority of protestors to make political claims. One “longtime money manager” interviewed by the New York Times asked “Who do you think pays the taxes?” and suggested that politicians should be defending the interests who finance their campaigns, claiming that “They need to understand who their constituency is.” The anonymous interviewee criticizes politicians for failing in exactly what demonstrators are oppose: the treatment of wealth as constituent rather than the people. Occupy Wall Street cannot answer the open question of constituent power, of how a popular will is represented, but its attempts may bring up deeper issues about our political and economic system than any set list of demands.

Occupy Wall Street has become inescapable in news media and sources must give an account of some kind for the attention which the demonstrations have drawn. The very public visibility of Occupy Wall Street has initiated a conversation about wealth inequality in the United States, about the corporate financing of political campaigns and the significance of public demonstration which extends beyond the bounds of the event itself. Whether by praise or denunciation, the visibility of Occupy Wall Street have become undeniable and extend far beyond a self-contained event. Instead of challenging the right or capacity of Occupy Wall Street protestors to make demands, we should be thinking about how occupy together is being organized, who is making claims to its representation and for what ends. Occupy Together cannot develop a utopian proposal because it does not face a singular hurdle; it is a negotiation of the many technologies of regulation, representation, and redistribution which make up our everyday life.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, David Brooks claimed in reference to Occupy Wall Street: “It’s as if people can’t keep their minds focused on the big things. They get diverted by scuffles that are small, contentious and symbolic.” If we look not only at its demands but at its form, then Occupy Wall Street is a small, contentious, symbolic scuffle over what role people and corporations have in government. Questions of democracy don’t get much bigger than that.

Michael O’Connor is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]