The Occupy Movement – Time-in-Place for Democracy

 

By R. Lila Steinberg, PhD student, Applied Linguistics, UCLA

 

Last week police raided, destroyed, and subsequently barricaded off the site of the Los Angeles Occupy encampment – the last large encampment in the country. During the massive paramilitary operation, a large dedicated group of officers dressed dramatically in white hazmat suits jogged into the park to remove tents and other property. The close outdoor living conditions of Occupy encampments across the country have been cited by city officials as breeding grounds for public health risks. However, these concerns have been revealed as largely trivial. They have served instead to distract from the real story of the communicative practices being explored and elaborated at Occupy locations. More vitally, and perhaps more threateningly, these spaces have allowed for the gestation of emergent democratic discourse practices. The encampments have allowed the time-in-place for Occupiers to experience durative conversation and relation, and to discover processes of nonviolent communication and decision-making among diverse participants.

 

The opening section of the Statement of Autonomy passed by the General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street reads:

 

Occupy Wall Street is a people’s movement. It is party-less, leaderless, by the people and for the people. It is not a business, a political party, an advertising campaign or a brand.  It is not for sale.

We welcome all, who, in good faith, petition for a redress of grievances through non-violence.  We provide a forum for peaceful assembly of individuals to engage in participatory as opposed to partisan debate and democracy.  We welcome dissent.

Any statement or declaration not released through the General Assembly and made public online at www.nycga.net should be considered independent of Occupy Wall Street.

We wish to clarify that Occupy Wall Street is not and never has been affiliated with any established political party, candidate or organization.  Our only affiliation is with the people.

 

 (http://www.nycga.net/resources/statement-of-autonomy/)

 

One popular misconception about the Occupy movement is the notion that it is the left’s answer to the Tea Party and somehow stands in opposition to all Tea Party grievances. In fact, a core complaint lodged by original Tea Party members dealt with government bailouts for the largest banks. This sentiment is shared by Occupiers, especially in light of how those monies were hoarded and used to fund extravagant bonuses while unemployment and foreclosure figures skyrocketed.  But the Occupy movement, unlike the Tea Party’s ultimate function as a re-branding of the Republican Party, has consciously avoided co-optation by the Democratic (or any other) party. In its Declaration, Occupy Wall Street writes, “We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” (http://www.nycga.net/resources/declaration/) The language here is clear in its unwavering condemnation of any elected officials, indeed an entire system, which acts for the sole benefit of corporate power.

 

 Determining that ninety-nine percent of the population is truly unrepresented by elected officials, participants in the Occupy movement are unwilling to ratify the existing electoral channels, to “sit back” and have the experts do democracy for them. Rather, the Occupy encampments provided geographical space for experiments in direct participatory democracy, community-building among diverse people, and processes of consensus-building. Agitational political action for the last few generations in this country has typically involved only small groups of organizers meeting in real geographical space to plan an action (such as a march, flash mob, sit-in, blockade). After the organizers meet, most of the participants merely “find out” about the action and show up for the event. The event itself is generally short-lived – a few hours, maybe a day. Thus, protest and civic action has been mostly hierarchical, with planners determining the purposes and forms of actions and everyone else having the choice whether to participate or not – or perhaps counter-protest. Those who do participate in some form spend only as much time with each other as the action itself takes. In this constrained temporal relationship there is little opportunity for participants to discuss larger issues and propose ideas in a whole-group setting. Further, the specificity of the demand of many actions is often particular enough to exclude those not sympathetic to that particular demand (often through a conditioned partisan response) although they may share many grievances in common with those who choose to participate – something that could be discovered given enough time-in-place.

 

            The critique that the Occupy movement did not begin with a narrow enough focus is anathema to the gathering force of the movement itself, that is, its appeal to people with orientations located across the political spectrum for a renewed verbalization and experience of fundamental and shared commitments about human rights, human dignity, and the nature of fairness. The encampments themselves provided the time-in-place to converse and collaborate meaningfully about these commitments and their implications for policy which transcend party politics. These conversations, and a shared comfort with and mastery of the General Assembly and committee meeting consensus-building process, required the time together and trust/discernment-developing that a sustained encampment provides. The iconic tents of the Occupy movement have generally been treated by mainstream media as purely metaphorical and yet the encampments have been referred to as breeding grounds for disease and crime. In neither of these treatments has appropriate focus been given to the emergent discourse practices of Occupy. Although some attention has been paid to the people’s mic (the practice of many repeating the floor-holder’s utterances, given in short phrases, so that large groups can hear what is said) as well as the use of hand signals, this has largely been as a novelty, revealed only in two or three-second video and audio clips or still images.  And yet these emergent discourse practices are at the center of the significance of the Occupy movement.

 

            In the U.S., the practice of democracy tends to begin and end with a trip to the ballot box every four years. Even this highly limited exercise is only practiced by less than 60% of possible voters. In extreme contrast to this indirect, distant, and “voiceless” practice, the Occupy movement has been practicing a form of intensely inclusive, direct, and participatory democracy – a practice which is absolutely reliant on time-in-place. There is no virtual substitute for this type of interaction. Participants in the Occupy movement have endured many hardships, including police brutality, to reclaim the public square for the renewal of direct democratic practice. The Occupy movement’s encampments were not only a tactic to be viewed exogenously, but an incubator of discourse practice and creation of community for those interested in experiencing voiced-ness, often for the first time in a public political sphere which has traditionally silenced them. The transparent and horizontal structure of the Occupy movement combined with the accessibility of the floor at General Assembly have provided a new realization of the public square. Even participants accustomed to being heard in specialized settings (professors, teachers) have found a robust dialogue in contrast to the mainstream political sphere which has progressively deemed their voices irrelevant in favor of corporate influence and money as speech.

 

            Recently at Occupy Los Angeles two proposals involving the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) were ‘consensed upon’ at the General Assembly (currently held on the West Steps of City Hall at 7:30 PM every evening). There is widespread outrage among the American public about this legislation, which declares the Unites States a battlefield, and allows for the military to arrest (on American soil) and detain American citizens without charge or trial indefinitely. Virtual political action is an important component of participation, even in the Occupy movement. But sharing time-in-place with others and passing a proposal together is experientially distinct. The consensus-building process can be time-consuming and even tedious, but as a member of the OLA Facilitation committee often reminds the assembly, “We’re not going slow. We’re going far.”