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

After major crises at hierarchical institutions from Penn State to the Catholic Church, it's time to give the Occupy movement's horizontal structure a chance.

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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: