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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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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. 

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.