OWS, Without a Space to Occupy, Faces Organizational Challenges
Photo Credit: Nick Turse
The evening is rainy and quite warm, which is disconcerting since it is almost December. A hundred or so people gather on the east side of what we may safely call Zuccotti Park, for their General Assembly.
Nothing about the park feels like Liberty Plaza anymore. Every inch of the perimeter, for instance, is lined with metal barricades, just inside which stand private security guards, husky and rude, dressed in all black, apart from their yellow vests. A massive Christmas tree has been set up in the park and barricaded off. Besides the few protesters, that’s who’s here. The guards and their barricades.
There’s no kitchen, no library, no medical tent, no media center. There is no drum circle, no sign-painting station, no welcome table on Broadway, no altar around the meditation tree in the northwest corner. There are only about a hundred people, deliberating democratic minutiae, trying to get through a too-big agenda, packed with yesterday’s unattended business.
This would be hard enough to do without the people who keep loudly interrupting the meeting. But every meeting I’ve recently attended—and from what I gather, every recent meeting I have not—has been brought to a grinding halt, the basic ability to debate and consent to proposals crippled by a determined few who will not to let things proceed until their issues are addressed. This is the reason for the backed-up business. The people shouting about their needs over the debate.
It’s clear that the primary issue afflicting Occupy right now is the lack of an occupation. In the month since the New York Police Department violently forced the occupiers out of Zuccotti, the people whose residence was Liberty Plaza Park have nowhere to go. Some of them had previously been homeless. Others left their homes to join the movement. But deprived of the food station, the medical tent, the things that once fulfilled their needs for basic survival, they have rapidly lost faith in Occupy Wall Street’s much-vaunted democratic process to provide the supportive community that once existed here.
The Occupy activists have tried to help find shelter for those left homeless by the eviction, sending out urgent bulletins almost nightly to arrange accommodations. Some have been sleeping at a shelter in Far Rockaway, some in churches in Harlem and on the Upper West Side. As with national numbers on the homeless, it is difficult to tell exactly how many occupiers need housing, but it is surely in the hundreds. These include not just experienced urban survivalists like Ghengis Khalid Muhammed, or GKM, who works with the support organization Picture the Homeless, which helps people find food stamps and soup kitchens, but also people who have no idea how to live on the streets and who are freezing, starving and unable to get MetroCards to travel to places where shelter may or may not be available. Lauren, of Occupy’s Housing Committee, tells me that two pregnant women have so far been turned away from churches.
The activist core of the occupation—the people who met over the summer in Tompkins Square Park, who set up and continue to participate in working groups and who spend their days in meetings—sees this as an Empire Strikes Back moment, taking the opportunity to plan actions and events for the winter. In the atrium at 60 Wall Street and in the Occupied Office at 50 Broadway, they are planning important things, chiefly the continuation of the Occupy Our Homes foreclosure resistance project that kicked off last week. They have their eye on the Jedi’s return.
There is nobility in responding to one's own homelessness by working hard that everyone else might have a home. But elsewhere the current lack of clarity—about what to do right now—is causing tensions to bubble over. Absent a park to keep clean, for instance, what is the function of the Sanitation Working Group? Or Medical or Comfort, for that matter? The fracturing of Occupy Wall Street from its camp has created two distinct populations: the activists—planning for the future—and the occupiers—confronting the current reality.
The people who don’t drink tea in a comfy office space but stand out in the rain, says Chris, 50, of Long Island, are being excluded from the movement. “I know what an occupier looks like. I slept here. See him? He slept here. That guy slept here, that guy slept here, that guy slept here. And then this GA starts and this facilitation team shows up with an agenda already planned out. Who are these people? Where did they come from?”
Chris, who is at least 6'6" and of very imposing build, does not express his displeasure with the prescribed downward-waggling fingers or even by attempting to generate consensus for a proposal. “WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?” he shouts. “FUCK THIS! FUCK THIS! FUCK THIS! I DON’T FUCKING KNOW YOU!”
The diminished attendance at the GA these days is insufficient to compete sonically with such outbursts. Especially since Chris is not alone. Another now-homeless occupier, who walks with a mutt and has tattoos on every inch of his face, does not recognize the authority of the facilitation committee to hold General Assemblies at all. He’ll go a little deeper into democratic theory than Chris, but eventually, it comes back to not having a place to stay. “I can’t go into a church,” he tells me. “I got my dog.”
An occupier named Nan was at Zuccotti Park at the start of Occupy Wall Street. She worked in the kitchen and has gone to meetings since the beginning. But since the eviction, her contrarianism has turned to outright, wholesale obstructionism, repeatedly blocked the formation of the Spokes Council by the General Assembly. A “block” is an expression of concern over a given proposal that is so serious, the blocker in question would prefer to leave the movement than rather than consent to it. Blockers are invited to introduce friendly amendments. But Nan blocked creation of the Spokes Council every time, for reasons that were not clear, and eventually voted against it. If the GA cannot achieve full consensus, the proposal goes to a vote and is passed if at least 90 percent vote in favor.
Theoretically, at this point, blockers leave the movement. But Nan instead has registered her objection by coming to every Spokes Council meeting to keep the body from progressing. “I am trying to get the GA to dissolve the Spokes Council as soon as possible,” she tells me. “They should not be controlling our lives.” It’s clear that she thinks the Spokes Council is an attempt to grab power away from the masses, but it isn’t easy to find out why or how.
Then there is Sage, who opines, sometimes lucidly, sometime careeningly, about anything and everything, interrupting, shouting down and employing ad hominem attacks. While he thwarts meetings, he also respectfully facilitates sometimes, and I have seen him be enormously kind to friends. I ask for an interview and he says I caught him at a bad time. “I was born in a mental hospital and I don’t have anything to eat.” He flips a quarter and on the basis of the result, says he cannot do the interview.
Occupy’s version of democracy was messy; meetings lasted too long and tempers ran high and it took forever to achieve consensus. But there were many more people in those days, and the hold-ups were usually within the framework of a process, not because of an uninterrupted, concerted effort to break it down. Jeff, 41, who works with the Press Working Group, thinks that the occupation should be stricter with its insistence on the process. “I can’t see why it’s bad to say, ‘There are rules to this. If you can’t follow them, you can’t participate,’ ” he says.
It is difficult to disagree, as I stand at the General Assembly, watching the process that inspired a movement disintegrate before me. The democracy on offer at Occupy Wall Street is compassionate, open and hard-working, its deliberations producing beautiful things: aid to fellow protesters in Oakland, the commission of a safe space for women, attempts to establish even more compassionate, more open and more hard-working democracy than it already has.
But there are people who haven’t eaten today. One protester, Bathabile, puts it this way. “Think about if you need to go to the bathroom really badly, but somebody wants to have a conversation with you about how to have a conversation.” The division between activists and occupiers, who operate in such separate spheres, is a problem that will have to be reconciled.
For now, Zach, 25, of the Housing Committee is suspicious of the Finance Committee who “stay in an office, sitting on a million dollars, and restricting access to that money.” Bre, 21, of the Finance Committee, who slept for two months in the park and now couch surfs, finds this unfair: “We just account for where the money goes. It’s all allocated by the GA and Spokes Council.” GKM has suspicions of his own. “What’s happening is that homeless people are coming down here looking for free money.”
In a step towards reconciliation, an emergency housing meeting is called, including members of the Housing, Kitchen, Comfort and Finance working groups. The most the group can do over several hours—which repeatedly break down into chaos—is hammer out a two-week stop-loss proposal to provide MetroCards to occupiers to get to shelter and coffee to prevent the ones who sleep slumped over at tables in all-night fast food restaurants from being kicked out. That group, says Lauren, “will meet tirelessly to develop a long-term solution.”
Perhaps the screaming and atrophy have spurred action. Perhaps there’s something to be said for such a model: forcing all discussions into gridlock until the needs of the least fortunate are met.