What is Occupy Wall Street? The history of leaderless movements

Washington Post

Alex Brandon/AP – Occupy Wall Street protests, which have spread nationwide, are the latest in a line of large-scale leaderless movements.


 By Heather Gautney,


This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on the Occupy Wall Street protests.Occupy Wall Street has arrived. Facebook is all-aflutter, and Twitter is all-atweeter, as news of “occupations” and clashes with the powers-that-be spread like wildfire around the country.

Now entering its fourth week, the Wall Street occupation has become a national phenomenon. The president is interested, celebrities are popping by, and pizza shops are adding the OccuPie to their menus. There is even an Occupy video game in development. The movement has spawned hundreds of Occupy locales in a national Occupy Together network. And now there is talk of going global: Occupy the World.

Inquiring minds want to know: Who arethese people? What exactly are they demanding? Who is leading this thing?On these issues, the movement has been clear: This is a leaderless movement without an official set of demands. There are no projected outcomes, no bottom lines and no talking heads. In the Occupy movement, We are all leaders.

This is not just a charming mess. We are all leaders represents a real praxis, and it has a real history.

In the 1960s and 70s, feminists convened consciousness-raising meetings aimed at politicizing the various forms of women’s oppression that were occurring in private. Women in the ranks were tired of being excluded from the inner circles of leadership where the issues and demands were being decided. And, they were sick of the generalized hypocrisy regarding gender roles. For this reason, feminist consciousness-raising eschewed formal leadership because each woman’s experience and opinion had to be valued equally. The personal was the political.

Consciousness-raising was also the heart and soul of gay rights activism. The process of sharing coming-out stories in a free environment helped others liberate themselves from the closet of ill repute. Again, these stories were told in a non-coercive, leaderless environment that empowered gay men and women to fight for their rights and leave behind a debased life of sexual secrecy.

Both of these movements had enormous impacts on American life. Gay rights liberated our sexuality, and feminism fundamentally changed the way we relate to each other as men and women. All this, without a centralized leadership.

Fast-forward to the late 1990s when protest networks emerged around the world in opposition to the World Bank, WTO and G-8. This time uneven development, debt and neoliberalism took center stage, alongside environmental concerns and world poverty. The protesters were “Anti”  globalization as well as “Alter”: Free flows of information as opposed to patenting, free movement of people as opposed to policed immigration, and free trade as opposed to NAFTA.

Alter-globalization networks created a veritable movement of movements, which was not led or controlled by any one of them. In the United States, anarchist-inspired spokescouncils convened hundreds of these groups to organize protest actions, conferences and community work. At the meetings, each group would position a single member upfront, in the inner circle, while the rest sat behind, like a human wheel with spokes. There were no leaders with long-standing assignments because every participant was, in essence, a leader. In lieu of a party line, this amalgamation of movements operated according to sets of core, procedural principles—called Principles of Unity—that reflected their anti-authoritarian, anti-discriminatory orientation.

 The Occupy movement operates similarly, with each locale establishing its own set of organizational practices. Locales, and the virtual Occupy communities in cyberspace, are federated according to a simple yet powerful point of unity: “The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%”—an obvious reference to the well-known, yet still appalling, statistic that the top 1 percent of households in the United States own somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of all privately held wealth. And counting.


Occupy Wall Street’s organizational presence is the New York General Assembly or “GA,” which convenes numbers in the high hundreds at its squat-site in Zuccotti Park. Daily GA meetings are led by facilitators who rotate on a regular basis, and facilitation training is open to all. Specific issues, such as food, medical, legal, outreach, security and others are handled by working groups—also open and inclusive—that periodically report back to the GA. Instead of issuing top-down directives, Occupy groups use a consensus process in which anyone can join in the decision-making and propose an idea. Proposers must field questions, justify the hows and whys of their ideas, and engage a large-scale group discussion. Votes are then cast via an innovative system of hand signals, and proposals are revised until a nine-tenths majority approves.

Of course, all this requires a degree of good faith. Embedded in consensus process is an ethical assumption that decision-making is not a competition: It is not about converting other people to one’s way of thinking. It is about compromise. For every person involved, there is a new viewpoint to consider. This can get messy, but efficiency is not the measuring stick of success here. Democracy is.

Similar to the feminist and alter-globalization movements, these groups want to avoid replicating the authoritarian structures of the institutions they are opposing. This is part of what differentiates them from the Tea Party. Occupy will never become an arm of the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party is part of the problem. These protesters want to prefigure within their own organization the free society they seek to create. And they want to demonstrate against the corrupt and hypocritical culture in mainstream politics and Wall Street—by operating with integrity.

The Occupy movement is a laboratory for participatory democracy. It’s a massive crash course in leadership training. Most of these activists have a particular issue, problem or political idea that is meaningful to them, on which they have developed an expert knowledge. Occupy is both a concrete and virtual space for connecting these issues and expertise without any one position or issue taking precedence. This movement is not mired in the competitive mindset of “my issue is more important than yours” that appears to be stymieing Congress as the country slowly crumbles.

Implicit in this structure is also a rejection of the narcissistic, “I know what’s good for you” form of leadership, now pervasive in this country, in which lawmakers fail to consider the needs and desires of the people they claim to represent. The failure of representative democracy in the United States is perhaps one of the most serious problems of our time, and the Occupy movement is a symptom of this crisis of legitimacy. The people no longer trust their leaders and are even starting to indict the system itself. They think we can do better. We are all leaders.

Heather Gautney, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University and author of Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era (Palgrave Macmillan).

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  1. By Matt Taibbi
    October 12, 2011 8:00 AM ET
    occupy wall street new york protest matt taibi

    Protesters with the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement demonstrate in New York.
    Spencer Platt/Getty Images

    I’ve been down to “Occupy Wall Street” twice now, and I love it. The protests building at Liberty Square and spreading over Lower Manhattan are a great thing, the logical answer to the Tea Party and a long-overdue middle finger to the financial elite. The protesters picked the right target and, through their refusal to disband after just one day, the right tactic, showing the public at large that the movement against Wall Street has stamina, resolve and growing popular appeal.

    But… there’s a but. And for me this is a deeply personal thing, because this issue of how to combat Wall Street corruption has consumed my life for years now, and it’s hard for me not to see where Occupy Wall Street could be better and more dangerous. I’m guessing, for instance, that the banks were secretly thrilled in the early going of the protests, sure they’d won round one of the messaging war.

    Why? Because after a decade of unparalleled thievery and corruption, with tens of millions entering the ranks of the hungry thanks to artificially inflated commodity prices, and millions more displaced from their homes by corruption in the mortgage markets, the headline from the first week of protests against the financial-services sector was an old cop macing a quartet of college girls.

    That, to me, speaks volumes about the primary challenge of opposing the 50-headed hydra of Wall Street corruption, which is that it’s extremely difficult to explain the crimes of the modern financial elite in a simple visual. The essence of this particular sort of oligarchic power is its complexity and day-to-day invisibility: Its worst crimes, from bribery and insider trading and market manipulation, to backroom dominance of government and the usurping of the regulatory structure from within, simply can’t be seen by the public or put on TV. There just isn’t going to be an iconic “Running Girl” photo with Goldman Sachs, Citigroup or Bank of America – just 62 million Americans with zero or negative net worth, scratching their heads and wondering where the hell all their money went and why their votes seem to count less and less each and every year.

    No matter what, I’ll be supporting Occupy Wall Street. And I think the movement’s basic strategy – to build numbers and stay in the fight, rather than tying itself to any particular set of principles – makes a lot of sense early on. But the time is rapidly approaching when the movement is going to have to offer concrete solutions to the problems posed by Wall Street. To do that, it will need a short but powerful list of demands. There are thousands one could make, but I’d suggest focusing on five:

    1. Break up the monopolies. The so-called “Too Big to Fail” financial companies – now sometimes called by the more accurate term “Systemically Dangerous Institutions” – are a direct threat to national security. They are above the law and above market consequence, making them more dangerous and unaccountable than a thousand mafias combined. There are about 20 such firms in America, and they need to be dismantled; a good start would be to repeal the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and mandate the separation of insurance companies, investment banks and commercial banks.

    2. Pay for your own bailouts. A tax of 0.1 percent on all trades of stocks and bonds and a 0.01 percent tax on all trades of derivatives would generate enough revenue to pay us back for the bailouts, and still have plenty left over to fight the deficits the banks claim to be so worried about. It would also deter the endless chase for instant profits through computerized insider-trading schemes like High Frequency Trading, and force Wall Street to go back to the job it’s supposed to be doing, i.e., making sober investments in job-creating businesses and watching them grow.

    3. No public money for private lobbying. A company that receives a public bailout should not be allowed to use the taxpayer’s own money to lobby against him. You can either suck on the public teat or influence the next presidential race, but you can’t do both. Butt out for once and let the people choose the next president and Congress.

    4. Tax hedge-fund gamblers. For starters, we need an immediate repeal of the preposterous and indefensible carried-interest tax break, which allows hedge-fund titans like Stevie Cohen and John Paulson to pay taxes of only 15 percent on their billions in gambling income, while ordinary Americans pay twice that for teaching kids and putting out fires. I defy any politician to stand up and defend that loophole during an election year.

    5. Change the way bankers get paid. We need new laws preventing Wall Street executives from getting bonuses upfront for deals that might blow up in all of our faces later. It should be: You make a deal today, you get company stock you can redeem two or three years from now. That forces everyone to be invested in his own company’s long-term health – no more Joe Cassanos pocketing multimillion-dollar bonuses for destroying the AIGs of the world.

    To quote the immortal political philosopher Matt Damon from Rounders, “The key to No Limit poker is to put a man to a decision for all his chips.” The only reason the Lloyd Blankfeins and Jamie Dimons of the world survive is that they’re never forced, by the media or anyone else, to put all their cards on the table. If Occupy Wall Street can do that – if it can speak to the millions of people the banks have driven into foreclosure and joblessness – it has a chance to build a massive grassroots movement. All it has to do is light a match in the right place, and the overwhelming public support for real reform – not later, but right now – will be there in an instant.

    This story is from the October 27, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.


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