This week I ventured to the Big Apple to speak at an anthropology class and ended up at the Wall Street occupation that began September 17. I have a friend who lives in Brooklyn and has been involved since day one, so he filled me in on how the occupation has progressed since then and showed me the lay of the land. I interviewed several participants about their values and what they hope to accomplish by participating, so I’ll be writing an article about that soon. That’s my journalism side. My anthropology side makes me want to know things like “where do hundreds of economic discontents who have been living in a 1-block park go to the bathroom?” Those are the sorts of everyday details of occupying Wall Street that I share with you today.
Info. table Occupy Wall St.
1. The daily schedule is posted at two sides of the square park. It typically includes General Assembly—a meeting during which all participants decide on the direction of the occupation—in the morning and evening, an afternoon march (location changes daily), classes offered by anyone who feels they have something to teach, as well as arts and culture activities.
Consensus at General Assembly
2. General Assembly operates by consensus. Consensus, in contrast to majority rule, is a type of decision-making wherein all participants must agree for a proposal to move forward. Certain roles, like facilitator, timekeeper and stack-taker (someone who keeps track of people wanting to speak), help the process run more smoothly. Hand signals are also an important part of communicating in this process. For instance, when an idea has been proposed, questioned, discussed, and the group is ready to check for consensus, those who agree hold up their hands and wiggle their fingers (like jazz hands) to signal agreement. It is also possible to block a proposal, but this action is taken seriously.
Dinner is served
3. Basic needs are all met. For injuries or illness, the Wall Street occupiers have set up a well stocked medical station. Doctors and nurses in nearby facilities have also offered pro bono treatment as an act of solidarity. A meals committee serves up three meals a day in the center of the park, and all participants or passersby are welcome to join in. The food has all been donated, and donated pizza and other snacks are available during non-meal times. Participants generally use the nearby Burger King or McDonald’s restrooms when nature calls. Not everyone who participates spends all day there, as they may have work or families to attend to during the day or night. Those who do stay (and especially those from out-of-town) sleep in sleeping bags they’ve brought, covering themselves with tarps during rain.
4. There is an order to the “madness.” One of the strongest things I took away from my experience down at Wall Street was that I would have had no clue what was going on if I’d shown up for a few hours, interviewed whoever happened to walk by, and then left. That is how mainstream news outlets usually cover political demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. Longer-term, in-depth reporting is relegated to “soft” news and feel-good stories. After all, superficial or distorted coverage of social discontent prevents non-participants from recognizing that another world is possible and joining in the action to create it.
5. People and ideas are flowing. If you’ve followed this blog you know that I have a pretty wide-ranging experience attending and reporting on protests. One immediate difference I felt between the occupation and a single-day protest is the humming energy of a place that is functioning as its own continuous community, with people flowing in and out and conversations abounding. Not understanding the value of the space itself, some critics have scoffed at the occupiers for not having clear demands. “Demands” are not the only avenues to change. In more recent days, Occupy Wall Street participants have joined with NYC postal workers, CUNY adjunct faculty, and other unions and other organizations in various strikes and demonstrations that those groups are leading themselves. I think that their intention to use the occupied space as a platform for organizing around various community struggles is a promising path toward building something new.
Occupy Wall St. sign