In an effort to more fairly represent the Occupy movement I’m writing a 5 part feature on my week at OccupyLSX. Part 2 is how they work.
The occupy movement is a leaderless one, there is no mastermind overseeing the whole operation and coordinating it as a whole. This has led most of the rightwing press to assume that OccupyLSX and others around the globe are simply groups of malcontents flinging their wacky ideas around at eachother “sitting around smoking joints and knocking back lager.” (thank you, Tom Rawstorne ) This is far from the truth, but to be fair not much further than the Daily Mail usually get.
Although there may not be a leader, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any. The beauty of Occupy is that anyone with the time, energy and expertise can step up to the plate and help out wherever they can. It allows anyone and everyone to become a leader.
At the camp Process rules. By adhering to it a group of people with little in common can be brought together to work towards a common goal, without the inherent upsets that are caused by people telling you what to do. Essentially the Process goes like this. If you have an idea on how to make the camp better you go to one of the General Assemblies at 1pm or 7pm and propose it. You get in front of the mic and state your case and maybe others at the GA will challenge you on any issues they might have with it.
Then the proposal will be put to the GA to vote on, all those for wave their hands, those against cross their arms across their chest, anyone violently opposed to the idea on the grounds that it fundamentally undermines the whole camp can block by raising their fist into the air. If your proposal reaches consensus without being blocked then you can set up a Working Group to get going on your task.
Anyone with an interest can join the Working Group, generally they’re 4 to 12 people. They’re round table debates conducted with the same process as the GA, with the addition of one finger pointed to put yourself in line to speak and two if you want to make a direct point to the current speaker. Strictly one person talking at a time, and the whole affair is kept peaceable by a facilitator. It may sound (and occasionally look) silly, but after a while you get used to it and it becomes apparent that it is actually a rather effective. You get feedback on your ideas while you speak so don’t spend hours laboring the same point, you don’t need to shout to get heard and everyone gets a turn.
Once your working group has come up with it’s proposal and is ready to put it into action you go back to the General Assembly and get it passed, and you’re done. Congratulations. It may be slow, but it is the only way to drive the camp forward towards a shared goal, you might not necessarily agree, but hell, everyone else does so get to it. The working group model means that although the few reporters that wander down to the site may bump into the people that aren’t up to much, they miss out on the real workings of the camp.
Believe me there are people working themselves to the bone for the camp. The kitchen provides free food to all-comers, all day. The tranquility team patrols the site at night to keep the site safe and move on the drunk city-folk who like to harass the camp as they stagger back home. The outreach group supports the homeless, some of whom are long time residents of St Pauls Churchyard others drawn from elsewhere by the food, counselling for mental health issues or simply companionship. The tent city university schedules lectures and talks which run all day. The media team gets the camp’s message across to the major broadcasters, and newspapers. The tech team runs the website and other projects. The environment working group have procured several solar panels to eliminate the need to use petrol generators. And several policy groups work on drafting statements on The City of London Corporation, Economics, International issues and Corporations.
There are obvious downsides to this method of organisation, but ultimately it is the one best suited to the movement. Gathering so many people with different ideas there will always be conflicts of interest, all of us can identify the problems with the system we live under, but proposing solutions that everyone is happy with is rather more difficult, it’ll come, just give it time.
Progress rather depends on the group you join. Some devolve into circular discussions of topics that are rather unworkable and tangential to the aims of Occupy, but with a small group of focused individuals working towards a clear goal progress can be very rapid.
The other issue with horizontal organisation is that it is difficult to coordinate between groups, and even between Occupations in other cities. But already progress is being made in this area, there is a coordinated drive towards transparency, meetings are minuted to allow all the members of the camp to contribute even if they are absent from the meetings.
Many have been quick to criticise OccupyLSX for not getting out their message fast enough, but you have to appreciate that the camp was hurled into a hostile environment, attacked on all sides by the church, the City and the media. Frankly the camp had enough on its plate just getting things up and running. The process in place may be slow but it is robust.
It is certainly a process that has taken it’s toll on some of the key Occupiers, behind the scenes it’s a stressful place to be. On the bad days, the pressure, the lack of sleep, the long hours, the cold and the fact that many are working “real” jobs, really get to people. But on the good days there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing people working towards something they truly believe in. So if you think you could help the camp run better, feel free to pop down.