I promised a report on the first organizational meeting of OCCUPY CHAPEL HILL, the local branch of OCCUPY WALL STREET, so here goes. I went to the gathering yesterday on a gorgeous sunny Chapel Hill day. By the time 11:30 a.m. rolled around, about one hundred people had assembled. They ranged in age from twenty to eighty, overwhelmingly if not entirely white, and from the looks of us all, reasonably affluent and well-educated.
The cultural norms for these Occupy meetings are somewhat unfamiliar to me -- for example, the first speaker and apparently the organizer introduced himself as "Anonymous," which got a cheer. If you agreed with what was being said, you were encouraged to raise your hands and wiggle your fingers. If you were neutral, you were supposed to cross your arms over your chest. If you felt deeply, desperately, strongly about something enough to want to block it, you were asked to signal thumbs down. A quasi-Quaker rule of unanimity was informally adopted, meaning that one intensely opposed person could at least in theory stop the entire group from moving forward with a suggested action. As has been noted before, this actually places an enormous responsibility on the shoulders of the objector, much much more so than simply voting "no" on something. I have never participated in a meeting run by such a rule, and it was quite interesting. It is not at all an inefficient way to proceed.
It was hard to hear, since we were in front of the old Court House on Franklin Street and there were lots of street sounds and traffic noises, so after a while, at the suggestion of one man who said he had just returned from New York, the group adopted what is called "the people's mike." This is a practice that consists of the entire group repeating each phrase that a speaker utters. So, "Hi, I'm Jim" is followed by one hundred people shouting "Hi, I'm Jim." It feels rather hokey, but is actually rather successful both in making sure that everyone hears everything, and in subtly persuading people to keep it short.
No effort was made to map out either substantive policy positions or political tactics. The emphasis at this first meeting was entirely on mobilizing people and on breaking into "working groups" to hammer out some details. One of the big questions was where the "occupation" site should be. Chapel Hill is a carefully zoned little community that keeps things like big box stores outside its city limits. I guess if you tried, you could find someone who buys and sells stocks, and there are branches of some of the big banks, like Bank of America, and Wachovia [soon to be Wells Fargo], but far and away the biggest institution in town is the University of North Carolina, and no one at the meeting seemed terribly motivated to occupy it, even though the campus was right across the street from where we were standing.
We were really all there, I think, just to express our solidarity with the folks in New York and, more broadly, with the national movement. As I have already indicated on this blog, I view what is happening as unambiguously a good thing, whatever comes of it. If it gets bigger and doesn't go away, the media commentators, who cannot make head or tail of it, are going to have to eventually notice it. Perhaps it will once again become possible in America to talk about economic injustice. I will check Amazon.com every so often to see whether sales of The Communist Manifesto are on the rise. :)