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Monday, October 10, 2011


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 every so often to see whether sales of The Communist Manifesto are on the rise. :)


Nick said...

The man introducing himself as Anonymous probably was a member of Anonymous, an Internet-based anarchist group, that is largely inspired by Alan Moore's V for Vendetta.

And thanks for the account-I probably should find my local group, if only to see what is going on. Exciting times (hopefully)!

J.R. said...

Thank you so much for your lengthy and considered reply yesterday. (I had no idea you knew Marcuse, though perhaps I should have guessed.)

Really what I was after though, is what a philosophical anarchist and old hand in social movements thought of how things worked on the ground. You provided that today.

I have some reservations about consensus models, my past experience with them is that they end up placing immense social pressure on people to "just go along" with whatever is proposed, because, as you mentioned, the ability to block places an "enourmous responsibility on the shoulders of the objector." This can have the unfortunate consequence of stifling internal dissent.

On a more positive note, the whole thing reminds me a bit of the Athenian assembly, and is quite fun.

I should note though, that despite my reservations, I attend all the meetings of my local group that I can, and march in solidarity with them.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The nice thing about genuine social movements is that they are messy, heterogeneous, and blurred around the edges, leaving room for many sorts of people. I am not a gregarious person, and I actually feel uncomfortable at meetings like the one I attended yesterday, but I figure there is some role I can play, even if it is only to write about things and give money. As I was leaving [early], I gave $100 to the young woman who had bought and was distributing eleven boxes of pizza. One might think of that as a cop-out, but what the hell, someone has to pay for the pizza, so it might as well be me.

J.R. said...

Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. I also sympathize with your discomfort. I pretty much just stand about awkwardly at these things, but I figure they need as many bodies on the ground as they can get.

Also, giving money is in no way a cop-out. When the occupation proper gets started these people will need food, and blankets, and clean socks. They will need bottled water and baby wipes. They will also, (unfortunately perhaps) need smokes. Someone has to pay for this stuff.

formerly a wage slave said...

The anthropologist Robin Dunbar makes the following claim in his "Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language" (Faber and Faber 1996, 2004, p. 122):
"Even allowing a minimal shoulder-to-shoulder distance of six inches, a circle five foot in diameter would place would place an upper limit of about seven on the number of people who can hear what a speaker is saying." He goes on to note that as background noise and distance increase, the number of people who can actually hear the speaker decreases.
Having taught philosophy before I read that, I concluded after the fact that the difficulty of having a discussion was as much due to the problem of group size as to any lack of interest among class members.

I don't know about the Communist Manifesto, but I did recently purchase "Capital" Volume One, which i've never owned and never read. I am an unemployed Ph.D. (Philosophy) who spent thirteen years working outside of the USA. (I apologize if I've said that before.) --It sounds to me like the beginning of my entry for the website "wearethe99percent"....

mw said...

The whole of Marx is on line, so sales on Amazon are unlikely to reflect interest..., eg

While I am not a marxist myself, I recommend

as the closest approximation in Marx to the current situation in the US..

formerly a wage slave said...

About buying through Amazon: does everyone in the USA have a credit card? About reading Marx online: does everyone in the USA have the Internet? (I certainly know a postal worker who doesn't, and the guy who comes to give my elderly father a shower doesn't have the internet, nor, I believe, does the nurse who visits him once a week to take his vitals.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

America is increasingly two worlds, and the clued in world, with internet, credit, and all the rest [FaceBook, Twitter, whatever] rarely actually talks with the world that does not. It is just one of many, many reasons why truly progressive mobilizing is so difficult.

Just as an example: only 30% of adults over 25 have college degrees, and yet the public discourse assumes that everyone does.

formerly a wage slave said...

Bob (If I may), I know you said this before about the small number of people who actually have college degrees. And you are right to repeat it. I've mentioned it to people and they were surprised--hence the accuracy of your observation about what public discourse presumes.
Anyway, thank you for pointing it out, because though it is (in one way) a small thing, it helps me frame things.