Inside Occupy Wall Street

Heather Gautney

Occupy Wall Street has officially gone global. Facebook was all-aflutter, and Twitter all-atweeter this past weekend as news of 'occupations' and clashes with the powers-that-be spread like wildfire around the world.

Now entering its fifth week, the Wall Street occupation has become a global phenomenon. The candidates are interested, celebrities jumping on board, and pizza shops are adding the OccuPie to their menus. Occupy locals have sprung up in nearly every major city in the United States, forming a national Occupy Together network, and as far away as Tokyo and Auckland, protesters are making their voices of dissent heard. This is Democracy looks like!

But many people, on all points of the political spectrum, want to better understand what this movement is all about. Who are these 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 hot 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. The New Left was good at spotting authoritarianism, but the household was off limits. 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: women were expected to be self-conscious and supportive, but their boyfriends and husbands were not. 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 were comprised of autonomous movement groups and political organizations – a veritable movement of movements -- that were not led or controlled by any one of them. In the US, 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 local establishing its own set of organizational practices. Locals, 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 per cent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 per cent' -- an obvious reference to the well-known, yet still appalling, statistic that the top 1 per cent 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. 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 anyone can propose an idea or express an opinion. 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 9/10ths 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 the free society they seek to create within their own organization. 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. 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. Our school teachers have already discovered the merits of this approach. They’re finding that most children learn better in mutually supportive groups, working with a variety of people in intimate and productive settings. Perhaps our government can learn this lesson too.

Implicit in Occupy’s 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). An earlier version of this article was published in the Washington Post on 11 October 2011.

Suggested citation
Gautney, Heather, 'Inside Occupy Wall Street', Evatt Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, December 2011<>