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It took me half an hour to find the Internet Working Group at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in downtown Manhattan. The protesters have been here 24-hours a day for three weeks to denounce corporate greed and economic inequality. They sleep on the ground under blue tarps, which I discovered after almost stepping on one.
I wasn't sure what the Internet Working Group was, but it sounded intriguing. The www.occupywallst.org website promised a meeting at 5 p.m, so I took the subway downtown and plunged into the ragged mass of thousands packed into an unremarkable urban plaza of less than an acre. The organizers have been calling the park by its original name, Liberty Plaza, though they've refashioned it Liberty Square, which sounds more like an iconic protest setting and less like a suburban shopping mall.
Unfortunately, no one in Liberty Square / Zucotti Park seemed to know where the Internet Working Group was meeting or even what it was--not the young woman in a blond wig dressed as Marie Antoinette, not the scruffy bearded guy wearing a handwritten sticker that said "Ian - security," not the pretty grand marshall from the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade in full uniform who showed me her vagina hand-puppet, not even the earnest clean-cut twenty-somethings who stood behind a sign marked "INFO."
As I inquired, some people began shouting that a meeting was about to start. I hurried over only to discover that it was a working group for anarchists and the "anarchy-curious." I was slightly curious but didn't let the anarchists distract me from my mission.
Finally, someone helpfully directed me to a group of men huddling with laptops under an umbrella. They confirmed that yes, they were the Internet Working Group and promised that the meeting would begin shortly.
As we gathered, someone asked, "Where's the gluten free dude? He wanted to say something about Open Source." The gluten free dude materialized and presented his idea for an open source sponsor-a-protestor web page. One of the tech guys told him to spell out the idea via email, which resulted in a standoff. The gluten free dude complained that he needed positive emotional feedback; the tech guy complained that he had poor memory.
The impasse ended inconclusively, and we moved on. The seven or eight participants decided the park was too crowded, and we went off in search of a nearby Irish pub, trailed by an enthusiastic gang of journalists and cameramen from Dan Rather's HDNet television channel.
The meeting turned out to be a planning session for the website of the New York City General Assembly, one of the loose-knit activist groups organizing the event. The techie talk was interesting to me but probably disappointing to the HDNet crew, who filmed a few minutes of geek-speak and then waited around listlessly to interview the memory-challenged tech guy while we discussed functional requirements and hosting solutions.
The meeting could have lasted thirty minutes, but there were a number of digressions into whether we could utilize corporate technologies (read: Google), how many options to provide for the "gender" question, and other minutia. Nonetheless, we made some progress in conceptualizing a suitable website to support the chaotic collision of social activism that is Occupy Wall Street. After we adjourned, I returned to Liberty Square just in time for the General Assembly.
The General Assembly is the keystone of the whole demonstration. It presents an inspiring and simultaneously maddening illustration of radical rule by consensus.
New York City has prohibited loudspeakers at the demonstration, so the organizers ingeniously devised the "public mic." In order to signal the crowd, a small group shouts out, "Mic check!" Others then repeat the call in successive radiating waves, and a relative silence descends. The chosen speaker finally begins, pausing after each statement so that nearby listeners can repeat the line in waves for those further away. It's a clever way to get the word out, but it doesn't facilitate inspirational orations.
The first half-hour of the General Assembly is spent explaining the rules of the General Assembly. There are no leaders, we learn, much like the protests that have unfolded in the Middle East. If you wish to speak, you must line up and present your topic to the manager of "the stack," who jots them on slips of paper. Priority is given to to traditionally underrepresented minorities (probably not a feature of Middle East protests).
Next we learn the hand signals. Wave your fingers over your head to vote "Yea"; wave them down to vote, "Nay"; wave them in the middle if you're on the fence; cross your arms to express moral repugnance. The community, we were assured, would do its best to accommodate moral objectors, but a ninety percent majority was sufficient to pass an initiative.
Of course, ninety percent is a tough threshold for a diverse, rudderless caucus that includes everyone from labor organizers to internet libertarians to radical vegans.
And there's the rub. The Occupy Wall Street movement, in its current form, is an inchoate mass of people and opinions. It struggles to produce a cohesive and focused agenda because it has zealously rejected the need for a cohesive and focused organization. Its leaders, insofar as it has leaders, wax lyrical about the successes of headless demonstrations in the Middle East, but the Arab uprisings shunned public leadership for the simple reason that the protest leaders risked losing their heads, a penalty that New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is unlikely to invoke.
Don't get me wrong. I'm enthusiastic about the passion that Occupy Wall Street has harnessed, and I hope to continue to play a small part in its development. I believe that it has the potential to evolve into a potent, durable movement that can help revitalize the slumbering American left.
But if Occupy Wall Street is to have a sustained impact into 2012 and beyond, its coordinators must recognize that "leadership" and "focus" are not dirty corporate buzzwords to be scorned but core elements in any powerful social movement. Otherwise, we'll all just wander about looking for our working groups until the passion fades away.