More and more frequently now, friends and acquaintances of mine will ask me what the Occupy Movement is—what it’s about, what its goals are, how long I think it will last, and why I’m a part of it. After three weeks of dedicating almost every waking moment to thinking about, participating in, and working for the Occupy Boston Movement, my fellow Tufts Occupiers and I have noticed that our responses to such questions are getting shorter and more clipped. I will say that, in my experience, the transformation of my answers from lengthy and convoluted to short-and-sweet was borne, in part, out of a recognition: In the past, when I have indulged myself in relaying all the details, emotions, and anecdotes that really explain my relationship with Occupy Boston, I frequently lose my audience’s interest after one or two minutes. These people aren’t asking for a diary entry; they want an elevator pitch, and it usually goes like this: “I’m glad you asked! Let me preface my response by saying that I can only speak on my own behalf. For me, the movement has been about turning the public eye toward the many political, economic, and social injustices and inequalities that negatively impact the entire country—and the world. Occupy is about having conversations and giving every person a voice. To do that, we are conducting ourselves and our interactions with one another in an entirely new way; we’re participating in a cultural movement that is itself part of a solution to the problems we protest.”
I use that pitch because it’s as close to an accurate summary as I can come in a minute, and because oftentimes it will lead to further discussion. But that quick little spiel doesn’t really say anything in itself; it is full of platitudes and generalities that don’t contribute anything new to the current discourse surrounding Occupy. It blends the themes and words that many associate with the movement (greed, corruption, exploitation, empowerment, equality, dialogue, horizontal democracy) into a nice little cocktail that might look tasty, but lacks substance.
I would like to take this opportunity to offer a more authentic explanation as to why I believe a growing number of Jumbos are pouring significant amounts of time and energy into the Occupy Boston Movement and why you might consider doing the same.
To begin, I must reiterate: I speak only on my own behalf. The following content is an accumulation of thoughts based on the hundreds of videos, images, blogs, articles, civil conversations, heated debates, and other meaningful experiences that I’ve exposed myself to over the last month in following and becoming a part of the Occupy Boston Movement.
As I see it, the beating heart of an Occupation is the General Assembly (GA). More specifically, what makes any iteration of Occupy sustainable and what differentiates it from most other grassroots social change initiatives we’ve seen before are the inclusive processes and guidelines that participants in the assembly uphold. In Boston, individuals convene for GAs in Dewey Square, just across the street from South Station. These assemblies, which take place every morning and evening, are essentially forums with an open invitation to anyone and everyone (including the “one-percenters”) to participate in discussions and decision-making processes through a horizontally democratic system. For clarification’s sake, let’s establish what horizontal democracy means in the context of the Occupy Movement.
Technically speaking, horizontal democracy refers to the distribution of power amongst participants in the Occupy Movement. In traditional, vertical systems of organization, one leader directs the actions; articulates the goals, messages, and objectives of a group; and stands as a representative of their subordinates in what resembles a hierarchical pyramid. At Occupy and other social-media-driven movements (think Egypt and the Arab Spring), masses mobilize in a fashion that reflects the Internet landscape: individuals command authority over themselves and only themselves. In the place of one leader who makes decisions for the movement, Occupy directs itself through the General Assembly, where each attendee has an equal opportunity to participate in a debate that dissects every decision that could someday influence and represent the movement as a whole. The people who participate in GAs are the people who define the movement, give it direction, and articulate its objectives.
In practice, horizontal democracy is frustratingly tedious. Every participant in every GA brings a different perspective to the table, which can make reaching consensus extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming. In fact, the heterogeneity of the crowd at Occupy Boston makes impossible the task of finding true concordance on any proposal. But that is the beauty of the General Assembly: It is a platform that brings all the different types of people walking (or living on) the streets of Boston together for an analysis of the society we live in. Assemblies are constructive because, through conversation, participants struggle together and move beyond their differences to find understandings and create solutions that no one had previously envisioned. To facilitate this process in large groups, GAs employ the “people’s mic.” When a person has something to say, that person stands, and, phrase by phrase, the crowd repeats his or her every word. Listening to the people’s mic is literally listening to the voice of humanity. It is a chorus of all of the thoughts and perspectives of the people shouted by the people, the timbre colored by voices of every walk of life. While the mic slows down an already difficult process, it also facilitates the people’s internalization of one another’s words. And, importantly, it encourages careful thought and analysis of sentiments before standing up to speak. Certainly GAs can be an agonizingly contentious, glacially slow process with the people’s mic, but they give birth to popular empowerment, unity of purpose, and community; they thrive on and reproduce the spirit of solidarity that permeates the movement. Despite disagreements, misunderstandings, redundancies, and disappointments, I will oftentimes find myself walking away from GAs invigorated and amazed that, ultimately, we made decisions that needed to be made in a completely democratic fashion.
Horizontal democracy is more than an effective means of empowering and uniting the masses, though. It is much more than a philosophy of equal distribution of power specific to the GA or Occupy organizations in general. If you let it, horizontal democracy can become a way of life. It is a preference for respectful, constructive dialogue, attentive listening, and face-to-face interactions, which are virtually non-existent in contemporary politics. And when I say “politics” I’m not just referring to the formal political machine—I’m also talking about the politics of everyday life. At GAs, we confront and grapple with racism, sexism, and classism—the privilege and oppression that characterize and dictate our every interaction with the people around us. Part of living horizontal democracy is recognizing that these same dynamics are also hard at work in our life outside of GAs. Practicing horizontal democracy means believing and recognizing the fact that stories and points of view drastically different from your own exist and are just as valuable. It is making a commitment to ensuring that the voices of others are as loud and clear as your own.
What is so exciting for me about horizontal democracy in Dewey Square is that it pops the culture bubble that we live within (and maintain) at Tufts. As a white male who studies sociology, I can say that up until now, my understanding of white privilege and male hegemony has come largely from textbooks written by white men and some white women, has been taught by all white professors, and has been in classes filled with mostly white, heteronormative students. Attending GAs where traditionally marginalized voices are empowered to vocalize their concerns, interests, and perspectives has introduced me to individuals with voices that we don’t hear frequently enough at Tufts. This is not necessarily because there are no students here with diverse stories to tell; I believe this deficiency is due to the lack of a platform that encourages students to share life experiences and address issues with people very different from themselves.
I believe that a growing number of Jumbos are dedicating their valuable time to attending General Assemblies in Dewey Square and to assembling here on Tufts’ campus because we thirst for an environment, institution, structure, or space that doesn’t oppress or marginalize. I know that, personally, I seek a means of empowering myself and others, especially those of us who do not have a voice, to fundamentally change the world we occupy by dismantling, disabling, and changing the forces that work against our pursuits of happiness. In my experience, horizontal democracy has been the only structure that provides the equalizing, empowering environment that I seek, and General Assemblies have been the first and only place that I’ve found truly functional horizontal democracy. If you’re ready for more than sound bites from the news or from me, if you’re ready to really listen, or if you’re willing to engage with humanity and reach a better understanding of the world, go to a General Assembly. If you want to address and ameliorate radically dividing forces among people or if you would like to surround yourself with some of the most passionate, interesting individuals you’ll ever meet, go to a General Assembly. If you’re willing to understand the Occupy movement and if you want to sing in the growing chorus of humanity that is resounding in cities across the world—go to a General Assembly.
Go to a General Assembly: 7:00 PM, every night, Dewey Square across from South Station.