OWS Working Groups

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Description

The functioning and critique of working groups, by Pham Binh:

"OWS’s working groups deal with food, sanitation, medical, security, media, outreach to other activist groups, transparency, facilitating meetings, and meeting a variety of other needs of the hundreds-strong collective (last week they had a makeshift barbershop and gave people free haircuts). Many of the working groups are divided into subgroups due to the complex nature of the tasks they are responsible for. All working groups report to the General Assembly (G.A), an open mass meeting that operates using modified consensus, meaning almost everyone must agree for decisions to be made.

Although the Occupy movement is going from strength to strength, there are problems brewing beneath the surface of OWS’s success.

There is an intense level of frustration among occupiers with the G.A. process and the dysfunctional nature of some working groups. This has given rise to talk of creating a spokescouncil, a body composed of the working groups that would more efficiently deal with mundane, practical matters, allowing the G.A. to be more focused and productive. Some people in working groups skip the G.A. altogether because they feel it is a waste of time. One woman in the sanitation working group spends 20 hours a day cleaning the plaza and has no time or energy left to participate in the political process.

Bobby, a self-described anarchist who is part of three different working groups, complained at a discussion about the proposed spokescouncil that the G.A. was often held hostage by the “tyranny of the minority.” (A minority can block decisions from being passed in a system based on consensus; conversely, the pressure to agree unanimously to get something done led to ugly racial tensions after people of color repeatedly blocked the G.A. from incorporating the absurd claim that racial divisions no longer existed in the text of OWS’s first official declaration.)

Bobby also complained that decisions passed by the G.A. were often impractical, such as the G.A.’s approval of the sanitation working group’s request to buy trash bins to help clean Liberty Plaza. The G.A.’s approval came with conditions: they had to be “fair trade” trash bins and the sanitation group had to look on Craigslist first for the best price. This hampered execution of the decision and made meeting a vital need of the occupiers very difficult.

The simple, horizontal structure originally created around a G.A. using modified consensus has become a barrier to practical and political work getting done now that over 600 occupiers and an even greater number of people (workers, students) are involved through working groups. What was once an asset has now become an impediment.

There is even more tension surrounding the issue of money. At least $40,000 has been donated to OWS mostly via the internet, and OWS has yet to figure how to account for and control spending. The G.A. process is too inefficient and arbitrary to be responsible for deciding this question on its own. For example, the G.A. voted to give $200 to one of the protest organizers after he said he lost his phone and needed to buy a new one. He was not forced to buy a “free trade” phone or look for the best price on Craigslist." (http://dissidentvoice.org/2011/10/the-state-of-the-occupation-of-wall-street/)


Example

Attending the “open source” OWS working group

Pham Binh:

"On day 12 of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), I helped moderate a meeting of the “open source” OWS working group by keeping a list of speakers and co-chairing. I am not sure what the open source group is supposed to do exactly, but I decided to attend this meeting after watching a middle-aged man call in the General Assembly for developing demands and goals on the OWS live feed and people in the crowd telling him the open source working group was tasked with this.

After the daily 1 p.m. General Assembly meeting ended, OWS divided into its working groups, including media, labor, outreach, and a number of others. I walked over and sat down next to the point person (or “ leader”) of the working group, a young white guy in his twenties who looked like a 60s throwback with his long, straight hippy-style hair, rainbow tights, fatigue shirt, and Ziploc bag of rolling papers. Of course, you can never judge a book by its cover — he is also a student of behavioral economics and mentioned that academic studies have shown that the OWS’s decentralized, highly participatory, and lengthy process of dialogue is the best way to organize.

The open source meeting swelled very quickly to 20 or 30 people, an indication that a lot of people want to figure out what OWS’s demands should be. The group moderator remarked that the group was so big it was practically a “second General Assembly.” His brief introduction to the process whereby OWS would define its vision (he repeatedly used the phrase “visioning”) was interrupted as many hands went up, asking to be called on; at least 10 people wanted to speak and each was allowed a minute and a half.

What emerged from the discussion was that there is no consensus that demands are even necessary. Quite a few protesters argued along the lines that this is movement or process of dialogue is the demand/goal and that therefore demands are not necessary; one said our demand to the world should that they “join us.” Two older people, one in his sixties, the other in his thirties, spoke out for having clear, specific demands as being a very necessary step to creating a sustainable protest, much less a movement.

I argued that a few concrete, achievable demands were important, citing the “Day of Wrath” protest on January 25, 2011 that began the revolution in Egypt that demanded raising the minimum wage, an end to the dictatorship’s “emergency laws,” the firing of the interior minister, and a two term presidency. I explained that Mubarak’s ouster was not one of their original demands, but it became a demand once millions of people became involved in the movement, and therefore demands can and should change depending on circumstances. My suggested demand was to raise taxes on the 1%, something the New York state legislature and the city council could vote to do immediately.

One woman argued against having demands on the grounds that the media wanted us to do exactly that, that it would be a way for them to put us in a nice neat little confining box the better to ignore us; instead, she proposed we copy the model used to write grant proposals and draw up a mission statement, goals, and objectives. The moderator took to this and we dispersed into six groups of five or so to discuss what motivated us to protest and what our “visions” (or goals, long and short term) were; after the break out, we would reconvene to sum up and share what each of our groups had come up with in the hopes of finding some type of consensus that would inform some sort of statement to the world.

The OWS political process is very participatory, cumbersome, and time-consuming. One strength of their process is that it avoids the top-down control that Wisconsin’s union leaders exercised to scuttle the protests and developing strike wave that shook the state in favor of harmless (and ultimately fruitless) recall efforts.

To participate and help shape OWS politically requires dedicating many, many waking hours every day to ongoing, continuous debates and discussions. This is not necessarily a bad thing but in practice ends up favoring the participation of those who can afford to skip work and/or school for a week or more. With unemployment over 9% (a figure even higher for the 18-25 age group), it should be no surprise that these are the people taking the fight to the enemy’s lair.

It may be that OWS never develops a clear set of demands. OWS seems to be headed toward issuing a general statement akin to the Port Huron Statement by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962, although it will probably be less wordy and much darker. Port Huron spoke moralistically of the highly privileged lives led by America’s post-World War Two college students that stood in start contrast to the conditions facing black and brown people in the Jim Crow south, America’s urban ghettos, and the Third World." (http://dissidentvoice.org/2011/09/the-nuts-and-bolts-of-occupy-wall-street/)