Who Has Authority in the Occupy Movement

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Arun Gupta:

'or nearly every Occupy movement in the United States, the General Assembly is seen as the legitimate decision-making body. But when it comes time to enforce a decision that some disagree with, its authority is often called into question. Nearly every significant conflict that has cropped up in Occupy movements around the country rests on the bedrock issues of authority, accountability, representation and legitimacy.

The issue is central to the movement’s future because authority rests on the notion of legitimacy. In a leaderless movement, who – if anyone – gets to call the shots, initiate actions, represent the group, and perhaps most important, hold people accountable by enforcing authority, order and discipline? Exactly how democratic must a people’s movement be?

These questions of legitimacy and leadership will return in the next several weeks, as the weather warms and brings possible new outside Occupations, and as a presidential campaign heats up in which both major parties, in different ways, will attempt to lay claim to Occupy’s rhetoric and message. The Occupy movement has grappled with these questions in very different ways over the last six months, and lessons learned over that time could be key to the movement’s success in 2012.

For example, an attempt by a group calling itself The 99% Declaration to convene a “National General Assembly” in Philadelphia on July 4 was rejected by both the Occupy Philly General Assembly and Occupy Wall Street as the event smacked of co-optation by an outside group that allegedly included a former Goldman Sachs executive. The call received some media attention, but suspicions about the organizers, their plan to replicate conventional politics by electing U.S. citizen-only delegates according to congressional districts and an unhinged tirade by a group member, declaring “OWS is a failure and … a fraud,” drained the idea of any meaningful support.

Meanwhile, Adbusters, which sparked Occupy Wall Street, issued a “tactical briefing” in late January with #OccupyChicago and the line “May 1 – Bring Tent” superimposed over a photo of Chicago police pummeling protesters in 1968. Adbusters is promoting an occupation of the city during the NATO and G8 summits in May. But Adbusters didn’t consult with OccupyChicago or the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda, and that incensed many people.

Serena Himmelfarb of OccupyChicago told one reporter, “I am excited that Adbusters continues to support OWS, but they acted irresponsibly … They acted alone, without regard to what’s already being planned here for the summer.” Another organizer wrote, “If you want to pick a fight with [the police], you should consult those whose name you are using.” In a nod to Adbusters’ prominence, Chicago activists swallowed their grumbling because they knew the call could help generate the publicity and crowds they wanted.

Unlike the people behind the unsuccessful 99% Declaration, Adbusters drew from a deep pool of media attention and activist goodwill to create its own source of legitimacy. It went around the Occupy Chicago General Assembly and put it in the position of having to endorse the call or make it appear that the movement was split – which the media would have played up.

A third challenge of Occupy’s belief in democracy is whether or not homeless people are a legitimate part of the movement. The instant any occupation set down stakes in an American city or town, it attracted society’s dispossessed in search of food, shelter, medical care and counseling. Many perceived, often unfairly, that the Occupy demonstrators had introduced the drug abuse, violence and mental illness that bedeviled many camps. The occupiers insisted, often correctly, that these social maladies had existed all along, studiously ignored by news organizations and right-wing bloggers. (In fact, as Rebecca Solnit reported, crime in Oakland actually went down 19 percent during Occupy Oakland.)

Nonetheless, the challenge of the homeless for the movement was profound. So-called street people are consummate members of the 99 percent. Their troubled lives are the outcome of decades of public policies calculated to deindustrialize the economy, emaciate cities, ghettoize the poor and minorities, and shred the safety net. But in Occupy camps all across the country the same split emerged between those who felt that the homeless, runaways, train hoppers and itinerants were central to the movement versus those who felt that they drained resources and diverted energy from the task at hand.

This divide played out at Occupy Los Angeles at City Hall, mere blocks from thousands of homeless who bed down every night in the largest skid row in the country. Ruth Fowler, a journalist, screenwriter and member of facilitation team at Occupy Los Angeles, told me via email that “Skid row residents were extremely vigilant in self policing the encampment, and running out the inevitable dealers, thieves and violent individuals who made their way over there.” Of the seven U.S.-based occupations she visited, Fowler said “Occupy L.A. didn’t have any more incidences of drug and alcohol use than other encampments.”

But tensions still surfaced. Fowler saw a conflict between “radicals who believe the worst thing you can ever do to anyone is call the cops on them, given the brutality and corruption of the police and the prison industrial complex, and liberals who would rather call the cops, sweep an issue under the carpet, and focus on legislation reform.” (http://www.salon.com/2012/02/27/occupys_challenge_reinventing_democracy/)