In this post I am merely going to document some of the controversies that have been brewing within the space of Occupy Wall Street at Liberty Plaza. I am not, of course, speaking of the #Occupy movement in general, though I have heard from many in the other cities where demonstrations are being held that similar problems with drum circles have cropped up.
The Demands Working Group
The first major site of dispute concerned the Demands working group.
I circulated the following e-mail concerning some of the internal divisions that have taken place primarily between the “Facilitators” (who for all intents and purposes run the General Assembly) and members of the Demands working group, one of the largest and most serious working groups out there. I admit that it was based mostly on rumors and hearsay about what was going on at the time, which was incredibly confusing:
There is some major shit going down behind the scenes at OWS. It’s become a gigantic fucking mess…though they vigorously deny that there is any sort of vertical structure of authority within the General Assembly, this weird unspoken hierarchy exists within the GA and has been systematically obstructing a bunch of the different working groups.
The Demands working group, which consists mostly of (sectarian) Marxists, has been pretty much bullied and marginalized completely by the anarchist clique that controls the General Assembly.
Some of the more militant within the Demands group (mostly Trotskyists of various groups; ISO, Sparts, and others) who have gotten sick of the anarchists rejecting every proposal for demands or vision are planning to basically stage a coup by having all their major union contacts get their members to march on Liberty Plaza
As things stand right now, the club of anarchists who run the General Assembly and have been stifling every sort of attempt at structured organizations have (paradoxically) established a bizarre authoritarian regime under the banner of anti-authoritarianism. The anarchists who control the GA have been going around to every single working group, in numbers. And because there are fewer people in any given working group, it becomes basically impossible for the working groups to get “modified consensus” (9/10ths) if the Facilitators from the GA all “block” any proposal at the committee level.
Things have just gotten incredibly tense and fucked up these last few days. The anarchists in the GA and the sectarian Marxists in the “Demands” group have been going at each other’s throats.
But here are some of the more important documents pertaining to it. First of all, the official denunciation of the Demands working group on the www.occupywallst.org website from Friday, October 21, which heaped scorn and calumny upon them: “The so-called Demands working group.” It reads:
A group claiming to be affiliated with the General Assembly of Liberty Square and #ows has been speaking to the media on behalf of our movement.
This group is not empowered by the NYC General Assembly.
This group is not open-source and does not act by consensus.
This group only represents themselves.
While we encourage the participation of autonomous working groups, no single person or group has the authority to make demands on behalf of general assemblies around the world.
We are our demands. This #ows movement is about empowering communities to form their own general assemblies, to fight back against the tyranny of the 1%. Our collective struggles cannot be co-opted.
Having been to several meetings of the Demands working group, I can safely say that these charges are complete bullshit. Beyond this initial list of accusations, the Demands working group was deleted from the NYC GA’s official site, and many of its members banned. This decision was never put to a vote, and seems to have been performed unilaterally. Here was Jay Arena’s testimony of his treatment at the GA that same night, October 21st:
To All Demands Working Group/OWS supporters,
I attended last night’s General Assembly (GA) meeting of Occupy Wall Street (OWS)/Liberty Plaza that was discussing the new spokespersons council organizational structure that the self-appointed GA leadership was presenting.
I spoke out against adopting the new organizational structure before the movement addressed the gross violation of democratic norms that have occurred under the present system. I then ATTEMPTED to explain how the treatment of the Demands Working group was a prime example of anti-Democratic behavior meted out by the GA leadership. I was cut off before I could elaborate by the ‘facilitators’, including one, Nicole, who had been sent to ‘assist’ us at our last Demands Working Group meeting on Tuesday, October 18.
If I had been allowed to express myself, I would have refuted the false statement made against the Demands working group, namely that 1. We claimed, to the New York Times and other news-outlets that the ‘Jobs for All, through Public Works’ demand was the demand of the entire OWS; and 2. That we expelled people from a Demands WG meeting.
Based on these false accusations, the self-appointed leadership, without any vote — consensus, majority-based, or otherwise — took coercive actions against the Demands Working group and its members without giving an opportunity to the Demands working group or individual members to respond to the baseless charges. These sanctions have included: 1. A broadside on the front page of the OWS web site repeating lies 1 and 2 above, 2. eliminating the demands working group discussion forum from the OWS website — which was one of the most popular, 3. removing several demands working group members registration accounts from the web site.
I agree with Chavisa that we should use the accountability forum page of OWS to register our opposition to this gross violation of Democratic norms. The Demands Working group will be discussing further on how to respond to these anti-Democratic attacks and violations, ones that present a serious threat to this important movement. I encourage everyone who cares about Democracy and this movement to attend the next meeting of the Demands Working Group — Sunday, 6 PM, Tompkins Square Park (meet at the circular area, right off E. 7th street, between avenues B and C).
— Jay Arena
The matter became somewhat elucidated by an exchange on the Transparency and Accountability forum on the General Assembly’s main webpage. The first, second, third, fourth, and now fifth page of discussion can be found there.
One of the more interesting exchanges occurred between Chavisa Woods and the website administrator, Drew:
This [whole deletion of the Demands working group from NYC GA’s fora] goes against the process. I joined this group last week, as did hundreds of others, two days ago. This group exists to discuss issues around DEMANDS; the history of demands in revolutionary movements, methods of and approaches to demands; and to collect data on possible demands (a subgroup of this group is trying to form to gear up to begin working with media and conducting outreach; and to formulate demand proposals to be brought before the G.A.
Again, this group has every right to exist. A Demands group does not discourage people from joining other groups.
I am very interested in understanding the COLLECTIVE process that went into deciding this group cannot exist, or be visible. Since it is not on the website, we cannot list the date and time of our meeting, which more than 100 people wanted to know. That is not transparecy.
If you disagree that there should be demands, that’s fine, and it may consistently be voted against in the G.A.
BUT THIS DELETION IS PROBLEMATIC. It points to the possibility that a small number of people have the final and autonomous decision about what sorts of groups get to exist in OWS. That goes completely against the structure and process of OWS.
— Chavisa Woods
Drew, who is the head of the Internet working group, took responsibility for the action and explained his reasons, though he did end up restoring the Demands working group:
Hello everyone, I understand the concerns about the Demands group disappearing from the site and I apologize for being unable to read through and respond to all the forum posts in detail.
I was the one who removed the Demands Group from the site. I take full responsibility. Before I explain why I would like to note a few things. First off, communication inside (and out) of the park is really hard. Also, getting correct information is difficult and figuring out what is going on at any given time is also a struggle. That’s why we are working so hard on creating the nycga.net site.
A few days ago I was contacted by a number of people saying that there was a demands group that was giving out false information. There was some fuss, and I wasn’t sure how to take it. Information working group did not have any concrete information about the status or contact info for the group. Then on Friday occupywallst.org put out a “burn” notice on a demands group. Editors from that site called me explaining that we have to take the demands group off line.
I am only getting secondhand information. I am a website administrator and I don’t know about the group or about the controversy surrounding it. I did what I was asked.
This brings up the issue: There is currently no official procedure for determining when to add or remove a working group. There is no good definition about what a working group even IS. Perhaps the Accountability and Transparency working group can devise a solution.
Again, I apologize. I will try and make it to the next Demands Working group meeting and discuss this in person.
Drew’s candor and responsibility are refreshing, but some troubling questions remain. Who were these people that were telling him to take the Demands working group off the website? And why would he listen to them? This needs to be remedied properly.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I am fully supportive of everything the Demands working group suggests. I think that concrete demands are problematic (this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be discussed, however). The legacy of dogmatic, sectarian Marxism is in some sense just as pernicious as the persistence of weirdly authoritarian anarchoid tendencies. Still, the Demands working group has been treated incredibly unfairly.
The Drummers’ Working Group (“Pulse”)
Shifting to the other major site of contention, we begin with a relatively diplomatic and charitable article put forth on www.occupywallst.org about the drum circles which have been the source of so much trouble:
The occupation of Liberty Square is a symbol of the growing international movement fighting against neoliberal economic practices, the crimes of Wall Street and the resulting income inequality, unemployment, and oppression of people at the front lines of the economic crisis. More than a week ago we successfully rallied to defend our occupation from eviction. Knowing that the neighborhood we built was important to our movement, occupiers reorganized the space and prepared for eviction defense, community board and local elects pressured Brookfield Properties, and local organizations and unions mobilized their members in defense of Liberty Square. Brookfield and Bloomberg backed down in the face of this joint effort. #ows has international support, and is part of a global movement for economic and social justice that is only just starting to take form. It is within this context that we must drill down, look inward and converse with each other about our actions in this space.
For weeks, occupiers, working groups, individuals from the community board, and neighbors have approached the drummers on the west side of Liberty Square in an effort to involve them in conversations revolving around their constant presence. The drummers have been asked to stop drumming during quiet hours, to not drum during GA, and to allow other music to enter the square. The drummers, who feel that they are bringing rhythm to the revolution and have a voice that must be heard have felt disrespected and disparaged. The situation has been heated. A division grew within the square as well as with our neighbors. On Oct 13th, the General Assembly of Liberty Square passed a resolution to limit drumming times to 2 hours a day, between the hours of 11 and 5 as part of a good neighbor policy. Many drummers rejected this. A group of mediators began to work with the drummers and reached an agreement that they would instead drum for 4 hours per day, from 12pm – 2pm and 4pm – 6pm. The OWS Community Relations team, drummers, mediators, and several local residents from the community board spent weeks listening, building trust, and figuring out ways for drummers to work in solidarity with the occupation. As a result, drumming dropped from consistent 10 + hours a day, but is occurring more than the 2 hours consensed to by the General Assembly, and more then the 4 hours consensed to by the drummers.
In the spirit of consensus and community, mediation is still in process. The working group Pulse has been formed by the drummers and is working to bring forward proposals to the General Assembly of Liberty Square. This issue has been talked about in the park, at the General Assembly, on forums, and emails for weeks. This is an example of how we as a community share space and how we mobilize together to build consensus between all members of a conversation. Drumming has a loud voice in Liberty Square. Pulse is an important piece of our movement — they are integral to marches, morale, and the general mood of energy we have created. But many within Liberty Square feel as though their voice is being drowned out by the drumming, that it has become difficult to have the conversations that they think are important. We have created a small, vibrant and diverse community within the Square — it is natural that some issues would and will arise, but we hope to work together and continue to effect positive change in this place and in this world.
If you read the comments in the thread attached to this article, you will quickly see that the drummers, who apparently cannot be reasoned with, are almost universally reviled by the other residents and participants of Liberty Plaza involved in the protests. But a funnier take on this was communicated in on the NYC GA site, where there was a presentation on how to deal with such toxic elements of society. Here are the suggestions and points that were raised regarding the drummers. One of the suggestions proposed (#5) made me almost fall out of my chair laughing, just imagining the insanity of its actual performance:
1. We, the 99%, object to 1% controlling the financial system. Should will let a tiny minority of drummers dictate noise levels that affect everyone’s ability to speak and our continued ability to stay in the park?
2. What if we wanted to read poetry or play acoustic guitar in the space that the drummers occupy?
3. The drummers have been offered space in other parks that do not adjoin residential neighborhoods where people are trying to sleep.
4. One of the ways the US “tortured” prisoners in Guantanamo was by playing music so loud the prisoners were unable to sleep. So, what is the volume at which drumming ceases to be non-violent and cause sleep deprivation?
5. The drummers are reinforced by people watching them and dancing. Should we organize flash mobs to show our disapproval of the drummers with the non-verbal signs that are practiced in General Assembly?
6. With one or two exceptions it is impossible to speak to any of the drummers.
7. Rational discourse with the drummers has failed, there is no point in attempting to talk to them, as opposed to using body language in a non-violent and non-aggressive manner, while still showing our disapproval.
The following comment, however, by Ray Beckerman, sums up the idiocy and absurdity of the nonstop drum circles (but also the insane paranoia in some sections of the park):
The first time I saw the drummers, I immediately pegged some of them for government agents [!!]. None of them showed any signs of knowing anything about music or about drumming. They were drowning out musician Michael Franti who’d come to Zuccotti Park to sing and show support for #ows. When the drummers stopped for a few seconds…not a SINGLE person applauded. Nevertheless they went right back to their pounding.
The second time, when I joined the march on Oct 5th, I left after 2 1/2 hours — before reaching Zuccotti Park — because I couldn’t take any more of the noise. The drumming prevented people from talking, listening, or singing the protest songs which should have been part of the march.
The incessant, loud, rude, non-musical drumming does nothing for our movement. All it does is
-stifle conversation and learning
-stifle protest music which is essential to all good political movements
-give government an excuse for shutting things down.
In the words of Bob Dylan, “to live outside the law, you must be honest”. If you are going to be having an alternative society in Zuccotti Park, and other occupied sites, you are going to have to police yourselves, and “poisonous” is a good word for these zombies. And I will wager that many of them are FBI and/or NYPD undercovers… no one else could have that little rhythm. The other drummers are either buffoons, or anti-social types.
Let us all hope that this is not what democracy looks like. Anyway, this is the decision reached two days ago at the GA. Let’s see if they can actually enforce it this time:
OWS is over after Tuesday:
Friends, mediation with the drummers has been called off. It has gone on for more than 2 weeks and it has reached a dead end. The drummers formed a working group called Pulse and agreed to 2 hrs/day at times during the mediation, and more recently that changed to 4 hrs/day. It’s my feeling that we may have a fighting chance with the community board if we could indeed limit drumming and loud instrumentation to 12-2pm and 4-6pm, however that isn’t what’s happening.
Last night the drumming was near continuous until 10:30pm at night. Today it began again at 11am. The drummers are fighting amongst themselves, there is no cohesive group. There is one assemblage called Pulse that organized most of the drummers into a group and went to GA for formal recognition and with a proposal.
Unfortunately there is one individual who is NOT a drummer but who claims to speak for the drummers who has been a deeply disruptive force, attacking the drumming rep during the GA and derailing his proposal, disrupting the community board meeting, as well as the OWS community relations meeting. She has also created strife and divisions within the POC caucus, calling many members who are not ‘on her side’ “Uncle Tom”, “the 1%”, “Barbie” “not Palestinian enough” “Wall Street politicians” “not black enough” “sell-outs”, etc. People have been documenting her disruptions, and her campaign of misinformation, and instigations. She also has a documented history online of defamatory, divisive and disruptive behavior within the LGBT (esp. transgender) communities. Her disruptions have made it hard to have constructive conversations and productive resolutions to conflicts in a variety of forums in the past several days.
At this point we have lost the support of allies in the Community Board, and the State Senator and city electeds who have been fighting the city to stave off our eviction, get us toilets, etc. On Tuesday is a Community Board vote, which will be packed with media cameras and community members with real grievances. We have sadly demonstrated to them that we are unable to collectively 1) keep our space and surrounding areas clean and sanitary, 2) keep the park safe, 3) deal with internal conflict and enforce the Good Neighbor Policy that was passed by the General Assembly.
Whether or not you personally feel that the support of the community board and local residents and their reps is needed to maintain our occupation, many of us believe that maintaining Liberty Square (aka Zuccotti Park) as a flagship and nerve center for our movement right now is in fact critical to our efforts that are much bigger picture, longer term, more revolutionary than the internal conflicts that are consuming too much energy right now.
We need to take this seriously, and be clear that if we can’t deal with conflict and self-organizing then we are facing eviction very soon (this week), and the allies that helped turn out mass numbers at the last one will not be around this time, nor will the press be supportive. Additionally, Bloomberg released a statement a few days ago that said that he / the City plans to crack down on any violations as of this week. Once we lose community and ally support at Tuesday’s vote, the door is wide open for an eviction.
What to do? We need an all hands-on-deck clean-up and everyone sharing responsibility for the Good Neighbor Policy, including enforcement of 12-2pm and 4-6pm drumming hours. (While recognizing that the community board has been firm that they can only support 2 hrs/day of drumming). We should also start serious conversations internally about what this movement might I look like without Zuccotti Park / Liberty Square. How can we set ourselves up for continued organizing and momentum without an active occupation? I don’t write this to be dramatic, it’s a serious question. If so much of our organizing time currently (for many of us, 20 hrs a day) is going to putting out fires and maintaining the space, what does it look like if we lose the space?
All of this has resulted from the General Assembly’s total organizational ineptitude and failure to control a tiny (and obnoxious) circle of drummers. The reason this is such a fiasco is because the whole hippie “just do your own thing” atmosphere of OWS is supposed to encourage self-expression, and no one wants to appear “fascist” by trying to shut down the drummers, even though everyone hates them. Perhaps it is time to reassess how things are handled at OWS.