Daniel W. Drezner

The hard constraint on taking Occupy Wall Street seriously

You humble blogger has been skeptical but not dismissive of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.  My general assessment was that it did reflect ongoing frustrations about trendlines in the American and global economy, but that in all likelihood the decisions of a few banking bureaucrats would have more of an effect than these protests.  As ...

You humble blogger has been skeptical but not dismissive of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.  My general assessment was that it did reflect ongoing frustrations about trendlines in the American and global economy, but that in all likelihood the decisions of a few banking bureaucrats would have more of an effect than these protests. 

As I’ve noted before, the big problem with networked movements of this kind is what happens over time: 

What happens when the coalition of like-minded individuals stop being of like mind? These sorts of protests can be very powerful on single-issue questions where a single policy change is desired. Maintaining this level of activism to affect the ongoing quotidian grubbiness of politics, however, is a far more difficult undertaking. Even if people can be mobilized behind the concept of "Policy X is Stupid!" getting the same consensus on "Policy Y is the Answer!" is harder. Over time, these kind of mass movements have an excellent chance of withering away or fracturing from within. See, for example, the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt.

Another thing, and this is important: unless the people in these movements actually vote in elections, then their agenda will be thwarted in the long run. Even if these kinds of networked movements are new, the political imperative to get elected and re-elected is not. If they don’t vote, then officials have a pretty powerful incentive to curry favor with the people who do vote, don’t take to the streets and don’t like these young whippersnappers with their interwebs have different policy preferences.

I bring this up because n+1 relays some of the internal deliberations among the Occupy Wall Streeters.*  Let’s take a peek, shall we? 

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 12-2 PM and 4-6 PM, however that isn’t what’s happening.

Last night the drumming was near continuous until 10:30 PM at night. Today it began again at 11 AM. The drummers are fighting among 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, and 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 there 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.

This description sounded faintly familiar, and then I remembered — it was a replay of every dorm meeting I attended when I was a first-year in college. 

Don’t worry, OWS sympathizers — a few hours after this was posted, there was the following update: 

Crisis averted: tonight at the General Assembly, the working group of drummers, Pulse, in a spirit of conciliation and generosity, brought forward a proposal to limit their drumming from 12 to 2 and 4 to 6 PM only. The proposal had been worked out through weeks of mediation with the direct action working group. It was considered a first step toward showing the community board that the community in Zuccotti Park can regulate itself. The proposal was approved by consensus by the General Assembly, with applause and rejoicing on all sides.

Good on OWS for resolving some conflict, but this little window into their internal deliberations suggest the hard limits on their movement.  If the transaction costs of  regulating drumming are this massive, I’m extremely dubious about their ability to agree on concrete policy proposals and articulate them effectively to anyone outside their band of sympathizers — especially since I’m not sure that all of their views will resonate within the mainstream of American public opinion. 

Am I missing anything? 

*I confess that part of me is still wondering if this is satire. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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