The Occupy Movement

From civicintelligence

Case Study of The Occupy Movement by Michael O’Neill

When I first heard the term civic intelligence a year ago, it struck me as a strong synthesis of the wide ranging fields I was interested in concerning social justice and mobilizing people to address these issues. The real world realization of its ideas through actions taking place in Spain, Greece, and all over the Middle East, gave me the sense that it was an idea on the cusp of emergence. When the Occupation of Wall Street began and quickly spread across the country, I was fascinated at how the organization and orientation of this movement exemplified the idea of people coming together to apply their collective efforts towards their collective problems.

As I've been studying civic intelligence for the past year, thinking about how to engage people in cultivating it, I was intensely curious as to what was igniting this nationwide involvement. The Occupy slogan, "We are the 99%," was certainly an example of the inclusive intent of the movement. And, for all the propaganda the mainstream news media put out about not understanding what the Occupation wanted, a short time on the internet, or even a little bit of thinking about why they might be occupying Wall St. and not the capitol or some place else, revealed the orientation of the movement was to address the gross economic inequalities that separate the richest 1% of the population from the other 99%.

The economic collapse in 2008 was the moment when the proverbial carpet was pulled out from under the economy revealing a system that enriched the few while extracting everything of value from the many. The subsequent attempts to put the carpet back and ignore the problem, a.k.a. the bailout of banks at the expense of taxpayers, allowing even bigger bonuses to be given to the powerful elite, made it only a question of time before the people demanded that something be done about the missing floor beneath the rug. Occupy Everywhere, growing out of the demonstration of people’s collective power in Egypt and across the Arab world, is the first steps in replacing that foundation.

Closely tied in with the orientation of the Occupy movement around the economic injustices and their infection into the political system of our country, is a horizontal, leaderless organization. The occupiers are not just denouncing the control of financial and political systems by the leadership of a select few. They are rejecting it outright by finding ways to work together without leaders. This collective responsibility for organization is a striking example of civic intelligence in action.

The general assembly model that all of the Occupations across the country are using is a consensus (or modified consensus) based decision making and organizing process. Anyone who wishes to participate is a member of the general assembly. During these meetings information about upcoming actions, other ways to be involved, and reports from the many working groups is shared. Also at the general assemblies proposals can be submitted for consideration.

Consensus decision making is much different than for and against voting. In a consensus model the goal is not to make winners and losers, but to hear the legitimate concerns of everyone and modify the proposal in a way that will address everyones needs. In the general assemblies a series of hand signals was developed for the assembly to show approval or disapproval with a proposal. When the floor is opened for discussion anyone can speak about the proposal and share their concerns or hopes for it.

While this process does not always work as smoothly as it could, the practice of people engaging each other in this type of decision making is highly civicly intelligent. All of the concerns before the general assembly are directly related to the community the occupiers have made together. The act of listening to each other as a method for working through problems has strong potential to unify each community rather than divide along the lines of opinions on particular issues.

The main source of proposals at the general assemblies comes from the multitude of working groups. These working groups range from media, outreach, and internet, to safety, medical, and strategy, with anything and everything in between. The working groups meet the needs of the occupation in all its capacities, and are filled with the people who feel they can contribute in those areas.

This self directed engagement in collaborative work for the Occupy community is another strong example of how the movement exhibits civic intelligence. As opposed to the corporate structure where people are often promoted out of positions they work well in, towards increasing levels of incompetence, the working groups bring people together using the skills they either want to develop or are competent in.

This has strong ties to the ideas of asset based community development, where the focus is on the collective abilities of a group of people rather than the deficits or problems they face. Occupiers are able to utilize their gifts and skills, and in doing so gain the inspiration and motivation to continue their participation. Challenges to the community like powering all the cell phones and livestreaming equipment, or feeding everyone who comes through the camp, or dealing with city orders to vacate, are opportunities for individuals to use their assets towards the good of the community. This collective focus strengthens their ability to deal with challenging problems.

To visit an Occupy camp is to see a community that is engaged in modeling a different social system than the isolating, top down, corporatocracy, America is plagued with today. People of all different backgrounds are discussing ideas with each other. There is a library, an information tent, a children's area, and a medical tent, all within 100 feet of each other. The kitchen feeds the community. All of these things without any exchange of money -- people are providing for each other.

One of the challenges that many Occupy sites have faced is the homeless population that this level of service for one another provides. The occupation is a safe and supportive place for these members of society that many cities have tried to forget. But, they bring with them the difficulties of addiction, mental maladies, and often are not able to participate in the Occupation at the same capacity as others.

The orientation of Occupy towards inclusiveness has made it difficult for any general assembly to come to consensus on what to do about this group that sometimes creates a safety concern for the rest of the Occupiers. Cities have used these safety and health concerns as excuses to evict many Occupations from public spaces. The sad truth is that had the cities taking this course of action spent a fraction of the money wasted on trampling peoples' first amendment rights with riot police on providing support for the homeless population, one of the many issues of our society the Occupy movement has brought to light could have been addressed in a constructive way.

In many ways the Occupation creates a striking juxtaposition of the civic intelligence they are harnessing to solve logistical problems and change the discourse of American politics, and the civic ignorance that plagues governance from the local to the national level. The message of Occupy, that our laws are written by and for the interest of a very few without regard to the needs of the many, is a glaring example of the difficulty society faces in solving its collective problems. The almost universal misrepresentation of the Occupy movement by the main stream media highlights the challenges of fostering widespread engagement in any system that is not business as usual.

The intelligence of Occupy can be seen in its identification of several key factors of the economic inequality and financial problems as well as its ties to political influence by the monied few. The Citizens United ruling, the dismantling of the Glass-Steagall Act, and the corrupting influence of the ability to accrue personal gain through public office, are all clearly articulated to those paying attention to what Occupy is actually saying. The discussions taking place in the Occupy camps and across the internet are spreading the awareness of causes for global inequality and thinking together of a way forward.

There is also a great awareness of the movement represented by the lack of demands. Intelligence has a great deal to do with strategic capacity in problem solving. With so much willful ignorance in the mainstream media, building the strategic capacity of the movement relies on bringing the masses into the discussion. A list of demands would not have created the inclusive platform that the message of outrage at the disenfranchisement of the 99% has.

Focusing on peaceful demonstration is another example of the intelligence of the Occupy movement. Most people don't want rioting or the threat of controlling violence by the police. By committing to non-violence the Occupiers cast their net wide to bring as many people as possible into the movement.

In Portland, when the Mayor ordered the eviction of the Occupy camp from the public, thousands of people came to support the movement. With such a large crowd and a positive atmosphere the police had no provocation to use force. A police lieutenant described the scene as nothing like anything he had ever seen in his life, and commented on how many times through the Occupation he had heard the protesters thanking the police for their service.

Sadly, after a night of peace, the next day after the crowd had gone home, the police did resort to violence against the Occupiers trying to organize their next moves in another public square. The millions of dollars collectively spent by cities across the Nation shows the wasteful reticence of government to allow new ideas and ways for citizens to interact to grow and develop. Mayors who have claimed to support the Occupation demand that the movement grow and develop somewhere out of sight.

Publicly engaging one another to envision a more democratic society is the main product and project of the Occupy movement. To take this process out of public spaces is a refusal of government to acknowledge its legitimacy and necessity. This is not to say the Occupation won't adapt as they are forced from their camps. But, it will create new challenges for the citizens who have come together to work through in their effort to raise the civic intelligence of America.

It is the orientation, organization, engagement, and intelligence of the Occupy movement that will enable them to meet these shifting challenges. The interconnectedness of these elements make Occupy seem more like an emergent example of tendency towards civic intelligence than any planned organization could achieve. Like all emergent phenomena there is a murky background of circumstances that contribute to it.

The massive proliferation of digital technology and the internet, coupled with the economic circumstances sweeping the globe seem to be two of the major contributing factors. No one really understood the potential of twitter until it played a part in the massive arab citizen uprising during the spring of 2011. The Occupy movement in the U.S. mobilized nationwide solidarity Occupations within weeks of the initial Wall Street Occupation. Now, youtube and livestreams from each of the Occupations are portraying what is actually going on in the encampments for anyone who can do an internet search to see.

There are many questions that only time will unveil about this emergence of local and national civic intelligence. As the Occupiers are forced out of public spaces will they be able to maintain the attention of the public at large on their efforts? Will their tactics take more aggressive approaches like the blockade of the Oakland port, and will that have a negative impact on the willingness of people to participate? Will the local Occupations develop greater community involvement and diffuse the civic intelligence they have been cultivating more widely.

I have been excited and heartened that so many elements of civic intelligence have empowered people across America and the world to come together in constructive ways. There is some talk of Occupy Longview, where I live. If the momentum of the big city Occupations could spread through every city big and small across the Nation (or even half of them) the platform for capitalizing on the civic intelligence enhancing function of general assemblies could lead to massive social progress towards facing our collective problems in a thoughtful way which bypasses so many of the hurdles of big business interest and governmental red tape.