The Ritual of General Assembly and the Bureaucracies of Anarchy

If you have spent anytime with Occupiers, you have seen people (sometimes by the thousands) hold their hands above their heads and wiggle their fingers. Jazz hands? Cult sign? Known as “twinkling” when it expresses a positive sentiment, the hand signals are perhaps the most visibly and phenomenologically ritualistic part of Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly process, a protracted exercise in mass participatory decision making.

At a minimum, the phrase “General Assembly” has two meanings in the Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Together movement (see General Assembly Guide). On the one hand, it is used to
refer to the collective Occupy participants in and beyond Liberty Park, (as in, we are all part of the General Assembly). On the other hand, and more specifically, it refers to the nightly, open meetings held in the park and across the country at 7pm. That these rituals of contemporary anarchist activism have made their way quite seriously into the pages of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine tells us something about the destabilizations of our present moment.

A “general assembly” means something specific and special to an anarchist. In a way, it’s the central concept of contemporary anarchist activism, which is premised on the idea that revolutionary movements relying on coercion of any kind only result in repressive societies. A “GA” is a carefully facilitated group discussion through which decisions are made — not by a few leaders, or even by majority rule, but by consensus. Unresolved questions are referred to working groups within the assembly, but eventually everyone has to agree, even in assemblies that swell into the thousands. It can be an arduous process. One of the things Occupy Wall Street has done is introduce the GA to a
wider audience, along with the distinctive sign language participants use to raise questions or express support, disapproval, or outright opposition.

Since September 17th, 2011, General Assembly (GA) in the second sense has been held nightly in Liberty Park. After the GA on Sunday evening, October 30th, however, this will no longer be the case. What was this nightly ritual? What is taking its place? In offering partial answers to these questions, this two-part Dispatch attempts a brief ethnographic meditation on the bureaucracies of anarchy and the spaces of politics.

Every night, the GA meeting at Liberty Park starts with members of the facilitation working group (WG) introducing themselves over the people’s mic to those assembled. All are welcome at these meetings, and downtown’s after-work crowd often fills in the twilight square, with others lingering around the edges. Meeting facilitators change every evening, and anyone can facilitate a GA after attending a facilitation training, held every afternoon at 5pm. In general GAs are co-facilitated, and meetings begin with the two facilitators introducing themselves, followed by introductions from those filling the other facilitation-team roles: stack-taker, stack-greeter, time-keeper, and minute-keeper. There is clearly an increasing effort to keep this nightly team diversified by gender, ethnicity, nationality, and sexuality, though less-so by age. “Stack” refers to the list of people who would like to speak in any of the GA’s four phases: agenda items/proposals, working group report-backs, announcements, and soap box. As each phase of the meeting begins, the stack-taker compiles the names of those who wish to speak. GAs follow “progressive stack” and “step-up, step-back” guidelines, described at the beginning of every meeting as twin processes in which those whose voices are traditionally marginalized will be prioritized, and those who speak often are asked to step back so that others can step up. Lovely, in theory; unsurprisingly complicated in practice.

After the facilitation team introduces themselves and defines stack, the ritual of GA proceeds to descriptions and demonstrations of the hand signals. One of the facilitators narrates and demonstrates, and she is echoed on the people’s mic: “Hands up, fingers waving means ‘I feel good! I like this!’” Hands in the GA shoot up, twinkling, and the group responds “Hands up, fingers waving means ‘I feel good! I like this!’The facilitator continues, “Hands flat, fingers waving means ‘I’m on the fence. I’m not so sure.’” (The echo of voice and gesture) “Hands down, fingers waving means ‘I don’t feel so good. I don’t like this.’” (Echo, gesture.) The narrator continues to explain and demonstrate the hand signals for Point of Process, Point of Information, Clarifying Question or Comment, Wrap It Up (to be used with compassion, it is always specified,) and finally, a Block: arms crossed in an x in front of your chest. “A block is very serious” the facilitator always explains. (A block is very serious, we all repeat.) “A block means you have ethical or safety issues with the proposal on the table, and you are willing to leave the movement if it passes. If you present a block, you will be asked to explain your block in front of the whole GA.”

Once the ritual of explanation and demonstration of the hand signals is over, GA proceeds to agenda items and proposals, always the first and generally most important issues covered at nightly meetings. Proposals are ideas that require consensus in order to proceed–various forms of direct action, spending OWS money in excess of $100, endorsing a particular march or event as “OWS,” or a new form of bureaucratic procedure. Proposals can only be brought by or through already-existing working groups (WGs) though anyone can join any WG at any time, and suggest a proposal. Proposal content spans the sublime to the ridiculous, but the rituals and rigor of the consensus process makes them all seem hyper-bureaucratic and arduous. A few examples:

  • As of mid-October, OWS was receiving 500 packages per day of donated goods, all of which were delivered to a P.O. box at a family-owned UPS franchise store near Wall Street, for which OWS was paying $40/month. The Shipping, Inventory, and Storage Working Group (which operates out of a space donated by the local Teacher’s Union) proposed that, after negotiating with the business owners, the movement begin to pay $500/month for an ironically named “corporate account,” given that the mass volume of goods received far exceeds the business’ stated maximum volume for P.O. box accounts. After a series of clarifying questions and friendly amendments from the GA about the precise relationship between this franchise and UPS corporate, and the relative merits of changing our account to a USPS account, their proposal reached consensus.
  • The Stop Stop & Frisk Working Group proposed that OWS officially endorse their action in Harlem, (at which Cornel West and Communist Party spokesperson Carl Dix were both subsequently arrested, see video below). The GA agreed overwhelmingly and consensus was reached without clarifying questions or friendly amendments.
  • The Legal Working Group introduced a recent proposal by explaining that, “so far, we have been focusing our energies on getting you out of jail and applying for permits.” Going forward, they proposed that no individual person or WG apply for permits, injunctions, or file a lawsuit through the city in the name of Occupy Wall Street without first consulting with Legal. “If you’re taking legal action that will effect this occupation as a whole, or if you’re taking legal action in the name of this occupation … we propose that you consult us before you do so.” This was a controversial proposal, and though it eventually reached consensus, many present were worried that they were being asked to abdicate their individual legal rights and volitions to a team of “experts.” Only when the Legal WG clarified that all were still welcome to file lawsuits and permits as individuals did the proposal pass.

Each of these and many other proposals I’ve seen – from Media asking for $25,000 to upgrade their IT equipment to the conciliatory proposal finally brought by the Pulse Working Group (the drummers) in conjunction with Community Relations and Direct Action — were in their own ways contentious and arduous. Moreover, those just passing through the movement’s symbolic center on their way home to dinner, often hoping for clarity or even a brief shot of economic justice talk, were often sorely disappointed that GA is overwhelmingly taken up by questions of bureaucracy:  how much do we pay UPS? how long can the drummers drum? do I have to consult legal before filing for a permit?

This brings us toward questions about the spaces of politics, which I take up in part two of this dispatch. What is the relationship between the making and maintenance of Liberty Park in Lower Manhattan (its mail, its legal procedures, its noise statutes) with the making and maintenance of the broader ideas and actions of a growing movement that exists as much in the media and social networking as it does in disobedient reclamations of the commons? For a month and a half, it has been an almost-sacred tenet of OWS that the medium is the message, that the reclamation of privatized public space not only for engaged citizenship, but also for free food, shelter, clothing, health care, libraries, education, wifi, and more, is OWS politics. Logistics, the claim goes, are politics. And yet even to those most dedicated to that position, it rarely feels like enough. Bureaucracy rarely feels transcendent.

In the latest developments of the bureaucracies of anarchy in OWS, these contentions over the spaces of politics have been brought to the fore in the single most controversial GA proposal in the movement’s young li
fe: to change the very process of consensus itself, and to move from a nightly General Assembly to a Spokes Council Model. What is at stake? If logistics are politics, as many in the movement have strongly claimed, then this move looks to signal Bakunin‘s warning about the hierarchy of the bureaucrats. If, on the other hand, as the movement has grown, GA has become so hyper-bureaucratic that it has effectively stalled effective organization, the Spokes Council model claims to remedy that by giving those who determine where and how we eat or receive mail a separate decision-making structure through which to work, enabling the rest to use GA to consider “larger” ideas, for instance, the constitutional amendment abolishing corporate personhood and overthrowing Citizen’s United. Regardless, on Friday October 28th a 9/10ths vote (note: not consensus) passed the Spokes Council Model, and there will no longer be nightly GAs at 7pm in Liberty Park.

Top photo of special session of OWS General Assembly held in Washington Square Park by Matt McDermott.

Hannah Chadeayne Appel