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Occupy Boston: Is This What Democracy Sounds Like?

Occupy Boston protesters rally in front of a building in Boston's financial district Wednesday. (AP)

BOSTON — President Obama and Gov. Deval Patrick have given their blessing to the “Occupy” movement growing around the country, including here in Boston.

It’s been a week since economic protesters took over Dewey Square in front of Boston’s Federal Reserve building. From the outside, these protesters look like traditional activists, holding signs, chanting complaints. But hearing them is something else. The leaderless organization communicates in the same way they want society to operate.

One thing about the protesters is that they hold a lot of meetings.

“The people’s mic” is a way to amplify a speaker’s voice. But it also becomes a ritual to make everyone feel united. Some say it makes them feel empowered.

“Welcome! Really quick, here’s how we do G.A.,” shouts Marisa Egerstrom. The Harvard Ph.D. student is shouting into a bullhorn.

G.A. stands for General Assembly, where everyone comes to together to talk about logistics or big actions. Today, Egerstrom is facilitating.

“Point of process,” shouts a skinny man with a long beard. “I personally am uncomfortable with the use of a bullhorn. I believe that the people’s mic is an incredibly effective mode of communication.”

But he speaks haltingly, and after each phrase, the crowd of 20 or so people, repeats what he says. So it sounds like this:

Speaker: “I personally am uncomfortable.”

Crowd: “I personally am uncomfortable.”

Speaker: “With the use of a bullhorn.”

Crowd: “With the use of a bullhorn.”

Speaker: “I believe that the people’s mic.”

Crowd: “I believe that the people’s mic.’”

Speaker: “Is an incredibly effective mode of communication.”

Crowd: “Is an incredibly effective mode of communication.”

“The people’s mic” is a way to amplify a speaker’s voice. But it also becomes a ritual to make everyone feel united. Some say it makes them feel empowered.

“Could we have a temperature check on that?,” asks the man with the long beard.

“Temperature check” is how the group gauges opinion on an idea or proposal.

If they like it, they wiggle their fingers in the air. If they don’t, their fingers wiggle downward. Fingers go in front if they’re just so-so.

Three-quarters of the group has to agree on something before a proposal passes, and it can take strenuous debate to get there. That’s especially true when it comes to actions such as demonstrating in front of the State House.

“We are the 99 percent! And so are you! We are the 99 percent, and so are you!,” chanted the crowd Monday as they approached the State House. After the march, the group checked in on the success of the march. And even then, they used this strangely formal method for communicating.

Nadeem Mazen: “I also think.”

Crowd: “I also think.”

Mazen: “As part of my personal opinion.”

Crowd: “As part of my personal opinion.”

Mazen: “That the police didn’t just not brutalize us.”

Crowd: “That the police didn’t just not brutalize us.”

Mazen: “They also spent a fortune.”

Crowd:”They also spent a fortune.”

Mazen: “In terms of time and money.”

Crowd: “In terms of time and money.”

Mazen: “Our money.”

Crowd: “Our money.”

Mazen: “Guiding traffic.”

Crowd: “Guiding traffic.”

Mazen: “That was OK with me.”

Crowd: “That was OK with me.”

Most people disagree.

Peter: “I believe that the job of the police.”

Crowd: “I believe that the job of the police.”

Peter: “Is to protect the ruling class.”

Crowd: “Is to protect the ruling class.”

Peter: “A.K.A. the one percent.”

Crowd: “A.K.A. the one percent.”

Peter: “From people like us.”

Crowd: “From people like us.”

By the end, everyone agrees the police as individuals can be good people.

Proponents of this way of communicating say it gives everyone a voice and keeps the movement cohesive.

Jeff Stein, 22, says it’s important to show people “another way of making decisions.”

“Demonstrating that shows that we can build another world just in this very small sense,” Stein says.

The consensus process and many of the rituals trace their roots to anti-Vietnam war activists. Specifically Quaker activists, who were dissatisfied with the mainstream Quaker church’s response to that war. The group then became the Movement for a New Society, which played a big role in protests against the war nuclear industry.

Stein recognizes this isn’t the most efficient way to do things. But he thinks the benefits of inclusiveness far outweigh any need for efficiency.

But it’s this model that eventually undid the Movement for a New Society. That group eventually disbanded, because getting 3/4 consensus was just too limiting. Members also eventually disagreed about the importance of having a leader.

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  • Paul, Boston MA

    I’m all for these guys – their hearts seem to be in the right places - and I’ve been hanging out for a couple hours most days at Dewey Sq., talking to folks and observing. They’re giving voice to legitimate grievances that most of us share. (A ton of ‘em.)

    They’re starting to be recognized by and garner the support of labor organizations, intellectuals and politicians. And the right wingers are slamming them hard on such venues as FOX News. That’s good to! It highlights the hypocracy of some of the Tea Party types. Their criticisms are more name-calling than analysis of issues. (That’s the best most of those folks can do anyway.)

    But I have to say, having attended a few of those General Assemblies, the ‘People’s Mic’ thing is a little creepy. I’m older than most of the folks there and maybe they don’t have the perspective that I do, but that kind of thing strikes me as cultish. The first time I experienced ’People’s Mic’ the following things involuntarily popped into my mind: 1984 – Jim Jones – brainwashing – religious services.

    It wasn’t so bad that I felt like I needed to go take a shower, but it certainly didn’t feel empowering either. It felt sinister.

    Also, as far as this movement goes, I don’t think consensus is required or even helpful. Keep championing ALL the grievances and keep our anger and frustration in the faces of politicians. 

    • jess

      “And the right wingers are slamming them hard on such venues as FOX
      News. That’s good to! It highlights the hypocracy of some of the Tea
      Party types. Their criticisms are more name-calling than analysis of
      issues.”

      Yea, there has never been any name calling from the left wingers towards the Tea Party demonstrations!  Give everyone a break with your selective memory.
      And it is spelled hypocrisy. You might want to look it up because your picture might be next to it to give added meaning!

      • Paul, Boston MA

        Whoops! When you don’t spell check, your whole argument is out the window, I guess.

        When I went to the Palin/TeaParty rally a few years ago, I stopped by the kiosks that were selling posters of Obama with the Hitler moustache, Obama photoshopped as a Bushman, wearing a loin cloth with a bone through his nose, and even more disgusting things than that. So when people called them racists, it was obviously true. It’s still true today. Funny, you don’t see hate messages at the Occupy Boston camp.

        (Didn’t spell check this one either. Did I pass your 6th grade english course?)  

        • nick

          The hitler posters etc are not related to the tea party.  They are created by the Lyndon LaRouche campaign.  Please do not confuse the two.  

        • John Cogswell

          Looks like you didn’t fact-check it either.

    • Kate M

      I feel exactly the same way, and I’m not that old :)

      The nice thing about having a camp that’s full of people used to the “people’s mic” is that you don’t need to fight to get yourself heard in a crowd. Yell “mic check” and everyone repeats the announcement for you, whether it’s reminding people not to block sidewalks or helping someone find their keys.

      • Paul, Boston MA

        Regarding issues, even ‘RadioBoston’ on NPR continues to talk about the lack of consensus. I feel like the ‘Occupy’ movements have stumbled into a very effective way to keep this message going forward.

        If you annoint a leader, opponents will slander and marginalize that person and make that person the focus – instead of the issues.

        If you pick only one issue, the opponents can pick it apart, obfuscate it, deny it and dismiss it. There are tons of issues here, structural and cultural changes that need to be addressed. 

        This feels right. This is true dissent, and that’s the most patriotic thing we can do.

        And now, I’ll borrow NeilBlanchard’s comment from above to make this point –

        Paul: I’m an individual!

        Crowd: I’m an individual!

        Paul: I have rights!

        Crowd: I have rights!

        Paul: We’ve been thrown under the bus by lobbyists and the corporate controlled government!

        Crowd: We’ve been thrown under the bus by lobbyists and the corporate controlled government!

        Paul: I’ll do whatever Paul tells me to do!

        Crowd: I’ll do whatever Paul tells me to…………………..Uh Oh.

         

  • Anonymous

    Brian: “You’re all individuals.”

    Crowd: “We’re all individuals.”

    Brian: “You’re all different!”

    Crowd: “We’re all different!”

    One person: “I’m not!”

    ;-)

    I think the Occupy USA movement is great!

    Neil

  • Anonymous

    This is wonderful. We are starting Occupy Huntington in WV this evening. I heard Neil Conan on Talk of the Nation (somewhat) dismissive that this is just a college-aged moment, not a movement. I disagree.

    A lot of social change in the early 20th century came about because people got tired of waiting and decided to take definitive action. http://michaelmaczesty.blogspot.com/2011/10/house-always-wins.html

  • Andrew Cornell

    If anyone is interested in learning more about Movement for a New Society, and the trade-offs of the consensus process, check out the short book I wrote on the subject: 

    Oppose and Propose! Lessons from Movement for a New Society (AK Press, 2011)http://www.amazon.com/Oppose-Propose-Movement-Anarchist-Interventions/dp/1849350663/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1318007362&sr=8-1

  • Webb Nichols

    One can speculate with some certainty that consciously or unconsciously that the Media feels the influence of their sponsors (corporations) and out of caution (Fear) does not want to fully represent what may be happening on the streets.

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