What is Occupy Wall Street? The history of leaderless movements



Occupy Wall Street has arrived. Facebook is all-aflutter, and Twitter is all-atweeter, as news of “occupations” and clashes with the powers-that-be spread like wildfire around the country.

Now entering its fourth week, the Wall Street occupation has become a national phenomenon. The president is interested, celebrities are popping by, and pizza shops are adding the OccuPie to their menus. There is even an Occupy video game in development. The movement has spawned hundreds of Occupy locales in a national Occupy Together network. And now there is talk of going global: Occupy the World.

Inquiring minds want to know: Who arethese people? What exactly are they demanding? Who is leading this thing?

On these issues, the movement has been clear: This is a leaderless movement without an official set of demands. There are no projected outcomes, no bottom lines and no talking heads. In the Occupy movement, We are all leaders.

This is not just a charming mess. We are all leaders represents a real praxis, and it has a real history.

In the 1960s and 70s, feminists convened consciousness-raising meetings aimed at politicizing the various forms of women’s oppression that were occurring in private. Women in the ranks were tired of being excluded from the inner circles of leadership where the issues and demands were being decided. And, they were sick of the generalized hypocrisy regarding gender roles. For this reason, feminist consciousness-raising eschewed formal leadership because each woman’s experience and opinion had to be valued equally. The personal was the political.

Consciousness-raising was also the heart and soul of gay rights activism. The process of sharing coming-out stories in a free environment helped others liberate themselves from the closet of ill repute. Again, these stories were told in a non-coercive, leaderless environment that empowered gay men and women to fight for their rights and leave behind a debased life of sexual secrecy.

Both of these movements had enormous impacts on American life. Gay rights liberated our sexuality, and feminism fundamentally changed the way we relate to each other as men and women. All this, without a centralized leadership.

Fast-forward to the late 1990s when protest networks emerged around the world in opposition to the World Bank, WTO and G-8. This time uneven development, debt and neoliberalism took center stage, alongside environmental concerns and world poverty. The protesters were “Anti”  globalization as well as “Alter”: Free flows of information as opposed to patenting, free movement of people as opposed to policed immigration, and free trade as opposed to NAFTA.

Alter-globalization networks created a veritable movement of movements, which was not led or controlled by any one of them. In the United States, anarchist-inspired spokescouncils convened hundreds of these groups to organize protest actions, conferences and community work. At the meetings, each group would position a single member upfront, in the inner circle, while the rest sat behind, like a human wheel with spokes. There were no leaders with long-standing assignments because every participant was, in essence, a leader. In lieu of a party line, this amalgamation of movements operated according to sets of core, procedural principles—called Principles of Unity—that reflected their anti-authoritarian, anti-discriminatory orientation.

* Pubblicato su “The Washington Post”, 10 ottobre 2011




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