I had been to the October 6 meeting in Monroe Park of the not-yet-existing Occupy Richmond movement. Some seventy or so people met and decided to meet back at the park today (October 15) to have a further assembly, and to stand in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. The assembly went pretty smoothly, at least in my view, though others might disagree. I know from history that democracy is a messy, tumultuous thing, and can be full of yelling and confusion and bad feelings. To a society that is accustomed to being calmly but badly managed by smug pricks with bachelor’s degrees, it may seem like a circus where the chimpanzees got loose. But that’s the price you pay for freedom.
I got to the park early, around quarter of four, so I looked for a snack. Psychologists at places like Stanford and Princeton have discovered “decision fatigue” – making decisions is hard physiological work, and the body needs fuel to reduce impulsiveness and maintain self-control. If I was going to be discussing the future of America with a bunch of college students with enough time on their hands to deliberate endlessly, I was going to need something in my stomach. Unfortunately, I never found anything as I strolled the blocks around Monroe Park. I could smell frying, but I couldn’t find where he was hiding.
When I got back to the park, people were milling about aimlessly. Is this an occupation, I wondered? I genuinely didn’t know at the time what an occupation exactly was. I leaned against a tree to take in the crowd. Unfortunately, we conform to the stereotypes. Dirty and faded t-shirts with political slogans, colored hair, facial piercings, tattoos. Not that I have a problem with any of that sort of thing, and it can often look great if done right, but we look like the already dubious mainstream expects us to look. It’s a sad fact of human nature that people just trust people who look like them. For example, with my collared shirt, pants, and combed hair, these people probably thought I was some damn undercover cop.
At least one person thought I looked nice enough to ask me to help her into the tree I was leaning against. She was small, so it wasn’t much trouble for to get high up there. I stretched to hand up her protest sign. I forget what hers said, but there were a lot of different signs reflecting all the different concerns that people had. Some group even had a big, attractive “no-nukes” banner that they held between them. They had to hold it all throughout the assembly. A middle-aged woman was holding a sign that just said, “I am NOT a hippie.” I thought she seemed awfully old to worry about what someone was calling her. The name-calling is going to get much worse if this movement turns into a Movement. The worst of the signs were the clichés and the slogans – “the revolution will not be televised,” etc. I’m not asking, like those jackasses on the news, that you fit your whole political argument on a poster, but at least use your own words.
Finally, the assembly began with calls of “mike check.” This is the “people’s mike”: everybody who can hear the current speaker repeats what the speaker says. This is in lieu of actual microphones, but I’m not too sure why. I’ve been studying social and political philosophy since 1997, and I can’t remember anything that would suggest I should be against microphones. It works remarkably well however. It results in a strange cadence on the part of the speaker as he or she shouts five words and then waits for the crowd to repeat them. As the afternoon wears on though and fatigue creeps in, I and many others would forget that we’re supposed to be repeating and not just listening.
The facilitators – really an executive committee or chairpersons – introduced people to the hand signals used by the Occupy movement to silently communicate with the assembly. I suppose this is to avoid drowning out speakers with applause or other noises of agreement and disagreement. When I read elsewhere that the Manhattan occupation wiggled their fingers to signal approval I thought for sure that was just a sort of hippie-baiting joke. When I saw it in action on October 6 in Richmond, I winced. “Dear Jesus, here we go,” I said. What the hell though; I teach logic for a living, and the language isn’t half as simple or natural as wiggling your fingers. You quickly get into it anyway, wiggling “spirit fingers” up for approval, down for disapproval, and straight ahead for undecided. Then there was the rather appealingly aggressive “crossed fists” for ‘block’, which means that you’ll actually leave the movement if a certain decision goes through. As you’ll see, this came back to bite us all on the ass.
Things went well for the first hour, with sensible discussion of the benefits and burdens for various locations to ‘occupy’. At the first meeting, people had asked what an “occupation” means. The facilitators gave no answer at the time. That’s probably why it came as a surprise to the assembly that we would be voting which park to spend our nights in for the next week. I was willing to pretty much go to any park or location, so I didn’t really have a dog in the fight. Speaking of, there were a lot of dogs there, just a huge number of small dogs. It’s hard to be revolutionary when you’re carrying around an adorable toy spaniel.
I don’t want to give the impression of not being committed to fundamental change in our social institutions, but I won’t be sleeping overnight in Kanawha Plaza. That’s a younger person’s game, or maybe for the retired. The point is, I have to be at work in the mornings and if I smell like Federal Reserve lawn and police pepper spray, I’m done for. Bless the folks that do occupy though.
Speaking of the authorities, the Richmond mayor’s office has said that Occupy Richmond would not be issuing a permit for the occupation, and that sleeping overnight in parks is not legal anyway, despite Kanawha Plaza being a refuge for the homeless. To the credit of the Richmond police, its chief had been reported as saying that not permitting the occupation of public spaces would be unconstitutional. There was actually a lot of concern about getting arrested, and perhaps people who are not like me, a white man with a middle-class bearing if not the actual class position, have to be more concerned about that. But that’s half the point of massing – the more people who are defying the law, the less likely they are to be arrested.
Things got uglier as the deliberations went on. The Occupy movement seems committed to their “modified consensus” procedures, where 90% of the 300 people – that’s 270 people – were supposed to agree for the assembly to take action. And this wasn’t a decision for something vital, but rather which park to meet next in. I thought the “Sixties” already answered this one for us, where working people were driven away by academic democratic-radicals like me who insisted on consensus for everything with no concessions to practical considerations. I refer the reader to Mansbridge’s Beyond Adversary Democracy. Mansbridge describes a collective workplace that struggled with consensus as most of the participants were worn down by the hippie die-hards who were going to argue until the sun went down while the working people wanted to get home to their families or their other obligations. If the occupation were the only community we lived in, we might take the time to deliberate until 90% of us agreed. But modern people live in many different communities with many different competing obligations and social roles, and that’s going to be true of any future democratic society in this world.
Modified consensus was where all the trouble came in. For maybe forty-five minutes the assembly stalled as people waited for the vote for which park to occupy. This wasn’t the yelling and confusion and bad feelings, but much worse, a paralysis, a computer stuck in a loop. Everybody’s blood sugar was too low and people couldn’t make themselves understood, and the facilitators were stalling. Then came the first vote on which park to occupy. One had a clear majority, but neither was going to get the unattainable 90%. More dithering – a bad jittery listlessness. I wandered around the park myself, and checked to make sure my car didn’t have a ticket, as it was past the two-hour mark on two-hour parking.
People were yelling now, “simple majority!” and “majority rules!” Even people who would lose were anxious for a final vote – people wanted resolution. A vote on whether to suspend consensus for this vote unsurprisingly passed, but people wanted to push it forward – majority rules for all decisions. That’s when someone gave us a crossed fist and consensus went to hell. An attractive woman came to the center of the assembly and said that she would leave the movement if we went full majority rules. The contradiction of consensus was put on full display – one person was going to prevent the majority from acting as it willed. I understand the idea behind consensus, I do. If everyone agrees or close enough, then nobody is doing something that they don’t want to do. I’m a bit Rousseauean, so I get that. But Rousseau also counseled us to make our institutions for people as they are, and not as we would like them to be. In any case, a minority has no right to ultimately thwart the will of the majority – that’s what I’m out here to stand against.
But now the facilitators were the 1%, with the crowd shouting “vote! Vote!” and the facilitators stalling. I see these facilitators being blind-folded in front of the firing squad of a revolution they helped create. Some people who want to lead make the mistake of trying to stare down a crowd and that doesn’t go well for anybody. Bad craziness. Anyway, everybody seemed satisfied that we would use simple majority for this one vote alone, and it was left at that.
We finally got our vote and the decision was made for Kanawha Plaza. There was more to cover, but dusk was falling and many people had plainly had enough. The people who stayed marched all the way to the new location. I’ll be there tomorrow. I might have stayed tonight, but I had split my pants when I tried sitting in the grass. The revolution seems to demand something with a little more give in the crotch. Make a note: revolution requires sweatpants.