North of Wall Street, Occupy Albany finds its voice

On October 15, 2011, people in over 950 cities around the world participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement. In recent weeks, Occupy the Berkshires has sprouted in our backyard, with individual events and occupations in North Adams, Pittsfield, Great Barrington and Bennington.

Occupy Albany
Citizens give voice to the grievances of the “99 percent” at the Occupy Albany event on Saturday, one of several regional movements. Photo by Sebastien Barre.

The Occupy movement has been both celebrated and criticized. Critics are often puzzled about the objectives of the movement while supporters say that the movement has just gotten on its feet and needs time.

Like most political issues, the Occupy Wall Street movement has not yet found much resonance at the College. We’re busy, and frankly, it’s not yet particularly relevant to our lives. We’re not yet (too) worried about jobs, and we all have a place to eat and sleep. What’s more, as a feeder school for Wall Street investment banks and management consulting companies, we may have a somewhat different perspective on the grievances of the so-called “99 percent.”

Last Friday, I ventured to Occupy Albany, in a park next to outside the New York State Capitol, to better understand the movement. Several hundred people had gathered to participate in the first day of the occupation and – cliché though it may sound – there really were people of all stripes: a college-aged girl sporting bandanna-wrapped dreads strummed on her guitar as she sipped water from a glass jar; a five-year-old with beads in her braids drew on a pamphlet as her mother listened intently; a retired school-teacher perched next to a man nearly twice her height in a camouflage jacket.

When I arrived, the General Assembly (GA), the central governing body and the heart of every local Occupy movement, was running through administrative issues and announcements, including training sessions for anyone interested in becoming a facilitator. Facilitators learn and follow the principles of the consensus process, a form of direct democracy that seeks not only majority approval but also near-universal agreement among the members of the General Assembly. With no formal leadership hierarchy, everyone is encouraged to help run meetings at one time or another.

As a pamphlet that was passed out at Occupy Albany explained, “In consensus, everyone matters. But for consensus to work, we must also be flexible, willing to let go. Unity is not unanimity – within consensus there is room for disagreement.”

Even having read about Occupy events, I was struck by how – well, odd it would look and sound. First, the members use particular hand motions to express agreement or approval (hands in the air, palms forward, spirit-finger-like) and disapproval (like agreement, but palms-down). Even when not voting, you’ll see occasional flurries of waving fingers in response to the speaker, a way of communicating without verbalizing. They also use a few other gestures to express assembly procedures.

The second, and more startling, feature of an Occupy GA is what has come to be known as “the human microphone,” turned “on” by yelling “mic check!” At Occupy Wall Street, protestors invented it because they didn’t have the permit for a bullhorn. Basically, it’s an echo: Those close enough to hear the speaker repeat each phrase as a chorus, so those on the outer edges can hear.

Here in Albany, they had a bullhorn, but they still used the human microphone. Though it felt a little strange to wave my arms around and chant the words of the speaker, I got into the swing of it. Though it might sound a little cult-ish, it reinforced the feeling that we were all a part of this together; after all, we shouted out the views of people we disagreed with as loud as those with whom we agreed.

Carrie Tribble ’13, who attended Occupy Wall Street in New York City, remembers the human microphone vividly. “My first experience with mic check was a call-out for volunteers to help load laundry into a van,” she said. “After the announcement, several people immediately stood up to go help out.”

At the event I attended in Albany, the proposal up for discussion was a short press release expressing solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York. With four sentences, it took over an hour to talk through questions and concerns before the GA came to consensus and approved it. Though short, the paragraph attempted to address the purpose and activity of Occupy Albany and the central problems that the movements needed to address. Nonetheless, most participants were quite patient with the process, listening carefully to each other and addressing every concern. Only towards the end of the process, when a few of more opinionated individuals spoke out of turn, did anyone show some impatience.

The discussion ranged from grammar to philosophical debate about “Wall Street capitalism” as the culprit of America’s economic crisis. Some members of the GA wanted to target capitalism as a whole, but many objected, so “capitalism” was left out for the time being, and the discussion was postponed for a subsequent meeting. Numerous speakers emphasized that the GA’s message was an evolving one, and that this particular press release was only one step in the process.

Direct democracy as practiced in the Occupy movement is a messy and inefficient process, even on a small scale. It might seem silly that hundreds of people would sit poring over a few paltry sentences for an hour. From the perspective of many participants, though, it’s empowering.

“I came out of the experience with a huge amount of respect, almost awe, for the groups organizing the occupation,” Tribble said of Occupy Wall Street. “While the physical, and visible, infrastructure appears chaotic, unorganized and fragmented, the organizational infrastructure is extremely well thought-out and designed to accommodate a wide variety of interests and needs.”