"Our demand is that you stop demanding that we come up with demands!"
I thought about that line a lot this past week. (It's from a recent cartoon by Matt Bors.) I was a block from the White House, at the protest that began the Occupy movement: the October 2011 Stop the Machine demonstration.
Stop the Machine, timed to begin on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, was based on a simple, powerful premise. A coalition of seasoned protesters, including Veterans for Peace, CodePink, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Progressive Democrats of America and Peace Action, would take over a public space, then refuse to leave until our demand--withdrawal from Afghanistan--was met.
Adbusters magazine preempted our demonstration, which had been widely publicized, with Occupy Wall Street.
It's the sort of thing an unscrupulous businessman might do. But it's all good. The sooner the revolution, the better. And the Occupy folks chose a better name.
Like other old-timers (I'm 48), I criticized Occupy Wall Street for its wanky PR and street theater shenanigans. Critiquing with love, I joined others in the media for demanding specific demands. That, after all, is how agitators used to do things. Hijack a plane and ask for money. Take over a prison until the warden agrees to improved conditions. Strike until you get a raise.
That's one of the things that changed on 9/11. No one ever claimed responsibility for the attacks. No group issued any demands.
The Stop the Machiners in Freedom Plaza are mostly Gen Xers in their 40s and Baby Boomers in their 50s and 60s. There are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of them, many spending the night in tents. Eight blocks away in McPherson Square is Occupy D.C., the decidedly younger and whiter (mostly Gen Yers in their 20s) Washington spin-off of Occupy Wall Street. As you'd expect, Occupy is wilder and more energetic. As you'd also expect, Stop the Machine is calmer and more organized.
"What are your demands?" my friends back home emailed me. Coming up with demands is job one. But job one is slow going. This is not merely a non-hierarchical but an anti-hierarchical movement. Everyone gets an equal say. Influenced by the Occupy movement (and other progressive protests, such as the anti-globalization struggle), Stop the Machine has embraced a system in which all decisions are arrived at by unanimous consensus. Anyone, regardless of their social status or education, can block a decision agreed upon by hundreds of other people.
Before last week, I thought this decision-making process was madness. No leaders means inefficiency, right? Well, right. Meetings drag on for hours. Often nothing, or very little, gets done. Discussions go off on tangents. Poorly informed and even mentally disabled people get to talk. And everyone--even those of us with years of political experience and education--have to sit there and listen.
I'm as snotty as they come. Out on the plaza, however, snark is a liability. A scary homeless guy heckled me while I gave a speech calling for revolution over reform of the system. He went on so long and so intensely that a D.C. cop tried to take him away. I couldn't just click away. I was forced to engage. To discuss. To agree, to disagree.
Revolution is a messy, slow process. We are just beginning to claw away at the velvet ropes of alienation that simultaneously comfort and confine us. We're beginning to see that the things we hold so dear--our place in the class structure, our educational credentials, our shrinking but oh-so-clever circles of friends--are means of oppression.
There were 15 committees formed to come up with demands about various topics, which would eventually be presented to the General Assembly for discussion and, with luck, approval by consensus.
I joined the Economics and Finance committee.
"I don't understand the word 'neoliberal,'" a woman who looked to be about 30 said.
"It means conservative," a guy answered.
No it doesn't.
I shut up. In consensus meetings, you quickly learn to choose your battles. Those battles can run late into the night.
I urged our committee to decide whether we were revolutionaries or reformists.
"Why does it matter?" asked our "facilitator" (the leader-who-is-not-a-leader).
We went on to waste the next several months debating the distinctions between revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the system, reformists who accept its basic structure but seek to improve upon it, and revolutionists-posing-as-reformers who issue what I call "unreasonable reasonable" demands--demands that are popular with the population but that the system can't concede without exposing the government as an uncaring, unresponsive monster, thus radicalizing the moderates and fence-sitters.
OK, it was about an hour. It only seemed like months.
We only came up with two demands for the general assembly to consider. But that doesn't matter.
The process of discussion educates everyone. The better informed share information with the less informed. But the knowledge flow goes both ways. The better informed learn what is not known, what must be transmitted to the public at large. And those less informed about one topic are usually better informed about another.
Demands will surface. But there's no rush. Let the intellectual cross-fertilization run its course.
Besides, it's fun to watch the ruling-class-owned media squirm as it waits.