Can ‘Occupy’ protests last without leaders?
NEW YORK (AP) — They were out to change the world, overthrow the establishment and liberate the poor. But first somebody would have to do something about those bongo drums.
At the Occupy Wall Street protest camp in Manhattan, protesters agonized over what to do about drum players who had turned part of the site into an impromptu dance floor. The neighbors were complaining about the racket. The protesters had tried to put a time limit on the noise, but the drummers were refusing to obey.
“It’s an issue, definitely,” sighed protester Kanene Holder, 31, on Friday night. “We’ll have to work it out.”
Reining in a few pesky percussionists would seem to be an easy task for a movement seemingly on the verge of becoming a political force. But one month after it burst onto the scene and inspired similar protests across the country, the Occupy Wall Street protest remains stubbornly decentralized, complicating everything from enforcing camp rules to writing a national platform.
On Saturday the protesters planned to march on bank offices and into Times Square. But while their message against corporate greed has struck a nerve with many Americans, the lack of leaders in Manhattan and at other protest camps has baffled many.
** FILE ** A protester affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street demonstration ... more >
In Minneapolis, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has been meeting every morning with a delegation of protesters — “at least, the ones who come forward and say they are the organizers,” Stanek said. “It’s a little difficult because it seems like each day it’s been a completely different group of folks.”
Protesters say the decentralization is deliberate and note that other movements, like the 1960s civil rights effort, began in a similarly disorganized way.
And some academics who have studied dissent movements say that while being “leaderless” has some drawbacks, it could also have great advantages. Chief among them: It has allowed people with very different backgrounds — like union workers and anarchists — to rally behind the same broad message against corporate greed, without actually agreeing much on where the country should go from here.
“They have achieved popular support so much quicker than anti-war movement, or civil rights movement,” said Todd Gitlin, an expert on political dissent at Columbia University.
From its earliest days, the people at the heart of Occupy Wall Street have worked hard to make it a movement without leaders.
The original call for the demonstration came from the editors of the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters in mid-July. But since then, no one on the publication’s staff has been actively involved in organizing or leading the protests.
The large group of activists who began meeting to plan the occupation in midsummer came from a variety of groups and backgrounds, and resolved from the start that they wouldn’t elect leaders, appoint a central planning council, or even name lead negotiators to deal with New York's police or City Hall.
“A lot of people can’t handle that — it goes to their head,” said Joey Pearson, 29, a laid-off auto worker from Cincinnati.
Instead, decisions at the camp in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park are made at a General Assembly of protesters that sometimes numbers in the thousands, while the nitty-gritty work of organizing the encampment is carried out by a large number of autonomous work teams that largely function without central oversight.