MDS STATEMENT ON “STOP THE MACHINE, CREATE A NEW WORLD” (October2011)
In May 2011, Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS) endorsed”Stop The Machine, Create a New World” (october2011.org) and joined the October 6 Coalition in good faith and in the belief that the call to occupy Freedom Plaza in Washington DC was a timely and much needed step forward for American protest. Buoyed by thoughts of the Arab Spring and the idea that the time had come to take resistance to the next level, some members joined the Coalition “Steering Committee” to assist in planning a Tahrir Square-style occupation in the US. That is, an occupation in the political sense of the word — taking over a public or private space against the will of government or ownership — as it’s been commonly understood by generations of activists.
Also encouraging was the idea that rather than it being yet another organizational call out of the top down variety, this event would be entirely directed by individual activists of diverse background and ideology. In other words, different. The presumption being that much like Occupy Wall Street, it would be a horizontal and egalitarian effort to build a truly participatory democratic peoples’ movement..This, of course, would be right in keeping with the spirit and raison d’etre of MDS and SDS. Since that time, however, several factors caused us to question the action and the intent of those who characterized themselves as the “core organizers”, and ultimately to conclude that it was not what it claimed to be. In course, we witnessed & experienced controlling top down behavior, bullying, dishonesty, snitchjacketing, censorship, and a total lack of respect for fellow activists.
1 – Permission to Occupy? — Soon after joining the October 6 Coalition we became aware that the “core organizers” intended to seek permits for Freedom Plaza that would cover the first 4 days of the “occupation” (October 6 – October 9) . The rationale was that getting permits would enable the event to have a stage, sound system, bands, performers, and speakers, and that this would draw enough people to allow the action to stay on past the initial 4 days, at which point it would become unpermitted. This concerned us based on the grounds that occupations are by their very nature, not permitted. Promoting such an event as an “occupation” would at the very least be a case of false advertising. We raised these concerns and were assured that despite having permits, sleeping in the Plaza wasn’t permitted and so it would become an “official” occupation the first night. We took heart in this and the belief that the final permit would not be continuous for the first 4 days so that the actual “occupation” could technically begin as early as the evening of Thursday, October 6th. Once the permit was obtained however, we learned that it indeed was continuous and in addition, now would extend from the evening of Wednesday October 6 to Monday, October 10. Again, we raised these concerns but by now our objections were met with even more hostility from some of the “core organizers” which included charges that expressing such contrary thoughts caused “divisiveness” and “disunity”. To make matters worse, on Sunday October 10, the eve of when that permit was supposed to run out and before we planned to join in Washington DC, we learned that a 4 month continuous permit for Freedom Plaza was now being proposed by the “core organizers”. Although it was heralded as a great victory by them, we said even if accepted in the General Assembly, it would now be even more disingenuous to publicly portray this event as an “occupation” since it would be in possession of what amounts to a 4 month lease. Very simply, you don’t get permission to occupy. If the plan was now to use the Plaza as a base of operations for outreach, rallies, marches, CD actions & so forth, and the idea was that a 4 month lease could help facilitate that, simply be honest with the public & activist community and call it what it is. Don’t continue to promote it as an “occupation” simply to cash in on the popularity of that term and the growing Occupy movement. Doing so is dishonest and does a disservice to the idea of occupation as a political tool and to the movement in general. Particularly to the Occupy movement, where at this very moment, people around the country risk their necks daily occupying parks, squares, and plazas in unpermitted actions that are in every sense of the word, occupations.
2 — Bullying — In the course of raising these objections we began to receive increasingly hostile off-list emails from at least two “core organizers”. On one occasion we were charged with being an “obstructionist”, and at least twice we were accused of being a “government infiltrator”. This practice, known as snitchjacketing, has long been a scourge to the Left, as it promotes an atmosphere of fear and is poisonous to effective organizing. At other times on the website’s Steering Committee Forum, our posts were met with abusive & disrespectful responses from one of the other “core organizers”. Unfortunately, this open hostility toward contrary opinions resulted in a ratcheting up of tensions when it was never our intention for this to happen. Our intention was to engage in necessary dialogue about the project, not to be drawn further into needless infighting. Other Committee members complained about receiving similar emails from the same parties. In time several members resigned. This is bullying. This has no place in the movement. You can’t bully fellow activists into submission in order to insure greater cohesion. We are thankful to comrades on the Committee who contacted us to say they’d noticed how disrespectfully we were treated and to voice their opposition to it.
3 — Top-Down or not Top-Down? — Although it was claimed that all decision making was done democratically within the Steering Committee and modified consensus was indeed used in Committee meetings, we soon learned that an Executive Committee was instituted for the express purpose of “streamlining” things and for the sake of “efficiency”. In other words, a small group of “core organizers” were empowered to make decisions in lieu of the entire group. While this practice may work in certain limited instances & the intent may have been to speed things along for efficiency, the result was to concentrate power in the hands of a few, and over time those few exerted more and more control over the entire project at the expense of democracy. This control extended from control of the website to control over all incoming & outgoing correspondence on behalf of the Committee to control over media requests. Ultimately, this select group further selected another small group of people to get together with for a brainstorming “retreat”. There, ideas were exchanged and future plans formulated at the exclusion of the majority of the Steering Committee. While groups of people are entitled to decide how they’d like to structure themselves, we find the stark difference between the top-down practice of October2011 and the horizontal decision-making of the OWS movement, disturbing to say the least. Can the seeds of a truly democratic peoples movement be laid if the process of planning the movement is less than democratic? To our surprise the “core organizers” refused to even concede it was top-down. If empowering a select few to make decisions independent of the whole isn’t top-down, what is? Such decision-making may have a place in certain contexts, but is it in keeping with the spirit of the Occupy movement and it’s attention to radical democracy at all turns? Again, our concerns were met with hostility from the few who accused us of being “divisive” and more interested in “disorganizing” than organizing. All this having the further effect of falsely painting us as the “cause of problems”.
4 – Censorship — For a time the Steering Committee listserv was de-activated allegedly due to some members belief that receiving “too many emails” was “distracting to the work”. When it was re-started, without our knowledge, we were shocked to receive an email from one of the “core organizers” stating in part,
“Please try to react to this in as positive a way as you can. I
really want to figure out what your role in the October2011 effort
is…. So far, it has been perceived as a negative one — at least
that is how some see it — of divisiveness and preventing us from
moving forward….There is talk about bringing back the list serve,
but people (including me) are hesitant to include you because when we
had the listserve in the past you have focused a lot on process,
pushed more discussion than people had time for, resulting in lots of
emails, bickering, back and forth and as a result people were unable
to get things done…..”
That this organizer felt entitled enough to say he/she was personally trying to “figure out” what our role in October2011 was, says a lot in our opinion. That this organizer found it perfectly reasonable to say that a few “core organizers” were now considering not including us in the re-started listserv based on our enthusiasm for open discussion of process, participatory democracy, and transparency, says a lot in our opinion. Since this was a Steering Committee list, to be left off the list would in effect, amount to being thrown out of the Steering Committee. Although the list was re-started at that time and we were included, we were eventually kicked off the list for expressing a dissenting opinion on the 4 month permit, and for having the audacity to ask “If October2011 now has such a long term lease, can it legitimately be called an occupation”? Wouldn’t it be more honest & accurate to call it “Freedom Plaza – A Base for Marches, Rallies & Actions” or the “The Freedom Plaza encampment”?
Kicking people off listservs for expressing their opinion is censorship.
Kicking people off listservs is not in keeping with the spirit of
the Occupy Movement.
This is not what democracy looks like.
The purpose of this statement is not to single out any one activist. The purpose is to call attention to a string of abuses and a mentality that is destructive to effective organizing and democracy. If we are not vigilant in our attention to the demands of radical democracy, how can we expect to facilitate the creation of a movement that is? These demands are not expendable based on a desire for streamlining, efficiency, and convenience. Especially at this time in the face of a burgeoning Occupy movement that to it’s credit, remains always attentive to the demands of participatory democracy and maintaining a place at the table for all opinions, at all times.
For these reasons, we believe it’s critically important for there to be a movement-wide dialogue on free speech, bullying, truthfulness, what constitutes effective organizing, and what it means to advocate for radical democracy.
We invite all activists, workers, students, scholars & the interested to engage in this dialogue with us.
Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS) is a global association of people on the left. It seeks to create a sustained community of educational and political concern and actions: one bringing together liberals and radicals, activists and scholars, students, faculty and workers in all trades. It maintains a vision of a democratic society, where at all levels the people have control of the decisions which affect them and the resources on which they are dependent. It seeks a relevance through the continual focus on realities and on the programs necessary to effect change at the most basic levels of economic, political, and social organization. It feels the urgency to put forth a radical, democratic program counter-posed to authoritarian movements.