Saturday, November 26, 2011

Occupy the action committee

I was confused. After standing around for three hours in solidarity during the occupation of Franklin School, here I was dining at the finest Indian buffet in the city surrounded by about a half-dozen comrades, all self-described socialists and anarchists whose disdain for the Democrats made me look like a closet Obamabot.

"What gives?" I wondered. After spending the last two weeks fairly disappointed with most of the major actions officially endorsed by Occupy DC -- protesting liberals' very boogeymen the Koch brothers, rallying with the pro-Obama SEIU at the Key Bridge -- I had figured the problem was the folks at McPherson Square as a whole. After all, consensus had to be reached before these big events could be proclaimed "official" Occupy events and the consensus was to focus on targets that fit the standard Democratic agenda. While I longed for a radical movement demanding systemic change, I was surrounded by meek liberals calling for incremental, establishment-friendly reform.


So what about the radicals I dined with -- were they just not attending the general assemblies? Or perhaps the action committee was approving the various rallies and protests without fully explaining them when presenting them to the camp as a whole; I could see many occupiers, for instance, endorsing a rally for "workers" alongside a labor union not knowing the politics behind the SEIU's decision to "call on Congress to create jobs" at the very site that Barack Obama chose just weeks before to call on Congress to pass his jobs bill.

I assumed wrong.

The problem, it turns out, is that the action committee is able to approve protests as "official" Occupy DC events without receiving consensus at any general assembly. That means a small group of people -- there were no more than 10 at the meeting I attended the other week -- have the power to decide what events will be endorsed in the name of the hundreds if not thousands of people involved in the movement here in Washington.

That's a problem. The occupation of Franklin School did not go through the consensus process either, yes, but then those carrying it out never claimed to be acting on behalf of "Occupy DC." Rather -- and I think this is a trend that will continue with respect to direct actions -- they acted unilaterally and essentially used those hanging out at McPherson Square as a feeder group, inviting those who agreed with their action to come two blocks over and show solidarity. Ten or so people claiming Occupy DC as a whole has endorsed an action is a very different thing.

Those doing the endorsing also aren't very radical, which is the bigger problem to my mind. Anyone can join the committee, but attending three meetings a week is a lot to ask of people who have other things to do in their lives, a fact that seems to have led it to be more or less captured by a small group of like-minded liberals.

Indeed, on the action committee listserv, I discovered that some of the most active people are in fact paid not just liberals, but paid to elect Democrats, which subconsciously or not is bound to affect the decisions they make. And we're not talking just low-level staffers just trying to make a buck. That rally with the SEIU? By golly, here we have a member of the SEIU, indeed the head of the very "OurDC" front group occupiers were told they were showing solidarity with in an official Occupy DC press release. And over here we have a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which seeks to elect "progressive" Democrats -- and only Democrats -- to the halls of Congress.

And oh, hey, over there is a person who works for a company, NGP VAN, that helps "all the national Democratic committees, [and] thousands of Democratic campaigns," fundraise and reach out to voters (and which, god damn it, is placing ads on this site). It was this particular person that, when a friend of mine at CodePink proposed an anti-war action, lashed out with the amazing claim that "Ending the war is a CodePink objective," prompting me to begin my research into those dominating the action committee conversation.

"The co-option of CodePink [sic] is really annoying and it's not cool that it is happening on this googlegroup," she added. "Please stop."

People paid to elect Democrats pushing a Democrat-friendly, war-ignoring agenda on the Occupy movement? Yeah, we're cool with that.

Even those on the committee who aren't paid to elect the nominally "left" faction of the political establishment come from essentially the same perspective, it having all the appearance of a clique that represents a range of opinion from liberal to center-left. When I linked to the above woman's public LinkedIn page, a "Senior Field Organizer" for the left-liberal group Public Citizen who appointed himself captain of the committee booted me off the list after I refused his unilaterally declared ultimatum to:
- Delete the tweet with the Linked In profile link

- Apologize over Twitter for taking a private conversation online and violating a fellow Occupier's personal boundaries

- Email the group promising to keep matters of internal discussion internal to this list? There are too many reasons to name why an action committee list should be kept private.

- Apologize to the group in person at an upcoming action committee.
 As I wrote in response to the above: Besides there never having been a stated rule that conversations on the list could not be taken off of it -- the very nature of many of the conversations would seem to demand they be discussed with others -- I never revealed anything about upcoming actions, sensitive details of which I was initially told to never share because the list is literally open to whoever wants to join it (if you're in DC, subscribe by sending a request to

Since the action committee has so much power to shape the Occupy DC agenda and its public perception, the broader movement beyond the professional Democrats and liberal think tankers on the list I believe has a right to know that actions are being approved and rejected based on the input of a small group of people, many of whom are paid to pursue a partisan agenda. No one, not even the Guardian of the Sanctity of the Listserv, I venture to say, would have objected had I tweeted about a member of the Koch-funded Club for Growth infiltrating the committee.

That's not to say paid partisans should be outright prohibited from participating in the Occupy movement, which would be hard to do in DC anyway -- although, frankly, if you're paid to elect Democrats and you want to help the movement, your best bet would be to stop helping elect Democrats. But if professional partisans have nothing to hide, there's no reason they should fear transparency, especially given the legitimate fears of many that Democrats are trying to co-opt the Occupy movement for electoral gain.

As it is now, those on the action committee aren't even informing the rest of those at Occupy DC of their decisions. Take the following email about one now-past event:
It has failed to go in front of GA due to facilitation not responding to my emails and no one from Action at the park during GA that is bringing it up. I told _______ to just go ahead and send it out. Its already on our website and being spread around. GA has been allowing us to just report actions during our committee reportbacks so that is what I hope will happen soon. How we are supposed to actually be getting things approved by GA is no longer really clear. If someone else wants to step up to help me figure this out, awesome, but I say we just go forward with this action.
I actually agreed with the action in question. But the problems with allowing the committee to instruct people to "just go ahead" and claim events are in Occupy DC's name without even announcing them should be obvious, particularly when said committee is stacked with numerous people paid to pursue an explicitly Democratic agenda.

Instead of banning me over a rule that was never stated, I replied to Mr. Ultimatum that maybe we ought to be considering, not just informing new members of the alleged rules of the list the moment they sign up, but a new rule requiring people to state up front whether they work to elect Democrats (or Republicans) so as to avoid conflicts of interests and the appearance of impropriety. And why not specifically ask people to state whether they're participating in the movement as part of their jobs?

This is the response I received.

Unhappy with the direction of the Occupy DC action committee? Attend one of their meetings, held every Saturday at 4pm and every Tuesday and Thursday at 8pm.


  1. OOO, The link to the response says owner has banned me/you whatever--doesn't work.

    Don't let their need to own it get to you. It will succeed despite their failing to see that at this point.

    Whoever, if anyone, is voted in next will either start doing what's good for America or won't. If they don't, then we will keep protesting. And Occupy doesn't own the word. We will Occupy whatever we want.

  2. Sounds to me like everyone there could take a few minutes to read through one of my personal favorite essays on the topic of organising and action, located here. I personally feel that's about the only way forward.

    And I also personally feel that the "occupation" of the Franklin School was a shining example of actual consensus decision making: the people who wanted to do it, did it; those who didn't, didn't. And neither side was negatively effected by the other.

  3. The link should be fixed.

  4. Thanks, Charles. This is important for people to know. As you said, it would be tough not to have paid dems in the DC location, but they should be transparent about their roles.

  5. Anonymous9:46 AM

    While I may share some concerns of a co-opt, I feel this blog is a polarization of a movement on a unique learning curve.

    First of all, there has been a very good reasons why the action committee had pulled back from 100% general consensus ~ Reason: A single block at each GA could keep the protestors from ever doing an action.

    This is my personal feeling on this entire co-opting obsession people are so worried about ~ Occupy overall seems to be just as upset with the Democrats including Obama (See: The mic check incident of a few days ago in NH) ~ The co-opt concerns will be dealt with.

    Can Occupy stop union members from joining groups? Probably not, but their voice in matters can be limited to being that of an individual.

    Since the Key Bridge action, Occupy has not done a horizontal action with SEIU... so I would suggest people get past that issue until someone tries to partner Occupy DC with another SEIU action.

    See that??? Not so hard, was it?

    All of these issues are easy to solve.

  6. Anonymous,

    It's my understanding that a block, while it may cause people to reconsider an action, would not necessarily stop it from going forward. Rather, a block signifies that someone is willing to leave the movement if we go forward with an action.

    While 100% consensus may not be ideal, outsourcing all decisions to a small committee is far from the best or only alternative. And so long as that structure is in place, there's nothing to stop the same group of people who approved the SEIU action (which includes a member of the SEIU) from doing so again.

  7. Good work, keep at it. ODC is obviously unique. But transparency should be a given in any Occupy. Is there any way to horizontally communicate online without small group control?

    Process is such an important, and hard, part of Occupy. Is consenus defined as 100% in most occupies? At NYC? Is DC GA every night? Is there a pre-GA agenda setting meeting? I'm involved in the startup Occupy Saint Paul (MN) so this isn't just academic. It is a non-physical occupation, and will likely remain that way for the winter. Is there a go to source / wiki about running an occupation?

  8. "And I also personally feel that the "occupation" of the Franklin School was a shining example of actual consensus decision making: the people who wanted to do it, did it; those who didn't, didn't. And neither side was negatively effected by the other."

    A thousand times amen. I think people networking to do specific things is the way to go, seeking the support of the bigger bodies, where necessary, but acting with or without. This action group, spokescouncil, GA thing looks a little non-agile for my tastes. It also becomes kind of off-putting if the prevailing culture or political thrust is not to your particular taste.

    Nice piece, Charles.

  9. Brian Drake2:48 PM

    While reading this, I couldn't help but thinking about the Iron Law of Oligarchy, and why it's called an "Iron Law".

  10. I think you're misunderstanding consensus/horizontalism. My understanding is no one needs approval to plan an action - you can announce one and people who want to participate can participate. Same with anyone else. It's not democratically governed; it's anarchist inspired and thus, largely ungoverned. People do not need permission for all of the direct actions that go on all over the place and that includes marches. Now, I suppose if people were very upset about use of the OccupyDC name, they could say they're the OccupyDC Direct Action Working Group or some such. But as far as needing consensus to march, nope - that's not consistent with my understanding.

    As for lack of transparency, that's another issue - I'm pro-transparency.

  11. We practice modified consensus at OWS (90%). The reason for this being provocateurs throwing a wrench in anything we try to do. It's also important to create a culture of consent. It's not voting, you can hate something and still consent to it.

    As far as actions go, the way it typically goes is that by "consent" they're asking for endorsement of the larger occupation. Everyone is still autonomous and can engage in a diversity of tactics, but they can't say (or at least can't accurately say) it's on behalf of the movement. A block would deny that endorsement.

    I imagine DC is probably one of the most uniquely unique occupations in the country given the sort of dynamics and commerce of the area. Best of luck to you in putting up with some of these people.

  12. Really like these updates. Why would one individual have the authority to boot you off? I also thought that the essay by Todd S. is exceptional.

  13. I hope people realize that there are two different occupations in Washington, DC -- the one in McPherson Square, which Charlie is writing about here, and the one in Freedom Plaza, which has none of the problems he outlines.

    Many of us in Freedom Plaza are seasoned activists. We know how to reach consensus and we know how to get things done. And we aren't being co-opted by Obama, the Dems, or anyone else.

    We started planning our occupation last spring. We're thrilled at the happy historical accident that other occupations around the country have sprung up. We believe the Occupy movement is revolutionary. We aren't here to kowtow to the liberal establishment. We're here to overthrow it.

  14. P.S. You need to change the date on your blog entry. It was written on Saturday, November 26. Not Saturday, Dec 3rd. You've gone into the future!

  15. Pissing off all the right people I see. So glad to have you in town.

  16. Lisa, it would have been easy to know if Oct2011 didn't co-opt the Occupy name. And "seasoned" is a negative. What have the seasoned done? End Iraq? Prevent the Afghan surge? Elect a Progressive caucus that matters? None of these.

    You're not being co-opted by Dems, you're being ignored. Did anyone on the Hill open your expert report of legislative recommendations? No.

    Now the carrot. I fully support your anti-war goals. I just know that you can't achieve them on your own. I'm certain that there is wisdom among the seasoned. The organic occupation in McPherson could use some of it. You could use the energy and new ideas. Why remain apart?

  17. Mark,

    We've tried to get together. Many times. And we've done some joint actions and statements with McPherson. Other than that, there's resistance at McP to joining up. I can't speak for them.

    Although I don't see it as the negative everyone else apparently does. It would be great if there were five different occupations in different neighborhoods in any given city. Then five times as many people would see one and be forced to confront what's going on.

    Re the name, we called our occupation "the October 2011 movement" and the "October 2011 occupation" from the beginning. It didn't stick. The press and the public kept calling us "Occupy DC." That's McP's name. Do you think we should have deliberately conflated the two? We changed to "Occupy Washington DC." But I suppose people would be confused no matter what. Even if we call ourselves the DC Martians.

    I don't know if legislators on the Hill looked at our report. But given that I think most of them are wankers, I don't care. There are plenty of other people in the country who've read it, and I think that's more important. This movement isn't going to change things overnight.

  18. Anonymous10:18 AM

    please remember that when the consensus seekers fail and the hijackers from the parties succeed those of us with weapons, a mean streak and a liberating hatred will be ready to pick up the real fight. once you've all headed back to your swanky apartments and suburban liberal enclaves you can ponder on a morose truth. ideas die when the heads housing them die. you end the enemy's control by putting his corpse in the ground and his house to fire. seize the means of production. seize the bankers and tribunal them. its already a war.

    this isnt direct at you Charles. its more for the hijackers and the liberals.

  19. Lisa, thanks for the response. Occupy- Antiwar, Congress, the Swamp, the District, et al. were available. Being seasoned, and having institutional sources of funds, it should be possible to successfully brand your occupation.

    On the report: What was so striking to me reading it, was the frank admission that the report would accomplish nothing. And it was explicitly targeted at Congress, as it advocated specific legislative changes. There was nothing in there addressed directly to constituents. I would like to know how many people you think have read it. Or how about web hits on its page.

    On your last sentence: I don't think OWashDC will change things in many moons either. I don't like that reply myself, but it's reality.

    I decided to go over to just to make sure I remembered things right and didn't miss anything. Here is what I was greeted with:

    "Petition-I believe the Congressional Super Committee has failed and that Congress could learn from the proposals drafted by the 99% Super Committee. I want the 99% Deficit Proposal to be read aloud in both houses of Congress."

    OMG! A reading in Congress! That's awful cheeky, no? How will you require Congress to listen? Or even be present? It's a joke. Again, it really really sucks the antiwar movement is a joke. But it is.

  20. ideas die when the heads housing them die.


    Violence may be permissible in cases of strict self-defense, but you win the war of ideas through persuasion, not murder. Just ask the U.S. military. Talk of an armed insurrection in the context of the United States is morally dubious, at the very least, and pragmatically fucked.

  21. "institutional sources of funds"


    What institutional sources of funds? We're funded by individual people donating 35 bucks, 50, 100, 15, etc. I think Andy Shallal of the restaurant Busboys & Poets gave the biggest donation, including free food. People on the original Steering Committee have coughed up personal money, and none of us is loaded. Far from it. Hell, I lost a job over this. I think that's called putting your money where your mouth is. What "institutional sources of funds" are you talking about?

  22. Are you saying you planned an occupation of DC for over six months and you didn't line up any money to stay awhile?

  23. Lisa Simeone7:52 AM

    No, Mark, that's not what I said.

  24. Anonymous11:15 AM

    Charles, I think Frederick Douglass spoke to your concern about pacifistic regime change.

    Drawing analogies to the US Military isn't smart. The US Military doesn't try to change minds. It merely conducts war for the display of power, and the profiteering available from warring activity.

    I'd have thought you knew this.

    The powerful never give up power peacefully.