Does Occupy Portland Lead the Occupations in Autonomous Organizing Experience?

photo by Adam

by Adam Rothstein

Living in Portland, one comes to appreciate a certain utopian quality of life. Bike lanes wrap around you like the handknitted scarf your roommate knitted you for your birthday. You can’t walk five blocks without stumbling into a nest of food carts, a wifi-equipped coffee shop, or a piece of land that now has both. The screen printing here is of a quality to rival the organic cookery. And, your local Occupation is the largest, most dedicated, autonomous, libertarian Occupation in existence.

I know: who really wants to analyze T-shirt printing, when the subject that is on all of our lips is Occupy Portland? I jest, of course, being fully aware of the real priorities of the majority of the city. But still, even if you have never given a half-eaten serving of poutine for the Occupation and its participants, you should know about some of the differences between the Occupiers in your fair city, as opposed to the rest of the country. So wipe that gravy from the corner of your mouth, and let one of the great unwashed give you another Northwest talking point to write home about, before you have to hear it from the Independent Film Channel.

On January 17th, I, and a small cadre of the most media-savy Occupiers in Portland traveled out to DC for an event entitled “Occupy Congress”. This was the first nationwide convergence of Occupations, and a chance for folks from San Diego to Chattanooga to get together and meet for the first time. Expectations were all over the map: perhaps this would be a massive event, or perhaps very few people would show. There might be very tame actions, like a rally, or perhaps an attempt would be made to camp on the steps of the Capitol. But, it was certain that there would be a meeting. Occupiers that had only read each other’s tweets or watched their far-afield compatriots on a Livestream channel would finally meet face to face. The event, you might say, was less Million Man March, and a lot more hang-out-with-my-friend-from-the-Internet.

And so it went. Awkwardly, we all got together. Occupy Portland assembled for a massive general assembly next to Occupy Houston. Occupy Raleigh stood across a large circle from Occupy Wall Street. Occupy DC, our hosts, stood with Un-Occupy Albuquerque. And we sized each other up.

To break the ice, we did the things we knew we all liked to do–we marched without a permit, prepared food, tussled with the police over where we were allowed to stand, we Livestreamed ourselves, and talked, and then talked some more. And then we all went home after exchanging cell phone numbers, so that we could all “do this again really soon.”

No doubt, we all left with our own superficial first impressions. But I have to say, I was shocked at the difference between Portland and all of the other Occupations. This was the East Coast, after all. Wall Street, where it all got started, was separated from the capital by only a drive of mere hours, as opposed to the days I spent in a car. Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta–the seaboard is lined with Occupy towns. There is a sense, in the way that people talk about Occupation cities, that the West Coast is second tier. Sure, Oakland can really throw a strike, and all of us together can even shut down a few port terminals. But on the East Coast, things are more serious. Their networks are tight. From the way that the Atlantic city Occupations are mentioned with awed tones, Interstate 95 is abuzz with Occupiers, flitting up and down the coast.

What I found at this convergence was a level of maturity far below Portland. I don’t mean that the people themselves are immature. On the contrary, they are the same intelligent, dedicated, highly skilled folks of all ages and backgrounds that have gathered to dedicate themselves to changing the world outside the systems that fail us again and again. The difference between an Occupier from Portland and a Occupier from Alabama is little. The difference is in the Occupations themselves.

The telling moment was during the march that visited the Capitol, Supreme Court, and White House. The words I heard from the mouths of a native DC Occupier: “This is the biggest Occupy march I’ve ever seen.” Really? This is it? The march was not small–maybe two thousand people. But there was a similar amount at one smaller march against Police Brutality in Portland. Not to mention the numbers that came out for the defense against the Chapman and Lownsdale park eviction, or the very first rally. It seemed an odd statement. But then I considered it–while New York has had a few events with that many people, and Oakland famously drew out over 20,000 for their general strike, the outstanding feature of many Occupy event has not been the numbers, but the distribution. We are not so many, so much as we are in many places. We are committed, even if we are not dense. We have a great number of sympathizers, but the core Occupiers are spread out like a blanket across the continent and the world.

Until, of course, this event brought us all together. Now, with these Occupiers in close proximity, the other differences began to emerge. The DC facilitators seemed unsure how to proceed with such numbers. It appeared, merely from my outsider’s impression of course, that certain core organizers were used to–through the social recognition of their commitment by their fellow Occupiers–being able to easily direct the course of events when needed. Of course, all Occupations are leaderless; but here, it seems the do-ocracy element, in which those who do are the ones who set the example for others, was a little bit more ingrained. There were “ringleaders”, who used their renown to help them guide others.

In Portland, we, from the beginning, have been confronted by large crowds. Crowds, as one might expect, have a tendency to be unpredictable. We’ve always drafted many volunteers into Peace and Safety roles, for the purpose of aiding communication. We learned early on that sometimes one must let the crowd make its own decisions, by appealing to individuals to make a choice via hand signals. We emphasize that everyone is an autonomous individual, and we encourage affinity groups to work together before hand to decide their own level of activity, so there are fewer surprises and last minute decisions for everyone. Through our large marches and actions, we’ve quickly evolved to being able to work effectively at any size by making sure all of our participants can differentiate their individual autonomy from the will of the critical mass, reserving their autonomy, while at the same time coalescing into the mass. Converting the former into the latter without reducing the one into the other makes a successful action, and it is how we manage to take the streets in a peaceful and yet confronting way.

In DC, on the other hand, the organizing elite–though they are only marginally elite–seem to have been relying on this ringleader privilege too heavily. When they tried to convince marchers to leave the front of the White House and return to the Capitol, their cajoling via promises of pizza back at the rally point went unheard by marchers from out of town who wanted to continue to protest. And yet it wasn’t entirely ineffective, because little by little, people left the protest and walked back on their own, slowly dwindling the rally at the Presidential Mansion to nearly nothing. This was a tactical error, and had the police been looking to crush the protest, this would have left an enormous vulnerability by removing the critical mass in the street. If instead, they waited until the critical mass consensus was ready to leave, or perhaps mic-checked and temp-checked in order to gauge it, the march could have gone back as a group. The misstep was slight, but it showed a lack of an ability to work with a crowd in a leaderless fashion that has been common knowledge in Portland for months.

After noticing this, I tried to think about what it might be that differentiates Portland from other Occupations. It is widely known that Occupy Portland has organizational differences from other cities. Occupy Wall Street spends much of its time debating what to do with its money. One person from New York asked me if it was true that we’d escaped this problem by not dealing with money. I explained that wasn’t exactly true–what we’ve done is created a separate organizational council for only dealing with money. By separating this contentious issue, the rest of our organizational structure is free to deal with wider movement plans and doesn’t get bogged down in micro-management. Was this merely a wise decision we happened upon? Or is it an effect of some larger difference?

Our method for dealing with money is due to two factors, in my opinion. The first is that we had an episode in which money was mismanaged, and taken by some individuals given too much trust with it. This was the impetus for the sequestering structure we devised. But the way we came to this decision, and the constant consensus that such a separation be reinforced, comes from a more systemic distrust of over-unification we harbor in Portland.

Portland, and the West Coast overall, is very anarchistic/libertarian, and autonomy is one of the top values of the Occupation here. Many individuals at Occupy Portland are wary of anything that attempts to speak for “everyone”, whether this be individuals acting as spokespeople, statements of purpose, or organizational structures that do not allow for individuals’ autonomy to be safeguarded. When it came to the issue of money, there were many people who believed that we shouldn’t deal with it at all. So, to deal with the inevitability that there will be some money in play at Occupy Portland, we made a structure that rigidly controls how committees can deal with money, and gave it its own autonomy, to therefore give autonomy in return for other groups to work outside of that structure. By consciously allowing the movement to separate into facets based upon its different strategic goals, we eliminate potentially redundant fractures while maintaining individuals’ autonomy. We like to allow any sub-divisions their own separate latitude for defining themselves according to how their members see fit, and thereby bypass any urge for one element to “turn against” another.

It has become a standard caveat, when anyone is announcing some sort of group plans, to say “but every individual should decide their own level of participation autonomously,” and it is often recited in a tired voice, like a legally necessary waiver. But I think this is a very important strategy-check. In Portland, we’re used to this little bit of anarchism that makes us verbally check anything that might infringe upon autonomy or the spirit of consensus and therefore, this overriding principle has been one of our key strategies. It allows people of all political stripes to feel included, and to take part at whatever level of participation at which they are comfortable. We don’t need to be “fully committed organizers” who have earned a bit of celebrity from the crowd, in order to be effective. We don’t need to adhere to a “party line” in order to join the structure. It is a very effective strategy to maintain our self-effacing deference towards consensus. Consensus which is not group will–too easily defined by a vocal minority–but as the constant recognition that we are all individuals. We know from experience that without every individual feeling equally included, we are nothing more than a banner without people to carry it. And so, this has become our banner, and primary organizing principle.

This allows those who have apprehensions about some aspects of the movement to still dedicate themselves to it wholeheartedly, without feeling as if they are being forced against their own will. I have my own less-than-favorite aspects of Occupy Portland, but I know that if I focus myself on the parts that I like, I can do so without my individual efforts being co-opted into something I don’t agree with. If anyone ever asks me why I’m a part of Occupy Portland, I respond by mentioning those aspects I choose to take part in. As in any society, there will always be aspects with which we personally disagree. But we have hard-coded that into the structure of Occupy Portland, and we are forging ahead, full steam.

I had thought that all Occupations were just like this, but what I found out in DC is that it isn’t necessarily so. I’m sure that it is uniformly different, either. I imagine that given the opportunity to delve into the structure of any Occupation, I could find this spirit of autonomy in existence in some degree and quality. It is just in Portland that we’ve let it be one of our most defining characteristics, and have changed our local Occupation for the better.

So the next question that came to me when reflecting upon this in DC was: how can we export this feature? How can we teach what we’ve learned to other Occupations? It cannot be a one-way street, of course. Other cities have things to teach us as well. I also might have misinterpreted it. One busy day’s worth of observations cannot take the place of detailed study and conversations with other Occupations. This is the sort of impression that has to be double-checked. Additionally, it may be merely happenstance that has caused this focus on autonomy at Occupy Portland to take the foreground, and isn’t so much a leap of insight, as a stroke of luck. The real intelligence will happen when we can replicate this effect somewhere it did not form organically.

Until that time, Portlanders, rejoice! You have one more reason to convince your friend from college to move out to rent a house with you. No, they won’t find a job–but they can be part of an Occupation with autonomy safeguards baked into its core.

  9 comments for “Does Occupy Portland Lead the Occupations in Autonomous Organizing Experience?

  1. Anonymous
    January 24, 2012 at 8:11 AM

    While I have no doubt that other occupations are highly stage managed affairs run by professional activists, I think you overestimate the value of autonomy within Occupy Portland. The Peace and Safety folks you refer to were not there to aid communication in my experience, they were there as a conservative force to limit people’s actions. They’ve assaulted people in the past for something as harmless as dragging barricades into the street, and accused others of working for the police because they refused to march on the sidewalk. They’ve actively cooperated with the police to make sure that things never get too out of hand, even going so far as to bring forward a proposal based on police demands that would have effectively neutered any future marches or actions. It was only through a quirk of fate that the proposal wasn’t passed. If this is what passes for respect of autonomy, then the rest of the movement is in worse shape than I thought.

    • rothstei
      January 24, 2012 at 10:24 AM

      I would agree that Occupy Portland still has many important lessons to learn about autonomy, and the fact that the movement is doing better than other cities is no cause to drop our vigilance on this matter. However, I think that rather than attack others that don’t yet fully realize the important of autonomy as an aspect of solidarity, we use our head start on the matter to move forward, and continue teaching the lesson.

      In my opinion, the Occupy movement is still far ahead of other activist movements in the recent past on this issue. Even if the General Assembly and the consensus procedure occasionally fall short of their ideal process, the fact that it is being attempted is a major sign of progress. Remember the people in the first week of the occupation who suggested we “grow up” and get leaders so that we could get something done? We don’t hear that argument too often anymore. I’ve personally found more people willing to learn and take on the lessons of anarchism than ever before. The word “anarchist” is finally beginning to cease being a dirty word in activist circles. This is a prime opportunity, I think, for those of us that have already learned the power of autonomy and anarchist principles to continue teaching.

      One last thing–while in my perspective, anarchists do get more than their fair share of ire for their politics and tactics, they are hardly pure of deed when it comes to fostering the respect that goes hand in hand with being recognized as autonomous. Just as I’ve seen members of Peace and Safety unfairly castigate people for their tactics, I’ve also seen some more confrontational tactics being deployed in ways that are thoughtless of others. I mention this not to point blame, but to move beyond blame. It is time for activists to stop blaming each other, regardless of how reactionary anyone might be. Autonomy is taught by action, in my perspective. As a quality of the human species, we can each recognize when a person acts with the dignity of their own autonomy–as opposed to just being a jerk because they can. Both sides need to think more about setting the standard for behavior and reaching forward with a hand of solidarity, rather than finding fault in others actions.

      • Anonymous
        January 24, 2012 at 11:30 PM

        Can you provide any examples of actions carried out by anarchists that were thoughtless of others? It was this same argument that was used when people would refuse to march on the sidewalk – that people were inviting police aggression against other marchers. These kinds of arguments in favor of limiting ourselves to purely legal tactics should obviously be rejected. If anything, I think that anarchists have been far too respectful of the wishes of the liberals within Occupy. Obviously as anarchists, our involvement isn’t about trying to find common ground with liberals, but pushing things in a direction that that will naturally be antagonistic to the people, who in defense of their own privilege, would like to see things stopped well short of revolution or true liberation, fulfilling their role as a recuperating force for Capitalism and the State.

        • rothstei
          January 25, 2012 at 1:07 AM

          Yes, I’m aware of the Anarchist line about cooperation with liberals, you don’t have to repeat it to me. This is not about finding common strategic ground, it is about tactical alliance. Critical mass at large protest events requires multiple elements, not dogmatic adherence to a politics. Liberals need to learn this as well as other more radical groups. At Occupy, they are learning it better than ever. I know, I hear it every day.

          I’m not sure what argument of mine is the same as arguing for marching only on the sidewalk. I’ve never once argued for marching on the sidewalk. But regardless of that, it is this sort of straw-man argument that is killing us. All of us. Painting everyone in the crowd who is not wearing black as a law abiding liberal is just as stupid as portraying those who use the black bloc tactic as violent punks. If you ever took the time to ask anyone, you might find that almost everyone wants to march in the street. They just don’t have the tactical training or readiness to do so outside of a certain critical mass. But it would be so much simpler if they were all just liberals, wouldn’t it? Falling on these generalizations in order to defend your own point of view is hardly “respectful”. How can you respect another person’s point of view, if you are generalizing all other points of view to that concept that best supports your own?

          As far as confrontational tactics being deployed in ways that are thoughtless of others, sure, I’ll give you an example (I never said anarchists, btw): any time a person does something they know the crowd around them does not support, and then does it anyway to make the point that they will do something regardless of whether or not there is critical mass to support that action, and then gets surprised and offended when the critical mass turns against them–that is thoughtless. Or, more specifically, the only thought involved is of that person’s own precious identity. Peace and Safety yelled at you? You poor dear! I thought confrontational activists didn’t care what the liberals thought of them! But all of a sudden, an angry person wearing a vest is more of a threat to the black bloc than a motorcycle cop. This is how a confrontational tactic turns into self-centered ego gratification. It has nothing to do with legality, politics, or any definition of violence. It has everything to do with getting one’s feelings hurt at the protest. Just like I tell liberals who whine about the black bloc: never will everyone agree with you. Get over it and get to work. Are you here to protest, or to complain?

          There are plenty of people who want to work with you, just waiting to be shown how to enter the street. You are just too busy talking about who you won’t work with to realize it.

  2. Anonymous
    January 25, 2012 at 9:31 AM

    Obviously, strategy informs tactics, and common ground can’t be found tactically with people who would like to steer this movement towards reformist dead ends. I don’t give a fuck what Peace and Safety says – I do care about the role they play in trying to limit the forms that resistance takes by the movement at large. And I’m arguing that they need to be challenged, not compromised with. They don’t get to decide. You’re right, most people do want to march in the street. So why don’t they? Because peacekeepers, supposed allies, tell them not to, that it’s not appropriate for whatever lame ass reason.

    As I understood it, your argument was that in the past people have taken actions that put others in jeopardy. I used marching on the sidewalk as an innocuous example of how that argument has been used by liberals to restrict people to ritualized and symbolic forms of protest. It comes down to a blame the victim mentality, where the violence committed by the police is the fault of those who adopt extra-legal tactics. In any event, I’m still waiting for a specific example from you regarding actions taken that were thoughtless of others.

    It should also be noted that I’m not using liberal in a pejorative sense, although it’s easy to see how it could be interpreted that way. It’s a clearly defined set of beliefs that are not revolutionary, and are openly hostile to revolutionary politics. These are the people who think that anarchists, and others who use confrontational tactics, are somehow undermining the more legitimate work that they’re trying to do, and should therefore be opposed. This makes perfect sense from a liberal perspective.

    I think that most people involved in Occupy aren’t liberals, and these are the people who I want to work with. But unfortunately liberals have inserted themselves into leadership positions and believe that they not only have the right, but also the responsibility, to exclude more radical voices and actions. My goal as an anarchist isn’t to plead with them for acceptance, but to demonstrate that their attempts to control the movement are futile and to open up space for more spontaneity and autonomy. That has been the framework that I’ve used for most of my work within Occupy.

    • rothstei
      January 25, 2012 at 11:47 AM

      “Obviously, strategy informs tactics, and common ground can’t be found tactically with people…”

      That’s where you’re wrong. It really doesn’t matter what their strategy is, tactical common ground can be found. Now, the usefulness of that is debatable. Clearly, the tactically common ground that can be found is not worth mentioning in certain situations. It could do more strategic harm that good. Really bad things could happen, if you tactically allied with certain groups. You could do it, but it would bring awful strategic results. I don’t need to give a worst case example.

      But if Occupy is anything, it’s an example of how the tactical common ground between a broad spectrum of reformists and more radical anti-capitalists is in fact useful. A radical political strategy is not being compromised by this tactical common ground. It’s spreading. Yeah, not every action is a real winner. But that is not the only form of tactical confrontation in the world.

      I think “blame the victim” happens on both sides of this dualistic debate we’ve constructed (which in my view, is the “thoughtlessness”, for both sides). You’re right–liberalism is not a pejorative category. It is a mindset that happens for a reason. It is repairable. It’s being repair, though slowly. Blaming the liberals for being liberals makes no more sense than blaming anarchists for the actions of the police. This is not to say being liberal is a systemic problem over which they have no control–it’s to say that it’s a mindset that with a little experience and education, is easily dispelled in most circumstances. They do need to be challenged… but done in the right way. Confrontation is only one radical tactic. There are many others. And confrontation, with the proper educational complement, does work. After N13 and N17, you sure don’t hear many people apologizing for the cops anymore. It sucks that it took batons and pepper spray to get this across, but not everyone out here has the action experience of some of us. Many people learned the lesson. This is what we need. Confrontation not done to make a self-centered point, but done in concert with education.

      I’m not sure what “leadership positions” you’re referring to… but I think you would be surprised about some of the more active people at Occupy. I’m not sure who you’re currently working with, or not. But I think “liberals in leadership positions” is a rhetorical retreat to an older sort of organization that radicals are used to dealing with. This is a different sort of organization. Not necessarily utopian, but certainly not so simple as it’s either co-opted, or its not. But, it’s not ready to raise the black flag either. You might consider this a compromise, and then want no part in it, and that’s cool. But I think it is something far more complicated. Whether this tactical common ground yields strategic fruit in the end is still kind of up in the air. But certain winning points are coming down. It’s not enough yet, overall strategy has not been “achieved” and I’m not satisfied. But it’s not done yet either.

  3. Anonymous
    January 26, 2012 at 9:13 AM

    You really don’t get it. But that’s ok. Just like the folks who thought the cops were on our side, sometimes the only way to dispel these illusions is through practice and experience. If you’re willing to capitulate to liberals in order to find tactical common ground, you’ll find what most anarchists have found when participating in common fronts throughout history – you’ll be discarded and betrayed as soon as you are no longer useful to their program. This isn’t a rhetorical device, it’s happened over and over again. I’ve seen it happen first hand during the anti-globalization and anti-war movements. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I’m advocating for a different way forward, one in which liberals aren’t allowed to control the terms of debate.

    Liberalism isn’t just a mindset – it’s a product of people adopting a belief system that benefits their position in society. Those with privilege and comfort will never be true allies to the poor and working class. Many of the most vocal people in the movement are also the most conservative. They don’t want liberation, just a return to the middle class that was promised to them. When you stand with liberals, you stand against the masses. Hopefully this lesson is learned before Occupy devolves into another anti-war movement controlled by authoritarian leftists and Democrat opportunists.

    • rothstei
      January 26, 2012 at 10:11 AM

      You talk the standard anarchist party line pretty well, but that’s about it. If you’re avoiding being “discarded and betrayed”, well, then good for you. I hope that’s working out for you. I’m going to go back to fighting for individual autonomy and against capitalism now… but I hope your strategic purity helps you win history. Maybe history can be your “true ally” and you two can control the terms of debate all by yourself. Have fun.

      • Anonymous
        January 26, 2012 at 3:25 PM

        Judging by your petulant response, I’m going to conclude that this conversation is over. I wasn’t aware that there was an anarchist party line, and it’s an odd argument for a supposed anarchist to make. There is such a thing as consistency with anarchist principles. You might want to evaluate your own actions in that regard. This approach has achieved limited success in the past, and I’m going to continue to push it. Best of luck with convincing liberals to become anarchists, someone has to do it I guess.

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