Occupy Wall Street: Disruption & Leaderless Leadership

Information Booth - Liberty Square

Part of what’s fascinating about working at the Altimeter Group are the back channel conversations we have internally about the meaning and impact of disruptive events (not just technologies). A burning topic of late has been the Occupy Wall Street movement and its many Occupy offshoots throughout the country.

Last weekend, in the spirit of inquiry and research, we ventured to the demonstrations in our respective cities. We’re interested in issues of leadership, and in how institutions such as corporations, government, and unions are responding (or not) to the protest.

My colleagues Charlene Li, Jeremiah Owyang and Zak Kirchener were struck by how angry and inarticulate the San Francisco group was (but rapidly self-organizing, as Jeremiah writes). Charlene asked me to share the email I dispatched from Manhattan after visiting Liberty Plaza and attending a General Assembly in Washington Square Park:

Visiting the Wall Street group in Manhattan was a radically, if not diametrically, different experience (perhaps because protesters here have had four weeks to work on organization?). The protesters are scrupulously polite. The vibe isn’t anger, it’s more peace and love – with a healthy dose of fervor and commitment, of course. People are absolutely on their best behavior. If they behave, the city can’t ask them to leave Liberty Plaza. Boy, are they behaving.

While there’s no hierarchy in the movement, the level of sheer organization is tremendous. There are working groups for everything conceivable; not just health and legal and food, but around things like coaching, to help individuals define their own role within the movement, then devise a plan to fulfill that mission. These groups all have regular meetings at specified times and locations – anyone is welcome to take part, or to start their own group.

Distributing Lunch in Liberty PlazaIn Liberty Plaza, people are sober and disciplined (if someone scruffy, at least the ones truly occupying it 24/7). They’re taking care not to litter, or even to disturb the community flower beds. There’s an active media center (lots of laptops and video cameras). There’s an information booth and a library. There’s orderly food distribution (sandwiches, pasta, and apples when I was there at lunchtime), and stations with overflowing bins of donated warm clothing, sorted and organized and for the taking. One station turns gray water from dish washing back into fresh water for consumption – all in a space smaller than a city block. No litter, no filth, despite the fact people have been literally living there for over four weeks.

“Our economy is strong,” said one protester. Evidently, it is.

What really impressed us was the human microphone system the protesters are using to communicate and broadcast messages, both in the square and at bigger rallies (which they call General Assemblies). They can’t use amplification – that would require a police permit. So when there’s an announcement, or a speech, the speaker starts by calling out “Mic check.” The nearest ring of people echoes this, then the ring after that, until 2-3 tiers of people are repeating each phrase the speaker utters (speaking is, of necessity, in short 5-6 word bursts.) This obviously requires a huge degree of focus and cooperation – and it totally works. There’s even a system of 4-5 hand gestures protesters are encouraged to use when listening (rather than applaud, boo, etc.). It’s quieter and less disruptive than clapping would be – and keeps the human microphone system functioning. Play the video above for a demonstration.

No matter what your position on Occupy Wall Street’s agenda (which is well articulated here in New York, unlike in San Francisco, apparently – there are ample leaflets and the free “Occupied Wall Street Journal”), it’s one of the best examples of human organization I’ve witnessed. It’s like some idealized commune experiment transposed to the sidewalks of NYC. The protesters are all ages, and from all walks of life. And they’re treating one another, passers-by, tourists, and cops with Sunday school manners.

My first impression, tweeted from the scene, is still my strongest: it was like being transported into a parallel, meta-NYC: everyone’s polite, considerate, and never forgets to say ‘please.’ If you’ve ever visited New York City, you know how mind-blowing this is.

After visiting, my friends and I agreed that the real danger to the movement is infiltration; agent provocateur/strike breaker types who will disturb the peace and break all this down. That it’s held this long, and this well, is absolutely remarkable.

Comments

  1. Jon Garfrunkel says:

    “While there’s no hierarchy in the movement…”

    But there will be. People are already designated to speak to the press. With $300K collected, there exists a treasurer. One will have to exist if the organization wants to get a 501c3 tax exemption.

    My question is how long will it persist without a recognizable leadership.

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