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Can 'Occupy' protests last without leaders?

By David B. Caruso

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Oct. 16 2011 12:35 p.m. MDT

In this Oct. 10, 2011 photo, a protester affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street demonstration listens to a drum circle in Zuccotti Park in New York. 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. 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. One month after the Occupy Wall Street movement burst onto the scene and inspired similar protests across the country, it remains stubbornly decentralized, complicating everything from enforcing camp rules to writing a national platform.

Andrew Burton, Associated Press

NEW YORK — 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, late last week. "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 marched on bank offices and later into Times Square mixing with gawkers, Broadway showgoers, tourists and police to create a chaotic scene in the midst of Manhattan.

"Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!" protesters chanted Saturday from within police barricades. Police, some in riot gear and mounted on horses, tried to push them out of the square and onto the sidewalks in an attempt to funnel the crowds away.

But while the movement's 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.

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. It also calls to mind the Arab Spring, which had influential protesters but no clear leaders, at least initially.

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 two men who came up with the idea, 69-year-old Adbusters co-founder Kalle Lasn and 29-year-old editor Micah White, have yet to go to New York to see the demonstration.

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.

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