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Are the #OccupWallStreet Working Groups functioning optimally?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
19th October 2011


The functioning and critique of working groups, excerpted from Pham Binh:

“OWS’s working groups deal with food, sanitation, medical, security, media, outreach to other activist groups, transparency, facilitating meetings, and meeting a variety of other needs of the hundreds-strong collective (last week they had a makeshift barbershop and gave people free haircuts). Many of the working groups are divided into subgroups due to the complex nature of the tasks they are responsible for. All working groups report to the General Assembly (G.A), an open mass meeting that operates using modified consensus, meaning almost everyone must agree for decisions to be made.

Although the Occupy movement is going from strength to strength, there are problems brewing beneath the surface of OWS’s success.

There is an intense level of frustration among occupiers with the G.A. process and the dysfunctional nature of some working groups. This has given rise to talk of creating a spokescouncil, a body composed of the working groups that would more efficiently deal with mundane, practical matters, allowing the G.A. to be more focused and productive. Some people in working groups skip the G.A. altogether because they feel it is a waste of time. One woman in the sanitation working group spends 20 hours a day cleaning the plaza and has no time or energy left to participate in the political process.

Bobby, a self-described anarchist who is part of three different working groups, complained at a discussion about the proposed spokescouncil that the G.A. was often held hostage by the “tyranny of the minority.” (A minority can block decisions from being passed in a system based on consensus; conversely, the pressure to agree unanimously to get something done led to ugly racial tensions after people of color repeatedly blocked the G.A. from incorporating the absurd claim that racial divisions no longer existed in the text of OWS’s first official declaration.)

Bobby also complained that decisions passed by the G.A. were often impractical, such as the G.A.’s approval of the sanitation working group’s request to buy trash bins to help clean Liberty Plaza. The G.A.’s approval came with conditions: they had to be “fair trade” trash bins and the sanitation group had to look on Craigslist first for the best price. This hampered execution of the decision and made meeting a vital need of the occupiers very difficult.

The simple, horizontal structure originally created around a G.A. using modified consensus has become a barrier to practical and political work getting done now that over 600 occupiers and an even greater number of people (workers, students) are involved through working groups. What was once an asset has now become an impediment.

There is even more tension surrounding the issue of money. At least $40,000 has been donated to OWS mostly via the internet, and OWS has yet to figure how to account for and control spending. The G.A. process is too inefficient and arbitrary to be responsible for deciding this question on its own. For example, the G.A. voted to give $200 to one of the protest organizers after he said he lost his phone and needed to buy a new one. He was not forced to buy a “free trade” phone or look for the best price on Craigslist.”

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