Consensus Hand Signals and the Human Microphone at the #OccupyWallStreet Protest Camps

Methodological innovations at #OWS:

Alex Klein on the Consensus Hand Signals:

“When faced with questions big and small — Should we demand international debt forgiveness? Should we rent a commercial kitchen? — a rough count of happy fingers is the best way for facilitators to determine whether there is a majority support for any given proposal. This kind of sign-language decision-making is a new staple of left-wing protests. The gestures were popularized in 2007 by European groups like Climate Camp, Seeds for Change, and UK Uncut, but they were showing up in protest manuals as early as 1994.

The use of consensus hand signals can be traced back to Robert’s Rules of Order, written by a cranky Civil War general after he was booed out of a Baptist church meeting in 1876. But Robert’s venerable rules, although they were good enough for Stringer Bell on The Wire, are too hierarchical for Occupy Wall Street, and organizers say they tend to encourage the formation of fractious coalitions and voting blocs. “Here, we come as individuals,” Matt tells me. And just about every individual has hands.

Then there’s the awkward business of deciding who gets to speak, and in what order. For this, Matt and the facilitators use something called “progressive slant.” Occupiers are recognized not in the order they raise their hands, but with a mind to race and gender. “If we’ve heard from ten male-bodied people, we’ll call on ten non-male-bodied people,” says Matt. The process of slant calls, proposals, blocks, and amendments can be laborious. But any deviation prompts a wave of limp disagreement-wrists and shouts of “Tyranny!”

The occupation’s organizers and leaders stress its disorganization and leaderlessness. But watching the General Assembly, it’s clear that the gesture system gives facilitators a bit more power than they let on. When proposals clash or are blocked, facilitators often suggest “middle ground” options. As the last to speak before a gestural “temperature check,” they often get the most silent applause. Since amplification devices aren’t allowed in Zuccotti Park, the occupation uses a “human megaphone”: speakers pause after each phrase and the group chants it back. Though slow-going, it gets the job done.

The wave of waggling fingers is cresting nationwide, with occupations from New Haven to Atlanta adopting similar gestures. Matt told me that facilitators across the country have become frustrated with textbook left-wing activism, structured hierarchically with “a preset agenda, a speaker, a march, and everybody going home, feeling good. It resembles the system we’re working against.” A downtown park filled with a thousand waggling fingers certainly doesn’t resemble anything the 1 percent has ever seen before.”

Tim Rayner on the The Human Microphone System:

“The Human Microphone System that Occupy Wall Street protesters use to facilitate their General Assemblies is a remarkable expression of direct democratic culture. Electronic amplification is banned in the square. The speaker says half a sentence and the crowd repeats it, so that everyone can hear. The speaker then completes the sentence and the crowd repeats this too.

The human microphone system is a physical expression of the appreciative process that happens on the internet all the time. When a blogger posts something that others think is significant, they share the message through their networks, so that that others who are not included with the author’s networks may enjoy it too. In doing so, they affirm the incredible power of open networks to create collective knowledge and wisdom. OccupyWallStreet applies the same modus operandi to transformative political action.”

Willie Osterweil on the Protest Camps:

““Yes We Camp,” one of the witty twitter hashtags of Spain’s 15 May movement, sums things up well. Inspired by the Arab Spring, galvanized by crisis, unemployment and austerity, fed up with the ineffective, corrupt, and often misanthropic political process, we are leaving our homes and moving to the street. In a blend of last-chance desperation and optimistic empowerment, we are building autonomous, totally democratic camps in city centers across the world. In these camps total inclusive democracy is praxis, everything is shared, and we build revolutionary consciousness everyday.

Perhaps no country is better suited to the radical democratic camps than Spain. A relatively young democracy, Spain has a rich political history of autonomous revolt and a strong cultural tradition of shared outdoor space. With unemployment hovering around 25 percent, and youth unemployment above 40 percent, a decade long housing bubble as dramatic as that in the US, and a series of dramatic cuts to social services being pushed by the EU and the ‘socialist’ Zapatero government, Los Indignados have over 60 percent popular support. I’ve discussed the history of the movement and life in the camps for Shareable before, but I’d like to zero in on the political methods and practices I witnessed (and took part in, to a limited extent) in Barcelona’s Placa Catalunya.

The camp is fundamentally organized around the principle of the General Assembly. If you’ve been in any kind of leftist meeting you have an idea of how it works: someone volunteers to be meeting facilitator, and people raise their hands to get on the ‘stack’. The facilitator calls on people in the order they volunteered, and only one person speaks at a time. They seek consensus rather than majority rule: all of the meetings I witnessed ended with dissenters agreeing to proposals and accepting the decision of the group. In a majority vote, voters are presented with a yes/no question and 51 percent carries the day, but in General Assembly proposals are built during conversation and debate, and as such actually reflect the desires of the group as a whole.

Everything is shared: decision making, food, labor, information, experience, resources, cigarettes. Placa Catalunya has a free kitchen, daily teach-ins, meeting schedules, public art spaces, a play space for kids, free movie screenings, and much more.

The camps also serve as action and information centers: people form actions large and small from the centralized point, allowing for a fluidity and speed of organization unavailable to other forms of organization. It also allows for simple scalability of involvement: core revolutionaries sleep and live in the camp, some people spend a couple days a week there, others only show up for major protests. This improvisational form of occupation creates a strong but fluid movement open to all and run by the people.

This is a practice of total democracy, of real, revolutionary tolerance. Los Indignados are 100 percent against violence, but they define violence to include homelessness, unemployment, hate speech and other forms of injustice. To quote the popular chant: this is what democracy looks like!

Similarly organized camps can be found throughout Spain, in Athens, and of course Egypt and Tunisia. Smaller camps have been springing up all over the world: England, Iceland, Italy, and France, throughout South America, even some in Japan and South Korea.”

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