Dynamic Horizontalism or: Why Occupiers Have Fun

Posted: December 31, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

“These are not the droids you are looking for!” Somebody shouted.

Twenty LAPD cops marched into Pershing Square and began taking down a pair of banners which were hanging from a wall. Dozens of activists swarmed up close to them and started chanting the Imperial March from Star Wars. For a moment the air was tense, like the whole situation could turn violent at any second.

The cops eventually backed off, leaving the banners on the ground. A vocal group of activists claimed victory and the assembly resumed its discussion. This was the first incursion I had seen but I was told it was a standard police tactic. Small displays of force intended to rile activists in the hope of provoking a clash.

I was in Pershing Square for the Occupy Los Angeles ‘Free Market’ – an experiment in gift economics, where people brought unwanted items and gave them away for free. Alongside the market, the General Assembly was engaged in a discussion on alternatives to capitalism. I sat and listened as people took the floor and spoke about everything from alternative education systems to how the existing corporate infrastructure could be re-purposed for the public good.

A common criticism of Occupy is that it knows what it stands against, but not what it stands for. Occupy loves to criticise capitalism, but when it comes to suggesting systematic alternatives it falls silent. Listening at the Assembly I noticed there was truth to this. Most people who took the floor did so to criticise the current system. About a third actually spoke on theme and raised suggestions about how society could organise itself in a more humane way. A minority spoke nonsense – an inevitable consequence of true freedom of speech.

Most of the people at the assembly were surprisingly normal. They were teachers, students, veteran activists and concerned senior citizens. They held a wide of range of views – some wanted reforms, others wanted revolution. What brought them together was disgust at America’s gross inequality, corruption of politics and the enormous power of corporations, especially banks.

The assembly ended a couple hours later with a game of ‘smash the piñata’. In a twist, the piñata was not the traditional donkey but rather a life-size ATM made from cardboard. Blindfolded activists swung a baseball bat in the air, trying to hit the ATM as it hung from a tree.

This was so different from the sombre rallies I’ve been to before, where protesters have dour faces and hold mass-produced placards. This was dynamic; the lack of hierarchy meant people could be creative and spontaneous. Individuals were left to organise themselves and they did, investing their projects with idiosyncratic flair and imagination. I was witnessing what the Argentinians call horizontalidad (sometimes translated as horizontalism) – a way of organising which spreads the power of decision equally among a whole group. Participants were autonomous but they were also a collective – any proclamation or decision made by Occupy must be approved of by each individual at an assembly. As such participants are genuinely empowered, as power lies in each of them.

Occupy had fallen off the media radar, but it was still growing. A community was forming; they were spreading their roots deep, getting ready for the long ride. Numbers hadn’t returned to the glorious initial weeks in September 2011, but in a quiet way it was more impressive. September 2011 had seen a huge outburst, an enormous overflowing of anger, hope and ideas, and what I was seeing now was the gradual distillation of that outburst, Occupy’s transition from a movement of theatre to a movement of action.

Only one thing troubled me. Some of the activists had been too provocative with the cops, as if they were looking for a fight. It is possible they were agent provocateurs. In the history of social movements, it is standard practise for government authorities to try to sabotage a group from within. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program is one recent example. Occupy had already been infiltrated on some level, to think otherwise would be naïve. The challenge for activists would be to embody the ideals of Occupy – solidarity and justice – without being too callow. To be, in the words of one well known subversive figure, “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

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