(See the main Occupy the Highway blog post for the latest news on the march.)
It’s been a rough start to the week for the Occupy movement. Riot-clad police officers kicked Occupy Oakland protesters out of their encampment just before dawn Monday and arrested dozens. The day before, Chapel Hill, N.C., police evicted and arrested 80 Occupy protesters camping out at a vacant used-car dealership. Reports spread about a rape at Occupy Philadelphia and about drug usage and guns at other Occupy campsites.
Here in Philadelphia, where more than 20 Occupy protesters on a two-week march from New York to Washington spent the night Sunday, the previously Occupy-friendly mayor denounced the protests, saying conditions at the camp were “dramatically deteriorating.”
“Beginning of the End?” ABC News asked Monday.
But Occupy protesters on the long march to Washington say not so fast. Many of them acknowledge there are roadblocks, but police evictions and reports of violence are not the protests’ main problem.
After having spent five days on the road with Occupy marchers, I would say the bigger roadblock the movement faces seems not to be drug usage (of which there was almost none), rapes (none of which occurred, to my knowledge), or conflicts with police (protesters and police have a very friendly relationship.)
The bigger problem with the Occupy movement seems to be the way decisions are made. Because there is horizontal leadership, decisions take much longer than they would under a single leader. Arguments can last for hours and escalate quickly. Misinformation can spread quickly.
David Graeber, an ethnographer and anarchist at the University of London Goldsmiths campus who has followed Occupy closely, says that although it has problems, “direct democracy” such as this makes people feel their “opinions are really respected.”
An example of this “direct democracy” in action came on the way into Philadelphia, when marchers were told that Occupy Philadelphia was in disarray because the Quakers and anarchists had split apart. The marchers stopped to hold an emergency General Assembly meeting in a car lot to discuss what to do:
Kelly Brannon, co-organizer of the march: “We’re holding this meeting because we don’t know what we are walking into in Philly, and we need to figure this out.”
Another marcher: “We need to move spots; the owner doesn’t want us touching his cars.”
Brannon: “We [expletive] need to do this! This is a really important decision! I don’t care if the police are against us. We have to follow process. Who cares if we get arrested!”
La, last name not given: “You need to calm down, Kelly! You need to calm down!”
Philadelphia police officer: “This is a dangerous neighborhood. I wouldn’t stop here.”
The marchers eventually came to a consensus: They would deal with the situation when they arrived.
Problematic as that small example may have been, the Economist points out that direct democracy functions even less well with larger groups because of “diversity of moral belief” and the “impossibility of consensus.”
Although these problems worry some marchers, others quoted an Occupy Trenton protester, who had told them several days earlier when they stopped in his city: “The movement is just being born. And as we all know: Birth is messy.”