Occupy Wall Street: Where Everybody Has A Say In Everything

Oct 4, 2011
Originally published on October 6, 2011 9:52 am

At Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, where hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters are camped out, there's a big meeting every night at 7:00.

The protesters call it the General Assembly, and it's a meeting where every single person has a say in every single decision that gets made. For the protesters, this is a model society.

It's a model where it takes a really long time to make a decision — like, say, whether to buy more sleeping bags for the group.

I visited the park for a General Assembly earlier this week. Here's what I heard.

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Imagine now being part of every decision in a society. That's the way things are done down on Wall Street - OK, in a park next to Wall Street, where protestors have been living for a couple of weeks. Zoe Chace with NPR's Planet Money team reports.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: The occupiers of Wall Street sleep on tarps and cardboard boxes. They have blankets. They have pillows. They have each other. One thing they don't have...

CROWD: We need sleeping bags. We need sleeping bags.

CHACE: Did you catch that?

CROWD: We need sleeping bags.

CHACE: This is a technique the protestors are using that they call the people's mic. The police won't allow bullhorns, so the crowd repeats every phrase said by the person addressing the crowd. Here's another example...

CROWD: If we buy a hundred $20 sleeping bags - if we buy a hundred $20 sleeping bags - that would be enough for the time being - that would be enough for the time being.

CHACE: OK. I'm going to set the scene here. This meeting is called the General Assembly. It's held in the 7:00 hour every night - as of a few days ago, when that was decided. It's raining. It's dark. It's cold. The protestors are about 400-deep, looks like. Purple haired, dreadlocked, army jacketed, bearded - that's the norm but not the rule. The General Assembly is where decisions are made that affect this group. The meeting is led by two people, facilitators.

CROWD: Facilitators.

CHACE: You can probably tell that decisions are made by consensus. The group consents to proposals by waving their fingers in the air - kind of like jazz hands. If they don't agree, they also do jazz hands, but face down. Everyone has two minutes to speak. The speaker list fills up quickly. Remember the sleeping bags proposal - controversial. The head of the comfort committee requested $2,000 from the general fund to buy sleeping bags. People had a lot of follow-up questions.

CROWD: My question is more pragmatic. My question is more pragmatic. Should we just buy fabric? Should we not just buy fabric? And construct sleeping bags? And construct sleeping bags?

CHACE: All right. While they sort that out, I went to the so-called head of communications at the park, Brian Phillips, and asked why this structure that takes so long?

BRIAN PHILLIPS: They have people speak, everyone votes on it, and we come to an agreement, and that's how we want society to be.

CHACE: Phillips is an ex-Marine with a Bachelor's in computer science. Today he is wearing a sock on his head. How did you become the head of communications if there's no governing structure?

PHILLIPS: So the media group, we went and did a little meeting, and I introduced myself and, you know, I said I have this to offer with my skills. And everyone said yes. Everyone agreed and voted that I can do that.

CHACE: That's exactly how this works. Many working groups reporting back to one big general assembly - really, really direct democracy.

PHILLIPS: My political goal is to overthrow the government. We want to get rid of the corrupt(ph) - get rid of the Federal Reserve, and you know, get rid of all the too-big-to-fail companies and just reconstruct the entire government, so...

CHACE: Into something that looks kind of like this General Assembly. Today, some prominent New York labor unions will join the protestors on Wall Street. They probably will not be sleeping in the park - in newly approved sleeping bags. The proposal did pass. Nor will they be making decisions by consensus. In fact...

KEVIN HARRINGTON: We have an executive board, which is like our congress, our parliament. And a motion was put before our executive board and passed almost unanimously that we should back the people occupying Wall Street.

CHACE: Kevin Harrington is with the New York Transport Workers Union for 30 years, but he would never dream, he says, of telling these kids how to organize. To each his own. Zoe Chace, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.