Finally: The Organizers Join the Occupationistas

Want to understand the difference between ‘organizing’ and the Occupy Wall Street protesters? Go watch the new film Moneyball, based on the 2003 book of the same name. For the last seven or so years, I’ve been immersed in the world of ‘new organizing’ which lies somewhere between ‘new media’ and ‘online organizing.’ Where Moneyball pits baseball traditionalists against soulless number-crunchers, new organizing pits the integrated use of new communication and database technologies against those overly committed to meatspace technology: talking to people in person.

The Meaters & The Onliners
For years now, the ‘meaters’ (as I like to call them) have been whining about the digital divide, defending their organizational and cultural turf within decaying/aging organizations, and grumbling about kids being on their lawn. You hear them less nowadays, as they are too embarrassed and fearful to attach their names to such opinions, but occasionally thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell or fanciful terms like ‘slacktivism’ gain brief currency. (Then Egypt has a revolution or something proving them wrong – again.)

Folks like myself, whether freelance or staff, function at times almost like secret agent consultants. We know we have something valuable to offer, but with a few exceptions much of our work is devoted to proving already established facts to slow moving organizations and overly confident staff.  How interesting then to observe that our skill sets as digital strategists or communication specialists are so undervalued by the Wall St. occupationistas as to make it impossible for many of us to connect within a movement ecosystem. We want to work them; they aren’t sure they want to work with us. Given the super loose/ultra democratic structure, it’s really hard to work with them.

And It Begins
Part of my experience with this movement began six weeks or so beforehand, when I came to what was announced as a planning meeting by the bull statue in lower Broadway. The first two hours was dominated by the Workers World Party, an obnoxious tribe of newspaper sellers. The second two hours were a dry run for the general assembly process of sitting in a large circle and slowly building consensus. I joined a working group, wrote out my name/email address on some lists, gave out some business cards to folks I know were early movers and shakers, and basically said: I like this and I’m interested in helping.

No one ever sent me an email. While folks in my line of work are very interested in things like list building, CRM databases that handle email lists. I kept wanting to ask ‘who is in charge?’ or even ‘who is in charge of communications strategy’ or perhaps ‘is there a designated accountable person for anything at all?’ Later, when a friend who is involved asked for my help, my response was hard to say out loud. While I wanted to help ‘Occupy Wall Street’ it felt extremely alienating to see such a lack of organization. Organizing skills are like a secret bat signal to wider circles of committed activists; if they seem to exist, folks show up; when they don’t, folks stay home.

Moneyball Organizing
And that’s the Moneyball connection. The occupationistas are protest traditionalists. For them, and this is in keeping with the principles of the Temporary Autonomous Zone and other pro-Situ ideas, the moment at which someone transitions from everyday life to Wall Street Occupation life is pregnant with possibility. Focus on creating that moment for yourself and as many of those around you as possible and magic ensues. This process can’t be counted, tallied up or ‘organized.’ It must be experienced. Just like baseball for the traditionalists.

Did that sound like criticism? It’s not meant that way. The creation of moments that demand a high personal investment but grant participants a meaningful conversion experience is the specialty of this tradition. They did it in Seattle in 1999 – remember Teamsters and Turtles? The direct action enviros do it all the time. This is the strength and contribution of the Zuccatti Park occupation. They’ve created a moment of truth in the heart of the capitalist spectacle. As Matt Stoler wrote, a church not a protest.

By organizing folks in my circles mean a process of recruitment, leadership development, and exercise of power that is accountable to a defined community. This is the working definition used by unions, community organizing groups like the former ACORN, and even a certain 2008 presidential election campaign. A close cousin might be called ‘coalition organizing’ that begins and often ends with groups standing together on a certain issue to maximize their impact on the political class. A great example is the New Bottom Line campaign.

Organizing places a great deal of stress of planning and accountability. How many doors knocked? How many petition signatures? Which organizations have signed on? Who are the community leaders involved? Much of it involves organizing people in structures that already exist and enjoy community support, such as churches and civic groups. This kind of organizing assumes that large numbers of people linked by authentic networks of deep relationship can overcome the advantages of money in political struggles. Winning isn’t the result of magical experiences leading to a crescendo, it’s the result of master organizers using enhanced voter files, membership databases, conversion rate metrics and the scanning of walk lists.

Organizers will often ask ‘who is on board?’ while planning the start of a campaign. This question covers issues of racial and gender diversity among the leaders and supporters, but also seeks to maximize the chances for victory. If some group out there could be helpful, and they haven’t been properly courted, their absence down the road could result in a preventable loss. So you have to do your homework.

The Wall St. Alternative to Organizing
The Occupy Wall St. crowd does it differently. Their answer to ‘who is on board’ is ‘we are!’ referring to whoever shows up that day. So if the early stages were overwhelmingly white, young and disaffected, representing a constituency so truly powerless that no community organizing group would think to recruit them, well so what? In the United States, young disaffected whites have often shown a great willingness to combine passion and self-sacrifice where others might have counseled deep organizing and networking first, and militant action second. (or never!)*

This rejection of what we might call ‘organizer’s bias’ meant that many potential allies were turned off during the planning stages and the first two weeks of the occupation. Make no mistake: folks who are connected to old school and new school organizing groups have been paying close attention, attending meetings, coming for drop-ins at Zuccotti Park, and trying to figure out who is in charge and what they want. And since no one is in charge and they want so many different things, those folks reported up the chain that it’s great, but very unclear how to connect. The complaint: ‘what are you demands’ was actually a plea: ‘we want to join but you’re making it hard!’

A colleague from a major NYC union called me to discuss how best to support them. But his initial take was quite mixed– the absence of a coherent strategy made it hard to negotiate specific forms of aid, which is often how unions conceive of their ability to help. Later, this union decided to jump in with both feet; but they still don’t have a handle on ‘the plan.’ There is no plan. That’s why we can’t call it organizing. The folks with plans have now jumped into the fray with both feet, as will be seen on October 5th.

You Might Not Like What Will Happen Next
But whatever it is, the impact is beyond question. With some meager hundreds of occupationistas, helped along by NYPD stupidity, the occupation of Wall Street is now a front page national issue. To a certain extent, the issues they raise are trailing behind. Issues like the culpability of Wall Street in our current mess, a millionaire’s tax, taxing financial transactions, reregulating Wall St., creating jobs, and addressing the foreclosure crisis.

Right now, some very different actors are coming together with public expressions of love and support. The street theater anarchists look at labor and think, ‘yes, we’ve prodded the behemoth to stir!’ The grizzled organizer types look at live video of the general assemblies and think ‘we can use this to generate concrete political victories like extending a millionaire’s tax in New York State!’ Truly, a May-December romance if there ever was one. Now we observe the groups from column A build their lists off the energy produced by the doe eyed campers from column B. Thanks Wall Street occupiers!

At some point – next week, next month or next year – this romance will come under strain. Street theater won’t spark a revolution. Instead, transactional politics will rear its compromising head, following the lead of groups that are accountable to members who would rather have real victories sooner (2012) rather than socialism later. See you at the ballot box folks – don’t forget to pick up your trash.

When the pivot happens, it won’t look like a struggle full of lighting and thunder. It will be more like an elephant shrugging off a monkey. In the end, whether you are feel more comfortable with old school or new school organizing will be irrelevant. It’s whether or  not you do organizing that matters, and all the websites, livestreams and video in the world won’t make up for not doing it. It’s Moneyball baby, not baseball. Pity the self-sacrificing occupationistas who don’t know this yet. I love you and wish you actually wanted to organize.


*Please don’t interpret anything above as a knee jerk rejection of white left activism. God forbid. And yes, there is some diversity. Funny how so many whites are actually fearful of simply recognizing their leadership and impact, as if the absence of people of color in multiple + visible leadership roles render their efforts pointless. That just ain’t so. It’s more complicated than that.