The third General Assembly of Occupy D.C. convened in a huddle at McPherson Square, a few blocks north of the White House, at 6 p.m. on Monday, and proceeded with the business of building a movement still in its inchoate stage. After passing the proverbial mic for announcements and committee reports--they are in need of warm clothing but have way too much bread--the group confronted the Big Question that has been dogging Occupy Wall Street for weeks. Why are we here?
The question rings silly at first, and the press has been quick to criticize the protests as directionless tantrums. Journalists are a reflexively skeptical bunch and for good reason. Incredulousness is the key ingredient for doing the work of journalism: "the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence," wrote Mark Twain. But in the coverage of the Occupy protests, which has been rife with cynicism and snide humor, I'm afraid our cultivated skepticism--and our tendency toward detached elitism--has led us astray.
Like their Occupy Wall Street brethren, the Occupy D.C. crew, about 40 strong at its height on Monday, operates on anarchist principles, making decisions by consensus and without official leadership. Debates can be excruciatingly slow and even the most innocuous minutiae are liable to become contentious. On Monday night, the General Assembly of Occupy D.C. had a fairly quarrelsome debate about how to or whether or not to have a discussion about why they were there. Nonetheless, though debates may be taxing on one's patience they do get resolved and decisions do get made. And here, I think, is where the press leans back on its cynicism in the face of something it doesn't understand.
Anarchy doesn't mean chaos. Distilled to its essential elements, it merely means political equality in a system without bosses; as a political program it isn't much of a leap from "All men are created equal." In this sense, the principles upon which the Occupy movements operate are part of the Point in and of themselves. The unifying mantra of Occupy (which itself didn't go undiscussed at Monday's meeting), is "We are the 99 percent," representing the most clearly defined statement of purpose yet to emerge from the movement. United in disgust with a society that has grown more economically unequal than ever before, the Occupiers are content for the time being with expressing their outrage, and doing so through a program that contrasts sharply with what they see as an oligarchic American political system all but sold out to bankers and large corporations.
During the heated debate about whether or not to have a discussion to decide on their purpose for being together at McPherson Square on a chilly Monday evening, a woman who had been at Occupy Wall Street in its early days drew an applause when she said she wasn't all that comfortable with identifying a precise demand at all, for now at least. "They understood it when we were on Wall Street and they'll understand it now," she said.
The media professed to not understand, but I suspect we all know exactly why those people are there. It isn't a sophisticated political position, it isn't an answer to the problem, and it doesn't fit our pre-fab protest narrative with a clear goal that is either won or lost, but at heart it's the same idea that's been expressed by President Obama and people on both sides of the proverbial aisle: the way our economy functions is really screwed up.
The protesters may eventually get around to articulating a more precise demand, but they aren't in a hurry. The movement isn't designed to first and foremost get its message out by staging made-for-TV moments and fashioning easily digestible sound bites in the way other protest movements have been. The movement is talking, first and foremost, to itself. The Occupiers have their own channels of dissemination, their own video cameras, blogs, Twitter accounts, what have you, and they won't rush into a decision about stated goals simply because we in the media demand one. They don't need us, and if they do come to a decision they'll do it when they're good and ready. For now, they are a group of people united in anger and the belief that there is a better way, even if they haven't exactly figured out what that is yet (a shortcoming for which they should not be criticized by pundits in glass houses).
Amid the confusion at McPherson Square during the arguments about if or how to discuss goals, a young man with fiery orange hair interrupted the proceedings. He was the stickler for parliamentary procedure, who had chastised people throughout the meeting for speaking out of turn, and he noted that the agenda had called for the General Assembly to be officially adjourned before any discussion began if there was to be a discussion at all. "With the facilitator's permission," he said tentatively, gesturing toward the master of ceremonies for the evening, "the General Assembly is actually over. Now get together and talk."