BUSINESS
10/25/2011 07:21 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2011

As Wall Street Protest Grows, Occupiers Attempt To Change Movement's Structure

As the Occupy Wall Street protests continue to expand, protesters camped out at Zuccotti Park have begun to focus more of their energy on the internal structure of the movement itself.

In short, they are trying to determine how a leaderless movement that gives every participant a voice can effectively make decisions that account for transient participants, large sums of money and increasingly tense community relations.

For nearly six weeks, all collective actions in the park have been determined by the General Assembly, which uses a daily open meeting to address issues ranging from purchasing new trash cans, to doing laundry, to the ousting of global financial powers. Now, some inside the park are contending that the assembly -- while still valuable in certain respects -- is broken when it comes to two critically important, related tasks: distributing the nearly $500,000 accrued in donations, and making critical structural decisions about life in the park as winter grows close and the surrounding community pushes back.

One enduring point of tension is the growing communal warchest -- the majority of which, thus far, has gone unspent. In the first month of occupation, $485,000 was donated by roughly 8,000 individual, anonymous donors, who gave through the Occupy Wall Street website and in donation boxes around the park. But only $66,000 has been spent, spurring some accusations of a democratic system unable to mete out funds.

But many inside the park are deeply resistant to any change -- particularly change that appears to take power out of the hands of the collective group and put it into the hands of a handful of leaders.

"I think the General Assembly is a beautiful thing, but it started becoming apparent to me that we needed an alternative model when I realized that a large portion of the attendees of the assembly are first timers," said John Friesen, 27, who said he has been living in the park since the first day of the occupation.

"At the beginning the General Assembly was small and we were okay with the lack of procedure," he added. "But now there are growing pains. We're dealing with the evolution of the organizational structure, security inside the park, taking care of everyone's basic needs."

Friesen also pointed out that many of those who participate in working groups -- collectives that deal with needs ranging from food, medicine and money to education reform, drumming, and culture -- no longer attend the General Assembly.

Friesen, like some other park dwellers, supports a new organizational structure called the spokes council. Under the proposed plan, the General Assembly would still exist, but most of the decisions about life in Zuccotti Park -- such how much money should be devoted to laundry and which areas of the park should be reserved for sleeping quarters -- would rest in the hands of a smaller, rotating council.

The council would be composed of a group of "spokes" who would represent the needs of the 60 or so working groups that have sprung up since the movement's inception. As the proposal currently stands, spokes would be nominated by sets of related working groups before every council meeting, and discuss proposals with group members before deciding on the proposal with other spokes. If a group decided its spoke wasn't accurately portraying the group's opinion, it could replace it with another member. The entire system, if it is passed by the General Assembly, could also be dissolved by the assembly at any time.

At a meeting on Tuesday afternoon to review the proposal, which is supposed to go before the General Assembly for a vote this week, three members of the structure working group -- the architects of the spokes council model -- met with a group of eight protesters to hammer out the details of the plan.

But practical realities and theoretical anxieties collided.

"When you're making budgetary decisions at the General Assembly you're also including passerbys," said Adash Daniel, a live-in occupier and member of the structure group. "These could be people who might want to see the movement fail and they're empowered with the same decision-making ability that people who are sleeping in the park have. They can come in, make a terrible vote and then leave."

"But people are seeing this as a money grab, a power grab," said Jared, a participant in the meeting who did not want his last name used. "Have you thought of this proposal without the money?"

But the purpose of the proposal, others pointed out, is to form a collective group with the institutional memory and context to make informed financial decisions. The spokes council without authority to make financial decisions would just be another group adding their voices to a collective that, as some see it, is nearing the end of its usefulness.

A man who had a name tag that said Jose -- with the "o" inscribed with a peace sign -- raised his hand. "What's stopping you from making this happen now?" he asked.

"The biggest obstacle is a broken system," said Marissa Holmes, another member of the structure group. "We have to go through the General Assembly and deal with a system that currently doesn't work to get this implemented."

To make matters more difficult for those supporting the spokes council, many in the park said they do not see the the General Assembly as a broken system at all.

"I have a lot of faith in the GA," said Maria Fregoso, a member of the facilitation group, which assists with the General Assembly. Fregoso recently put together a list of all the proposals that have been passed by the assembly. "I feel like there's a lot of ways to improve the GA that haven't been tried."

The facilitation group already has one such idea underway: a board on which every assembly-approved proposal will be posted for 24-hour review. The proposals will also be available online.

"I'd like to see those ideas exhausted first," Fregoso said.

UPDATE: This report has been updated to clarify the spokes council process, and correct the number of working groups at Occupy Wall St. The number is around 60, not 30.