06/12/2012 10:44 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2012

Citizen Anthropologist Occupying Reno

By Julia Hammett

I have been an Occupier in Occupy Reno (OR) since it began last October. Many view Occupy as a youth movement, with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) as its epicenter, because of the financial meltdown; but its traditions are deep-rooted in human history, and Occupiers target social injustice worldwide. Each occupation acts independently according to its own governing processes, yet Occupiers are interconnected through social networking. There is a global awakening that capital and politics are at the heart of most human suffering. Occupiers seek the rights humans have always sought: the ability to support their families, to live in safe, healthy communities, and to have a voice in their governance. In today's world only money can buy these dignities, but there is a sense of shifting sands underfoot.

Occupiers challenge hegemonic paradigms about leadership and power relations and are weaving a new social reality from the grassroots based on a responsive, sustainable, nonviolent model of earth stewardship. Recognitions of the shortcomings of the Left/Right political structure and how "monied interests" turn hierarchical governments into totalitarian regimes motivates Occupiers to seek alternatives. Some Occupiers consider themselves anarchists, arguing that people can self-govern and live productive, quality lives without coercion, force or violence. Gandhi advocated enlightened anarchy: "The ideally non-violent State will be an ordered anarchy. That State is the best governed which is governed the least."

Anarchy is only one form of non-hierarchical governance. Archaeologist Carole Crumley has applied the concept of heterarchy to describe stratified power relations and political and economic structures that have been transformed through social movements in any number of different ways. Social networking offers the additional potential to transform power through essentially rerouting political and economic relationships. Hierarchy is a unilineal structure intended to integrate power and capital in predictable, directional ways; heterarchy provides a multilineal model of interconnectivity. Social networking provides today's global movements the ability for ongoing revisions through mindful assessment and rerouting capabilities to more fully integrate resources. These emerging dynamics can generate any number of viable solutions for restructuring self sustaining, resilient, and responsive governance.

Patterns of an Occupation

One common feature of Occupy is the General Assembly (GA), perhaps one of the oldest forms of human gatherings in the world. Only the GA can "speak" for an occupation. This reinforces "community" and rejects any notions of authoritarian leadership. Another common characteristic is consensus decision-making, which relies on obtaining general agreement. Like the GA, consensus was adopted from grassroots traditions. Anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber helped to introduce consensus to OWS. Consensus has a long timeline. In the Americas it has been used effectively by the Iroquois Confederacy for more than 500 years, and by Quakers for 300 years. Maya Zapatista rebels' use of consensus may stem back to ancient times. Not the simplest or fastest form of decision-making, consensus reinforces Occupiers' values: it is creative, inclusive, builds unity, and can lead to profound moments of clarity and a sense of communitas.

In the U.S. there are tens of thousands of self-identifying Occupiers and most are non-violent demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights. But corporate media blackouts limit coverage to superficial reports of isolated violent clashes -- often started by police. Canadians are engaged in the "biggest act of civil disobedience in (their) history" which is unifying citizens; meanwhile American news remains silent. Occupiers point to this "censorship" as proof that corporate media keeps people ill-informed and reinforces the need for grassroots networking.

In many places Occupier numbers may appear down but a physical presence is not always an advantage, and technology still allows people to keep connected. Another form of networking has emerged as many Occupiers take to the road. The sojourner is an adaptive mechanism used for centuries to temporarily redistribute human resources while exchanging ideas and information. Many Occupiers now "tour" occupations, help with local actions, and seek common purpose while staying connected with their home occupations.

How Does Occupy Reno Compare With Other Occupations?

Occupy Reno (OR) is infused with our "Sagebrush Rebellion" ideals. We come from diverse backgrounds and age groups, with different educational levels, political viewpoints, and personal agendas. Together we developed guiding principles and roles for OR facilitators, approved by the GA and ratified into the OR Charter. In January we were unable to renew our camping permit; subsequently meeting attendance went down, but demonstrators still mobilize for important actions. Sharing the principle to "think globally and act locally," OR monitors local, national and world events and uses this information to makes decisions regarding actions, which are often coordinated with other grassroots organizations. Some recent events include U.S. Tax Day (Tax the 1% Protest / GDAMS-Global Day of Action Against Military Spending) co-sponsored with CODEPINK Sierra Chapter, May Day (International Workers Day) rally with union activists and Occupy Carson City, and participating in the Reno City Council (Candidates') Sustainability Forum sponsored by GreenUP. Also, Occupy Reno has an ongoing commitment and devotes much of their resources to feeding hungry people.

Hope for the Future

While the current global economic crisis is causing some to lose hope for the future, Occupiers are challenging these current realities by defending Constitutional and human rights, feeding hungry people and standing up against corporate overreach. Occupiers are inclusive and civically engaged, inspired by the non-violent, civil disobedience teachings of King, Gandhi, and Thoreau. We are decidedly green, non-partisan, anti-war, and thousands are Veterans. Taking the long view that anthropology favors, Occupiers have changed the conversation and our unified actions are likely to have a lasting impact on transforming power relations; we are connecting people in emerging networks while focusing on the fundamental values of self-governance and the common good. As a citizen anthropologist, at this time and place in history, I can't imagine a better path for me than to Occupy Reno.

Julia Hammett is a professor of anthropology at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada where she has taught since 1996. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and has conducted research in four regions of North America: California, the Great Basin, the Southeastern United States, and the American Southwest. Her research combines ecological, archaeological and historical data to analyze landscapes and land use patterns.