Last night at Occupy Wall Street (OWS), the Demands Working Group came before the General Assembly to make their case for "Jobs for ALL - A Massive Public Works and Public Service Program." The most controversial item on the agenda was preceded by two routine budgetary requests. The Political and Electoral Reform Working Group sought approval to purchase an IPad ($299, refurbished) to conduct experiments on voting (tabled for lack of consensus) and the Screen Printing Guild asked for $4,000 to purchase blank T-shirts that could be stamped with the #OWS logo and sold to raise funds (passed).
In an essay published last month, Matt Stoller eloquently argued that the appropriate framing of Occupy Wall Street should be as a "church of dissent" rather than a group of protestors with explicit demands. The occupiers were, in his words, "a group of people, gathered together, to create a public space seeking meaning in their culture." Nevertheless, some in the movement are clearly dissatisfied with the lack of structure and insist on the necessity of specific demands.
Their proposal, however, was greeted with considerable skepticism by many among the 200 or so attendees who had gathered in Zuccotti Park on the cold Sunday evening. The presenter, a young white female, had barely finished speaking -- calling for government projects to create 25 million new jobs, to be paid for by taxes on the incomes of the wealthy and on corporate transactions -- when she was interrupted by a young Hispanic man. "Any demand," he shouted, "means validating the U.S. government. Why are we asking criminal organizations for jobs?" Another voice broke in -- "He's right! We don't negotiate with terrorists."
Other objections were directed at the Demands Working Group itself and attacked its legitimacy as a valid working group. Impassioned arguments broke out about whether the group's internal procedures had been properly followed, whether their meetings were appropriately publicized in advance, and whether they had the authority to bring a proposal before the General Assembly.
Supporters of the proposal defended the demands as the logical next step in the evolution of the movement. "Are we hungry or do we just want to throw temper tantrums?" asked one African-American woman while addressing a critic. "I think we need demands -- I'm not anarchist like you." After one hour of heated discussion during which 16 clarifying questions were asked -- most of them position statements more than inquiries -- the facilitators decided that the group would be unlikely to reach consensus and decided, in consultation with the Demands group, to table the proposal until the following Saturday.
After the meeting adjourned, I caught up with Ashley Love, 31, a human rights activist from Manhattan who had made the remark about temper tantrums earlier. "If we are hungry for change, we must make demands," she insisted. "This is a revolution, not a festival. That is my quote."
Others remained just as vehement in their opposition to the proposal, arguing that it was premature to issue formal demands at such an early stage. "Making demands limits the scope of the movement," said Gilbert Rosa, 22, a recent college graduate from the Bronx. "We don't want the Democrats taking the energy from our movement and funneling it to the establishment." Solomon Seagal, 27, of Manhattan agreed, suggesting that OWS was succeeding in its goal of generating awareness even without formal demands. "We're trying to build a platform where individuals can bring their own demands, a platform from which we can reach the solution. We are building that platform."
Hamdan Azhar is a New York-based writer whose works have been published in the Huffington Post, Counterpunch, and the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a B.S. in economics from Penn State University and an M.S. in biostatistics from the University of Michigan.