Divine Occupation: The Politics of Messianic Insurrections – 2/3
A third problem which led to the internal collapse of the occupation was the large student mobilization which occurred on the afternoon of Tuesday Nov. 22nd in Kellen Auditorium hosted by the President and Provost. The meeting which grew so large that the Bark Room in the lobby across in 2 W 13th had to be opened with a second live camera feed, and even then there were still people in the lobby unable to fit into the room. The meeting was largely the airing of a whole list of grievances against the occupation, interspersed with some mixed support for the occupation. But the overall message was clear–a lot of students were not happy with what was going on and the disruption of the space. The challenge, which I think we all collectively failed in at that movement, was to really hear those concerns and attempt to constructively respond before things had got to this point on campus.
The outpouring from this earlier meeting was then channeled into the occupation General Assembly that evening at 8pm, in which I would estimate close to 150 people attended. When I arrived there with a few people following a meeting of the Politics student union, we found the hallway completely filled with people, and a crowd of around 30 people was gathered there, unable to enter. The upstairs was at capacity, we were told, so after some deliberation a small contingent of students headed over to the Theresa Lang Center to try and establish an overflow skype video chat. We finally got the technical connections all setup only to be told that the GA would not allow video to be shown, due to the media ban. Could we at least have audio, we asked, so there were no security concerns about being on camera. Nope, no media at all, audio or video. So much for that. Unsure what to do, we we began to discuss with the 25 or so people who had come over. Someone then phoned to say that we could come over and violate fire code (which was 140 people), but that this might increase the chance of police. A few people decided they were willing to risk that, and headed over. Not too long after we got a call saying to come over, there was room now. What had changed was unclear, but the group of 20 or so odd people then headed back over through the pouring rain back to 90 5th. When we got there the space was packed with people, and discussion was underway around the earlier meeting. You can see for yourself what the inside of the meeting was like, but this (video*) fails to capture the open hostility many of us felt there.
After many heated debates and proposals and discussions and shouting matches from several small groups dispersed around the room a vote was finally called for the occupation to end, with the final tally varying between 91 and 96 people in favor of leaving the space, and 25 opposed who wanted to stay. This was the second time I have seen a New School occupation openly vote to end itself, but unlike the vote in December of 2008, the majority were in favor of ending the occupation were the same ones inside from the beginning. Although many of us who were in favor of leaving after what had gone down Tuesday were in the space every day of the occupation, there was also a large contingent of students who effectively showed up just to vote the student occupation out, and who had note been involved in any meaningful way prior to this General Assembly. This brings me to the fourth thing which led to the internal collapse of the occupation–the General Assembly itself.
The General Assembly, or GA, is a double-edged sword. It’s great because it is a horizontal and egalitarian space that, when facilitated well, can be extremely empowering for a large group, as we have clearly seen in the past two months of Occupy Wall Street. But it is also susceptible to manipulation, both internally and externally, if there are not strong checks on transparency and accountability for those involved in the process. GA’s really work best when there is at least a minimum level of trust amongst all of those involved, and a good faith effort to reach consensus as a group–or what the Romans referred to as collegiality. Neither of those things ever existed for the majority of people in this latest occupation. The very openness of the GA is also its greatest vulnerable.
As we saw throughout the week, the GA could be manipulated by abuse of process, such as people jumping stack by using either a direct response or point of information, when in fact all they wanted to do was insert their comments. We also consistently saw the same 20-30 people dominating the majority of conversations. And when a large group of angry students decided to take matters into their own hands–democratically and completely within the pre-established GA process, they made their voice heard with a vote of no confidence.
Now here is where it gets really messy politically. Technically the people who voted to end the occupation were within their power. This was an open occupation, and anyone could take part. In that sense, the process was legit. But as many people involved in the founding moment or the emerging hardline faction argued, the GA on Tuesday night felt rigged. In effect, the President and his bureaucratic allies had rapidly mobilized a large student assembly and voting block who could be sent in to disrupt and end the occupation. It was a clever political tactic that even Sun Tzu would have approved of, reminiscent of the following lines:
the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations
But let’s be honest. This was not a Trojan horse surprise attack by the administration. The concerns that spilled out in the GA Tuesday night had been served up clearly and publicly numerous times in previous GA’s, only to be summarily dismissed. This was the final culmination of unheeded student discontent channeled into a pre-established political process. The occupation was not hijacked, the hardline faction simply lost majority support–which in their eyes equaled a political hijack by “bureaucratic provocateurs” and “liberal collaborators,” two of their favorite labels for anyone considered an ennemi du peuple, or “enemy of the people.” While I agree that the process of a lot of people showing up to voice their concerns in this manner, especially given their lack of prior involvement in the occupation, demonstrates a questionable politics, but it is perfectly legit within the framework the occupation had established. It was our own fault for not establishing more mechanisms of accountability to prevent such a move from occurring. Something like a two prior GA attendance rule or something in order to vote on a proposal. I don’t know what would have made sense, but there was nothing to stop what happened from happening, except perhaps to have addressed these concerns earlier so they would not have exploded the way they did. But given the tone and direction of the occupation at that point, I don’t think that would have have ever realistically happened. I could be wrong, but that’s my take.