From my article in The Sociological Quarterly‘s new special issue on Occupy Wall Street:
Public Performance and Backstage
We know that Rosa Parks was not merely tired when she refused to give up her bus seat. She was acting with agency, and the appearance of spontaneity was part of an intentional performance designed for strategic effect (Polletta 2006). It was fine—intended even—for most people to see and sympathize with her as a tired woman who had simply had enough. It would not be fine, however, for students and strategists of social movements to take her performance at face value. We must also look behind the scenes.
Accordingly, it behooves us to explore Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS’s) backstage and not take its bountiful public performances at face value when assessing the movement (Goffman 1954). What complicates matters is that what we might usually think of as a movement’s backstage—for example, decision-making processes, general meetings, working groups, planning, and so on—is not really behind the scenes with OWS. It is all part of the public performance. To many OWS participants, internal democratic processes were often indistinguishable from external messages. To me OWS’s hyperdemocratic process was an important part of the public message. General Assemblies at Zuccotti Park in New York City operated as a brilliant theater, dramatically juxtaposing a visibly participatory people’s movement against what OWS participants and sympathizers perceived to be a rotted political system that has effectively disenfranchised most Americans. The downside is that General Assemblies were not functional forums for actual decision making. Because they were so cumbersome and easily derailed, many of the most active OWS organizers, myself included, eventually stopped going to them. Thus, much of the real decision making was pushed back-backstage into underground centers of informal power…
Read the full article on The Sociological Quarterly website (no paywall). Check out the full special section on Occupy Wall Street here.
by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Andrew Boyd, and Dave Oswald Mitchell
The American flag inspires extreme passions . . . but what exactly does it stand for? To different people it means freedom, justice, imperialism and terror — its meaning shifts wildly depending on context and observer. This emptiness, into which observers can pour almost any meaning or desire, is a large part of the symbol’s power.
For activists, a well-crafted floating signifier can be a powerful tool for catalyzing broad-based action. Subcommandante Marcos and the Zapatistas, for example, deployed the concept of the floating signifier masterfully. Marcos described the masks the Zapatistas wore as a mirror in which all who struggle for a better world can see themselves. The Zapatistas’ iconic black balaclava was not just a necessity for personal security, but became a powerful statement of unity and universality. “Behind our black mask,” they declared, “we are you.”
In 2008, presidential candi-date Barack Obama also made masterful use of floating signifiers. His poetic rhetoric of “hope” and “change we can believe in” inspired a population weary from eight years of misrule. He became whatever his supporters wanted him to be. Obama explicitly acknowledged this phenomenon in the prologue to his campaign screed, The Audacity of Hope: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”
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To pitch a reporter or assignment editor about an action or event you’re planning is to call them up—typically after sending them a news release—and attempt to persuade them that they should come out (or send a reporter) and cover what you’re doing. A good pitch call is at least as important as sending a good news release. With a call, unlike a news release, you are creating a memory of a human-to-human interaction. It’s your opportunity to make a strong impression so that when the reporter or editor goes into their morning or afternoon meeting—where they’re deciding which stories to cover—they are more likely to advocate for covering your event.
Reporters and editors are busy people. They often sound as if they are unhappy that you reached them by phone, and sometimes you’ll be lucky to get a full minute of their time. An effective pitch call makes a strong impression within the first five seconds, and makes at least the start of a compelling case within ten seconds.
For comparison, here’s an example of an ineffective pitch call:
Hi. My name is [name]. I’m calling about an event that we’re organizing. The event will be here in Manhattan. We’ll be having a march. It’s part of Occupy Wall Street. Veterans will be joining the protest today.
The caller would be lucky to get to the veteran part—which is the news hook—without the reporter or editor yawning or interrupting. Now, here’s an example of an effective pitch call:
Hi, I’m [name], calling on behalf of ‘Veterans of the 99%’. Tomorrow, military veterans dressed in uniform will march in-step from the Vietnam Memorial in lower Manhattan to the Stock Exchange. Then they’ll join Occupy Wall Street — where they’ll use a “people’s mic” to talk about why, as veterans, they are participants in the 99% movement. Did you receive our press release?
While the second pitch is actually slightly longer than the first, it is packed with words that command attention and stimulate the imagination. Everything in the pitch floods the mind with powerfully vivid images. The first example, on the other hand, is bland. There’s no indication of what the caller is even talking about until a few sentences in.
The Occupy Wall Street movement claims to be a movement of “the 99%”, challenging the extreme consolidation of wealth and political power by the top one percent. Our opponents, however, claim that the 99% movement is just a bunch of fringe radicals who are out of touch with mainstream America.
They’re not 100% wrong about us being radicals. Young radicals played pivotal roles in initiating Occupy Wall Street. And radicals continue to pour an enormous amount of time, energy, creativity, and strategic thinking into this burgeoning movement.
What our opponents are wrong about is the equation of radical with fringe. The word radical literally means going to the root of something. Establishment forces use the label radical interchangeably with the disparaging label extremist. But clearly the radicals did something right here. They’ve flipped the script by framing the top one percent as the real extremists — as the people who are truly out of touch. By striking at the root of the problem and naming the primary culprit in our economic and democratic crises — by creating a defiant symbol on Wall Street’s doorstep — a new generation of young radicals has struck a chord with mainstream America. A movement that started as an audacious act by a committed band of radicals is growing broader and more diverse by the day.
Radicals will continue to play a crucial role in this movement. Throughout history the “radicals” have tended to be among those who give the most of their time and energy to movements for change. They tend to make up a large part of the movement’s core. As such, their contributions are absolutely indispensible.
However, successful movements need a lot more than a radical core. For every core participant who gives nearly everything of herself or himself, you need at least a hundred people in the next tier of participation — folks who are contributing something, while balancing other commitments in their lives. If we are to effectively challenge the most powerful institutions in the world, we will need the active involvement of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people — folks who are willing to give something. If the core fails to involve a big enough “next tier” of participants, it will certainly fail to effectively engage the broader society. These “next tier” participants are not even the base, but rather the start of the base needed to accomplish our aims.
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What is the difference between saying none of us is a leader and saying all of us are leaders?
At first glance these two phrases may seem like two ways of saying essentially the same thing. We believe in organizing in a way that is more horizontal than vertical. We believe in equalizing participation and resisting social hierarchies.
But the word leadership can mean a lot of things. There are things we associate with leadership that have nothing to do with hierarchy. Taking leadership can mean taking initiative on moving a project or task forward. It can mean looking for what is needed in a group, and stepping up to do that thing.
These positive group-serving associations with leadership are the reason why there’s an important difference between the idea of “no leaders” and the idea of “all leaders”.
If we are part of a group that talks about having no leaders, this phrase can inadvertently make us overly hesitant about stepping up to take initiative. It can create a group culture where as individuals we become reluctant to be seen as moving something forward — because our peers might see us as a “leader”, which would be a bad thing.
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Strong group identity is essential for social movements. There can be no serious social movement—the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged—without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle. This kind of group identity is clearly emerging right now among core participants in occupations across the country and around the world, and that’s a good thing.
However, strong group identity is also something of a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from the broader society.
The Political Identity Paradox states that while social change groups require a strong internal identity in order to foster the level of commitment needed for protracted struggle, this same cohesion tends over time to isolate the group; and isolated groups are hard-pressed to build the kind of broad-based power needed to achieve the big changes they imagine.
The past ten days have been amazing. I took the train down to NYC last Wednesday, to see if I might lend a hand to the Wall Street occupation for a few days. There is so much going on. I don’t even know how many working groups there are, but today I heard that there are at least a few dozen. There are so many moving parts. I feel like a pebble in a volcanic eruption, and it’s a wonderful feeling.
Before coming down, I had talked with some friends here on the ground who I used to work with back during the global justice movement days (aka “antiglobalization movement”). They encouraged me to get involved with the press working group and the training working group. Sh!t hit the fan the day after I arrived with Bloomberg’s backhanded eviction attempt, and so I’ve been doing much more press work than training. The press work has mostly been helping to write and edit press releases, helping to prepare folks for interviews (to get their message out through the filters of the mainstream corporate media), helping reporters find the folks they want to interview, and I’ve done a handful of interviews myself too. Here’s one from NY Daily News:
A longer print version of the interview can be read here.
I’ve decided to stay a while longer — probably at least a few more weeks. I’m hoping to stay involved in the press working group, but to concentrate more of my time on training and leadership development. It’s amazing how many new folks are pouring into this social change effort right now. It’s hard on the ground to not to get caught up in almost continuous crisis/triage mode, but it’s so important that we seize this moment to help some of these great young folks become long-term leaders.
I’m trying to carve out a little time each day to write up or adapt a new one-pager covering a particular #occupy-related skill or strategy concept. Two days ago I set up a basic Wordpress site called #occupyWINNING (@occupyWINNING on Twitter), which will house this project. I plan to format most of the materials into PDFs too, so that people can easily print and distribute at occupations if they find any of the tools useful. I’ll be cross-posting everything here too.
In addition to what I post at #occupyWINNING, I’m hoping to soon start collaborating with other trainers.
I’m excited and grateful to be here.
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Three Tips for Plugging People In
Bringing in new participants and volunteers is essential to an occupation-or any group or organization-that wants to grow in size and capacity. The momentum of the Occupy Wall Street movement has quickly attracted a lot of people to occupations across the United States and around the world. But attracting or recruiting new people to your occupation or group is only the first step. Getting them to stick around is a much bigger challenge.
The good news is that there are tried-and-true methods you can use to plug new participants and volunteers into tasks and roles that will build their investment and leadership in the collective effort, and will increase what you all are capable of achieving together.
1. Greet and get to know newcomers.
When someone shows up at your occupation, march, rally, or action, they are indicating an interest. Greet them! Find out about them! And don’t just invite them to come to your next meeting. Even the most welcoming and inclusive groups tend to develop their own meeting culture that can unintentionally make new folks feel like outsiders. To increase your new participant retention rates, take a few minutes to stop and talk with new folks. Get to know the person. Find out about what attracted them to your effort. You might ask about what kinds of tasks they enjoy doing, what they are good at, etc. If that goes well, you might ask them how much time they have. You can tell them more about what’s going on with the effort – and discuss with them what their involvement could look like. While this level of orientation requires some time in the short-term, it saves you time in the long-term – because more people will plug into the work faster, and stick around longer. It may make sense a working group to take on the ongoing task of greeting, welcoming, and orienting new folks.
2. Accommodate multiple levels of participation.
In short, some people can give a lot of time, and some can give a little. Organizers with more time on their hands should avoid projecting their own availability as an expectation onto others. A foolproof way to drive new folks away from your occupation or group is to consistently ask them to give more time than they are able to give. Instead learn what kind of time commitment is realistic and sustainable for them. Help them plug into tasks and roles that suit their availability. Check in with them about how it’s going. Are they feeling overextended, or would they like to take on more? Take responsibility for helping new folks avoid over-commitment and burnout.
3. Make people feel valued and appreciated.
If you want to inspire people to stick with this burgeoning movement for the long haul, make them feel valued and appreciated. It’s basic. People like to be around people who respect them, and who are nice! If we want to compete with the myriad of often more appealing options for people’s free time, then we have to treat each other well and take care of each other. Notice and acknowledge new folks’ contributions, however small. Make time to check in with them outside of meetings. Ask their opinions often: What did they think about the meeting? the event? the action? Bounce your ideas off of them and ask for their feedback.
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Occupation of a space is itself a tactic. It is an action intended to help us build momentum and to move us a step closer toward our goals. And it’s been wildly successful so far!
But an ongoing occupation of space is also more than a tactic. An occupation serves as a base camp from which we launch many different tactics. Right now occupation movement participants are deploying different actions and making complex tactical decisions every day.
Choosing or inventing a successful tactic typically involves some intuition and guesswork – and always risk. But the more we think critically about our particular contexts, the better we can become at judging how to act strategically. Projecting and measuring our success is complex, but we shouldn’t let the murkiness of these waters deter us from diving in. Patterns do emerge. We can learn a great deal from our experiences when we critically analyze them. This tactic star (see PDF) names some key factors that change agents can consider when determining tactics. The same tool can be used to evaluate actions together after they have been carried out.