Why the Occupy Movements Do Not Lack Leadership

Despite the (not undeserved) hype about the role of social media in various occupy movement, I first heard about Occupy Wall Street  from a traditional face-to-face encounter with my roommate.  Bryce gave me the basics (Adbusters-instigated, Twitter-facilitated protest in Zoccotti Square) and suggested we check it out.  If I’m honest, my first encounter with the OWS left me somewhere between non-plussed and wryly amused. I was thrilled to see that they had a library* and impressed by the rigged shower system and seeming willingness of people to pick up trash and distribute food.  On the other hand, the (frequently-photographed) collection of hand painted signs showed the by-now oft-critiqued claim that OWS lacked a coherent ideological message.  I returned a week or so later to participate in the student-lead march from Washington Square to Zuccotti Park and was blown away by the number of marchers, and found myself not caring about the lack of a centralized cause, precisely because it enabled different groups to coalesce around peaceable unrest. I’ve been in Seattle this week for AoIR, and wandered around the much smaller but equally vibrant Occupy Seattle, where I pitched in at their budding library and went to some general meetings.
At AoIR, the protests were a frequent topic of conversation, both at panels and during informal conversation.  Repeatedly, I heard the movement referred to as leaderless.  In thinking about what I’d seen at OWS and Occupy Seattle, I couldn’t help feeling that this was a conceptual misstep.  The Occupy movements are in fact shot through with (and perhaps only functioning because) of an abundance of micro-leadership.  Rather than being leaderless, the movement is in fact leader-ful.  Spending even a little time at protests, it’s easy to see the presence of people who are contributing everyday acts of leadership within a bounded sphere of activism.  This is perhaps part of what is so confounding about the movements for political analysis.  It isn’t really ideological incoherence that is so startling here (think of the ideological complexity – if not hypocrisy – of the democractic party in the United States), it’s the lack of a central figure to serve as a speaker, a focal point or mouthpiece.  My claim that movements are leaderful shouldn’t be taken to mean that there is an overabundance of leaders such that more people shouldn’t mobilize and offer leadership skills, as these things are very much needed.  But for me at least, thinking of the OWS as a leaderful movement is both exciting and somewhat explanatory of the resurfacing anxiety over what the movement is, how to deal with it or explain it.  For advocates and supporters, it’s exciting in its democracy.  For opponents and critics, it’s anxiety ridden in the lack of a clear counterpart with which to parley, a contained discourse to critique.  And in its own right, that’s exciting too.

*Plug: I’m giving a talk at Mobility Shifts this weekend on the OWS People’s Library.  Come learn about local interventions of librarianship and DIY archives!

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