Occupy Seattle: How to lose friends and alienate people.
No sooner had the panel finished opening remarks last night than a woman scampered up onto stage and yelled, "Mic check!" It was an orchestrated effort by several dozen activists to use the People's Mic to interrupt a forum at Town Hall—a forum in favor of Occupy Wall Street, featuring three wonks and three activists from Occupy Seattle. Their stunt replaced what was supposed to be an informed discussion of the movement with an uninformative, shout-a-thon about process that consumed most of the evening. They booed opinions they disagreed with and drove supporters out of the building.
"I walked in supportive and left unsupportive," said 69-year-old Mary Ann, who declined to provide her last name. "I’m turned off by the negative shouts, repetition, and all I can think about is a cult. And I believe in every one of their damn principles."
Paula and Brian King also headed for the door early. "It was frustrating to listen to people shouting and interrupting," lamented Paula. Brian added, "We are leaving because they are looking inward at themselves and their eccentric process rather than reaching out to people."
Organized by Town Hall (and co-sponsored by The Stranger), the forum was intended to discuss the Occupy Wall Street movement, featuring three activists from Occupy Seattle and luminaries from labor, economics, and politics: Washington State Labor Council secretary-treasurer Lynne Dodson; Second Avenue Partners and progressive taxation activist Nick Hanauer; and GMMB political strategist Frank Greer. During opening remarks, JM Wong from Occupy Seattle declared that she wanted “no leadership from the Democratic Party or union bureaucrats. Nonprofits are trying to co-opt us."
Dodson, however, politely explained that labor unions are part and parcel with the Occupy movement's push for economic reform. "I like to consider myself a union activist, not a union bureaucrat," she said. "This is labor’s fight, this is our fight."
Whatever further insight the speakers planned for the 90-minute event was then cut short when the woman ran on stage. Activists had planned to interrupt the panel because, some said, they opposed the power dynamic created by speakers on stage talking into microphones. Although Occupy Wall Street uses the belabored people's mic—which involves one person speaking and the crowd repeating everything—to amplify the soft spoken and encourage free speech, last night it was used to silence the panel. The call and-response created an echoing cacophony. Despite pleas from several older audience members who couldn't hear well to let the panelists proceed, the Occupy activists demanded a vote to overtake the forum.
But Melanie Jackson got up on stage to protest: "Some of us who are old, we don’t understand when people are screaming. This process alienates people and takes a lot of time." By a show of hands, Nick Licata—the moderator, who some activists later claimed was a proxy for the partisan political establishment—determined the activists had been outvoted. The event would proceed as a planned, right? The activists refused to lose. They demanded another vote and even insisted that, before we could vote again, they would first explain how a General Assembly worked. So for 15 minutes, the activists read the rules and we repeated them back.
"Assembly time is precious," the man yelled without a hint of irony. "Assembly time is precious!" we all yelled back, wasting precious time.
Then they insisted that everyone discuss the issue among their neighbors. If people opposed, they were drowned out by the people's mic. So we talked about their proposal. One activist slept on the floor in front of the stage, spread eagle. The place reeked of BO. A man next to me worked through half a tin of chew. Eventually, we took another vote and activists demanded a count by hand.
It was 8:30 p.m. at this point, one hour after the event began, and we'd only heard opening statements. The forum was supposed to conclude by 9:00 p.m. "We have only a half hour left," Licata announced. "This is very interesting."
As the clock counted down, it was apparent that Occupy Seattle had repressed whatever thoughtful ideas the panelists brought to the stage and were willing to fill the time with chatter about unenlightening process. They wanted more power; they wanted to speak. They were also being rank hypocrites. Here is a group purporting to give people a voice and cut through the bureaucratic layers of government and capitalism. Instead, they silenced speech, quashed ideas, and replaced it with their own bureaucratic process reserved for a minority that wanted power. One gray-haired woman who was walking out put it like this: "It was very divisive. Now they are a little group, like the 1 Percent."
The activists lost the second vote, too. So the forum sort of proceeded, but now with occupiers booing speakers on stage when they disagreed and giving them the wrap-it-up hand gesture. For instance, Greer noted, "We learned in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, you can attract support or turn of support, and basically fail, and I don’t want you to fail." Despite his support, many activists booed and gestured that he stop talking.
Wong justified the interruption, saying, "We need to respect the movement that uses this process. I stick to it because it is a democratic process." Some shouted, "This is what Democracy looks like."
But the Occupy activists came off as disrespectful, hostile, and woefully misguided about what democracy looked like. The activists added zero new content, but in the process, prevented the speakers from sharing their knowledge (that's some democracy). Let's think if the tables were turned: These activists would be outraged if Town Hall set up a stack of speakers at the General Assembly and blasted them with an amplified panel discussion. It was equally selfish to destroy the panel with their People's Mic.
On his way out the door, Brian King added, "They think it is more important to purify themselves rather than connect with people who are not like themselves. They probably can’t get much further than they are right now."