Notes from A Solidarity March with Occupy Boston

On Monday I joined in the Student Solidarity March for Occupy Boston together with a few friends and I thought I would share a few notes.

I don’t have much experience with protesting. Though I consider myself active politically, I have joined less than half a dozen large protest rallies and marches, and almost all of them were related to the issue of immigration. It was a fascinating experience, differing in many ways from other protests I had joined before but again, due to my small sample size, it is very possible that some of the elements described below are, in fact, common features and my observations reveal the ignorance of a tourist.

Harvard University Occupies Boston

The first scene was at Harvard. Before converging on the Boston Commons where the main march was to begin, students from around the city gathered at their own university. Harvard and MIT students were, at least according to posters and emails before the gathering, to assemble together and occupy the subway (since we were apparently too lazy to walk the hour or so downtown). The initial assembly point was at the wonderfully neutral location of the John Harvard statue inside the Harvard campus (meeting at MIT would have put us much closer to the main march). I showed up wearing a Columbia shirt to break the Crimson tide, thus, of course, completely sparing me any elitist stain. Instead of hiking up deep into our territory, our MIT friends made it downtown in a few separate groups, presumably in flying cars, teleportation devices, or astride their communally shared fleet of robot dogs.

Harvard University Occupies BostonThe poster for the event advertising “Harvard University Occupies Boston” was the first reminder of the somewhat awkward positionality of our merry band. Of course Harvard University already, in a very real sense, Occupies Boston through the power the university itself wields, what it represents, but most directly through the many graduates of the university who heavily populate the ranks of the financial, consulting, and law firms throughout the city. This awkwardness would continue to be manifested whenever the slogan “We are the 99%” was yelled. We debated among ourselves the intricacies of how that phrase might be construed to include or exclude us. Should we write self-criticisms, joked one, but the idea may well have received a warm reception if put to the crowd.

Hallelujah and The People’s Mic

Somewhere between 50 and 5000 people showed up at John Harvard statue, but as you know, counting attendance at protests is an inexact science. Before we boarded the subway downtown, there were posters to be made, and an opportunity for discussion.

The Occupy Boston and Occupy Wall Street movements are extremely decentralized, with diverse groups and diverse goals represented. It is thus easy to mock and hard to categorize. It is becoming harder, however, to ignore it and I joined in order to express my support but also try to better understand it. If the political goals are still varied, there seems to be, at least, a set of common practices emerging. Let me list a few of them:

Many Groups, One Shopping List – Despite the diversity, they seem to be incredibly organized online, where you can find news, a press kit, a garbage collection schedule, general assembly videos, and even a unified shopping list.

The People’s Mic – Though our pre-march discussion was too short to see it fully in action, direct democracy assemblies are designed to allow anyone to speak. In order to make sure that everyone can hear the speaker, everything spoken was repeated by the crowd; phrase by phrase. I’m told this comes from the Occupy Wall Street protests, where a ban on voice amplifying devices made the innovation necessary. To speak before the group you add your name to a “stack” (waiting list) which one of the facilitators manages. When it is your turn you yell, “Mic Check!” and the crowd responds with “Mic Check!” After that, every phrase you utter will be repeated by the crowd, though I noted that when more extreme or controversial things were said, the mass echo was notably less enthusiastic. It is a fascinating technique, which surely makes long political meetings slightly more than twice as long, but for this very reason it encourages brevity and clarity in a speaker. The effect can be an intoxicating experience, but also very empowering. The nagging Orwellian feel of the robotic repetition is well mitigated by the fact that you are not repeating the words of “The Leader,” but of everyone who speaks. Rachel Maddow describes the practice and shows examples:
People’s Mic! Today’s Best New Thing in the World

Gesturing the Revolution – The first task carried out by the “facilitators” at the Harvard Statue (who nominated these people to be our facilitators and what organizations they came from was not, as far as I can remember, ever revealed) was to give us a basic education in crowd communication. After explaining the People’s Mic they introduced us to a system of hand signals I have never seen before but which has been commented upon in various media reports. Our lesson included the following instructions:

1. If you agree with what a speaker is saying raise your hands and wiggle your fingers. If you had not been told this was its purpose, you might suspect the person was offering a “Hallelujah!”
2. If you are more ambivalent about what a speaker is saying, you wiggle your fingers in front of your chest
3. If you disagree with the speaker, you hold your hands in front of your chest and flop them down in a motion that to me looked looked like a begging dog
4. If you wish to ask a clarifying question you hold up your hand and make the letter “C”
5. If you wish to make a “process point” which I guess is a kind of point of order, you make another hand signal that I believe resembles a triangle or perhaps a “T”.
6. If you find what the speaker is saying offensive, you cross your arms over your head, creating a large “X”

At this point an apparently experienced protestor in the audience asked why they did not use a common gesture to indicate that you wanted to make a direct counter-point. One of the leaders—I’m sorry—facilitators, made the reasonable point that this was because that gesture makes it impossible to have smooth discussions without them devolving into rowdy debates. Instead people who disagreed were to add their name to the “stack” and speak in turn.

Now trained in the semiotic arts of the revolution, we began a discussion and a few people on the “stack” spoke, but besides a few Hallelujahs, we didn’t get to deploy the full range of acquired vocabulary before leaving for downtown.

Does anyone know more about the origins of this system? In addition to serving as a system of immediate speaker feedback this appears to be the primary system used for consensus formation at protest general assemblies; a non-binary process known as a “temperature check.” I have seen mention of it in reference to the recent student protests in London. This Guardian article includes a great gesture for “I’m bored” which I must remember to deploy at appropriate moments in academic lectures. I see gestures like those we learned described in Consensus: A New Handbook for Grassroots Social, Political, and Environmental Groups but that work argues strongly against having any gestures of a negative kind in order to reduce speaker anxiety and create a more welcoming environment.

Lawyer Tags – Several people moved through our group of protesters distributing little tags for us to tie to our arms. On one side was information about our protest, the protest facebook page, Google group, and a contact email. On the other side was the telephone number for the National Lawyers Guild, an important but nothing if not radical legal organization that supports protesters in their encounters with law enforcement. In the event of an arrest, all of our belongings may be confiscated or discarded so this little tag was a nice little reference card. We were also encouraged to copy the phone number onto our arm since the tag might be easily lost. Lawyer Tags

I should note that both while we were being told about the tags and later on the Boston Commons, there was a repeated and strong emphasis on showing respect for law enforcement, non-violence, and following the law (except, I guess, those we break). Which brings me to another fascinating innovation that I have only seen glimpses of in the news before:

Legal Observers – When we got to the assembly point on the Boston Commons there were bands playing, the usual anarchists occupying the central gazebo (demonstrating once again the principle that the early herd gets the gazebo), and a wide array of people around the edges. As each new university group arrived (Tufts and U Mass had particularly strong showings, with the latter taking full advantage in their slogans of the fact the word “mass” is in their name) everyone cheered their arrival. Before the full march began, however, more facilitators (again, I have no idea who they were or what organizations they represented) gave us more training through the People’s Mic. They pointed to a number of neon hat and vest clad individuals hovering around the edges of our mass, just in front of a row of police officers observing us. These were to be our “legal observers” tasked with the job of being neutral observers of the protest. They would monitor the behavior of the protesters, and especially observe any clashes or interactions between the protest and law enforcement. Since I believe at least some of them were from the National Lawyer’s Guild, I have some doubts about their neutrality, but overall, I must say, I was quite impressed by their number, and I think their presence throughout the march on the sidelines was a great comfort, even if no one expected a clash with the police.

Protest as Socializing Process

My overall experience on Monday was very positive. The energy, most of it positive, and the diversity of the people involved left a strong impression on me. The slogans were often too pointlessly populist, dry or cliche, and clearly many of us were just a bit confused about what the whole experience added up to. We marched down to the occupied Dewey Park and circled around it. Later that night, some students and others who decided to join the “occupation” were arrested by the police and I’ll await more accounts of what transpired before commenting on it. I do hope the occupation continues, even if it does not graduate beyond the realm of political experiment, and that it evolves and develops politically.

There are a whole slew of ways this movement is being described and justified by its sympathizers and participants alike. I have not yet formed a strong opinion on how best to conceptualize it, but I feel that at least on two levels there is something important happening. From the outside, as long as the “occupy” movement continues and grows without becoming violent, it has a place at the table of political discussion. Its destabilizing effect can play a very important part in a stalled political process. Even if its internal unity remains dependent upon its ambiguity, it is like the tormented Poe’s Raven which, “never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting / On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door.”

From the inside, even from the limited contact I had with the movement on Monday, participation in a movement like this, and many like it, is a socializing process, especially when it is full of innovative approaches: socializing participants but also teaching them a set of valuable political practices that can, in turn, be deployed again and again with greater focus in a whole range of circumstances. Monday was a holiday, but I very much felt like class was in session.