by David Koon
I attended last night's meeting as well, and have some editorial comment on the jump. From Gabe's video, it sounds like my feelings dovetail fairly well with those of some of the other folks in the crowd.
On attending the Occupy Little Rock meeting last night...
First things first. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to out myself as an Occupy Wall Street supporter.
Hate's a strong word, and I never use it lightly, but I'm going to use it now. I hate what has happened with income inequality in this country over the last 30 years. I hate that this country doesn't seem to make anything anymore except burgers and fries. I hate that there is literally nothing within my reach right now, at this moment, that doesn't have "Made in China" stamped on it somewhere. I hate that I can't tell my son for sure that he will grow up in an America that is as prosperous, free and stable as the one I grew up in. I hate that in any election — from dog catcher to president — it's the guy with the most money on hand who usually wins. I hate that, even though I have insurance, becoming ill enough to need long-term hospitalization would likely lead my family to bankruptcy. I hate that I paid more in taxes last year than GE, Bank of America and Merck combined. (How do I know? Because they wound up paying nothing. Some of them even got at billion-dollar refund). I hate that almost every week of my life, my family is being screwed over, in ways large and small, by the corporations — be it from the exorbitant prices for medical care, or the fees on my checking account, or the student loans whose principal was long since paid off (and which I can't even file bankruptcy on in a dire pinch), or just the bought-and-paid-for politicians in Washington who work hard to make sure their rich donors stay that way.
It pisses me off. All of it. And if somebody is trying to do something about any of that, even if it's just spitting in the wind, even if it comes to nothing, I'm with them.
I say all this to let you know that, even though I'm about to lodge some criticism of the Occupy Little Rock meeting I attended for the Arkansas Times last night at the Riverfest Amphitheater downtown, I still support them. Constructive criticism is a far cry from the hateful brand of destructive trolling a lot of folks in politics and on the Internet practice these days. True constructive criticism is a good thing, because it comes from a place of respect and love. Here goes:
1) JUST BECAUSE IT WORKS THAT WAY ELSEWHERE, DOESN'T MEAN YOU HAVE TO DO IT THAT WAY HERE: Up in New York City at the Occupy Wall Street protests, a system has been developed called the "Human Microphone." It grew out of necessity. The NYPD won't let the protestors there use sound amplification — no bullhorns, no speakers, no microphones — so they devised an ingenious solution. When a person gets up to speak, they say "Mike Check!" and everybody within earshot shouts it back. They go on like that, with the speaker speaking four or five words, which are shouted back at him, thus amplifying the words enough that a crowd of thousands can hear it.
Last night at Occupy Little Rock, there was a crowd of maybe a hundred folks, most of them passionate about doing something about the oncoming plutocracy. Even in a crowd that small, though, the clear leaders of the meeting (a group of maybe five or six earnest young people at the rail in front of the crowd, passing a microphone back and forth between them) were just bedamned that the crowd was going to use the "Human Microphone" system, a fact that obviously frustrated many in the assembly who wanted to speak. It just didn't work, mostly — I suspect — because people in the crowd recognized that it was inane to do it that way. But, instead of trying something different that might work better (inviting people who wanted to speak to come down to the front and use the microphone, for example) they kept on with it, apparently for no other reason than: because that's the way they do it in New York.
Ditto on the overly-complicated and kinda dumb-looking system of hand-signals used for voting: two hands up and fingers waggling for "agree," two hands down and fingers waggling for "disagree," arms in an x in front of the chest for "block" ("I'm totally against this idea, and might leave the protest if it passes") and fingers tented in a triangle for "point of order" (a concept which, to my knowledge, was never quite explained). What's wrong with: "All in favor, raise your hand. All opposed, raise your hand." That's the only way I've ever voted in a group in my life. If you asked 20 first-graders to vote on ice cream vs. carrots, that's the way they'd do it. So why is Occupy Little Rock trying to fix what ain't broken?
All this might sound old-fart crotchety, but I say it to make a bigger point: Those who seek to fight 30 years of corporate and political dogma ("The job creators must be protected at all costs!") would be smart to beware the urge to turn to dogma themselves ("Making goofy jazz hands is the way we vote, because that's how they do it in New York!"). Way too early to tell how all this is going to go, but an unwillingness to adapt to realities on the ground when they're clearly not working makes me fear for the survival of the Occupy Little Rock movement long term, not to mention the fact that trying to reinvent the wheel based solely on how they do things at a protest 2,000 miles from here sounds like a good way to make Joe and Jane Q. Public think you're the bongo-beating, short-attention-span, brain-dead hipsters the mainstream media has made the protestors out to be. Resist.
2) DON'T BE AFRAID TO HAVE LEADERS: One of the things that was kicked around last night was the idea of Occupy Little Rock and the Occupy movement in general as being "leaderless" — a movement that's about the movement, not about a person. I get it. Nobody wants a cult of personality. Nobody wants to be the person cops and prosecutors can point a finger at if things go south. Nobody wants a movement built around a central human tent pole, because that kind of group can easily collapse, split or be weakened if somebody decides to take their toys and go home.
But listen: when you've got five or six leaders at the front of Riverfest Amphitheater, literally leading the discussion — clearly smart, educated, determined young folks, who have already poured a lot of time and energy into getting OLR off the ground — why not just call a spade a spade and run with that? All this talk of a leaderless revolution might sound like a good idea on paper. Maybe it's about the fear of resorting to the undemocratic notions that drive the mega-corporations. But talking leaderlessness when you clearly have leaders is going to seem confusing and weird to people, especially given that most of them grew up looking to teachers, bosses, coaches, preachers and others for, well, leadership. There's a reason successful movements have their Gandhi or Daisy Bates or Martin Luther King, Jr. Some Master of My Own Destiny types would like say it ain't so, but the fact is that most human beings are wired, deep in our brains, to look to a chieftain. A leader or group of leaders gives the people somebody to glance at for strength in the still watches of the night, when things are darkest. Leaders are something around which raw passion can coalesce, and from that, good things can grow. You might want to deny it, Occupy Little Rock, you've got leaders. Don't be afraid to let them lead.
3) WHY ALL THE STRUCTURE?: People in this country, like me, are pissed about the power and influence of the wealthy, the corporations and the banks. They want to do something about it. What most of them DON'T want to do, however, is join the Pissed-Off People Club, and sit on the Select Committee on the Care and Feeding of the Pissed-Off, which meets at the library from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Saturdays. Given that, there's part of me that thinks: What's with all this focus on structure, Occupy LR? A large portion of last night's meeting, for example, was spent mass-voting on which committees to have: the medical committee, the publicity committee, the tech committee (I kept waiting on someone to suggest the Compassion for Non-Human Animals Committee so I could take that opportunity to crawl under my chair and examine the collection of lint and cigarette butts that had collected there since the construction of Riverfest Amphitheater).
For the love of God, why do you even need a committee-driven structure in the first place? What would be wrong with just printing and distributing some handbills that say: "Saturday, October 15, 9 a.m.! Riverfest Amphitheater! Occupy Little Rock will march in opposition to out-of-control corporations and income inequality! Be there, or be unable to bitch someday when your 9 year old grandkids are working 12-hour shifts in the Halliburton coal mines!" If that's too slow or low-tech, what's wrong with saying all that in a Facebook post and asking others to pass it on via Facebook and Twitter if they feel the same way? Worked in Egypt. Worked in Syria. No reason it can't work here.
I understand that last night's planning meeting was, to a large extent, solely to iron out the boring details so that more free-form movement can take root, but why did basic stuff like time and place for the march have to be voted on? What's wrong with that group of clear leaders (see above) just getting their heads together and setting a date, time and location and then focusing on getting the word out about it, instead of spending two hours at Riverfest Amphitheater discussing and voting and discussing some more about every gatdamn element of the plan? Is there such a thing as TOO MUCH democracy, especially when the success or failure of the movement depends on keeping people engaged?
Long story short: spend your precious energies where they will make the most impact, folks. Twitter. Facebook. Word-of-mouth. Planning the actual march. Getting together a clear, succinct platform of issues and goals to help mute the growing contention that you have no point. If you need somebody to help create a website, rather than gin up a committee to discuss and vote, why not just look at the crowd of 100 people and say: "Does anybody here know enough about IT to help us get a website up and running?" If you need a medic for the march: "Is anybody here a doctor, nurse of paramedic?" If you need legal advice: "Is there a handsome and daring lawyer in the house?" I'd pretty much bet my right thumb there would be somebody there, or somebody who knows somebody, on all counts.
As I said: you have leaders. You also have an army of folks out there, in all walks of life, many of whom would probably be happy to donate their time, energy and expertise to the cause. Ask them to do their part, and they will step up. These are people who, by their very presence, have signaled their unwillingness to sit on the sidelines anymore, and they are as angry about what America has become as I am. What I'd bet they don't want, however, is to feel like their time is being wasted on a movement that's going to get bogged down and drown in the murk of useless bureaucracy.