Monday, November 21, 2011

The Fizzle in the Drizzle: Occupy Seattle drains away

Here on the leftiest part of the left coast, where Occupy has wide-spread sympathy, devolution has begun. The early protest and encampment took advantage of an atypically glorious autumn. Every November, the jet stream shifts and begins funneling vortices from the Gulf of Alaska right down our throats about every other day. On the lull days it just rains, and rains. The indigenous Salish have a dozen names for rain. It falls from a uniform sheet of gray stratus that hovers ominously, oppressively. We spend our days in half-light, broken only by the wet winter darkness that greets us as we rise and says hello again as we leave work. We  take vitamin D and anti-depressants. We retreat to our burrows with our coffee and craft-distilled liquor, and we read books.

In my three visits to the encampment, I have observed an increasing solemnity, a kind of grim determination, along with deteriorating conditions and dwindling numbers. I've encountered idealists but not ideologues, various hangers-on, and a few fringe-types (the Larouche crowd simply left due to lack of any interest, and the three Nazi skinheads that showed up as provocateurs were summarily escorted off.) No drum circles or dancing in the downpours. No nudity (are you crazy, you want to freeze your ass off?) No public sex, discarded needles, or signs railing against Israel.

The initial camp at Westlake Center, a huge pedestrian concourse in the urban core, was abandoned in favor of a nearby community college campus, away from the financial and commercial centers. This was acheived without major conflict with the police. Tear gas and batons werre not required, just a request from the mayor, and receptive college administration. The move reduced visibility and curtailed any disruption of daily activities in the city. No traffic jams, no more barricaded banks. This is entirely consistent with the Seattle ethos--we are nothing if not unfailingly accommodating.

Shortly after the rains began, an insistence on "process purity," an intense fear of co-option, and outright incompetence led to the following scenarios, ably reported by The Stranger, our local alternative weekly.

No sooner had six panelists finished opening remarks last Saturday evening than a woman scampered onstage and yelled, "Mic check!" It was an orchestrated effort by several dozen Occupy Seattle 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 with an uninformative shoutathon 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 and repetition, and all I can think about is a cult."
She added: "And I believe in every one of their damn principles."

Across the country, police and mayors have been sweeping occupiers out of their camps; conversely, here in Seattle, protesters have become their own greatest public-relations liability. After a week of media­genic protests (largely civil disobedience aimed at Chase Bank), the debacle at Town Hall was one of several recent unflattering incidents. For another example, about 30 protesters associated with Occupy Seattle stormed a public meeting at the Horace Mann building in the Central District on November 11 to "reclaim the space for the community," according to a text from one of the protesters. Their efforts failed, and it turns out they crashed a mentorship program for high school dropouts.

Meanwhile, Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) officials have grown upset with declining sanitary conditions among campers occupying the campus. "They said they would get their own Dumpster, but they haven't yet—three weeks into it," says SCCC spokeswoman Judy Kitzman. Trash has been piling up or going into the college's trash receptacles, and "rats don't wait for their process," she continues. (read more.)

The Stranger has been an vociferous Occupy supporter from the beginning.

Occupy is not like the Civil Rights movement, not like the anti-war protests that shut down entire cities. It does not advocate a voting rights bill, nor oppose a specific policy like a foreign war. It instead opposes an entire system, the collusion of government and financial megaliths, without offering any coherent alternative. And with its utopian ideas of democracy, it offers no methodology to achieve the stated aims of fairness and equity. Occupy has achieved one concrete thing, however--it has garnered attention and sparked debate, making fairness and equity part of the conversation. That dialog, though, is often dependent on our own waning attention spans in the hypermedia news cycle, and it can be shunted into obscurity by that capricious beast.

I have an old girlfriend who once belonged to an anarcho-syndicalist commune. I asked her why she left the group. "We were tired, cold, and hungry," she said. "People left and we couldn't replace them. All of us had to work harder. We had conflicting ideas and personalities, and everyone finally stopped listening."

More rain is forecast.


  1. I share the anonymous Mary Ann's feelings about the tiresomeness of such a type of speech. It is too much like some religious rituals or mindless declamation. The enlightenment which still counts for something at least in my mind, made sure that people would no longer have to repeat automatically what other people with power of this or that kind tell them is true and ought to be repeated. I appreciate your affectionate generosity for these young people but to me they seem as if they desperately want to become a herd, to feel part of a crowd.

    "Elias Canetti, in his study "Crowds and Power" observes that what coalesces a mass of individuals into a crowd is their domination by a "single passion" everyone shares - a common emotion that leads to united action: collective contagion. A mood can sweep through a group with great rapidity, a remarkable display of parallel alignment of biological subsystems that puts everyone there in physiological synchrony. The swiftness of shifts in activity of crowds looks suspiciously like mirror neuron coordination writ large..."

    (Social intelligence: the new science of human relationships By Daniel Goleman)

  2. The discussion continues. Here is an essay on occupism by the blogger known as The New Centrist:

  3. Another comment by TNC right on the money, here: