Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How Occupy Wall Street Is Like a Classroom

A speaker on the people's mic, arguing against occupation, at about 20 minutes to midnight
On Saturday night, I watched a miracle of classroom management such as I would never have imagined possible; it didn’t happen in a classroom, and there was no teacher.

Over the course of the evening, a crowd of three thousand or more had gathered in and around the dry fountain basin in Washington Square Park. Returning from the earlier march on Times Square, the attendees were agitated after a day of chanting and dancing, packed, often shoulder to shoulder, between police barricades. There were reports of scores of arrests and a couple of violent incidents. Word had spread of a possible illegal occupation of Washington Square that night. Meanwhile, a line of police officers stood at the entrances to the square, announcing to each arriving crowd that the park would close at midnight—i.e. “you’ve been warned.”

A little after 10 pm, a handful of facilitators from the Zuccotti park occupation stood up on the grate that covers the water jets at the center of the fountain basin and asked the mob to be seated. The general assembly had begun.

If you’ve never been to an occupy event, you may be wondering how half a dozen people could tell a crowd of three thousand to sit down. PA systems are not allowed in public spaces without a permit, and naturally protestors rarely have such a permit. Most political protests—the immense anti-war protests in 2003, for example—are planned in advance via the internet and then simply run their course without any significant real-time organization; because Occupy Wall Street is long-term, however, and because it is deeply committed to being peaceful and well-organized, it needs to hold general assemblies on a regular basis. In Zuccotti Park, they have developed an ingenious system for addressing the assembled hundreds or thousands without a PA; they call it the People's Mic.

It works like this: if you want to speak, you yell, “Mic check.” Anyone who can hear you yells back: “Mic check.” The message travels through the crowd. You do this until other noises have died down, and the call and response “Mic check! Mic check!” is crisp and carried by the whole crowd. You then speak in short phrases, no more than a few words, pausing after each phrase; those within earshot repeat your words in unison; those farther away repeat it again, and the message propagates to the edges of the group. If the mic is used properly and the speaker speaks loudly and clearly, thousands can hear a single person’s speech.

Thus, the general assembly was called to order. In order to carry the speeches over the lip of the fountain to the more rambunctious crowd around it, several people stood up on the pillars around the lip, to relay the message outward. There was only one real agenda item, of course: would the crowd attempt to occupy the park that night. The legal team made it clear, in case it wasn’t already obvious, that anyone remaining in the park after midnight had “a high probability of being arrestable.”

After some general announcements, the facilitators asked the assembled crowd to discuss the issue in small groups for fifteen minutes. By the time they called the meeting back together and began the collective discussion, it was 11 pm. With the deadline an hour away, tensions high, and many eager to argue their case for or against occupation, as well as dozens of peripherally related issues, the protocol of the meeting was at risk. As facilitators began the discussion, dissidents on the fountain’s rim began to shout for the mic.

There are layers of protocol at work here, and the protocol of the people's mic is the most fundamental: when you hear “Mic check,” you answer “Mic check.” If this protocol does not operate, no one can be heard. Thus, a tall man with a loud voice on the rim of the fountain was able to take control of the mic, though his control was incomplete, his words carrying only partway through the crowd. He spoke for two or three minutes before one of the facilitators cut him off, shouting for the mic, while the man on the rim tried to continue his speech It was at this moment that I realized how tenuous was the order of the meeting: here we were, three thousand people with three thousand opinions, emotions high, short on time, ripe for chaos. It was incredible, really, that a meeting could even be begun, much less successfully concluded, under these conditions. I was seated near the center of the basin. Around me, people had begun to stand up; stray voices were heard from every direction. What would happen, I wondered, if this devolved into a shouting match, if the gathering turned from meeting to mob?

But the facilitator had successfully taken back the mic. She explained the protocol for the meeting, how a list would be taken of those who wished to speak and each would get their turn. She urged the speakers to be brief and to stay on topic. The crowd began to settle. The first name on the list was called. Someone stood and spoke. It was not on topic. Another name, and another speech, this one on topic. The meeting continued. There were no longer dissident voices; the people's mic rang out across an otherwise silent mass of people. You could hear it filling the basin, then echoing far off in the surrounding crowd.

The first couple speakers argued for occupation, but after them came many arguments against it: there was not enough planning and organization; the strategy had not been thought out; this was not the time to take a stand—and these arguments seemed to get more positive reactions from the crowd. At 11:45, one of the facilitators took a “temperature check” for the idea of not occupying that night. Through the hand-signals that are standard usage at general assemblies in the “occupy” movement, the crowd indicated that it was largely in favor of the idea. A show of hands indicated that only fifty to a hundred people were still considering staying past midnight. The meeting was adjourned.

Somehow, under pressure, with little in the way of formal leadership, and without amplification or clearly established organization, 3,000 people had had a civilized debate; and despite a wide range of opinions at the beginning of the meeting, they had reached something very close to consensus. In the end, as you’ll know if you read the papers, 14 people stayed to get arrested in the fountain basin, a decision that was, of course, theirs to make. But, no matter who stayed or left, the cooperation was unlike anything I've ever seen in my life; thousands of strangers had spontaneously agreed to abide by a set of protocols, to respect one another’s right to speak, to assist each other in speaking, and to listen.

In many ways, the protocols of the general assembly reminded me of the protocols of the classroom: an ingenious, efficient system for getting the group’s attention; a set of hand signals and other procedures to allow dissent and approval, confusion and parenthesis, to be efficiently communicated without diverting attention from the designated speaker or interrupting the flow of conversation; and a strong set of explicit values that underlies those procedures.

Just as the clap-in or the raised-finger-for-silence propagates through a classroom, drawing in students who may miss it the first time around, the “mic check” propagates through the crowd, carried from person to person, without the speaker needing to out-shout the entire gathering. The “silent applause” with which the protestors indicate their approval of a speaker’s words is used in classrooms across America as a means for students to show agreement with another student’s answer or to indicate their excitement over something that has been said, without interrupting the class; the inverted applause by which the protestors show disapproval appears in many classrooms as a thumbs down that students use to show they think their classmate has answered a question incorrectly. Other hand-signs—the “point of information,” the “get on with it,”—are more specific to the needs of the movement; they have their parallels in classrooms, in the form of the “I need a tissue” and the “I dropped my pencil; I need to get out of my seat.”

The purpose of all these signs is to allow the crowd to express itself without interrupting the speaker, diffusing focus, and competing for attention. They arise, both in the classroom and in Zuccotti park, out of a recognition of the delicate and essential balance by which order and focus are maintained. Thirty children, if they are paying attention to the lesson, will not sit still and silent with hands raised, while their noses run, their classmates give wrong answers to questions to which they know the right one, and other classmates get called on to give the correct answer. We would not want them so silent in their knowledge and opinions; yet we know that if they call out, the order of the classroom will dissolve and the more timid will never be heard. Similarly a crowd of a thousand who sits still and silent while others make points they disagree with, cannot hear, or do not understand is an apathetic crowd that will never occupy a public park through a nippy October into a cold New York November. There must be means of group expression without interruption, a way for even the quiet to be heard.

The values that underlie the procedures of Zuccotti Park are those of the democratic process: that every voice should be heard, that agreement should be reached through discussion, that no opinion is more important than any other. The values that underlie the procedures of the classroom vary from school to school, but they are rarely those of direct democracy. Still, both contexts represent the attempt to weave the needs and impulses of the individual into the welfare of the group; they are, in short, the essence of management—but management in its pure form, in which it is revealed as not a project of oversight and supervision, but one of facilitated cooperation. No classroom and no company and no organization really functions by coercion; even the most coercive methods are really attempts—rather blunt attempts—to generate a social contract. The fear of punishment and the desire for reward cannot keep kids in line in the long term; it is habit and classroom culture that keep them in line. Fear and desire are simply tools that we try to use to set that culture in motion.

After the crowd had exited the park, it milled about the surrounding streets and sidewalks, chanting and playing drums until it was finally dispersed by the police. At the north end of the park, a line of mounted officers stood between the milling crowd and the arch, and the crowd directed a number of chants at the officers. “Who do you protect,” they chanted, and “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect,” and “You deserve a raise.” They even got a smile from one of the cops, by chanting “Set the horses free.” At one point, a girl standing on the curb started chanting “NYPD, go to hell….” She managed to get just that far before she was booed into silence by the other protestors. Respect is an essential ingredient of any social contract, and the protestors, energized and rebellious as they were, had not for a moment forgotten it.



  1. Fascinating. Thank you, Max, for this detailed explanation of how communications and structure are created at OWS. It's interesting to note that those who are there have chosen to be there; in classrooms, that is sometimes not the case. Younger kids sort of know there is nowhere else for them to be, but teens may actively resist because school has become frustrating or irrelevant (they think) to them. I'm in total awe of teachers who can make the sort of system you described in your post, work in a classroom of teens, without the threat of punishment.

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comments. You're right, of course, that there are some major differences between OWS and a classroom. In addition to the issue of voluntary attendance that you raise, there's also the fact that nearly everyone at the GA is an adult (at least technically speaking). Democratic Free Schools, like the Summerhill School in Scotland, do actually run by direct democracy, but I've never seen one in action. (They're on my list of models to observe.) I certainly think most inner-city classrooms do not have the luxury of time to devote to such a governance structure. Personally, I doubt that the GA offers a good direct model for a classroom, but I do think that the ideas behind it might be applied to the classroom in very powerful ways.