For nearly two months thousands of people gathered at New York City’s Zuccotti Park to protest the role of Wall Street in the financial collapse and the increasing inequalities that afflict the United States. Under the motto, “we are the 99%,” the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement spread to over 100 cities nationwide. The following article was written just a few days before the New York Police Department raided and evicted Occupy Wall Street on November 15. While the occupiers are no longer in Zuccotti Park, both the General Assembly and the working groups continue, and so does the spirit. As the movement activists say, “you can’t evict an idea.”
Two thousand and eleven has been a year of revolutions, uprisings, and massive social movements against unjust political systems and rolling economic crises. Across the planet, people are standing up and occupying public spaces, from Egypt’s Tahrir Square, to the plazas of Spain, Greece, and the United States. These movements are rooted in the practice of democratic decision-making, or creating “horizontalism”—a space where participants look directly at the people across from them, discuss the things that matter most, and decide the agenda together. The concept of horizontalism embodies a critique of hierarchy and authority, but it is more than that. It is about creating new relationships. The means are a part of the ends. It is not a question of making demands, but rather the process, which is a manifestation of an alternative way of being and relating.
The nightly general assemblies in Zuccotti Park are only the most visible examples of the horizontalism being created at Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Over a thousand people are fed each day by a team of cooks using consensus decision-making. Most of the content for the thousands of messages that are sent out daily through Facebook, Twitter, and any number of blogs is decided horizontally in the media and press working groups. The library, which began with the donation of a few books the day after the occupation began, now holds over 4,000 titles, ranging from Barbara Erenreich’s Nickled and Dimed to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and countless texts on the Zapatistas, social movements, and a number of yoga and travel books. Popular education workshops occur daily. Academics, activists, educators, and supporters participate in endless discussions on every issue, while the horizontally organized working groups carry out their activities. There is even a decentralized medical support team and a group of trained mediators. Zuccotti Park, which the occupiers have rebaptized Liberty Park, is now a horizontally organized mini-society; organized prefiguratively, the occupiers say, to reflect the society they desire in their day-to-day relations.
But this horizontal democracy that is sweeping across the planet didn’t start at OWS, nor in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza or Tahrir Square. It has deep roots. In Greece, assembly participants are using the ancient Greek term for direct democracy, demokratia, and have begun borrowing methods from their Athenian ancestors, using a system of lottery to decide who will speak in mass assemblies. At OWS, occupiers are using a form of “circle justice” to resolve conflicts, where participants of the community decide what sort of resolution is best. The process has roots in Native American systems of justice, in particular with the Tlingit and other tribes in Canada. The 1994 Zapatista rebellion, in Chiapas, Mexico, was rooted in autonomous democratic participation, and it continues to inspire social movements across the planet. But perhaps the most defining predecessor to the present-day struggle of “the 99%” is the Argentine community organizing that exploded amid that country’s 2001 economic crisis.
In December 2001, after over a decade of intense privatization, the Argentine government defaulted on $132 billion of debt—the largest by a country in history.1 For the previous decade, President Carlos Menem had tagged the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar, artificially inflating the country’s currency. However, over fears of a peso devaluation, investors and citizens began taking their money out of the banks, essentially pulling the rug out from under the Argentine economy. Fearing a run on the banks and unable to maintain its monetary policy, the government froze all personal bank accounts. The people had little to no access to their savings. By December 19, tens of thousands had poured into the streets, cacerolando—banging pots and pans. That evening the Argentine government declared a state of siege, brutally repressing the protesters. In all, 39 people were killed over those two days.2 Even members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group usually accorded great respect, were beaten. In response the movement grew.
People said they were breaking with a history of silence, and they walked to the government buildings, chanting “¡Qué se vayan todos! ¡Qué no quede ni uno solo!” (They all must go! Not even one should remain!). Minister of the Economy Domingo Cavallo fled that night, and within two weeks four governments had resigned.
December 19 and 20, 2001, was a crack in history upon which vast political landscapes unfolded. ¡Qué se vayan todos! was a song of affirmation. In those defining days of the Argentine crisis, movements were born, as people united in collective kitchens, art and media collectives, recuperated workplaces, and indigenous and unemployed movements—such as the piqueteros and the cartoneros. Each group stressed horizontalism in their new social relationship.
In communities across the country, people greeted one another, kissing the cheeks of neighbors whose names they had never known. They began to ask questions together. This is how the neighborhood assemblies were formed.
“People simply met on a street corner in their neighborhood, with other neighbors who had participated in the cacerolazos,” said Pablo, a participant in the Colegiales neighborhood assembly in Buenos Aires, in 2003.
“For example, in my assembly . . . someone simply wrote on the sidewalk, in chalk, ‘Neighbors, let’s meet here Thursday night,’ ” said Pablo. “In the first meeting there were maybe 15 people, and by the next week it was triple. Why did it increase in this way? It was not an ideological decision, or an intellectual, academic or political one. . . . It was the most spontaneous and elemental thing. . . . Simply we came together with a powerful rejection of all we knew. A strong rejection of political parties and the forms of political parties, a strong rejection of all those that occupied spaces in the state or that organized to occupy positions in the state.”3
People in the neighborhood assemblies first met to explore new ways of supporting one another and meeting their basic necessities. In each neighborhood the assemblies worked on a variety of projects, from helping facilitate barter networks to creating popular kitchens and alternative health clinics to planting organic gardens. Some communities even occupied buildings, such as abandoned banks, to create community centers. These spaces still house any number of projects, including kitchens, small print shops, day care centers, after-school programs, libraries, small businesses, free Internet labs, and even a small movie theater.
Hundreds of neighborhood assemblies emerged in the years following the Argentine financial collapse, each composed of 100 to 300 participants. Inter-neighborhood assemblies (inter-barriales) of thousands of people met in parks, representing hundreds of assemblies. At the root of their process was horizontalism and a rejection of hierarchy and political parties.
“I believe that part of the impulse towards horizontalidad was related to an inability to trust officials,” said Ezequiel, a member of the Cid Campeador neighborhood assembly in 2004. “This feeling that all leaders that existed were corrupt by the mere fact of being leaders. Regardless of who held whatever formal position, inevitably he or she was corrupt, had abandoned you, and was totally separate from your problems and necessities.”4
Ezequiel’s assembly in Cid Campeador, a lower-middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, remains an important organizing hub. It is located in the occupied building of a former Banco de Mayo, and there are events almost every night, ranging from tango and salsa classes to book readings, political discussions, and other cultural activities. Throughout the day the assembly is open as a library, community space, and a popular kitchen. Cid Campeador participants believe the reason their neighborhood assembly has remained active since 2001 is that they organize regular events and activities, try to preserve their autonomy from the government, are not dominated by political parties, and continue their weekly assemblies.
Unfortunately, not all of Argentina’s neighborhood assemblies have been so successful. Today there are only a handful of them in Buenos Aires. There are several reasons for the decline. Some were co-opted by the government, others were dominated by political parties, and still others failed to engage in concrete projects related to the community’s needs, so people eventually became frustrated and left. That said, assemblies have recently emerged all across Argentina’s Andean region, comprised of campesino and indigenous communities protesting the push to impose new private multi-national mines on their land. Several communities have rallied against these mines, which they say would destroy huge segments of the land and pollute their water sources. Each of these horizontally organized assemblies have many hundreds of members. Horizontalism, many from these communities explain, is now the way to organize. Argentina’s recuperated workplaces continue to “occupy, resist, and produce”—as their motto says—and make their decisions collectively. A new occupation of 70 people began in November in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Flores.
This form of horizontalism is at the heart of our organizing at Occupy Wall Street. Anyone who has participated in our nightly General Assembly in Liberty Plaza will likely have both felt inspired and not just a little confused about how it all works. Where do proposals come from? How do we come to agreement? Do people really listen to each another for hours at a time every night, even when there are more than a thousand people? It might not appear very organized, but beneath the apparent chaos, the layers of people, and the “mic checks”—which help us to hear each other without amplification—is a web of networked organization. We organize in decentralized but inter-connected working groups focused on issues ranging from the most concrete, such as food, medical and legal, to things such as art, facilitation, education, women, mediation, the library, and “safer spaces”—a group that checks in with people to make sure everyone feels they can participate fully in the process. The list and description of the working groups could be a small book. And we have just begun.
The day-to-day work of OWS takes place around these working groups. I, for example, am a member of two groups: facilitation and legal. The former group trains people to facilitate assemblies and groups, organizes a team that can facilitate the General Assembly, and writes a draft agenda for each meeting. The facilitation trainings are really workshops on direct democracy—the essence of horizontalism—often using role play to act out scenarios that might occur in the assembly, and then exploring the various options for the facilitator in each situation. The goal of the facilitation group is to help create the most participatory and democratic space possible.
In some ways, the legal group is more straightforward. It is foremost concerned with keeping people safe and out of jail. To do so, we coordinate with dozens of volunteer lawyers, most of them through the National Lawyers Guild. We have also created a conflict-resolution group, which trains volunteers to mediate disputes and lead workshops in techniques of de-escalating conflicts. They also facilitate a Healing Circle—a form of restorative justice—where people can resolve conflicts through a community-based effort. The goal is to adjudicate our own conflicts horizontally, with healing and togetherness, yet ensuring that whoever has a grievance feels satisfied with the agreements from the circle. The model for this mediation and conflict resolution work comes directly from similarly organized groups around the world. Internal conflicts can be some of the most challenging issues the group must confront, such as petty theft, harassment, and rare acts of violence.
Each working group also brings proposals to the General Assembly when they are related to the work of that body or if the decision will affect the larger collective (for example, negotiations with the mayor’s office or using money for bail). Every day trainings are organized, lawyers are on call, food is cooked and distributed to more than 1,000 people, facilitation is smooth, and people are cared for (a team of volunteer nurses and psychologists are working with us). Translation is available into seven languages, including sign language, and all of this is live-streaming continuously at nycga.net.
Our communication between the working groups is not yet seamless, but we continue to work at it, and as we grow and change, our forms of organization necessarily do as well. New structures are constantly discussed so as to create the most open, participatory, and democratic space. On November 8, we launched a new spokes-council model of decision making to take into account the thousands of voices that all want to participate in daily decisions. The spokes council largely represents the groups involved in the day-to-day functioning of the occupation, while the General Assembly is focused more on bigger questions for the movement. It is another experiment in democracy. We are attempting to create the sort of alternative that we desire in our day-to-day relationships.
The organizing on Wall Street didn’t appear out of nowhere. Before the occupation on September 17, the New York General Assembly began to meet during the summer. Long before the occupation we debated the question of demands and agreed not to make them. Most of us believed that the most important thing was to open space for discussions and democracy—real, direct, and participatory. Our only demand was that we be left alone in our plazas, parks, schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods so we could meet one another, reflect together, and in assembly decide what form our alternatives would take. Once we had opened these democratic spaces we could then discuss potential demands and who we believed might be able to meet them. Or, perhaps, once we have assemblies throughout the country, the question of demands, on someone or something, will no longer be an issue, since we might be making those decisions that most directly affect our lives.
Today, thousands are occupying the plazas and the parks. Soon, I hope, we will be in the neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces, taking back our lives with tools of horizontal decision-making, creating, as our Spanish compañeros say, ¡Democracía Real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!) What this will look like is up to us—together.
In one month on Wall Street, we have gone from a conversation among 70 people in Tompkins Square Park to occupations in a few dozen cities and over 1,000 assemblies and actions organized across the United States. Tens of thousands are now actively involved in horizontal forms of organizing in only a matter of weeks.
This form of discussion and decision-making makes sense. We have been left out of the vast majority of decisions that affect our lives. And the most natural thing to do is come together, speak, and create alternatives that reflect the horizontalism of our new social relationships.
As Neka, from the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in the neighborhood of Solano, outside of Buenos Aires, explained in 2004:
“We began learning together. It was a sort of waking up to a collective knowledge, and this had to do with a self-awareness of what was taking place in each of us. First we began asking questions of ourselves and each other, and from there we began to resolve things together. Every day we keep discovering and constructing while we walk. It is like each day there is a horizon that opens before us, and this horizon doesn’t have any recipe or program. . . . More than an answer to a practice, it is an everyday practice.”5
In the early morning of november 15, the New York Police Department raided and evicted the occupation at Liberty Plaza. Their belongings and equipment were confiscated. The following day, after a court injunction, occupiers were allowed to return to the park, but were restricted from using tents or building structures. That evening, with over 1,000 people present, the occupiers held one of the largest GAs since they began the occupation on September 17. Two days later, on the two-month anniversary of OWS, 30,000 people took to the streets of New York City for a day of action. Meanwhile the assemblies continue, as do discussions of how to expand them into more neighborhoods and workplaces. People are not deterred. Territory is not only a geographic location, but a political use of space. As occupier Eudes Payano put it the day after the raid: “The movement will continue and it will be even stronger.”
Marina Sitrin is the author of Everyday Revolutions, Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina (Zed Books, 2012) and Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (AK Press, 2006). She is a postdoctoral fellow in the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. She lived in Argentina following the country’s 2001 crisis and has been involved in Occupy Wall Street since the beginning.
1. Clifford Krauss, “Argentine Leader Declares Default on Billions in Debt,” The New York Times, December 23, 2001.
2. Pagina/12, “La causa por la represión sigue sin definiciones,” March 13, 2007.
3. Marina Sitrin, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (AK Press, 2006), 41.
4. Ibid. 48.
5. Ibid. 58.
Read the rest of NACLA’s November/December 2011 issue: “Latino Student Movements.”