A crowd of people meet on the New Haven Green. It’s Saturday night, the meeting hasn’t started yet and people are sitting in groups, chatting with complete strangers.
“I remember you. I think I Facebook friended you,” a woman sitting in a collapsible chair says to a bearded man on the ground beside her. “If I meet people that I like here, and I like what they say, I send one out.”
Her words were typical for the web-fueled protest Occupy New Haven. The movement, an offshoot of New York’s Occupy Wall Street, began as a Facebook group started Sept. 28. And like the Wall Street protests, Occupy New Haven embodies the technology that started it.
Some say it’s a new type of protest, an open-source revolution. Anyone can have a voice — no matter what they believe or what they have to say. There are no leaders, and no one owns it. But much like the internet, Occupy New Haven has little sense of direction or oversight.
The occupation of the New Haven Green begins tomorrow. Get ready.
A Horizontal Movement
It’s Saturday on the Green. A woman stands up among a group of over 100 Occupy planners, proposing a plan for passing out fliers. She speaks softly, and those in the back struggle to hear her. Suddenly, someone yells, “Mic check!” Others yell in agreement.
The next time the woman speaks, she pauses after every sentence to allow those around her to echo what she has just said.
“We need to find someone … ”
“WE NEED TO FIND SOMEONE”
“With graphic design skills … ”
“WITH GRAPHIC DESIGN SKILLS”
And so on. The process takes a bit longer than a normal speech, but everyone is heard. However, the People’s Mic does not come without cost. There’s always the occasional troll.
“I just want to see … ” says one man. The crowd echoes him. “If y’all will repeat … ” He’s repeated. “Whatever I say … ” Another repetition. “That’s some crazy shit, man!” he says laughing, while half the crowd repeats him and the others laugh along with him.
This is the People’s Microphone. Occupiers use it to make sure that everyone’s voice can be heard over the large crowd, no matter how soft-spoken the speaker is. Online, it is much easier with websites like Facebook, Twitter and Free-Haven.org, home of Occupy New Haven’s many internet forums.
Whether online or on the Green, Occupy New Haven makes sure that every person involved can have a say in what the group does. There is no leader, no official group hierarchy. In fact, all of the occupiers interviewed for this article stressed multiple times that they were not official spokespeople for the group. But they also admitted that a consensus-based structure trades the group’s efficiency for equity among its members.
To accomplish tasks, occupiers form committees ranging from “food” to “action” to “comfort,” each of which eventually presents their ideas to a General Assembly. Through a majority vote in the Assembly, the movement can accept, modify or reject any motion from a committee.
“I think being leaderless absolutely helps the movement. [Otherwise] people feel disenfranchised, that they don’t have a voice,” said Todd Sanders — a New Haven resident who works with Occupy New Haven’s comfort committee, which organizes tents, sleeping bags and tarps for the camp-out on the New Haven Green. “I think when you invest a small group of people with a feeling of authority, it creates more barriers to getting the individual’s voice.”
A major project of the comfort committee has been to transport extra items from the New York protest to New Haven. In time, a supply chain will run from New York to New Haven to Hartford to Boston, which all have growing Occupy protests. Sanders, who works at a bio-fuels company, helped find a truck that runs on vegetable oil to drive to the New York protest to pick up excess supplies.
Meghan Magner is a member of the food committee. The committee’s foremost goal, according to Magner, is feeding those who are occupying the Green that can’t feed themselves. A medical team will be present to make sure that people are not taking the free food on the Green while selling their food stamps for drugs, she added.
Though committees occasionally meet under a predetermined tree or streetlight on the New Haven Green, it’s much more common for members to organize meetings via Facebook groups or online forums. One occupier created a website called Free-Haven.org, which has become the unofficial online meeting place of the movement.
The protest is proudly open-source; anyone with an available skill, connection or material volunteers it to the group. Many people involved with the movement believe that through the collective input of all the occupiers, the protest will be able to overcome serious logistical obstacles.
“It’s group sourcing, it’s wikinomics,” said Ben Aubin, a small-business owner from New Haven, referencing the eponymous book about the values of mass collaboration.
While the People’s Microphone is always brought to General Assembly, the committees are small enough for everyone to be heard without it. To establish consensus, the occupiers use a specific group of hand signals: hands in the air with fingers waving (yes, jazz hands) signifies agreement, fingers down and still, disagreement. Fingers in a triangle indicates a point of procedure, and a single raised pointer finger makes a point of information.
But perhaps the most important signal is the block. In the rare occurrence that someone strongly objects to a proposal they can “block” it by crossing their arms. The blocker will then be able to make an argument against the proposal, and the committee will consider this argument before it moves on.
In practice, reaching consensus can take time.
At Saturday’s food committee, one woman suggests that the occupiers offer coffee to people walking by, a method of beginning conversations with outsiders about Occupy and its objectives. This idea is approved.
But who would supply the coffee? One Starbucks employee says she receives a free pound of coffee every week and that some of her friends might be able to donate their weekly pound as well. The committee approves this plan.
But then one man notes that Starbucks is one of the large corporations against which the movement is protesting. Heads nod. One person suggests putting the coffee into ziploc bags, without the Starbucks logo. Consensus reached.
Demanding Nothing, Giving Everything
Trying to define the Occupy movement in New Haven, or anywhere for that matter, presents a huge challenge to the press.
Imagine for a moment that you are an aspiring reporter — a sophomore in Saybrook perhaps, sort of preppy, not really the protesting type. Your editors have just assigned you a feature on Occupy New Haven, and you have to find out what you’re actually dealing with.
To get background, you might check the major news sources for articles about the Occupy movement. You find out that the movement started in New York with Occupy Wall Street, a protest against corporate greed. Beyond that, no one seems to know what people want.
But then you find the perfect source! OccupyWallStreet.org, the movement’s official site, has a proposed list of demands. Perfect! Those demands include some interesting ideas, such as a racial and gender equal rights amendment, and some crazy ones, such as a guaranteed living wage ($20/hour) regardless of employment.
“Read Demands of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ … and Try not to Laugh,” says one Fox News headline about the demands, in their typical fair and balanced approach. Unfortunately for you and Fox News, an often-overlooked editor’s note at the top of the page says that the demands only represent one protester’s opinion. The website is an open forum and anyone can post. You’re back to square one.
This misquotation, which spread through several news outlets in early October, is indicative of the horizontal structure of the Occupy movement. Anyone can have his or her voice heard, either on an online forum or through the People’s Microphone. Normally this is a good thing. But when you’re a reporter who has just been assigned a story on a tight deadline, you need to quickly find sourcing from those involved. With no official press release or spokesperson, you’re left to your own devices. Sometimes you quote the radical anarchist, sometimes the just-out-of-college yuppie.
Occupy New Haven hasn’t yet been as misrepresented as Occupy Wall Street simply because it has not officially begun. But one meeting alone illuminated a huge range of opinions.
One person proudly proclaims “We are the 99 percent,” distancing himself from the wealthiest 1 percent.
Another says he wants to take New Haven completely off the grid, growing its own food and placing solar panels on every roof to generate enough electricity.
During the General Assembly, Aubin proposes a new official motto for the movement: “We are not demanding anything, we are giving everything.” People cheer before Aubin has the chance to explain.
He goes on to say that Occupy New Haven does not want to judge specific policies; instead, it simply gives people a place to discuss solutions to America’s economic and political problems.
That’s the only way to accurately describe the Occupy New Haven movement — it doesn’t know what it wants, assuming it wants something to begin with. What Occupy New Haven does know is that something is fundamentally wrong with American business and politics.
Hopefully, occupiers say, a large forum for discussion will provide so many ideas that at least one of them will work.
Though few and far between, the Yalies that have engaged with Occupy New Haven have had mixed reactions. While some students and alumni have gotten involved with the protest, attending meetings and taking active roles in committees, other conservative Yalies have started a satirical-turned-serious group called “Occupy Occupy New Haven.” Members of both groups say they will respect each other as long as discussions remain civil.
Martina Crouch ’14 has been working with Occupy New Haven’s action committee, which organizes the demonstrations, protests, boycotting and workshops for the movement. She said that she only knew of two other Yalies who were also involved with Occupy.
Adam Trettel ’10 came to Occupy New Haven with his church, as part of the Episcopal Service Corps. He said that the Occupy movement represents a lot of the ideas he had been studying, and that it was amazing to see a group of people differing in age and education trying to make a common statement, a movement together.
“We’re planning on making signs from our liturgy that are pertinent to the issues at hand,” he said.
Though few Yalies have occupied New Haven, some have been involved with the protests in New York. One Stilesian, Sarah Pitti ’14, messaged students in her college last Friday looking to organize a trip to Occupy Wall Street.
“It was one of the most exciting, interesting, inspiring, educational, important things I’ve done in a while,” Pitti told students in the email. “It is a huge and exciting and GROWING movement. It is diverse and diffuse and widespread.”
“THIS IS SO EXCITING,” the email proclaimed.
But not all Yalies are so supportive of the Occupy movement. On Monday, West Cuthbert ’14 and some friends were discussing Occupy New Haven at a Yale College Republicans meeting.
“When we learned via the YDN that protests were coming to New Haven, we knew we had to act,” Cuthbert told the News, “and what better way to comment upon the absurdity of the movement than by creating a movement of our own just as ridiculous?”
The Occupy-Occupy movement started as a Facebook event on Monday which promised to “protest the protest” with signs of their own and Febreeze (because living on the New Haven Green is undeniably unhygienic), but it soon took a serious turn when more people showed interest.
“We are the Silent Majority, We are the 53 Percent,” the Facebook page now states, referencing the 53 percent of Americans that pay income tax. “We will not be bullied or intimidated into silence. WE WILL NOT BE OCCUPIED.”
The reaction of occupiers to Occupy-Occupy has ranged from indifference to frustration.
“When I first heard about it I thought, ‘Oh that’s a clever joke,’ but when I saw the page, I realized that it has the potential to make a valid argument, and I respect that,” Magner said. “However, I don’t think they’ve reached that potential yet. They don’t realize that they are saying some really harmful things that have angered people.”
Aubin said that he will welcome the counter-protesters as long as they remain respectful. Ideally, he said, the two sides will meet on an individual basis to discuss how their ideas match up and how they differ.
Both sides will meet on the New Haven Green tomorrow.