Where Are the Women at Occupy Wall Street? Everywhere—and They're Not Going Away
What Horizontal Looks Like
Here’s an example of how these checks work within the structure of the movement to ensure that marginalized voices aren’t silenced. Early in the occupation, the General Assembly—an all-inclusive decision-making body that convenes nightly in the park—was voting on a mission statement that referred to all people being a “human race” “formerly divided” along ethnic lines.
A group of Desi women in attendance “blocked” the resolution, saying they felt it erased centuries of racism. (“Blocking” means a given proposal concerns a participant so much ethically, in some cases, that he or she may leave the movement over it. As a rule, participants are reluctant both to block or to overrule a number of blocks.) In blocking the resolution, they explained why the erasure of historical oppression is harmful over the human microphone, to hundreds of GA attendees at once.
Despite the pain and fear that accompanied that move, many of them say it symbolizes something unique about the movement, and the processes the movement has embraced: it allows anyone to voice concerns. “When we looked up and saw all those faces looking back at us, we realized it’s a really big moment,” Hena Ashraf, one of the women who participated in the block.
Another check on structurelessness comes in the form of the “progressive stack,” in which the “stack-keeper,” who is in charge of taking questions and concerns from the audiences at general assemblies, is given the ability to privilege voices from “traditionally marginalized groups.”
In other words: women and minorities get to go to the front of the line. Yesenia Barragan, 25, a Columbia student and longtime activist, notes that in reality, progressive stack often means, “my partner, who’s a white man, has to wait twenty minutes or more to say his piece. That’s how it works,” and how it should work, she says. “We need to address those power relations.”
The progressive stack, added to a “step up/step back” policy that encourages those who have spoken to let others speak, and those who have been quiet are asked to share their thoughts, ensures that a diversity of voices are foregrounded.
Finally, the movement arrives at decisions by consensus, that is, more than 90 percent agreement in the group.
This highly-structured, fine-tuned process seeks to avoid what Jo Freeman famously called “the tyranny of structurelessness” in her essay of the same name critiquing the women’s movement. “Structurelessness,” she wrote, “becomes a way of masking power, and...is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful.”
In consensus models, that “tyranny” looks like this: white men and other loud voices facilitating too often and dismissing concerns that they say aren’t germane—with other voices raising objections again, again and again.
But at OWS, since the onset of the GAs, organizers have taken it upon themselves to make sure that more and more women, people of color, and new voices are part of the facilitation team, holding trainings and keeping facilitators accountable.
Working groups also use consensus. None of the women I interviewed—from working groups including outreach, labor, media and “people of color”—had major complaints about gender politics in their individual working groups. When I observed about ten working groups sitting in serious, focused circles in an atrium on Wall Street hashing out ideas, at least half of the speakers at any given time were women, if not more.
Preserving Direct Democracy
This past week, a series of contentious GAs have debated a proposal to allow working groups to make decisions without the consent of the full General Assembly, in a “spokes council” model, that would bring together a rotating assembly of representatives to make financial and logistical decisions for working groups. These “spokes” are not empowered to act on behalf of their working groups—they are just conduits.
Marissa Holmes, a “structure” working group member who is one of the proponents of the “spokes council” proposal, writes in an email that she believes this new process, if adopted, would bolster the position of women and minorities in the movement by specifically permitting caucuses of traditionally marginalized groups as well as campers who are not in working groups to send representatives (or “spokes”) to the council.
The fate of the resolution remains up in the air, as its merits are slowly hashed out in meetings and online. Opponents argue that it consolidates power in the hands of those who regularly attend working groups at the expense of the GA.
But on both sides of the argument over the “spokes council” proposal, there’s an avowed commitment to maintaining a system of direct democracy that activists say is absolutely transformative for participants and central to Occupy Wall Street’s staying power.
In fact, many women involved in the protests say that the process of direct democracy directly counteracts the experiences of their lives. They have come to this protest because they’ve seen their families, their neighbors and their friends lose homes, jobs and healthcare and haven’t been heard when they try to register their concerns.
“We all come from disenfranchised communities,” says Nelini Stamp, a young activist who camped out with nothing but cardboard on the night of the 17th and has been working with people of color and labor working groups since. The feeling of agency and power that’s created by “having a voice, having a say in your day to day life” can’t be measured, she says—and that’s what leads to people being invested in the movement. “These are people that have been pushed and shoved. They just really want to see something work for them, unlike before.”