Occupy Wall Street vs. the Drum Circle

Can it really be true that the drum circle is about to be the end of Occupy Wall Street?  File this note sent to an N+! editor by a "trusted friend and activist" under "too weird not to be true because no one would have thought up this plot twist":


Friends, mediation with the drummers has been called off. It has gone on for more than 2 weeks and it has reached a dead end. The drummers formed a working group called Pulse and agreed to 2 hrs/day at times during the mediation, and more recently that changed to 4 hrs/day. It's my feeling that we may have a fighting chance with the community board if we could indeed limit drumming and loud instrumentation to 12-2 PM and 4-6 PM, however that isn't what's happening.

Last night the drumming was near continuous until 10:30 PM at night. Today it began again at 11 AM. The drummers are fighting among themselves, there is no cohesive group. There is one assemblage called Pulse that organized most of the

drummers into a group and went to GA for formal recognition and with a proposal. Unfortunately there is one individual who is NOT a drummer but who claims to speak for the drummers who has been a deeply disruptive force, attacking the drumming rep during the GA and derailing his proposal, and disrupting the community board meeting, as well as the OWS community relations meeting. She has also created strife and divisions within the POC caucus, calling many members who are not 'on her side' "Uncle Tom", "the 1%", "Barbie" "not Palestinian enough" "Wall Street politicians" "not black enough" "sell-outs", etc. People have been documenting her disruptions, and her campaign of misinformation, and instigations. She also has a documented history online of defamatory, divisive and disruptive behavior within the LGBT (esp. transgender) communities. Her disruptions have made it hard to have constructive conversations and productive resolutions to conflicts in a variety of forums in the past several days.

At this point we have lost the support of allies in the Community Board and the state senator and city electeds who have been fighting the city to stave off our eviction, get us toilets, etc. On Tuesday there is a Community Board vote, which will be packed with media cameras and community members with real grievances. We have sadly demonstrated to them that we are unable to collectively 1) keep our space and surrounding areas clean and sanitary, 2) keep the park safe, 3) deal with internal conflict and enforce the Good Neighbor Policy that was passed by the General Assembly.

A later update indicates that they seem to have come to some agreement with the drummers, but as I understand it, it is not clear that this will actually be enough, for two reasons:


1.  It's not clear that they can make rogue drummers stop
2.  And even four hours of daily drumming makes the local community considerably more hostile.

I'm sorry, I can't help but chortle--undone by a rogue drum circle!  

And no, before you fire up the angry comments, this is not because I wish Occupy Wall Street ill.  I know you all expect me to hate on them, but really, I can't.  Oh, sure, they're naive and seem to have a rather primitive grasp of economics, but these are hardly the worst things one can say about someone.  Also, I love drum circles. And I think it's a good thing that the left has a basically orderly and well-meaning channel for communal expression--while I do sympathize with the people who have to live right next to the smell and the chanting, the lasting harms seem pretty minimal, particularly if you already live in a kind of noisy, smelly city.  

Besides, the way they've organized the whole thing is a rather interesting experiment in spontaneous order.

But c'mon, it's kind of funny that the biggest threat is a damn drum circle.  A drum circle!  It's like hearing that Ghaddafi was brought down by a mime rebellion.

However, underneath the undeniably funny facts of the thing is a serious point, which is that as anyone who was ever in a band can tell you, drummers are crazy.

No, I jest!  What I think this illustrates quite clearly are the limits, as well as the possibilities, of spontaneous voluntary order.  Self-organization has, from all reports, achieved some really impressive things at Occupy Wall Street, and maybe outside of it (I haven't been following those protests as closely).  They've kept things moderately clean, delivered food and sleeping bags, and even, well, negotiated a temporary peace accord with the drum circle.

But as many of us discovered back in college, ultimately, you cannot run any sustained movements along the lines of perfectly inclusive democracy.  It's not just that the people who won't cooperate tend to ruin everything for everyone else, though this is a huge problem--if you make it a policy not to exclude or punish anyone for any reason, you're going to attract a small-but-catastrophic number of sociopaths who are immune to your only tool of social control, which is shaming.

But there's another problem, one that anecdotally seems to be growing at Occupy Wall Street: without authority, you spend virtually all your waking hours negotiating trivia.  This was a small problem at most left-wing groups I've participated in . . . yes, FINE, we'll put the recycled paper logo on the upper left hand corner in BRIGHT GREEN so that everyone knows we support the environment as well as LGBT rights, and yes, it can be in its own box and in fact you can set it the damn thing off with neon lights if that will make you STOP MAKING US TALK ABOUT IT.

. . . er, sorry about that.  The flashbacks can be pretty fierce.

Even worse is that if you stick around long enough, one day in mid-argument you will suddenly realize that you are the jerk making everyone spend an hour and a half debating whether the word "justice" or "fairness" better captures the problem with Apartheid.

But this is just a petty annoyance in most groups (I assume right-wing groups have this problem too), because most groups set up some lines of authority.  No, I don't necessarily mean that there's a guy in charge telling everyone what to do: authority can be officers, but it can also be the group's rules, social norms, a national movement, or a charter that defines what the group is for and how you become a member.  Often, maybe always, groups have more than one of these. The important thing is that everyone (basically) agrees on what the authority is, and importantly, that you eventually kick out the people who will not defer to the authority that the group has agreed on.

However, if there's no authority, you basically have to get consensus on every. single. little. thing.  This takes time.  That time is not spent accomplishing anything.  It is, however, spent building up factions and petty resentments over past arguments.  Eventually, a combination of personal friction and lack of obvious progress causes the group to disband.

If Occupy Wall Street wants to achieve something other than a modicum of media fame, it's going to need to do what its pseudoorganizers have so far resisted in the name of inclusivity (and maximizing participation): define what the group is for, what it wants to do, and what sort of behavior gets you kicked out.  Then it's going to have to figure out a way to enforce that.  I actually don't think that this would be so hard--if the other folks don't protect them, I am sure that the police will be happy to arrest the after-hours drummers.

But unless there is a fairly major restructuring of how the occupiers see their own movement, it's going to be pretty difficult to side with the police against someone who calls themselves an occupier.  Can they cross this conceptual chasm?  Certainly not without a bitter fight that will cost them some goodwill, and some members.  Maybe not at all.  But I think they have to, if they want to effect lasting change.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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