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Nov 042011

Note from Nicole … This post was written by my friend Sara Robinson, a senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future.   I hope that any assholes who think they’re acting as part of the Occupy movement will read it and take heed….

Eric Thayer/Getty Images -- Anarchists in Oakland, Calif., smash the windows of a bank Wednesday during an Occupy demonstration. The group called for a general strike Wednesday and marched on the city's port later in the day, halting operations there.


Occupy’s Asshole Problem: Flashbacks from An Old Hippie


By Sara Robinson

November 4, 2011

I wish I could say that the problems that the Occupy movement is having with infiltrators and agitators are new. But they’re not. In fact, they’re problems that the Old Hippies who survived the 60s and 70s remember acutely, and with considerable pain.

As a veteran of those days — with the scars to prove it — watching the OWS organizers struggle with drummers, druggies, sexual harassers, racists, and anarchists brings me back to a few lessons we had to learn the hard way back in the day, always after putting up with way too much over-the-top behavior from people we didn’t think we were allowed to say “no” to.  It’s heartening to watch the Occupiers begin to work out solutions to what I can only indelicately call “the asshole problem.” In the hope of speeding that learning process along, here are a few glimmers from my own personal flashbacks — things that it’s high time somebody said right out loud.

1. Let’s be clear: It is absolutely OK to insist on behavior norms. #Occupy may be a DIY movement — but it also stands for very specific ideas and principles. Central among these is: We are here to reassert the common good. And we have a LOT of work to do. Being open and accepting does not mean that we’re obligated to accept behavior that damages our ability to achieve our goals. It also means that we have a perfect right to insist that people sharing our spaces either act in ways that further those goals, or go somewhere else until they’re able to meet that standard.

2. It is OK to draw boundaries between those who are clearly working toward our goals, and those who are clearly not. Or, as an earlier generation of change agents put it: “You’re either on the bus, or off the bus.” Are you here to change the way this country operates, and willing to sacrifice some of your almighty personal freedom to do that? Great. You’re with us, and you’re welcome here. Are you here on your own trip and expecting the rest of us to put up with you? In that case, you are emphatically NOT on our side, and you are not welcome in our space.

Anybody who feels the need to put their own personal crap ahead of the health and future of the movement is (at least for that moment) an asshole, and does not belong in Occupied space. Period. This can be a very hard idea for people in an inclusive movement to accept — we really want to have all voices heard. But the principles #Occupy stands for must always take precedence over any individual’s divine right to be an asshole, or the assholes will take over. Which brings me to….

3. The consensus model has a fatal flaw, which is this: It’s very easy for power to devolve to the people who are willing to throw the biggest tantrums. When some a drama king or queen starts holding the process hostage for their own reasons, congratulations! You’ve got a new asshole! (See #2.) You must guard against this constantly, or consensus government becomes completely impossible.

4. Once you’ve accepted the right of the group to set boundaries around people’s behavior, and exclude those who put their personal “rights” ahead of the group’s mission and goals, the next question becomes:  How do we deal with chronic assholes?

This is the problem Occupy’s leaders are very visibly struggling with now. I’ve been a part of asshole-infested groups in the long-ago past that had very good luck with a whole-group restorative justice process. In this process, the full group (or some very large subset of it that’s been empowered to speak for the whole) confronts the troublemaker directly. The object is not to shame or blame. Instead, it’s like an intervention. You simply point out what you have seen and how it affects you. The person is given a clear choice: make some very specific changes in their behavior, or else leave.

This requires some pre-organization. You need three to five spokespeople to moderate the session (usually as a tag team) and do most of the talking. Everybody else simply stands in a circle around the offender, watching silently, looking strong and determined. The spokespeople make factual “we” statements that reflect the observations of the group. “We have seen you using drugs inside Occupied space. We are concerned that this hurts our movement. We are asking you to either stop, or leave.”

When the person tries to make excuses (and one of the most annoying attributes of chronic assholes is they’re usually skilled excuse-makers as well), then other members of the group can speak up — always with “I” messages. “I saw you smoking a joint with X and Y under tree Z this morning. We’re all worried about the cops here, and we think you’re putting our movement in danger. We are asking you to leave.” Every statement needs to end with that demand — “We are asking you to either stop, or else leave and not come back.” No matter what the troublemaker says, the response must always be brought back to this bottom line.

These interventions can go on for a LONG time. You have to be committed to stay in the process, possibly for a few hours until the offender needs a pee break or gets hungry. But eventually, if everybody stays put, the person will have no option but to accept that a very large group of people do not want him or her there. Even truly committed assholes will get the message that they’ve crossed the line into unacceptable behavior when they’re faced with several dozen determined people confronting them all at once.

Given the time this takes, it’s tempting to cut corners by confronting several people all at once. Don’t do it. Confronting more than two people at a time creates a diffusion-of-responsibility effect: the troublemakers tell themselves that they just got caught up in a dragnet; the problem is those other people, not me. The one who talks the most will get most of the heat; the others will tend to slip by (though the experience may cause them to reconsider their behavior or leave as well).

This process also leaves open the hope that the person will really, truly get that their behavior is Not OK, and agree to change it. When this happens, be sure to negotiate specific changes, boundaries, rules, and consequences (“if we see you using drugs here again, we will call the police. There will be no second warning”), and then reach a consensus agreement that allows them to stay. On the other hand: if the person turns violent and gets out of control, then the question is settled, and their choice is made. You now have a legitimate reason to call the cops to haul them away. And the cops will likely respect you more for maintaining law and order.

Clearing out a huge number of these folks can be a massive time suck, at least for the few days it will take to weed out the worst ones and get good at it. It might make sense to create a large committee whose job it is to gather information, build cases against offenders, and conduct these meetings.

And finally:

5. It is not wrong for you to set boundaries this way. You will get shit for this. “But…but…it looks a whole lot like a Maoist purge unit!”  No. There is nothing totalitarian about asking people who join your revolution to act in ways that support the goals of that revolution. And the Constitution guarantees your right of free association — which includes the right to exclude people who aren’t on the bus, and who are wasting the group’s limited time and energy rather than maximizing it. After all: you’re not sending these people to re-education camps, or doing anything else that damages them. You’re just getting them out of the park, and out of your hair. You’re eliminating distractions, which in turn effectively amplifies the voices and efforts of everyone else around you. And, in the process, you’re also modeling a new kind of justice that sanctions people’s behavior without sanctioning their being — while also carving out safe space in which the true potential of Occupy can flourish.



18 Responses to “Occupy’s Asshole Problem: Flashbacks from An Old Hippie”

Comments (5) Pingbacks (13)
  1. Son of Roy Rogers says:

    I’m 62 and a veteran of the Viet-Nam fiasco Sara and I’d venture to say, from your opening statement that you and I have attended similar fucntions and demonstrations over the decades so nice ‘ta meet ‘cha personally.
    So, sister,you are putting out a diatribe I hope will take since it is full of insite, garnished at some pain, I’d warrant, about human nature. Your solutions ring true, not just ’cause I have seen them work, but because all can see they are valid ways to deal with the problem.
    As a life long Staten Islander, and having worked a midnight to eight shift for N.Y.C. Environmental Protection for twenty four years I am more that familiar with the city in general and this park called Zuccoti. We often controlled water flow for crews working at the site of the September 11th tragedy and the park is right there. I’d venture to say the Mid-East American guy who has a meat wagon down there has probably assured his children’s attendance at N.Y.U. having made enough money by now to buy the University a wing.
    There are plenty of folk in this, as well as other cities, that are troubled because of the heinous variations of abuse that stem from our imperfect society and they cause trouble which is sad, mostly for them. The “Anti-Semite ” charge made at the wall street occupation stems from a figure KNOWN in the neighborhood slightly east for years for walking around with the same sign. This is just a new venue for him. It is a similar story for most of these folk, I’m sure I’d recognize one from 57 th street that I would see while heading for some commercial audition or one I would come across at 72nd street when exiting the Ziegfield cinema. Stories of similar problems (and I am sure they exist, human nature) should be compiled from Chicago, Oakland,Peoria etc. and spread as much as possible on live feeeds and the net in general so those not in the know, but interested in what is going on, will gain true perspective and not be turned off.
    Another area of infiltration I bet you as well might be familiar with is Federal and local paid- by- the- public, “Patriots” who actively seek to cause trouble and undermine the CONSTITUTIONAL right these folk are exercising.
    The biggest factor I see this time around, as opposed to, say, the “Peace With Honor” parade during th Nixon years, is the superior communication and recording devices that have proliferated making it esasier to disprove allegations of internal troublemakers.
    The anger of the young you and I recognize. Walk in The Spirit, Jim Clark

  2. jreymondez says:

    This anarchist agrees with you

  3. ivy says:

    Way To Go Nicole – I’ll take thist down to my local Occupy in case they haven’t seen it. They can use at their General Assembly. Love you on the radio too!

  4. nobodobodon says:

    “You’re not sending these people to re-education camps.”

    To me, this is the key to the whole article. Everyone involved in an “intervention” has to bear that in mind the whole time. They are not being prevented from being friends with people who stay. They are not being prevented from speaking their mind. They’re just not allowed to say “I’m with them over there” – unless they’re actually with you.

  5. xproudfoot says:

    this post runs very close to assholishness.

    while I am sympathetic with the desire to keep the groups/space productive… I think this misses the point that Occupy has moved into PUBLIC spaces. And it sounds like you are looking to create a new kind of rules and authority in public spaces, for a movement that presents itself as nonauthoritarian.

    The post definitely falls into the ‘writer acting like an asshole’ camp when you lump large groups of people together as ‘assholes’ without any evidence, and take it upon yourself to advocate the use of heavy handed, asymettrical tactics to exclude these people from public space and from a movement that is of the people.

    While I agree that there is a need for boundaries, you need to establish under what legitimacy you think you have the right to set new boundaries in public space, and what degree of legitimacy an occupation stands to lose when it arrogantly assumes the right to do so.

    I suggest that your ideas of setting boundaries could in fact be quite dangerous when applied by groups of people who are relatively large and homogeneous within many occupations (i.e., white people). Your attitude will weaken this movement. Setting boundaries for yourself doesn’t mean you need to label anyone who feels that different norms are appropriate is an “asshole.” Frankly, this post makes you look like a stuck up asshole who wants everyone to behave and think like herself.

    Yeah, if you’re going to use that kind of language to label people, you should be ready to have it applied to yourself when someone doesn’t like your ideas or proposals.

    Setting boundaries has to be done carefully, with thought to how much legitimacy you actually have in controlling the space, whether large, homogenous groups are using it to stifle diversity, and without using loaded words to judge and ostracize people who may fall outside of your personal norms for reasons that may be legitimate, just owin to having different experiences and perspectives than you.

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