Since Friday, I have visited Occupy Minnesota several times and slept on the lawn of the People's Plaza once. I'm planning a much more detailed account of my experiences there, one that a blog cannot encompass, but one part of the discussion at last night's general assembly touched on my own field of work: safety and security.
As gossip tells it, the occupation movement is "disorganized." I would rather describe it as "dynamically organized," as each person gives input and discussion sets policy, always open to revision. Currently this structure is proving very adaptable and inclusive. A lot of ground work and precedent is being set right now. And of course we have a tendency to criticize new endeavors, and a healthy dose of that is good, very good. So last night the general assembly discussed a case in which the role of the security working group was examined.
I had not heard the rumors, but someone was kind enough to explain to 50 or so attendees what had happened. The previous night, a group of people decided to split off from the occupation with an impromptu march. In the course of the march, a smaller group of people fell behind. At one point some young gentlemen got off a bus and proceeded to beat up an old man and mug a young girl. It isn't clear what condition these folks are in now, or whether or not the attack was politically motivated, or if the police or downtown security did or can do anything about it.
It caused quite a bit of debate. The occupation has an internal team of people, ostensibly all volunteers, to make sure conduct in the People's Plaza remains safe. What exactly they do, I don't know - I heard nothing about this except the call on Twitter for some volunteers, preferably people with security experience. And although I'm now officially on the record as both an occupier and a security guard, I wasn't feeling particularly moved to answer that call. (First of all, I'm actually a "Certified Protection Officer," thank-you-very-much, although the term "guard" has a historical appeal that resonates with me.) Mostly that's because I can't spend all my days at the occupation - unfortunately - so I don't want to have responsibilities that carry outside of the limited time I have there.
The guards of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king. Alabaster relief, ca. 645 BCE. Security is an ancient and honorable responsibility.
But listening to people debate the role of the security working group really raised some questions about the industry and how it relates to society as a whole. Some of the more decentralization-minded folks (whom the media would likely broadbrush as "anarchists") have legitimate and vocal concerns about authoritarianism. When one facilitator suggested that no marches leave the plaza without some security escort the phrase "slippery slope" immediately came up. No one wants their spontaneous actions to be babysat. But nobody wants our activists to get the snot kicked out of them, or be too intimidated to participate, either.
"Slippery slope" is often used in a way that bypasses spectrum thinking and reinforces all-or-nothing dichotomies - and I think this is such a case. Behavior cannot be split neatly into "fascism" on one hand and "freedom" on the other. Just as we cannot divide up our experiences neatly into "privilege" and "oppression."
"If I had more time and could speak," my fiancee said to me afterwards, "I would have told them that walking alone downtown at night is different for me than it is for them. They need to check their privilege."
We were of course short on time. In the end, the facilitator (who did a good job with the meeting on the whole, I must say) made us aware of the issue and then dropped it. Essentially this leaves everyone to make their own decisions but doesn't raise the security-consciousness of the occupation. If anything, it is dangerously dismissive. This would be a prime opportunity for a teach-in, covering de-escalation (which every activist should have in their tool belt, IMHO) and personal safety. Self-defense lessons could be invaluable, too.
Call me a starry-eyed hippy, but I believe everyone is more or less capable of engaging in the kind of critical thinking necessary for security. Some people may be more vigilant than others, or more charismatic (which could help in de-escalation) or may have just plain more experience. But, as my fiancee once again put it succinctly, it's really a matter of cost-benefit analysis. If you leave the encampment and go out into the (sometimes dimly lit) streets of Minneapolis, you run risks considerably different than if you're in your sleeping bag among your fellow activists. The People's Plaza works because folks trust each other. I find that inspiring. But you do run the risk of getting in a shouting match with other impassioned people who happen to disagree with you, and you run the risk of being held liable if others make bad mistakes and cross the police. So, you know, all our behavior is a matter of cost-benefit analysis on some level or another. It's just not that everybody sees it that way.
So that is one function of security I strongly endorse - the raising of awareness. If you or a group of your friends want to do something risky outside of the plaza, liability falls on y'all. I feel like it is the responsibility of the collective to provide both training to the members as well as specialized members for escorts to meet the safety needs of the individuals and groups who require those services. But it shouldn't be mandatory; adults must be allowed adult freedoms.
The fresh look this gives me on my own field of work in the capitalist system is significant.
Education and protection services provided by security are useful in any society, no matter the complexity or level of industrial development. In a decentralized community, every member has a responsibility for their own safety and the safety of the collective. It's a foolish and unfair bourgeois conceit that any given member be treated as a representative or "unofficial leader" of an avowedly leaderless movement, an experiment in direct democracy, a horizontal organization. The only reason to put a single face on such a movement is to make targets, martyrs, to diffuse collective thought and united action. This is why a more successful and mature occupation should probably cycle members through all working groups, including security working groups. Everyone ought to have some taste of each job as well as receiving daily updates from all other working groups. Only then will everyone have an appreciation of exactly what security (and other) challenges face the individuals and the occupation.
This is one of the advantages of the horizontally organized community: the direct sharing of knowledge. Unlike government, academia, and business, all members of a collective share their information as freely as possible. If everyone hoists a part of the work, it is more fulfilling to our humanity than working the same repetitive drudgework day in and day out. For almost 100 years we had our days divided into three segments, one for work, one for recreation, and one for sleep. That informal social contract has informally expired: work now follows us home through technology, and involuntary furloughs and temp work makes our livelihood much more precarious. (Labor arrangements that provide alternatives to hourly wage have yet to be fully explored; take the initiative yourself!)
Likewise, the social need for security - like the need for sanitation, socialization, civic participation, education, and rest - extends beyond the conventional workday. Industrial and federal bureaucracies expand to deepen the management of these needs at many removes from general society. But neither this society or its constituents can continue to function under increasing structural and mental stress.
"What? You need me to come again? I feel like I just left!!"
Despite the tangential nature of this discussion, I hope I've made the structural implications of the security/direct democracy dynamic more clear, if for nothing else than to exercise and clarify our critical thinking. A community that does not take its security concerns seriously and incorporate it in all aspects of its functioning will continue to run into adversities that impede its expansion and evolution. In short, if the embryos of these occupation movements do not develop responsible safety ethics relative to their own needs, the social environment will abort them and resist their re-establishment until future catastrophes.
The function of security often carries with it a hint of authoritarianism to folks whose prime concern is liberty and democracy. It needn't. Like all the other functions of institutions, it can, with enough mindfulness on the part of collective associates, be effectively distributed in a fair manner. Like many other fields, it needn't be the exclusive domain of trained "professionals," but instead part of human development in a free-affiliating society with voluntary and negotiated division of labor.