The One Clear Impact of the Occupy Movement: A Revival of Civic Discourse

Occupy Atlanta Participants Signaling Approval

If there is one major success story to the Occupy Wall St movement so far, it is that it is getting people to think more like citizens.

Lately, I have been visiting the Occupy LA site in downtown City Hall, where participants have full city permission to camp. Each time I visit, I am struck by the amount of civic conversations going on, both in smaller, informal circles and in the larger General Assembly. In fact, one participant said to me,

“You know why I keep coming down here? Because it is the one place I can come and have a real conversation about what’s going on in our country.”

Occupy LA General Assembly on City Hall Steps

Those that are participating in General Assemblies every night across the country are engaging in a revival of public discourse. They are not sitting at home listening to partisan, argumentative political rhetoric put out by cable TV pundits. Rather they are gathering in public squares to participate in the kind of deliberate, constructive discourse that theorists like Jurgen Habermas have noted lead to democratic evolution and change.

Participants in the General Assemblies follow a certain protocol that allows anyone to participate. They work in a consensus fashion to make decisions that affect the local Occupy participants, as well as to propose activities that engage the larger public.

The consensus format is a major strength of the movement, but it is also viewed as a major obstacle towards moving forward. As noted in the media, participants have discussed a number of problems and solutions, without making any “formal” proclamation about what exactly they stand for and what they hope to do about it.  It appears as a cacophony of messages to outside observers. To participants, this is viewed as a necessary step in bringing a wide range of people to the discussion table.

General Assembly in Portland

As time is moving forward, however, I have noticed that participants are starting to get a bit frustrated with the “consensus for the sake of consensus” orientation of the General Assembly. Anyone, for whatever reason, can put forth a “hard block” of dissension for implementing an action. Another Occupy LA participant said to me,

“We can’t move any action forward here, except for actions that directly relate to providing for the resident needs of our tent city.”

However, it looks like some General Assemblies are starting to implement a 90% majority rule for moving actions forward. Occupy Oakland, which has 3000 participants on a daily basis active in their General Assembly, passed an action last night with a 90% vote to call for a city-wide strike on November 2nd. They see this as a pivotal step in gathering momentum to invite more people in the public conversation on solving the economic problems of the country. By implementing a 90% majority rule, Occupy participants may start to gain additional leverage in honing their platform to greater effect.

Oakland General Assembly

While the jury is still out what kind of structural change the Occupy Wall St movement will have, one thing is clear: a kind of civic revival is happening across the country. It is an inclusive movement based on democratic protocol for the deliberation of issues. Thousands of people every night are coming together in public squares across America to discuss their role as citizens in making our country better. That element, more than any other thus far, is the one clear impact of the movement.

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