NEW YORK — They were out to change the world, overthrow the establishment and liberate the poor. But first somebody would have to do something about those bongo drums.
At the Occupy Wall Street protest camp in Manhattan, protesters agonized over what to do about drum players who had turned part of the site into an impromptu dance floor. The neighbors were complaining about the racket. The protesters had tried to put a time limit on the noise, but the drummers were refusing to obey.
“It’s an issue, definitely,” sighed protester Kanene Holder, 31, on Friday night. “We’ll have to work it out.”
Reining in a few pesky percussionists would seem to be an easy task for a movement seemingly on the verge of becoming a political force. But one month after it burst onto the scene and inspired similar protests across the country, the Occupy Wall Street protest remains stubbornly decentralized, complicating everything from enforcing camp rules to writing a national platform.
On Saturday the protesters planned to march on bank offices and into Times Square. But while their message against corporate greed has struck a nerve with many Americans, the lack of leaders in Manhattan and at other protest camps has baffled many.
In Minneapolis, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has been meeting every morning with a delegation of protesters — “at least, the ones who come forward and say they are the organizers,” Stanek said. “It’s a little difficult because it seems like each day it’s been a completely different group of folks.”
Protesters say the decentralization is deliberate and note that other movements, like the 1960s civil rights effort, began in a similarly disorganized way. It also calls to mind the Arab Spring, which had influential protesters but no clear leaders, at least initially.
And some academics who have studied dissent movements say that while being “leaderless” has some drawbacks, it could also have great advantages. Chief among them: It has allowed people with very different backgrounds — like union workers and anarchists — to rally behind the same broad message against corporate greed, without actually agreeing much on where the country should go from here.
“They have achieved popular support so much quicker than anti-war movement, or civil rights movement,” said Todd Gitlin, an expert on political dissent at Columbia University.
From its earliest days, the people at the heart of Occupy Wall Street have worked hard to make it a movement without leaders.
The original call for the demonstration came from the editors of the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters in mid-July. But since then, no one on the publication’s staff has been actively involved in organizing or leading the protests.
The two men who came up with the idea, 69-year-old Adbusters co-founder Kalle Lasn and 29-year-old editor Micah White, have yet to go to New York to see the demonstration.
The large group of activists who began meeting to plan the occupation in midsummer came from a variety of groups and backgrounds, and resolved from the start that they wouldn’t elect leaders, appoint a central planning council, or even name lead negotiators to deal with New York’s police or City Hall.
“A lot of people can’t handle that — it goes to their head,” said Joey Pearson, 29, a laid-off auto worker from Cincinnati.
Instead, decisions at the camp in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park are made at a General Assembly of protesters that sometimes numbers in the thousands, while the nitty-gritty work of organizing the encampment is carried out by a large number of autonomous work teams that largely function without central oversight.
New York police have prohibited protesters from using a public address system because they do not have a permit for their demonstration. So the protesters have adopted a system of hand signals — fingers up for agreement, down for disagreement — and a “human microphone” in which the crowd repeats each word so that everyone can hear.
On Friday night the General Assembly meeting lurched along through this call-and-response system.
“The GA ...” shouted a member of the Facilitation Committee.
“THE GA!” bellowed the crowd.
“... is now ...”
“... in session.”
A member of the Community Relations Committee outlined the drum problem, summarizing the neighbors’ concerns a few words at a time.
The General Assembly had already decided during Thursday night’s meeting to limit drum playing, but to no avail.
On Friday, the body failed to reach a consensus. But a smaller group of drummers and mediators later agreed to limit the music to noon to 2 p.m. and 5-7 p.m., said Andrew Smith, 26, of Portland, Ore., who sat in on the negotiations.
The slow pace of decisions has also led to other problems, like keeping the site clean.
Bobby Cooper, who is on the sanitation working group, said volunteers had been planning a mass cleaning of the park for about a week but no decision had been made on their proposals because of drawn-out discussions.
Finally, on Thursday, with the threat of the park’s owner evicting protesters to do its own cleaning, the sanitation group got some attention — and some plastic bins to distribute to the occupiers.
“I would have wanted these bins a week ago,” said Cooper, 30, of Brooklyn.
In other areas, though, the independent nature of the work teams has allowed them to act efficiently and quickly. From its first days, the protesters have had an aggressive media outreach program. The finance committee worked out an agreement with a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that has begun allowing the movement to accept credit card donations online.
To date, some of the biggest events associated with the demonstration have been put in motion by the work teams, rather than the assembly. For example, the group’s march several weeks ago to the Brooklyn Bridge — a demonstration that ended in hundreds of arrests and raised the movement’s profile — was planned by the direct action working group, said Brooklyn schoolteacher Matt Presto, one of a few dozen “facilitators” who specialize in moderating general assembly meetings, and other large discussion groups.
And people are demonstrating leadership, even if they don’t have a formal title, activists said.
“There is not a classification in leaders. But there are people whose voices are respected, and who people want to listen to,” said one organizer, Marina Sitrin.
The commitment to consensus on big issues has prevented the group from settling upon a single list of demands to present to the public, protesters say. But they insist that’s OK.
“When the civil rights movement started, people didn’t come out right out with a big list of demands — they came out in the streets and just said, ‘We’re not going to accept society the way it is,’” said Ed Needham, 43, a public relations manager from Cambridge, Mass. “That’s the stage we’re in right now.”
A sign near the edge of the protest camp Friday echoed that sentiment.
“We’re here, we’re unclear, get used to it!” it said.
The movement against nuclear power in the 1970s eschewed big-name leaders or national organizations. So did the early feminist movement, where organizational meetings favored consensus over strong leadership. Quakers have been using the consensus model for hundreds of years.
But political experts say there are drawbacks.
With outsiders not quite certain who is in charge, or who has authority to speak for the group, there is a possibility that the press or public could become confused about what the demonstrations stand for, said John Krinsky, a political science professor at the City University of New York.
Core groups of leaders will eventually emerge, said Gabriella Coleman, an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University who has been studying Occupy Wall Street and also participated in some of its early planning meetings.
“What happens often is that, sometimes when a tight-knit working group gets to know each other quite well, newcomers, like six months down the line, have a harder time getting involved. There is already a culture, friendship, and it is hard to break into that core group,” Coleman said.
The bigger hurdle for the Occupy movement may not be the lack of strong leaders but the large philosophical differences between the small group of demonstrators and the much larger — but less radical — group of outsiders who have been supportive of the protests from afar, Gitlin said.
The young people at Zuccotti Park “really think they are headed for no future. No jobs. Ice caps are melting. Misery in the offing ... You want a new civilization,” Gitlin said.
“But most of the people who support you ... they don’t want a new civilization. They want to be middle class.”