The Occupy Movement and the Nature of Community

by Akim Reinhardt

Community cartoonI’m currently at work on a book about the decline of community in America. I won’t go into much detail here, but the basic premise is that, barring a few possible exceptions, there are no longer any actual communities in the United States. At least, not the kinds that humans have lived in for thousands of years, which are small enough for everyone to more or less know everyone else, where members have very real mutual obligations and responsibilities to each other, and people are expected to follow rules or face the consequences.

One of the fun things about the project has been that people tend to have a strong reaction to my claim that most Americans don’t live in real communities anymore. Typically they either agree knowingly or strongly deny it, and I’ve been fortunate to have many wonderful conversations as a result. But for argument’s sake, let’s just accept the premise for a moment. Because if we do, it can offer some very interesting insights into the nature of the Occupy movement that is currently sweeping across America and indeed much of the world.

One of the critiques that has been made of the Occupy movement, sometimes genuinely and thoughtfully but sometimes with mocking enmity, is that it still hasn’t put forth a clear set of demands. It’s the notion that this movement doesn’t have a strong leadership and/or is unfocused, and because of that it stands more as a generalized complaint than a productive program. That while it might be cathartic and sympathetic amid the current economic crisis, the Occupy movement doesn’t have a plan of attack for actually changing anything.

While I disagree with that accusation for the most part, there is an element of truth in it. However, to the extent that it holds water, the issue isn’t that the people involved don’t know what they want to do. Rather, many of them know exactly what they want. But they are nevertheless going through the careful steps of trying to assemble democratic communities before issuing any specific demands. And as we’re constantly being reminded these days, democracy is messy and inefficient, which is one of the many reasons why the founders created a republic instead.

Occupym map from Daily KOSI find the Occupy movement’s commitment to genuine participatory democracy to be highly laudable, with its general assemblies, open invitations, and a willingness to sacrifice efficiency and expedience for the sake of letting everyone be heard. But I find the movement’s quest for community to be utterly compelling.

One of the consequences of communities disintegrating (which I argue took place slowly over 200 years) is a yearning for community that many Americans feel today. They crave the binding social relationships that help give life structure and meaning. This manifests itself in everything from from churches to social media to spectator sports and countless other activities that approximate some aspect of community life without actually establishing one.

With this in mind, it seems to me that one of the sentiments driving many (though certainly not all) of the people at the Occupy movements around the country is the desire to establish some sort of community through these occupations. Many of them are setting up institutions and rules that go far beyond the basic logistics required for a peaceful occupation. In addition to supplying food and shelter, we are seeing all sorts of social activities entrenching themselves. Ad hoc libraries, music performances, film showings, crafts workshops, group exercise such as yoga, and educational programs far removed from the ostensible issues at hand are just some of the many examples of people building communal institutions and engaging in communal activities.

Having established a shared space, many Occupy members are now using these sorts of seemingly extraneous activities to do more than ward off boredom or indulge in favorite past times. They are attempting to build some of the relationships one would find in an actual community. While familial ties are often the basic community building block, social relationships are also vital. In a real community, members interact through institutions such as work, religion, commerce, politics, culture, and education to name just a few. By doing things that superficial criticism might dismiss as irrelevant or even ridiculous, Occupy members have begun to mimic some of the social relationships once found in historic human communities around the world.

In addition to these sorts of activities by Occupy members, many of the general assemblies are devising and issuing statements that represent another vital community function: establishing values and ideals. This can be seen in some of the rules and proclamations that Occupy movements are coming up with. Often going far beyond what is strictly necessary to maintain an occupation, they are attempting to define mores and codes of behavior in Occupy drummersmuch the way an actual community would. Communities establish rules of behavior and even belief systems as a way of creating authority and organizing members into a coherent group.

An example of this can be seen in the recent dust up surrounding the sexual assault policy approved by the general assembly at Occupy Baltimore. Like many cities in the Northeast, Baltimore is essentially a one-party town with the Democrats in firm control. Since the Democratic Party is almost certainly busy conspiring to figure out how it can effectively coopt this powerful new social movement, it is not surprising that the Baltimore city administration has thus far been fairly tolerant of Occupy Baltimore’s activities at a busy downtown plaza. Occupiers have generally been on good terms with the police and have faced a bare minimum of harassment. This is not like New York City, where a persnickety mayor born of Wall Street is dismissive, impatient, and clearly eager to disband the occupation by any means short of fire hoses and tear gas.

But despite its relatively secure position, Occupy Baltimore elected to issue a statement on sexual harassment. Aside from its overt purpose, the statement reflects an effort to create community values. Of all the countless transgressions Occupy Baltimore members could feasibly commit against one another, sexual assault was highlighted with a lengthy policy statement, positioning it as a special taboo. Indeed, the nature of the policy is explicit in establishing community values with edicts like:

Sexual abuse and assault are dehumanizing acts for the survivor as well as the abuser. It strips people of their right to safety, dignity, and respect, basic values which embody many of the intentions behind Occupy Baltimore. As a vibrant community, we recognize and give power to these values and the rights of survivors.

Obviously, to the extent one accepts that sentiment, it is also true of most violent crimes. So why issue an especial statement about sexual assault? One reading is that it’s an effort to establish a sense of community by creating a value system. By singling out sexual assault from other unacceptable behaviors, Occupy Baltimore was creating a taboo and establishing beliefs that members are expected to internalize and adhere to, as they would in an actual community.

But it’s not just about printing up rules for people to follow. Communities don’t only create rules, they also find ways to enforce them. That aspect of community building can be seen in the Occupy Baltimore statement on sexual assault as well. First, it bans from Occupy Baltimore anyone who commits sexual assault. But beyond that, should someone become a victim of sexual assault, the statement discourages them from going to the police. Instead, it encourages the victim to first report the incident to Occupy Baltimore security.

Though we do not encourage the involvement of the police in our community, the survivor has every right, and the support of Occupy Baltimore, to report the abuse to the appropriate law enforcement. Any member of the Occupy Baltimore community who believes he/she/they have been a victim of, are aware of, or suspect a commission of sexual abuse, are encouraged to immediately report the incident to the Security Committee. The point person for dealing with these situations will be [name and phone number]. Survivors of Sexual Abuse will be given the support, resources, and assistance needed for their emotional and physical health.

For this, Occupy Baltimore understandably took some heat. The statement was first picked up by a hostile blogger for Andrew Breitbart’s right wing web site. From there, The Baltimore Sun ran with the story, and Occupy Baltimore was soon on the defensive. After all, there are time constraints for gathering evidence in sexual assault cases, and delaying or discouraging a police report has potentially serious consequences. Furthermore, it’s pretty dubious that Occupy Balitmore, despite all of its intentions and earnestness, really has the wherewithal to give a victim all the “support, resources, and assistance needed for emotional and physical health.”

It should be noted that there have not been any sexual assaults at Occupy Baltimore. But regardless, the question begs: Why did Occupy Baltimore’s general assembly go to the lengths of creating a statement on sexual assault, apart from other crimes, and imbue it with such language?

Even in a relatively favorable setting like Baltimore, with a sympathetic populace and tolerant government, there are many obvious reasons why an Occupy movement doesn't want local police arresting their members. But beyond that, the statement can be read as an effort to create and enforce community values. A viable community doesn’t just set rules for people to follow. It also employs potent tools for enforcing those rules, everything from private chiding to public humiliation to employing something like a “security team.”

Occupy Baltimore is divineSo one reading of the Occupy Baltimore general assembly’s statement on sexual assault is that it was an effort at community building. It expressed elements of a value system and attempted to impose and enforce those values, the way any community would.

I’ve already written a piece elsewhere speculating on the reasons why the Occupy movement has spread like wildfire around the nation and world in no time flat, while another American social protest movement pivoting around the economic crisis, the Tea Party, is still ghettoized within the United States after three years. Putting aside the Tea Party's specifically American symbolism, which could be easily adapted across cultures and borders (just look at the Arab Spring), I make the case that its libertarian, anti-government message doesn’t resonate well in the rest of the developed world, even in a place like Greece where people have plenty of reasons to be pissed at their government for profligate spending. In contrast, the Occupy movement rests on a more positive and hopeful interpretation of representative government and the social contract that is more in line with the cultural attitudes in many places.

But there is another reason. In its unofficial quest to build communities, the Occupy movement is speaking to the desires of many people throughout the developed world to find something that they do not have in their everyday lives: the quest for a more meaningful life through varied and important relationships, and through shared ideals and values beyond politics and economics.

I don’t believe that the Occupy movement will succeed in establishing any actual communities in the historic sense. After all, communities are not only vibrant social organizations, but they are also quite complex and generally develop the institutions and mechanisms necessary to sustain themselves over many generations. Nonetheless, the Occupy movement is replicating aspects of community, and it is doing so in ways that go beyond many existing popular surrogates, such as churches, online social networks, and spectator sports.

All eyes are understandably focused on whether the Occupy movement will be responsible for concrete political and economic changes. It will also being interesting to see what long term social cultural impacts it may have as well.