On Oprah and movement structure

Oprah decided to market her “Selma” movie by saying that Ferguson protesters need “some kind of leadership” that makes concrete demands. The actually-existing, prominent, dedicated, respected organizers of Ferguson were not thrilled. Especially since Ferguson Action, a major movement coordination website, has both a long-term vision and shorter-term demands right there on the site. Individual organizations within the movement have also made demands. Others have pointed out that Oprah’s understanding of the Civil Rights Movement’s own structure appears to be incomplete, and also pointed out that setting up a movement with a single leader or a few leaders just gives the movement’s enemies obvious targets.

Isn’t this how many social movements work to some degree? There’s certainly no one official leader of the LGBTQ liberation movement(s), and if you asked ten different people who the leaders were you’d get ten different answers. Same for 2nd and 3rd wave feminism (especially the latter). And the Civil Rights Movement, popular stereotypes to the contrary, was hardly run by one man either; it took decades of organizing by many formal and informal leaders, most of whom are sadly underrecognized.

Since people all over Twitter, including a lot of people who have been on the ground from the start, have been saying so much good stuff about the current movement, I’m not going to focus on that. You should be reading what they’re saying on that, not centering a random white Northeastern blogger. I want to talk a little about what I value in “leaderless” movements (movements without formally appointed leadership). I’m not an anarchist, and don’t have any particular ideological or theoretical attachment to that style of movement, though I have read and thought about some of the theory*. What I have is my own experience.

I got my start street medicking in Occupy, which is a movement that a lot of people are familiar with as an example of a leaderless movement, and that a lot of people mock for that reason. One of my clearest memories from the first couple of days in the tent is another medic telling me, “You’re allowed to speak up if you see something you don’t like, even though you just started. People who have been here for longer might or might not agree with you, they might have different views influenced by their longer experiences, but you’re part of the team and you don’t have to wait for a ‘leader’ to speak up.” There was this idea that not only did I have the right to fully particpate, but the responsibility.

I saw that idea of leaderlessness, right, and responsibility, everywhere at Occupy. People stepping up to address problems simply because the problems were there and there was no leadership team to pass the buck to. A black bloc-ing anarchist starting a team to help with gruntwork, like washing dishes, for any shorthanded working group. Engineers designing pedal-powered electricity generation systems for the camp because we weren’t allowed to have regular generators. People with no previous journalism-type experience (some of whom have since done professional journalism work) stepping up to livestream and livetweet because they saw that it was needed. People organizing skills trainings (and showing up to get trained in skills they’d never had before). The Women’s Caucus challenging sexism within the movement and taking tangible steps like bringing a tent into the camp to be a women’s safer space. Medics doing everything from contacting city health centers to proposing jointly running flu shot clinics with them for the camp, to speading the word about the street medic work of Occupy at local public health conferences, to putting together ready-made kits for new medics without their own kits to carry. All because the problems were there, and we were there, and if we wanted the movement to function, we knew it was up to us to make that happen.

This is not to say that people were doing this work entirely on their own without accountability – I can’t speak for other working groups, but among the medics, we had weekly meetings to discuss and plan and report, standards of conduct that we developed as a group, and eventually, procedures for holding people accountable who screwed up. It’s also not to say that we were in a perfect environment where all problems got solved – we most certainly were not, and I could write an entire post and probably more about the problems that I saw at Occupy. It’s to say that the lack of having some distant Other who was In Charge created a culture where lots of people for whom this was a new way of working were motivated initiative and responsibility for improving the movement.

One of the ultimate manifestations of this see-something-do-something culture was Occupy Sandy. Occupy Sandy happened because some Occupiers saw that the early responses of FEMA and the Red Cross to Hurricane Sandy was inadequate, so they responded themselves. It happened because lots of people in lots of cities saw that something terrible had happened, and took the initiative to do something about it themselves – to organize ad-hoc clinics or food distribution centers in New York City, to organize donation drives for Occupy Sandy in their own cities, to volunteer as a driver and transport other volunteers to and from Far Rockaway, and much more.

I honestly hadn’t come to Occupy intending to do anything more than working a few medic tent shifts or marches. Doing valuable work, but still being on the periphery filling in pre-defined shifts while other people took the initiative and made the decisions. That was what my activism in the past had been like. Filling in pre-defined shifts as a clinic escort, working under a big Planned Parenthood bureaucracy. Filling in pre-defined shifts as a canvasser and phone-banker for the 2008 Obama campaign, secretly wishing I could do something more organizational and interesting and meaninngful than being a teeny script-reciting cog in a vast machine, but having no clue how to rise above that as a simple volunteer with no political connections. Filling in pre-defined shifts as an abortion fund case manager, knowing that it was a flat organizational structure and I could go beyond that, but not having the confidence or practice, feeling like other people knew better than I did. Occupy changed that for me permanently.

After having had the experience of medicking in the heyday of Occupy, I had a new attitude. There was no active Boston street medic collective, so I cofounded one (which has been very active in the local Black Lives Matter protests, as well as doing a substantial amount of dispatch work for the post-verdict Ferguson and New York City protests, and has occasionally sent medics to both of those locations in person). I was at an action where someone’s sexual assault by the police got unhelpful response from the local rape crisis center, and I responded by getting trained as a rape crisis counselor so that I could do that work myself both at actions and in the wider community. I wanted to do some civil liberties/civil rights work, so I started volunteering with GLAD’s legal helpline. I saw that the local climate justice movement didn’t have much experience with street medics and had a lot of new activists, so I showed up, introduced myself, and started offering to do protester health and safety trainings. Frankly, almost all activism that I’ve *done* in the last three years, I do because of how Occupy and its leaderlessness shaped me.

I saw, back in August, during the first couple of weeks of the protests, pleas on social media and over email for more medics in Ferguson in the short-term. So I went to Ferguson for a few days to medic. Because various life circumstances made it plausible and reasonable for me to do so, and because I knew that my particular skillset was needed and desired at that moment. “See something, do something” leaderless Occupy culture taught me that. It taught me that I don’t always have to be a spectator to history.

In Ferguson, I saw a similar culture at work. It wasn’t exactly the same, of course – Ferguson activists had less ideological commitment to leaderlessness, and the movement was made of different individuals and organizations, with different approaches to questions of structure, rather than the movement being its own organization of sorts as we saw with Occupy – but there were enough commonalities for the atmosphere to feel pleasantly familiar to me. People saw problems that needed addressing, and moved up to do what needed to be done, whether that was livestreaming/livetweeting actions, organizing nightly new-activist orientations, putting together tremendous infrastructure-building efforst like Operation Help or Hush, showing up on the front lines, or simply bringing crates of bottled water out to front-line protesters on nights where the heat index easily topped 110 degrees Fahrenheit. People were transforming their lives and attitudes in ways that brought back memories for me – learning new skills, doing things they never expected to do, having responsibility in ways that they’d never had before. There were and are organizers – the people Oprah ought to be looking for – who have become leaders, people that others look to and are inspired by, not through formal appointment as figureheads, but through the respect their organizing has received within the movement and the community.

*When I’ve talked about this in the past, I’ve gotten counterarguments that cite Jo Freeman’s famous essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, which was inspired by her experience in leaderless 1960s feminist groups. This essay has some critiques that I do see as applicable to many modern movements, and as potential hazards of the kind of culture that I’m describing. Examples include “Letting people assume jobs or tasks only by default means they are not dependably done,” and the commentary about the dangers of and resentment bred by the “star” system of communication with the public, both of which are problems that I have seen in real life. But it was written about movements that were not only formally leaderless, but formally structureless, which does not apply either to Occupy or to Ferguson/Black Lives Matter. In the same essay, Freeman goes on to talk about principles of “democratic structuring” that she believes would address the problems that she has identified, while still being suited for lateral and anti-oppressive movements. Several of these principles are already commonly in use in modern leaderless movements, including delegation of specific authority and responsibility for specific tasks (in the parts of Occupy that I interacted with, this was more or less what “bottomlining” a specific task or project meant), decentralization, role specialization (in Occupy, this is what the working group system was), and open information flow. So while I think Freeman’s insights are relevant, they aren’t quite as directly applicable as people seem to think.

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