Clearing Zuccotti Park: the strange resilience of democracy with a thin skin

The occupation of Zuccotti Park was only the visible tip of a movement whose significance and power goes well beyond the tent city. The next moves of the movement need to remember the nature of the symbol they are building. The author's 2c: they should virtualise while spreading physical meetings to many ad hoc locations

Who knows why Mayor Bloomberg decided to clear Zuccotti park last night. But it is important for all observers to understand - as I suppose that Bloomberg did - that the tent city in the small public space near Wall Street was actually only the symbol, the visible creation, of a movement that has the power to keep protesting and to keep its symbol alive.

OWS is a piece of political performance, and like artistic performance, it is in the business of making meaning. My reading of the protest - I will explain more of this below - is that OWS is showing, explaining and discovering "thin-skinned democracy". The importance of the symbol lies in its making real - giving symbolic existence - to the generalised, unarticulated sense that the "thick skinned democracy" that we practise has failed. The OWS that I witnessed in action last week wants to convince that the ills of our day come out of the system of democracy we have built: financial crisis, environmental degradation, war, identitarian strife and corporatisation of the State all have a common character. They all rely on the abandonment of self-awareness and critical judgement by the system's participants: the belief that what is permitted is both right and good. The thin-skinned democracy that OWS wants to instantiate and invent is the polar opposite: each, ideally, is aware of the whole and vice versa. The point of building and maintaining this symbol is not as a program, a template, for how to reform our democracies; it is as a performance, to explore and highlight what has gone wrong.

It will be particularly interesting, therefore, to discover over the coming days, both what the performance decides to do next - will it be Central Park? will they become peripatetic? - and, even more interesting given the kind of performance that Zuccotti Park has been, how they decide.

I was at the Park several times last week and attended one of the occupiers' open, open-air, General Assemblies; I spent time as a tourist at the working groups that assembled, with real Manhattan surrealism, in the semi-public lobby of the headquarters of Deutsche Bank at 60 Wall Street; and I went to the Spokes Council meeting, a sort of proto-constituent assembly of the occupation movement (hosted by Trinity Church, the large, well-intentioned Episcopalian landlord of much of the valuable space around Zuccotti).

My overriding experience was of the protest being a living embodiment of "democracy with a thin skin". Let me explain. There is a view that the greatest of democratic virtues is the thick skin: when it comes to living together politically, let yourself become de-sensitised to others' behaviours, prejudices, beliefs about you, for that is the only way for strangers to actually get along in a civil way.The rough and tumble of New York is perhaps the greatest living example of democracy with a thick skin: it is cutting and thrusting; it is brash; but it is, in its way, deeply tolerant. There is a "degree zero" of public behaviour that respects -at least formally - the rights of each to speech, property, equality before the law and - informally, now - their right to their own dream of happiness.

But Zuccotti existed to represent a different ideal, call it thin-skinned democracy. Every meeting I saw, from small teach-ins on how to facilitate a group to the general assembly in the park, was characterised by an almost obsessive attention to being inclusive, open and accountable. Consensus was sought everywhere; self-criticism and mea culpa's worn with pride as a public virtue; interventions were conducted on the basis of "progressive stack", where anyone could ask to be put on the list of speakers, but participants were asked to always remember to "step up, step back" - to give priority to anyone who had a background of not having their views heard or taken seriously.

Democracy on this model is thin-skinned not only in being hyper-sensitive, but also in being extraordinarily delicate: it can be ripped apart very easily.

And indeed, I witnessed a fascinating example of just such a wounding moment. This was at the General Assembly - a daily open meeting at the Park. Banned from using sound amplification, the meeting employed a "human microphone". The speaker utters a short sentence; those that have heard it repeat it. So in every corner of the crowd, everyone can hear what is being said, and indeed is asked to participate in the production of an audible speech. (This social innovation, reminiscent of the way that the Ethernet protocol keeps repeating a message until it has been received, would have destroyed the wonderful joke of "blessed are the cheesemakers" in the LIfe of Brian's rendition of the Sermon on the Mount).

The first video below was taken during the General Assembly, just before the disruption. Occupy the Holidays, an OWS-inspired group, was asking the assembly for $350 to buy toys for children.

During this delicate ritual of open communication, a man just behind me started to shout anti-semitic abuse. He wanted to be heard. His version of an open meeting was one in which an audience is gathered and you howl your message and your grievance as loudly and as madly as you can. The second YouTube shows what happened then.

Two things immediately struck me about this event: first, the simple contrast between the conceptions of democracy that it demonstrated. The mad anti-semite is at the extreme end of the thick-skinned, free-speech, rights-based conception of democracy. This is the America that allows the Westborough Baptist Church to protest at the funerals of dead servicemen with plackards reading "God hates fags" (which is that church's favourite explanation of why God could possibly allow American servicement to die at the hands of the infidel). This was the thick skin trying to rip apart the thin. As you can see, the fabric was briefly torn, but is quite resilient. The ritual of the human microphone soon started up again.

But the second, bigger lesson for me was that the experiment in thin-skinned democracy was being protected, given space, by the NYPD. The police, in a way, were acting as the thick skin that the movement has foresworn. Americans grow up schooled in the wonders of the Constitutional Convention, the space in which liberated men decided how to govern themselves. There is a deep vein of respect in American culture for what OWS is doing. (One placard offered that "Our founding parents are with us, not Wall Street"). Here was an institutional realisation of that respect. I cannot imagine that any amount of non-violent communication would have silenced this particular troubled ranter - there was no inclusiveness that could accommodate both him and others. And this because of his means, his maximal exploitation of the institutions of thick-skinned democracy, not because of the unpleasant content of his rant.

So ... the NYPD has, for now, anyway, reversed its role as the protector of the experiment in thin-skinned democracy. But the experiment that I witnessed was much stronger than the tent-city itself would suggest: a lot of serious people, many young and many others from 60s protest movements, were involved in creating the performance of occupation. To understand the next steps for this movement, it is important to see that this is the nature of the protest: a living example of thin-skinned democracy.

The point was not that its endless inclusive meetings were the model for running America. The point was that those meetings, with their hyper-sensitivity to process, were the right way to produce this symbol: if you get the process wrong, you can expect the pathological outcomes we have seen in finance, environment and crony politics. And one of the encouraging lessons is that we need the processes that we invent to organise our social lives to be the right ones for each task. In a way, it is the one-size-fits-all model of individual, rights-based liberal democracy that has led to the abuses in finance, environment and foreign policy. Each task needs a process that evolves and is invented to suit its particular circumstances.

The question for OWS is what is the best response of thin-skinned democracy to eviction. It clearly is going to perpetuate the symbol, and doing so requires them to decide in the right way - in an open and inclusive way. That is the conceit of the performance they are engaged in. For what it's worth, here is the suggestion that I would make if I were still in the right place:

Technology is our friend. Zuccotti Park has been trying to take the lessons of the best of online experience and adapt them for life in the world of atoms - this was argued succinctly on his blog by my host in New York, a technology venture capitalist. This is one of the really subtle ways that the Internet has changed politics: participation in sites online - from Facebook to the nichest of groups - has taught us what co-creation, legitimacy and responsiveness can actually be like. The work of making our atom-world political institutions that good at organising our political lives has set a high bar, and OWS is an attempt to jump it. But remember not just the technological roots of this sentiment - remember also its uses. The best medium for the kind of open and inclusive democracy that the movement has been - almost literally - representing is, in a country like the USA, virtual. The physical symbols and the get-togethers are very important rituals of humanity, but the democratic process being invented should itself move to its natural online home. This is why I would recommend the next move of the occupation to be peripatetic in the world of atoms, and permanent in the world of bits.

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com