zach parton & Trevor Warren Griffith: Inside the Occupation of Chicago

The broad international left movement against corporate interests known as “Occupy” has seen different manifestations across the world. The core of the Occupy movement was solidified by an heuristic approach to organization. Beginning with an idea in the samizdat Adbusters and the help of the on-line activist group Anonymous, the first embers of the movement staking out the financial centres in New York began to glow in mid-September 2011.1 In fifteen hundred cities across the world2, peripheral contractions felt from the Arab Spring again soon twitched with a hope for rising against entrenched tyranny.

The Occupy movement has no central dogma, leadership or manifesto. Outside of principles adopted by local movements through a “people’s assembly”3 the global idea behind Occupy has been to shake peoples’ minds free from complacency regarding corporate consumerism.

An impressive manifestation of this movement can be found in Chicago, Illinois, USA, a city with a tumultuous history. Chicago streets have witnessed everything from the Haymarket Affair in 1886, to a protest against the Iraq War in 2003 that saw hundreds of arrests, to the crowd gathered to watch the acceptance speech of Barak Obama in 2008. In contrast to the violence of the past, Occupy Chicago has avowed non-violent and democratic principles. Using Robert’s Rules4 as a guide, Occupy Chicago has held, and continues to hold impressive ‘General Assemblies’ where democratic decisions are made about the future and voice of the movement.

A third year student at Shimer College in Chicago, Trevor Warren Griffith has been significantly involved in some of the organizing, planning and implementation of the ideas forming Occupy Chicago.

Interviewer (zach parton): I would like to begin by asking you what you feel exactly Occupy Chicago is?

Trevor Warren Griffith: Occupy Chicago is a name given to a coalition of politically autonomous individuals concerned with highlighting and/or drawing attention to corporate influence in American politics. Particularly, situations that involve privatisation of health care, housing needs, and education in the city of Chicago. The organization also aims at highlighting other Chicago specific problems such as poverty on the South Side and police violence.

Interviewer: How did Occupy Chicago find its start, its roots?

Griffith: On 17 September 2011, Occupy Wall Street began their occupation in New York City (USA). On 23 September, a group of individuals in Chicago thought it would be a good idea to follow their example and set up an occupation of the West Jackson Boulevard and South LaSalle Street intersection where the Chicago Board of Trade, Bank of America headquarters, and the Federal Reserve buildings are located. Since then we have migrated to various location across the city. We have a base in Cermak5, and hold our General Assemblies at Congress and Michigan.6

Asking how it got started is kind of a complicated question, because in a certain sense it got started with Occupy Wall St. In another sense, it’s been going on throughout the entire history of Chicago. There have always been left movements that have been resisting racist or classist forces that operate in Chicago politics.

Interviewer: Do you feel that Chicago is particularly primed for this kind of movement?

Griffith: I think we have done well. As I said, there is a history of resistance. The 1968 Democratic National Convention occurred in Chicago and was a windfall event in American Left politics. There are also the Unions, who have a huge influence in Chicago, more so than almost any other city in the United States.

In that sense, we had it much easier than other places. There are other places that had it easier than we did of course. Chicago is very cold [in the winter], making it very hard to have an encampment, a significantly complicating issue. Also, because Union influence is so heavy, we’ve had to sort of tailor what we do and how we do it to incorporate those interests. It isn’t a bad thing, but is definitely unique to Chicago.

Interviewer: I am very interested in what role you played in the coming-to-be of Occupy Chicago.

Griffith: I took train over to New York when Occupy Wall St. started. I stayed there over the weekend, and saw a couple very small things, very little overall. Getting off the train from New York to Chicago and walking to class, I walked past Jackson and La-Salle. I saw a bunch of folks outside holding signs saying ‘We are the 99%.’ This was immediately intriguing to me.

A few days later I went down there. Occupy Chicago had already been running for a little while. They were, at the time, struggling to get their General Assembly organized. It is a very hard thing to do. I walked up to someone who appeared to know what was going on, and asked them how I could help. They told me to come to the General Assembly. I had plans of attending, but I received a call from a friend. They advised me that the General Assembly had kind of been a ‘shit-show’ lately, and there was a group meeting trying to figure ways to work the problems out. I went over to my friend’s house, and ended up hooking up with some very cool, fairly radical folks who were trying to work out the organization issues in a properly democratic manner.

We worked for a couple weeks drafting the constitution for the General Assembly. A very rough draft had already been ratified during the first days of Occupy Chicago. The time we spent was well rewarded, we got it up and running and it runs pretty smoothly now. It has allowed for some excellent and decisive decisions.

Interviewer: What were some major challenges faced when drafting the constitution?

Griffith: The issues concerning the drafting of the constitution were not really exciting. People did not tend to get too fiery. The major issues as I saw them were twofold: The first was taking everything into account. There had to be protocol for a wide array of instances and problems. The second major challenge was how to structure the General Assemblies such that it kept everyone included. We had to keep meetings bearable, and timely. It was apparent the General Assemblies could not regularly last seven hours, as some had.

We had to make sure that people were actually getting their voices heard. At the same time we had to protect against people or groups dominating the dialogue or shutting other groups down. This is very hard to keep in balance, especially when you consider that every action the organization takes is very particular, with very particular problems. Two very apparent problems are police presence when doing things like trying to set up an encampment, and the general distrust and mania caused by having to handle money. I like to think we got the process running fairly smoothly.

Interviewer: I assume this smooth running is a result of the scaffolding provided by the constitution. What are some of its particulars?

Griffith: As you may know, any type of consensus is very hard to reach. Occupy Chicago does not work under a properly consensus format. We decide through a nine-tenths majority, in contrast to Occupy Wall St. which operates under one hundred percent consensus.

Personally, I prefer a complete consensus, but when I came to the movement, the nine-tenths had already been ratified. The people working on the constitution did not see is as their job as to change what had been done, but to make it effective. Most people in Occupy Chicago thought that a complete consensus asks too much, especially when considering things like resource allocation, arrest records [when deciding resistance] and prison solidarity. All of these things involve really fiery opinions, and however one is to proceed, it is clear that some protocol is needed.

One of the major influences on the constitution was Robert’s Rules. It is a rulebook for parliamentary proceedings. I had seen it used at my school, Shimer College: it’s about the closest thing to a democratically run college that I know of in the United States. The assembly system allows students and faculty to engage together even beyond what the seminar class structure allows. Robert’s Rules and the Assembly allow the college to operate through a variety of committees.

Occupy Chicago didn’t follow Robert’s Rules directly, but it had helpful suggestions. For Occupy Chicago, the book provided a means of allowing one person to speak at a time, various signs that audience members could hold up to prompt an immediate response to a speaker, and a stack to line speakers up in a coherent order.

The whole process was kind of lengthy, but we got the kinks worked out. We developed a protocol so that opinions could be heard, and things could be considered at least somewhat soberly.

Interviewer: What do you feel is the relationship of the General Assembly of Occupy Chicago to community at large?

Griffith: The General Assembly is a way of unifying the community. It allows for broad organization and decision-making which would be impossible without some structured proceedings. The General Assembly is not a governing body. The idea of the nine-tenths majority is that serious dissent will be addressed to the point that it is no longer truly dissent, while allowing the dissenting point to be made in full.

The General Assembly does not have the authority to disband or rebuke the community or Committees. Any Committee may present as a committee at the General Assembly on what they are doing, trying to do, or have observed. The General Assembly can then decide to adopt an action or position as their own. For example, the Housing Committee found a bunch of places to be possible organizing centres for the movement. The Committee came to the General Assembly and presented these possibilities in order to allow for Occupy Chicago as a whole to decide where they were going.

Interviewer: Could you detail what exactly ‘Committees’ are and how they work?

Griffith: It’s extremely hard when there are three or four hundred people organizing disparate things. In this spirit, particular jobs must be allocated to particular groups of people. The Committees at Occupy Chicago are set up as functional autonomous groups that anyone can join. Each is designed with a specific aim in mind. This includes, as I mentioned was finding locations to house people and the General Assembly. We also have committees dedicated to Arts and Recreation, who are charged with the production of signs and other displays. There is a Mental Health and Wellness Committee, which is fairly self-explanatory, just making sure the community as a whole is doing well. And there are, of course, many others. Something like twenty or thirty total.

Interviewer: Has Occupy Chicago continued with that same form of General Assembly outlined by the Constitution?

Griffith: As evidenced by my being here in Oxford, things very well may have changed without my knowing. I have seen some significant changes, such as a small break period being added, which was very necessary; people need to take a break and relax after four or five hours of the democratic process. We had been using the “people’s mic”7 as a standard at General Assemblies, but we dropped this later on in favour of a Public Address System that was purchased. That effectively cuts the time for General Assemblies in half. As far as I know, the “people’s mic” is still used in issues requiring spontaneous organization.

Interviewer: Thank you for the detailed account. Beyond the involvement with drafting the Constitution, you also had a particular role in organizing movements and actions, is that correct?

Griffith: Yes, outside the drafting, I was a part of the Internal Coordination Committee, which saw that all the various committees of Occupy Chicago had what they needed, were aware of what the other committees were doing, and were effectively communicating what they themselves were up to.

When you have so many particular projects going on, it really helps to have some general coordination. We were the primary moderators between the Committee groups of two to three hundred people. Personally I didn’t do anything flashy or exciting, no media work or interviews. I was just part of the team that kept things together. This Committee was extremely important during actions like our attempt to set up encampment at Grant Park.8

Interviewer: Besides finding an encampment, what have been some of the other goals of the movement?

Griffith: Currently, there are no goals to find a permanent encampment. Chicago, as I had mentioned, is different from other Occupy locations in that the winter will literally kill those who spend too long outside. The encampment is an idea, a dream really, but one I do not find very realistic. We have a permanent space in Cermak, and it suits our needs well.

Overall, Occupy Chicago has been focused on the things I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, mobilizing people for things that truly impact them, and setting up alternative structures to the oppressive ones in existence. There was a strong presence from Occupy Chicago at both the NATO protests and the Chicago Teacher Union’s strike recent strike.9

Interviewer: What are the initiatives Occupy Chicago is currently working with?

Griffith: That is extremely hard for a single person to say. I urge interested parties to check out the website.10 As I mentioned, there was a lot of organizing around the CPS strike and the NATO summit. Beyond that, I know recently there has been an attempt to address some serious issues with the privatization of education and health care that have been coming to a head in Chicago.

Interviewer: Looking more broadly at the work you have done, what are some of the logistic issues of a non-centralized and leaderless movement? It must be difficult to have any sort of single positive action or accounts coming out of so many autonomous groups, even if they are coming together for a single cause.

Griffith: It’s interesting. Most questions with regards to leadership or centralization anywhere actually come down to communication. Organizing actually has little to do with ‘leadership’ itself. Most of the people involved with Occupy Chicago are very passionate, very talented folks who know how to get done what they are good at getting done. With few exceptions, they work very well together.

The problem is, when you have that many people, who live busy lives and who are trying to do something that is pretty difficult to do, it is easy for communication to simply collapse. Therefore, any level of involvement in organizing within a leaderless movement involves being in constant communication with the people you are organizing with. This means sometimes even talking to the Arts and Recreation Committee, doubling up on making sure they are clued in to what is going on, even if they have nothing direct to do with the current action.

The people I have seen who are best at organizing are those who really have the interests of the other Occupiers at heart whenever they set about doing something. I mentioned that the General Assembly is not a governing body, but I think in some Occupations it has become such. I see that manifestation as a less than healthy institution, capable of exercising authority over individuals. We were pretty careful not to let that happen at Occupy Chicago.

Logistics and organizing are interesting points, considering we are talking about a bunch of volunteers. Anyone can walk away at any time. No one has authority. If anyone would be called a ‘leader’ it’s those who are best at what they do, and are the most passionate and considerate.

[At this point, Courtney Carson, an associate of Mr Griffith’s, present at the interview, raised a point] Carson: The Zapatistas have a quote, ‘The best leader is the one who obeys.’ I feel that with the General Assembly, I hear that a lot. With the emphasis on communication and explanation, when anyone takes on a ‘leadership’ role, they are definitely obeying those around them.

Interviewer: Trevor, what kinds of things have you learned about horizontally structured organizations? Do you find this methodology promising? What would you say if you could give a bit of advice to other organizers?

Griffith: Horizontal organizing is very challenging. I think the reason behind that is that the entire world around us, particularly in the United States, is antithetical to horizontal organization. The central values consumer American culture upholds are very hostile to equality, particularly with respect to power structures. In terms of horizontal organization’s value to the left, I don’t feel there can be any question about that. If it is a massive cultural trend that we are fighting, the organization of our groups, actions, and lives according to values that are in some sense antithetical to the norm seem the most natural thing in the world. To other organizers; never get disheartened. It is very much a process of trial and error. Although there have been some killer examples of it in the past, horizontal organizing is still on working bench.

Interviewer: Where is it that you see the future of Occupy Chicago trending towards?

Griffith: I really don’t feel that I have any authority or insight to say where Occupy Chicago is heading. I can say what I would like to see from it. I would be pleased if there was a focus on smaller food and clothing drives, and utilities advocacy. It would be great if systems of alternative education could be set up that fought Rahm Emmanuel’s attempt at privatizing all of Chicago public schools.

In Chicago, but also globally, I think the Occupy movement has changed the nature of the conversations. There has been a re-centring of political dialogue around financial and class issues that not long ago were far from mainstream consciousness. I think the movement would do well to begin to work, much as the Black Panthers did in the United States, on alleviating the material struggles of those the movement focuses on. I really do hope that Occupy helps to lay the grounding for serious structural change.

Trevor Warren Griffith and zach parton are both in their third year at Shimer College, Chicago, and currently in Oxford through the Oxford Study Abroad Programme.

1 Flemming, Andrew. “Adbusters sparks Wall Street protest.” The Vancouver Courier, September 27, 2011. Accessed November, 2012. http://www.vancourier.com/Adbusters+sparks+Wall+Street+prote st/5466332/story.html.
2 Occupy Wall Street “About.” Last Accessed: 10 November, 2012, “http://occupywallst.org/about/”
3 Ibid.
4 Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, De Capo Press, In Eleventh Edition (2011)
5 Cermak Road, Chicago, Illinois, USA
6 Corner of Congress and Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, USA
7 The people’s mic is a process whereby a speaker’s statement is “mic’ed” (spoken close to a yell) by immediately proximate members of the audience in order for the wider audience to hear them (the speaker).
8 Grant Park, Corner of West Congress Parkway and South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Occupy Chicago attempted to set up a permanent encampment here twice, 15 and 22 October 2011. These attempts resulted in approximately three hundred fifty arrests, including Mr. Griffith. His case, as all others, has been closed.
9 NATO held their Security Summit in Chicago this summer (2012). CPS Teachers were on strike at the beginning of the 2012 School year.
10 Occupy Chicago website: http://occupychi.org/

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2 comments

  1. Another interesting article on your site, keep up good work!

  2. Everything is very open with a really clear explanation of the issues.
    It was definitely informative. Yourr site is extremely helpful.
    Thank you for sharing!

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