Transforming Occupy’s challenge into transformation and innovative self-organization

Two weeks ago I had an intense conversation with a colleague working with a local Occupy community. A small faction had recently done a protest that – although physically nonviolent – was not verbally, spiritually, or strategically nonviolent. Their action had triggered intense and wide-ranging debate among their fellow occupiers about
(a) what nonviolence is
(b) whether it is a fundamental principle of the Occupy movement
(c) what decision-making process should be used to agree on official Occupy actions and
(d) how to deal with or discuss protest actions when you don’t agree with them.

Such issues are easier to address when you are a top-down organization with a few official or charismatic leaders or an explicit ideology, clear spokespeople, good discipline, and a solid focus. But that’s not what the Occupy movement is like. Part of Occupy’s unique power is its distributed, voluntary, situational leadership – an organizational culture often mistaken to be “leaderless”. The closest thing an Occupation has to an overall authority is the consensus process of their General Assembly.


In many Occupy sites overlapping majorities favor both nonviolence and tolerance of diverse tactics (which in many cases are not rigorously nonviolent). Supporters of this perspective note that it can include more people and groups with different approaches, as well as generating a dynamic tension that can be educationally and strategically useful (a topic discussed in Sources of the Occupy Movement: Part One). However, this open-minded approach is a delicate and potentially explosive mixture when your movement’s impact depends on media, since mainstream media like to focus on and magnify whatever conflict and violence exist. The waters can get quite muddy when you don’t have clear agreement on the (a)-(d) questions above.

And that’s just the beginning of the problems finding coherence in a movement like Occupy. Agreements are hard to keep in place when
(A) your group’s membership is constantly changing,
(B) your leadership is distributed and in flux, and
(C) your diverse perspectives are constantly evolving – not only from learning and facing changing conditions, but also from realizing you weren’t all totally clear about what the agreement meant in the first place. This is further complicated when
(D) everything you are doing is happening in a media spotlight and/or
(E) being spied on and/or intentionally disrupted (see The Agent Provocateurs [sic] in Occupy’s Midst) and/or
(F) involving people who have special problems thinking, feeling, talking and behaving in ways that work for other people. All these factors are intimately connected to Occupy’s unique power – and its vulnerability.


So it looks like we have an impossible problem here – one of those complex, urgent, tenacious “wicked problems” so much like the broader social problems that the Occupy movement emerged to address.

You may be surprised that I’m going to suggest this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Seemingly impossible problems show up when business-as-usual ideas, responses, behaviors, and institutions no longer successfully deal with difficult situations. From a transformational/evolutionary perspective, we can view the presence of an “impossible problem” as a red flag alerting us that something needs to change at a very fundamental level. It is a cry from the evolving system for us to think outside the box, to feel and explore more deeply, to act in new ways and try out new approaches, to start from scratch. To adequately rise to the challenge presented by wicked problems, we need to face up to underlying causes that include us, journey into new worldviews tight-knit with living interconnectedness, and consciously evolve into healthier systems less inclined generate such problems. Thorny problems are signs that something new and important is trying to emerge in us, among us and around us (see Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity), so we should actively seek what it is.

That is exactly what we see in our world right now, all over – not just inside the Occupy movement, but in every sector and nook of society.




So much of Occupy’s success has come from a dynamic that physical, biological and social scientists call “self-organization” – the ability of a system to manage its own affairs and sustain itself without outside direction. Among the factors enabling Occupy to organize itself are these:

  1. a powerful, inspiring shared intention about what matters, which we could summarize as “Politics, economics and government are controlled by small elites – the 1% – and we, the 99%, intend to change that”;
  2. transparency, open boundaries, a bias towards inclusion and an explicit respect for diversity;
  3. horizontal leadership and participatory culture: an invitation for everyone to volunteer or assume leadership for whatever they believe needs doing, using mic check announcements and working group structures to help volunteers find each other and work together; and
  4. generating, only where necessary, whole-group consensus by hearing all (relevant) voices and co-creatively addressing people’s concerns.

These dynamics have taken Occupy to where they are now. But they may be reaching the limits of what they can do with their current innovations. Part of the reason is that many occupiers – both the infiltrators and many others – are still operating on old assumptions and familiar patterns of behavior, bringing the old culture into conflict with the new emerging one, right within the Occupy encampments and General Assemblies.

For example, some members of my colleague’s Occupy group were pushing very hard to define nonviolence rigorously and make it official policy. While strengthening the hand of nonviolent activists and appealing to more straight liberal citizens, this approach risks excluding many activists for whom nonviolence is a side issue or a problem or who simply don’t have the discipline to master its demanding guidelines. It also raises enforcement issues – what do you do when someone doesn’t follow the nonviolence guidelines? – and could generate divisiveness and finger-pointing. Some people advocate simply not publicly critiquing each other’s tactics, but that doesn’t deal with the fact that violence can undermine the impact of nonviolence. Some people talk about Occupy as a “coalition” – but that, too, is an old idea of diverse groups forming an alliance around a specific issue or action, rather than what Occupy really is – an emergent public space in which individuals engage around a loosely defined but powerful intention, creating their shared road as they travel.


The only way I can see Occupy continuing to expand and remain effective is to become even more powerfully self-organizing – to actually innovate at the intersection of self-organization and activism.




The first thing I thought of, talking with my Occupy colleague, was Open Space Technology*. Those who attend an Open Space gathering are passionate about some specific topic, issue or inquiry. That’s what creates the group’s coherence. However, within that shared intention, everyone does whatever has heart and meaning for them personally. Out of nowhere, dozens of different sessions for action, learning, and conversation get convened by one or more people passionate about their particular piece of the group’s shared puzzle. No one is telling anyone else what to talk about or do. Everything that happens arises from the caring and energy of the individuals in the group doing exactly what they want. People are encouraged to wander between groups or even to skip organized sessions entirely, if that’s where they’re at, guided by the principle that “If you are somewhere where you are not contributing, learning or having fun, go somewhere else.” This is very much like (1), (2) and (3) above.


I think Occupy can carry these principles further. I think Occupy General Assemblies could explicitly articulate their shared intention – something like “We intend to reduce the extreme inequity in our society, to reduce the influence of the 1% on the political and economic lives of the 99%, and to increase the public’s participation in co-creating a better future together.” This makes the intention – (1), above – explicit.

They could then publicly state and emphasize a principle like the following, based on (2) and (3) above: “There are many realms and ways in which we occupiers work on our shared intention, and we as the Occupy Movement do not endorse or oppose any of them. Rather, we encourage everyone to pick what they have passion for and gifts to contribute, and to connect with others who share their passion and their approach. We encourage them to give a unique name to their Occupy group – a name that both clarifies its unique focus and approach AND declares its connection to the larger Occupy Movement. For example: Occupy Boston Nonviolently would be a group for Boston area residents who wish to pursue Occupy’s aims nonviolently. Occupy Wall Street BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) would be people occupying Wall Street with a wide range of tactics. Occupy the Medical Profession would be all those wanting to address inequity in the medical profession. And so on. All such groups are autonomous, speaking only for themselves and being responsible for their own actions.

Occupy could also upgrade and clarify their practice of consensus – (4), above – by saying explicitly that “Occupy groups, communities, and encampments are run by a consensus process whose decisions represent only the people who participated in it and apply only to the group, community or encampment they are part of. Their actions, decisions, communications, etc., do not represent or reflect on the views and activities of any other Occupy participants, groups, communities and encampments. If certain people in an Occupy group disagree with the decisions of that group, they are encouraged to create their own group, with its own Occupy name, which has the shared views and values they wish to manifest. Individual occupiers can be part of as many groups as they wish, as long as they operate within each group’s intentions and guidelines while representing that group in speech or action.




Finally, Occupy could use other “emergent processes” – like The World Cafe* and Dynamic Facilitation* – and apply their underlying principles and dynamics in new ways.

The signature dynamic in World Cafe is people moving from conversation to conversation, cross-fertilizing and learning about what’s going on in other parts of the larger dialogue – and then coming together at the end to harvest highlights from the whole conversation. This same dynamic could be applied to Occupiers in different groups and communities.

Dynamic Facilitation features fully hearing people (so they feel fully heard), responding to every conflict with a curious “What’s your concern?” (this obviously relates to Occupy’s approach to consensus), and always asking frustrated people “What do you think should be done about that?” and honoring their ideas along with everyone else’s. Occupiers could use Dynamic Facilitation’s approach to transformational deep listening and reflecting, respect for diverse perspectives, and bias towards creative solution-thinking even in engagements with bystanders and opponents.


And there’s more. Occupiers could use a process called Study Circles* to help the public explore the issues Occupy talks about. They could use Appreciative Inquiry* to engage people in clarifying what has worked and what they’d like to see happen. They could use Future Search* to help communities or stakeholders look at their collective past, present, and future and start working on future-oriented projects they agree on. They could use Fishbowl* to help people on diverse (even opposing) sides of an issue hear each other better and evolve in shared understanding.

There are dozens of creative processes* to help move things along – and all of them work because of underlying principles and dynamics (see, for example, the GroupWorks pattern language) that Occupy activists could use in new ways that don’t even look like the original processes, but may carry even greater transformational power. People familiar with these processes could help Occupiers think about where to use them and how to use them in new ways. (For more on the processes marked with an asterisk * see


I imagine that the Occupy movement’s highest purpose – as a whole movement – is not to be a direct agent of change, but to be a catalyst – to provide space, permission, inspiration, energy, information and an open ear – so that the 99% (and ultimately the 100%) can identify and kindle their own and each other’s life-enhancing passions and move in new ways and directions that make sense to them. That is the power of self-organization. No one has to be in charge. No one has to fix things up. Everyone has to learn to become true to themselves, to listen to each other and help each other, to work with those who share their visions and values, and to be open to learning and evolving as their understanding expands, as conditions change and as new relationships and possibilities show up.


In that kind of movement field, anything can happen and everything becomes possible.


Blessings on the Journey.




PS: Again, for more on the processes marked with an asterisk * see


PPS: For a concerned mainstream view of what passionate, socially conscious 21st century self-organization looks like, consider the essay below from MSN and MarketWatch. Despite its somewhat patronizing attitude towards “youth” and its remarkable ignorance of Gandhi (e.g., “nice-guy” doesn’t begin to comprehend that man), it raises many important issues and possibilities – including the internalization of ecological costs into the prices of products – one of the most potent systems-changing strategies available to us – as well as Robin Hood taxes and constitutional amendments to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. All these provide very hot material to work with on emotional, intellectual, and political levels all at the same time….
Short URL:


Watch out, 1%; the kids will be back
By Paul B. Farrell
for MarketWatch


The tents may have moved on, but Occupy Wall Street will be back with specific demands and a new strategy, in time for the 2012 elections. It’s the voice of America’s youth fearing a future that doesn’t add up.

Warning to America’s superrich: Think Occupy Wall Street disappeared in winter’s cold? Wrong: The 99% just declared a new aggressive, covert special-ops war strategy to take back our democracy in 2012.


No more peaceful tent encampments in parks. No more Mahatma Gandhi nice-guy stuff. Not enough. Escalation time. Wall Street, the superrich and their Washington lo

bbyists are tone deaf, blinded by greed, trapped in their post-2008 business-as-usual bubble.

Warning; OWS tells us America’s going to be shocked by not one but hundreds of wake-up calls in 2012.


How? In a recent Washington Post column, OWS leaders say they are accelerating their battle strategy in 2012. In what amounts to a new declaration of war that promises to electrify the 2012 elections, OWS will be using new asymmetrical warfare strategies, write two of the men who have been the driving force behind the movement since early this year: Kalle Lasn, the editor-in-chief of Adbusters magazine, and senior editor Micah White.


Listen to some of the specific guerrilla tactics they warn will be used in their 2012 “American Spring” assault: A “marked escalation of surprise, playful, precision disruptions, rush-hour flash mobs, bank occupations, ‘occupy squads’ and edgy theatrics.” And in a New Yorker magazine interview shortly after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “military-style operation,” Lasn warned: “this means escalation, pushing us one step closer to a revolution.”


So get ready: 2012 promises to be a relentless succession of hit-and-run attacks during what already promises to be a hotly-contested presidential campaign. So forget Zuccotti Park. No long camp-outs and sit-ins. That’s so ’60s. So last fall. Instead, be prepared for endless surprise attacks, albeit nonviolent amateur versions of Seal Team 6, in-and-out fast.

‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ . . . a thousand times!


Lasn and White also noted in the Post that their 1,000 plus global allies are governed as separate democracies: Each picks targets, tactics, timing and goals. So there may not be a coordinated D-Day relaunch attack date, like there was last Sept. 17. But you can expect lots of surprise attacks making the local and regional, as well as national, news throughout 2012.


As Lasn and White warned: “In this visceral, canny, militantly nonviolent phase of our march to real democracy, we will ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.’ We will regroup, lick our wounds, brainstorm and network all winter. We will build momentum for a full-spectrum counterattack when the crocuses bloom next spring.”


Among the biggest targets are events related to the proposed constitutional amendment to get money out of voting and reverse corporate personhood . . . presidential debates venues are high-profile . . . Supreme Court rulings on health care, immigration, voter redistricting . . . any events tied to “voting out incumbents” . . . supporting “Occupy Colleges” anger at oppressive student loans and no jobs . . . Federal Reserve System money and credit to Wall Street . . . special-interest K Street lobbyists . . . state recall campaigns . . . Keystone XL pipeline . . . Congressional hearings on jobs . . . taxes benefits for the rich . . . and the too-greedy-to-fail banks . . . corporations that pay less in taxes than in CEO salaries . . . occupy state and local campaign headquarters . . . support young millennials rejecting America’s failed two-party system . . . occupy lawns of elderly citizens being evicted . . . protesting states that repealed voting and union rights . . . and many more.

Revolutionary overhaul of American politics


Taxing the superrich 1% is a given. Lasn and White’s counterattack also offers specific demands for game-changing reforms that would rival anything America saw back in the Great Depression years:


A ‘Robin Hood’ tax on all financial transactions and currency trades; a ban on high-frequency ‘flash’ trading; the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act to again separate investment banking from commercial banking; a constitutional amendment to revoke corporate personhood and overrule Citizens United; a move toward a ‘true cost’ market regime in which the price of every product reflects the ecological cost of its production, distribution and use;” and they are in favor of “perhaps even the birth of a new, left-right hybrid political party that moves America beyond the Coke vs. Pepsi choices of the past.”


There are already several proposed amendments, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 28th Amendment overturning the Citizens United decision. That’s tough. But taxes on Wall Street trading? Remember that in one month a couple of years ago, traders at Goldman Sachs Group made more than $100 million in net profits each day for 23 days. They’ll spend billions to fight any such tax reform.


My prediction: Wall Street will never change — never — until it suffers another catastrophic meltdown, with no bailouts this time. We haven’t completed the natural economic cycle then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s team aborted in 2008. Only then can we restore Glass-Steagall and reverse that totally irrational Citizens United ruling that corporations — whose sole allegiance is merely to their stockholders, not to all Americans — have the same rights as living humans. That ruling’s not only bad law, it is bad logic, bad morals, bad economics, and ultimately, it’s bad for capitalism.

Enraged youth drive the movement


Listen to Lasn and White describing the energy driving OWS movement. It comes from deep within the collective soul of a new generation of young Americans who have been disenfranchised by clueless politicians who are trapped deep inside a corrupt two-party political system no longer capable of changing. And our youth are enraged. Listen:


“This primal cry for democracy sprang from young people who could no longer ignore the angst in their gut — the premonition that their future does not compute, that their entire lives will be lived in the apocalyptic shadow of climate-change tipping points, species die-offs, a deadening commercialized culture, a political system perverted by money, precarious employment, a struggle to pay off crippling student loans, and no chance of ever owning a home or living in comfort like their parents. Glimpsing this black hole of ecological, political, financial and spiritual crisis, the youth and the millions of Americans who joined them instinctively knew that unless they stood up and fought nonviolently for a different kind of future, they would have no future at all.”


Yes, America’s youth are the voice of the 99%, Americans inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions. American youth are fueling “the greatest social-justice movement to emerge in the United States since the civil rights era.”


But never lose sight of the real war here. Yes, there’s a war between the richest 1% of Americans who have seen their income grow 265% the past generation while the incomes of the other 99% have stagnated or fallen. Yes, the wealth gap is bigger now than it was in 1929 just before the market crashed.

Superrich versus America’s future


But to truly understand how this class war is predicting what lies ahead, know that class war is not just between the superrich and the 99%. It is more a generational war between America’s youth and a wealthy, entrenched establishment. The young helped elect the president and expected “change we can believe in.” Unfortunately things got worse, and they’re mad as hell.


Investors, especially, had better watch out: This pent-up energy in America’s youth is building to a critical mass (as happened in Europe and the Arab world, and now in China and Russia), and it will explode across the economic and political landscape in 2012.

In the final analysis, however, you sense that in spite of their accelerating rage against the establishment, America’s youth, our next great generation, also had a sudden epiphany and learned a crucial lesson. Oh yes. Because their enemies didn’t just give them a great gift, but also inadvertently trained them in using a more aggressive special-ops, guerrilla, quick-strike strategy. Listen and you’ll see what they learned in one night raid against them:


“Why can’t the American power elite engage with the nation’s young?

“Instead, they stayed aloof, ignored us and wished us away,” then “attacked us in Zuccotti Park in the
dead of the night.”  Bloomberg’s raid was carried out with military precision. The surprise attack began at 1 a.m. with a media blackout. The encampment was surrounded by riot police, credentialed mainstream journalists who tried to enter were pushed back or arrested, and the airspace was closed to news helicopters. What happened next was a blur of tear gas; a bulldozer; confiscation or destruction of everything in the park, including 5,000 books; upward of 150 arrests; and the deployment of a Long Range Acoustic Device, the infamous ‘sound cannon’ best known for its military use in Iraq. . . .

“This kind of military mindset and violent response to nonviolent protesters makes no sense. It did not work in the Middle East, and it’s not going to work in America either. This is the bottom line . . . you cannot attack your young and get away with it.”


Repeat that “bottom line . . . you cannot attack your young and get away with it.” And yet, that’s exactly what Wall Street, America’s superrich, their lobbyists and all their bought politicians are doing: “attacking our young.” Attacking our next generation. Attacking America’s future.


Our leaders are ideologically blind to the need to invest and invest big in jobs before this accelerating rage reaches a critical mass and ignites, triggering another American Revolution and the Second Great Depression.




And here’s a relevant PS along the same lines, but dealing with the next stage of the Transition Towns movement rather than the Occupy movement – excerpted from the interview with John Michael Greer in

The current shift toward broader options [for activities in Transition Town efforts] could be a good thing… because nobody, anywhere, knows for sure just what has to be done in order for communities—or, for that matter, individuals—to get through the end of the age of cheap abundant energy with the least possible misery and loss. If Transition is open to having local groups embrace radically different organizational structures and practical agendas, and local groups make use of that freedom, it’s quite possible that the evolutionary process thus set in motion might stumble across viable routes into the future.


That requires a tolerance for disagreement and contradiction that’s rare in contemporary society, and especially in activist circles; the fixation on consensus in those circles is one measure of the difficulty so many people have these days dealing with forthright disagreement. Still, when you’re trying to find the best route through unknown territory, coming up with a consensus in advance is usually a bad idea; it’s usually better to have scouts head out in whatever direction seems best to each of them, and report back on their experiences, whatever those happen to be.

My suggestion above is that movements use both consensus process and self-organized “scouts”, but in different realms and for different purposes, rather than for everything. – Tom




Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
site: / blog:
Please support our work. Your donations are fully tax-deductible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.