Video of an Occupy Atlanta “general assembly” not allowing Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) to speak has been going virological on the interwebs.
But Occupy Atlanta’s “consensus” against giving speaking time to the 13-term member of Congress and one-time chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee isn’t as striking as the self-parodic and smilingly Maoist process by which consensus was reached (or not).
When Lewis showed up last week to address Occupy Atlanta, he was initially greeted with applause (disallowed, as it turns out, by event organizers who prefer that the collective show its approval through less disruptive finger-wiggling gestures). But Fox News, which is one of many conservative outlets picking up on the Lewis event, describes the epic fail that followed:
Instead of giving the floor to a man who is not just a longtime U.S. representative but a revered civil rights icon, the protesters employed a tangle of parliamentary procedures to ultimately prevent him from speaking.
A stunned Lewis could be seen watching the whole thing unfold before ambling away.
The procedures they used -- rather, invented -- would make the Senate blush. Imagine some combination of Model U.N., Lord of the Flies and a Phish concert.
Here’s Lewis doing the slow burn as a mob of apparatchiks without portfolio debate whether to risk their “agenda” in order to let him speak. If you want evidence for the case against pure democracy, this is it:
Lewis is downplaying the incident, and Occupy Atlanta has issued a statement:
Occupy groups are governed by procedural rules that allow them to function in chaotic circumstances and to exercise participatory democracy in a large group. These rules are based on the principle of absolute equality and each voice being heard.
Anyone may come and speak to or participate in a General Assembly. There is a set order which includes a point where the floor is opened for comments. Anyone present may put their name on the “stack” as it is called and speak. It might seem a simple thing to break the order, but in a large crowd where everyone is supposed to get a chance to be heard, deviating from it quickly causes chaos. Each deviation encourages the next until no conversation can be maintained.
All of the speakers who have attended a General Assembly in New York have followed this process. Occupy Atlanta is unaware of any exceptions. Congressman Lewis, who attended Occupy Atlanta’s 5th General Assembly on October 7, is familiar with consensus from his days as a civil rights leader but was unable to stay long enough to allow the process to unfold due to prior commitments.
One important characteristic of mob rule is that it tends to get the outcomes the ruler wants, not the outcomes the mob wants. In this case, the group clearly voted to let Lewis talk, even if that meant risking a slight breach of the day’s agenda. But the point here was not to get a voting result but hive-mind unanimity. Of course unanimity can’t exist among human beings, so the real purpose of the exercise is to keep checking the crowd’s “temperature” until you get the result you want. And what apparatchiks want, always and everywhere, is to put process above product. You can hear that in the iron-in-velvet tones of the Occupiers’ touchy-feely vocabulary:
"How do we feel about Congressman John Lewis addressing the assembly at this time?"
“The purpose is to kick-start a democratic process in which no human being is more valuable than any other human being.
“This is not a vote, this is just how you feel.”
"Allowing Senator [sic] Lewis to speak does not make him a better human being. It's just that we respect the work that John Lewis has done and that we respect the position he holds in the government we want to change.”
“This is a democratic process. There is a time on the agenda for other business. I propose we let John Lewis speak after we've gotten through the rest of the agenda.”
“Mic check! Mic Check! Mic check! This assembly just voted by consensus to follow the process that we're using. Therefore we will continue with the agenda. Mic check! Mic check! This group makes its decision by consensus!”
Most dismaying of all, nobody in the crowd seems aware that they’re enacting a joke from Life of Brian – and if you can’t trust a bunch of miseducated white people to know Monty Python bits, the movement is in serious trouble:
The Occupiers have every right to run their own program of events, and not giving another platform to a politician is, in and of itself, laudable. But to pretend that the program of events is the work of a leaderless consensus rather than of interested parties is wimpy and disingenuous.