Democracy

The OWS Think Tank: Then and Now

In early October a “Think Tank” sprung up in Occupied Zuccotti Park – Liberty Square. This wasn’t the average think tank; there were no wealthy private donors, no agenda driven research topics, and not a cushy chair or mahogany desk to be found. We had a blanket and eventually a carpet, some signage that we’d rummaged up from stray things left about in the park, and a small space that had to be reclaimed/cleared and cleaned every day for our 12pm start. This was nothing like the pristine halls of the Brookings Institute.

What we did have, though, were ideas and a seemingly endless number of people excited about them. Random passers-by, stalwarts of the occupation, lunchtime bankers, after-work social workers, they were all present, and all had a voice. We talked about race relations, corporate personhood, OWS finances, whether this new world of Liberty Park could ever be anything but a microcosm of the larger society as a whole. Anything was up for discussion, and there was always something to talk about, something to listen to, and always a way to feel engaged in the new revolutionary dialog that had been sprouting up all over the country and world.

Unlike a typical think tank, the People’s Think Tank became an institution organically. We didn’t sign a corporate charter, file any legal registration papers with the state, or even hire any academics (they came organically as well). We handed in a piece of paper with our email addresses on it, a paragraph about what our working group would be, and just simply sat back and let the energy of the people involved in the occupy movement take us wherever it did. It didn’t take long before the Think Tank was a fixture in the park, a place where many were introduced to Occupy, its topics, and its horizontal discussions, dialog, and discourse.

The Think Tank has changed mightily today. It is no longer fixated on the park. We no longer meet every day for six hours either. The movement has changed gears, changed its mechanisms. The working groups are the apparatus that many things are getting done through now: direct action, occupy the SEC, the outreach cluster, pop-up occupy town squares, teach-ins. And after all, the Think Tank really is about dialog and horizontal dialog at that, something easy enough to replicate amongst occupiers. While the Think Tank is becoming more involved in the needs of the internal groups within Occupy Wall Street, it seems very clear that the future of the Think Tank is in outreach – just as the future of the movement itself seems to be.

Who are we?

Occupy is a global movement, synonymous with a certain type of social, political, and economic discourse much bigger than the “hallowed” walls of Wall St. Groups within the movement’s many occupations have formed to work on the movement’s dialog, hone its discourse, and communicate with each other as well as community based organizations and communities themselves. The Think Tank has been working to become more intertwined within this network as well. The core group of organizers within the Think Tank have themselves been branching out into other working groups and other occupy related endeavors. This seems to be the pattern of the movement right now. As its landscape changes, so too do its avenues of discourse and action.

The Think Tank has cut down to two scheduling times every week for topical think tanks (see NYCGA.net for current schedule). This means our time has been freed up to work on expanding the process of dialog outside of lower Manhattan and to work more in concert with OWS’ other outreach actions. We have a steady Think Tank working with the Queens General assembly, and have worked with a community partner, Urban Rebuilding Initiative (URI), on setting up regular Think Tanks in the Bronx. In New York City we have done mobile Think Tanks in Times Square, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Staten Island ferry terminal among others, and are working to continue being a fixture at as many occupy events as we can, such as the pop-up Town Squares,  the City-Wide Assembly, and May Day. We have also been to Washington DC, Pittsburgh, and even had a Think Tank in Cairo. We are working with multiple occupies to help them set up their own discussion forums: Poughkeepsie, Harvard, Boston, Santa Fe, Washington DC, Oakland, etc. We are looking into radio, TV, and multiple online platforms. We want to capture the essence of what the Think Tank was in the park, and continues to be – an entry point into the ideas and discourse of Occupy.

Perhaps some day the Think Tank will produce actionable policy options, it is for now, really a platform for bringing together voices not usually heard – especially not heard in the same spaces. A white construction worker from Brooklyn, an African-American lawyer from Wall St., a Latino restaurant worker from Queens, a retired veteran from Staten Island, a college student from Indiana, all sitting in the same place, taking about issues relevant to our times. All these conversations are recorded and archived at NYU’s Tamiment Library Labor Archives, and starting to find their way onto the Think Tank’s new website occupythinktank.org.

The beauty of this working group is that it is just one of many doing the same things. Virtually every working group is doing the same things. They are all working to expand their and our reach. There are groups spending weekends in East Flatbush, Brooklyn going door to door, listening to neighborhood concerns and trying to bring people together. The Facilitation Working Group is working with General Assemblies through the city and country to help facilitate meetings and assemblies. The list goes on.

This has been the direction of the movement over the last few months – quiet expansion. While the mainstream media would have had us withering away into the ethernet, what we’re really doing is settling in for the long arduous process of social change. The activists and mechanisms of Occupy are finding stable ways to produce continued and sustained efforts, to hone our mechanisms and messages, and to plan events and outreach that will bring in new people both in person and in spirit. It could be argued that the most powerful weapon in the world is thought. And that – to me – is what Occupy is: the thought that another world is possible.

  • Michael Corey

    I have a few questions. I suspect that in one form or another, they have been asked already. I’m not at all sure that they have been answered yet. With outreach as an OWS goal, in my opinion it might be extremely useful for the answers to these questions be answered in clear, simple, everyday language. Are there consensus answers to the following questions, or are you getting close to having a consensus on them? What are the values of OWS that guide its actions? What is the vision of the world that OWS strives to achieve? Are there historical or contemporary examples of a country or community where this vision has been achieved, or is close to being achieved? What processes does OWS intend to use to achieve its vision? What actions does OWS want to take to achieve the vision? Is there a priority on the actions? What timeframe is being considered? What resources are needed to accomplish the actions and achieve the vision? Change implies endings and beginnings. What does OWS see ending, and what does OWS see beginning? Perhaps the answers to these questions could be the basis for another posting.

  • Scott

    The answers to many of these questions can be found in under the “Official Documents” heading at: http://www.occupywallstreet.net/.

    I don’t think there is any consensus on “timeframe” however, nor do I know if this is really being discussed on a consistent basis, though informally it must be in the back of everyone’s mind: how long is this going to take? I think most people realize social change is a long term project, or are disillusioned with the idea that there can be quick fixes or easy solutions.

  • Michael Corey

    Thanks for posting the link. I recall reading the documents when they were posted; and I just finished re-reading them. I was able to identify some of the values of OWS and a few of the processes. Many of the things OWS is against are identified, but it is harder for an outsider to identify what OWS is for. With outreach as a goal, I think that a lot more needs to be done to address the questions that I asked. Building blocks for effective change, in my view, includes addressing an organization’s values, vision, processes, actions, resources required, timeframes and responsibilities .Answering the questions in clear, simple, everyday language can enhance understanding by those outside of the movement, help build consensus within the movement, and become the basis for a strategy and plan.