Occupy Seattle Got a Boost from a Nineteenth-Century General

By Johnathon Fitzpatrick November 23, 2011 Published in the December 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Jon Fowler

OCCUPY SEATTLE, THE EMERALD CITY’S RESPONSE TO the Occupy Wall Street movement, was in full force by early October, crowding Westlake Park by the hundreds. But the congregation was still a loose confederacy of disparate causes, with members ranging from unemployed students to labor unions, anarchists, and even religious conservatives.

How did the group finally maintain order or any semblance of a unified message? “The key breakthrough was deciding on a set of principles,” says Shon Meckfessel, 38, who helps facilitate the movement’s general assemblies. The forums, in Seattle and around the country, are loosely based on Robert’s Rules of Order, guidelines for deliberative meetings developed by U.S. Army brigadier general Henry Martyn Robert in the 1870s.

Robert’s idea was to “empower the assembly” instead of leaders or representatives. “Facilitators don’t make the decisions about what needs to happen,” explains Occupy Seattle facilitator Caitlin Palo, a 26-year-old English literature grad student at the University of Washington. “There’s a culture here that facilitators should not morph into leaders,” adds 57-year-old playwright and Occupy Seattle facilitator Ed Mast. “Some charismatic leaders in the early days were bubbling up, and they were rejected.”

Meanwhile, two innovative communication methods—employed by Occupy activists around the country—ease the flow of info.

The first, the people’s mic, is a ritualistic form of call and repeat, in which a speaker’s message is broken into short phrases and chanted in unison by everyone—sometimes dozens of people—within earshot. This amplifies the sound of the words so those at the back of the crowd can hear the message, which comes in handy when city noise ordinances prohibit the use of PA systems. The second method of communicating involves a language of hand signals for showing crowd consensus while allowing people to speak without being interrupted (see right).

The result is a highly empowered group of individuals. One night, for example, protester Jake Bales took on the role of facilitator for the first time. He led a three-hour meeting.

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