The foundation of the Occupy movement is that it is a vehicle from which all people can, theoretically, express themselves openly without fear of censorship or the nasty tactics that politics often produces. But the purity of idealistic optimism, however good-intentioned and necessary to improve the current state of things, often runs into the iron wall of reality; there will always be people who use the mechanisms of openness in ways that, unchecked, can become a destructive force for the whole.
An example of this can be seen in the contentious debate around Occupy Oakland’s Media Committee. In mid-February, three committee members, Benjamin Philips, Shake Anderson, and Cami Graves, published an article on the committee’s unofficial website about fellow committee member, Jamie Omar Yassin. The article, which has since been taken down, insinuated that Yassin may have a checkered past that is threatening to Occupy Oakland. Whether born from concerns over potential government infiltrators or a personal dislike for Yassin, the article created an uproar.
The General Assembly was quick to condemn the action, particularly because it involved a group of people who used the tools of Occupy Oakland to attack one of its own. It first approved a resolution where participants would agree not to talk to the police about one another and where media that could be incriminating should not be published or disseminated online. Then the GA dissolved the Media Committee in its current form, called for all its assets to be relinquished back to the GA (like web domain and databases), and to recreate a Media Committee that would serve only as a intermediary with journalists seeking sources. The article’s authors refused to give up the media assets, broke away, and continue to defend the article as necessary. They formed a new autonomous group called the Occupy Oakland Media Collective.
For those who wish to explore some of the discussion about that article and the subsequent committee dissolution, you can read former Media Committee member Scott Johnson’s open letter about the incident and the OOMC’s responses to questions posed by me and then published on their website.
Perhaps this is the most extreme incarnation of the inherent suspicions protesters have over infiltrators within the movement, realized in an arguably libelous article. And maybe this is a test, one of many, that the Occupy movement has to endure. Openness without accountability produces the conditions for exploitation by anyone involved, with little fear of consequence, aside from the scorn of fellow activists. It can also tear movements apart. To that effect, the consequence for the Occupy Oakland Media Collective is that it is now free to do what it wants without GA oversight — whether that is favorable is in the eyes of the beholder — and, in fact, is already publishing articles critical of Occupy Oakland’s current processes. And for the GA, it now has a Media Committee with a narrow, yet important, task of connecting journalists with the people they need to talk to for a story, perhaps improving the overall Occupy narrative in the process.
But back to idealism meeting reality. The GA’s decisions appear to reflect the sentiment of those who attended the discussions that there does need to be a level of accountability in the actions of Occupy Oakland members and that there needs to be a united front if any form of meaningful change is to come about. The move certainly isn’t one that has gone without criticism, but it also shows that the GA is able to self-correct itself.
For Yassin, the movement’s open structure has the ability to attract those who have been neglected by the current political system. However, this incident showed him how the tools of organization that are accessible to anyone, may it be a website or social media account, can be abused by its members.
“Though the events of the past week have been a rude awakening to the pitfalls of this kind of organizing,” Yassin said, “I remain optimistic and dedicated to this structure regardless.”