The group was divided into teams of two and each was delegated one of the Eight Principles for Managing a Commons from Nobel Prize winning Economist Elinor Ostrom’s work. From each assigned principle, participants formed questions concerning the structure of the movement rather than the content. The ultimate goal was to incorporate the research into a letter of solidarity that will be presented to OWS.
Participants entered into the seemingly unstructured space filled with bystanders, activists, tourists, police and supporters. With a little inquiry, it became apparent that whatever structure exists is evolving on its own. Defined areas such as the kitchen, comfort station, medics workspace, media station, and information booths have popped up over the course of OWS according to community needs.
Rather than a definable movement that can be categorized or clearly explained, OWS challenges current systemic structures by providing an alternative model that almost has to be personally experienced to fully grasp its power. The commons are offered as a way to step out of the consumer model where food, education and politics have been turned into goods to be bought and sold.
OWS is its own ecosystem that has sprouted in lower Manhattan, constantly evolving and remaining flexible to meet unexpected needs. According to supporters who have watched it grow since the outset, services provided by those such as medical personnel, the media and cooks have arrived in response to basic needs. Volunteers arrive ready to contribute but rather than having someone explain exactly what to do, they learn by observation. The community sustaining practices that have evolved thus far are also those that create community-building habits. OWS becomes an experiment in impromptu community building open to anyone who wants to join.
This is apparent from the donations have poured in from all over the world. Food and goods are distributed without questioning. A small dish washing station, compost and trash system help keep the commons relatively sanitary. Clothing donations pile up and are immediately organized so as not to spill into the walking pathways. So far, monetary donations have exceeded $50,000 and are used towards food, clothing and medical supplies.
While there are very few rules in the traditional sense, there is an agreed upon code of conduct that prohibits alcohol and drugs. Other than that, a daily schedule helps keep things functioning. A deescalation committee consisting of trained negotiators also helps to ease any tensions. When needs arise or new services are offered, a general assembly convenes to vote. If an idea sticks, a table appears on the square signifying its permanence in the community.
Much of OWS is in dialogue with Ostrom’s “Eight Principles” however several characteristics also serve to enrich the language laid out in her document. The word “rules” loses significance as the ecosystem evolves in a relatively self-regulating manner. As Live Feeds participant Scott Brown stated after the workshop:
Thinking about “community sustaining practices” opens the space for relationships to congeal in a productive, mutually respectful, and co-evolving way without being beholden to norms and frameworks which characterize a conventional notion of politics. It would seem that [traditional notions of political engagement] would be not only an important way for us to talk about what OWS may actually be, but, more importantly, should serve as a methodological tool to approach how we should never remain satisfied with the conceptual frames which we inherit, but should consistently work to evolve our concepts and practices towards new and unexpected places.
Rather than a protest, Occupy Wall Street is an inspirational model for an alternative future. It shows that involvement, structure and process are key to sustaining any society. As with any ecosystem, permanence is always in question. A fine balance is achieved by effectively responding to constant flux and thus far OWS seems to understand this organic process.
Images © Amanda Silvana Coen for Inhabitat