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Occupy is alive and well and staying at the table. Photo: Sunset Parkerpix via Flickr.

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) began using public space in New York’s Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17, 2011, prompting hundreds of similar encampments around the world. During the past six months, this mass movement has been assaulted by police and by the corporate media. It has also experienced internal conflicts.

While planning an explosion of spring awakenings, OWS has dealt with various interpersonal problems. This happens in large movements, especially young ones. Occupy attempts to forge new, more directly democratic ways of people being with each other and collaborative decision-making that is egalitarian rather than hierarchical. It seeks systemic changes, rather than demanding mere reforms.

Occupy goes against the grain of hyper-individualist Western culture. As one activist said,

Imagine the interpersonal strain in any group that is under constant siege by the press and the police, as well as time-consuming meetings that can go on for hours.

It took the peace movement more than a full decade to stop the Vietnam War. Occupy’s goals are even larger. It has already accomplished much, including changing the national conversation and building communities for a long-term struggle.

Ending the autocratic rule of the wealthy 1 %’s control of corporations, the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court had seemed impossible until the rise of Occupy. OWS imagined that it could help mobilize the 99% and then got busy doing it. Did anyone think this would be easy?

Infighting has discouraged some activists, who have either stepped back or left Occupy, at least for now. Retention has become an issue, as well as recruiting new participants. A successful mass movement must grow rather than decline. Part of the wane is due to the greedy 1 % that concentrates wealth, using divide and conquer tactics. Another intimidation tactic has been police brutality.

Personal disagreements have recently been dealt with more openly in some Occupy groups, leading to resolutions and strengthening activists’ continuing ability to work well together. OWS seems be maturing into a next stage as it learns how to effectively use tools such as consensus decision-making and General Assemblies.

This article’s intention is to practice Occupy’s core value of transparency. It seeks to describe dynamics occurring in some OWS groups.

“What does Occupy ask of us as individuals and how will we have to grow/evolve to fulfill the dream Occupy created?” asked one person. Simply blaming all our problems on the 1 % isn’t sufficient. By open introspection, reflection and critical thinking, one can take responsibility for how we contribute to problems.

OccuPsy meeting

Around twenty activists and allies attended an OccuPsy meeting near Oakland on March 28 to consider how to support OWS. The primary organizers were psychology professors Francisco Castrillon of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and Tod Sloan from Lewis and Clark University in Portland.

The meeting’s goals included strengthening Occupy, “especially with regard to helping it grow and become more effective.” The call was to explore “problematic unconscious group processes, (including) forms of resistance.” The agenda posed the question “What can we as radical clinicians and thinkers offer?”

Activists from Occupy groups in Oakland, Sonoma County, the Sacramento area and Portland, Oregon, attended the Berkeley gathering. People from groups with names such as Therapists for Social Responsibility, as well as teachers and students from schools such as the University of California, Berkeley and the Wright Institute, came.

At times the discussions were theoretical, academic, or intellectual. At other times they were practical, such as when an Occupy Oakland activist and member of Iraq Veterans for Peace spoke about connecting psychology to work being done on the ground.

The Berkeley meeting explored ways of dealing with tensions within OWS.

Among the things discussed were the family-like intimacy of Occupy. As with many situations, people bring their childhood wounds and unresolved family issues, acting them out in a new but familiar group context. Tolerance for different ways of being and “otherness” were advocated.

In addition to being activist networks, most Occupy groups are learning communities that offer teach-ins, trainings, and workshops. Some are also healing communities in which people get noticeably healthier through being recognized and listened to by others.

Many Occupy meetings are fun and laughter is frequent. People who come enjoy being together. Trust and long-term relationships are being built. In fact, meetings often continue beyond the time needed for the work and tasks, frustrating some.

In addition to discussing what psychology might offer Occupy, people at the Berkeley meeting considered what Occupy can offer psychology and therapists.

The Empowerment Manual for collaborative groups

Starhawk, the author of the 2011 book The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups*, and colleagues have also been giving trainings to Occupy and other groups on material in the book.

Starhawk’s book was written before OWS erupted publicly. However, she describes what seems to be happening in Occupy, where a group of well-intentioned, “kind, compassionate idealistic people set out to form a community or change the world.” Then after a honeymoon they find themselves “struggling with the irritating, irresponsible, pig-headed, stubborn, annoying, judgmental, egotistical and petty people who are supposed to be our allies.”

Many people seek to avoid and deny conflict. Starhawk has a section titled “Embrace Constructive Conflict.” She writes,

Conflict becomes safe in a group that encourages open disagreements and strong arguments about ideas and plans, while discouraging personal attack.

She advocates “clear structures for conflict resolution and a group culture that encourages directness, that offers training in mediation and skilled support for people in conflict.”

Conflict is a form of connection. When handled well, it can even deeper intimacy.

Going local

The key interpersonal issues within OWS vary from location to location.

A Northern California activist and sociologist writes that,

Every so often one of us crumbles. We open wide and are willing to be vulnerable. When others disrespect us, the harm can go deeply. Some muster through. Others step back for a while. Some get sick and some explode. One night almost everyone in a Work Group ended up hurt and in tears.

She also reports that, “Gender issues are huge.” More men than women initially seem to have been drawn to Occupy, creating imbalances. However, more men have left, whereas women seem to stay longer.

Generational issues are also present. “Some of the youth feel particularly hard pressed and emotions flare. Many are dealing with family issues, independence, parental disapproval and being taken seriously,” the sociologist observes.

Some elders are overly critical, wanting Occupy to focus more and make demands.

“I have a lot of work to do on myself,” writes Flora, a young OWS activist from Southern California.

As I transition from teenager to adult I move from being in my own world to an interdependent, integrated world with more space for awareness of others. As a child and teenager I built blockades to store my painful observations of the world behind until they would overflow in either a despairing depression or explode in a tantrum.

I’m now learning how essential self-expression is for me, to keep my passion flowing so I do not get buildups. I am not used to speaking up for my needs, coming from a home with low standards for self-care. I am more used to the model of denying that my needs are valid, ignoring them, then feeling hurt when my needs are not met.

Occupy can help young people grow up and assume more democratic citizenship responsibilities.

What to avoid and what to do

Anger and passion can “ignite and empower change,” writes psychotherapist Jina Brooks, MFT, of a San Francisco Bay Area OWS group.

The positive side of anger is assertion. Its shadow is destructive rage. The same attributes that bring us together can repel us apart and push people away that we want to attract. We need to examine what we can do to build communities and what we do that breaks them down.

“Occupy can have too much black and white thinking. People can jump from ‘I love you’ to ‘I hate you’ and then threaten to leave,” Brooks noted in an interview.

People idealize someone, or the Occupy movement itself, or encampments, get disappointed and then rage, vent, or attack others online. Underneath the anger is unexpressed loss and pain. We need to deal with such problems in person, on the phone, or by mediation. Offering listening ears that reflect back what is heard and felt, so that people can vent, is important,” Brooks advocated. “In this way people can feel they are understood with compassion.

She lists the following harmful things to developing connection:

  • Name-calling and blaming
  • Controlling others
  • Cutting off communication
  • Gossiping
  • Retaliation
  • Scapegoating

Instead, Brooks suggests that people do the following:

  • Have appreciative check-ins
  • Offer appropriate self-disclosures
  • Build trust by being accountable and following-through
  • Celebrate and play together
  • Be open and vulnerable
  • Use “I” statements, rather than “You” statements
  • Own one’s mistakes and apologize

“Working through our losses is important,” Brooks adds. “Loss of houses, jobs, and security” brings many people into Occupy. Though the concentration of wealth by the 1 % is their main target, some frustrated activists end up targeting others in the 99% with horizontal hostility.

“Occupy is a verb, which does, rather than a noun that is,” someone pointed out at the Berkeley meeting. “It implies action and movement, rather than being a static thing. It emerges, evolves, and changes. The whole of Occupy is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Some think that Occupy has disappeared. It certainly gets less attention in the mass media, which may be a blessing. However, after a reflective winter, OWS plans for many spring activities around the country. The next big national demonstrations are scheduled for May 1, Labor Day. Both the national Democratic and Republican party conventions this summer will draw many Occupy activists, as will numerous other direct actions.

Occupy has just begun. Whether it’s able to deal effectively with the substantial external threats and internal obstacles is yet to be determined. It will depend partly on the capacity for self-reflection and compassionate listening, as well as the success of channeling anger and frustration into powerful, constructive action.

(Dr. Shepherd Bliss teaches college, has contributed to a couple dozen books, runs an organic farm, and works with various veterans’ groups. He can be reached at