Occupy Wall Street: Marching to the Beat of Its Own Drum (Circle)

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Andrew Burton / AP

The future of Occupy Wall Street's drum circles was thoroughly debated Thursday night, on the eve of what appeared to be an eviction by police.

Ten hours before uniformed police officers had pledged to clear Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street’s home since its founding a few weeks ago, the demonstrators debated, discussed, voted on, blocked, formed consensus, blocked again, and then again formed consensus — about playing drums.

This, the night before what many thought would be a defining moment for Occupy Wall Street and the protesters’ attempts at a modern-day revolution, and hours before the 7 a.m. NYPD mandate to wipe Zuccotti Park clean of the movement’s tents and signs and its pamphlets and purple-arm-banded protesters. But for 45 minutes, the most important issue was a proposal to limit drum circles.

(MORE: NYC Official: Occupy Wall Street Cleanup is Being Postponed)

It seemed trivial. It seemed silly. It seemed like a waste of time, time that could be used to prepare for what seemed inevitable as the sun rose: mass arrests, chaos, possible violence, injuries. While the city eventually called off the “cleaning” early this morning, nobody knew that last night.

A proposal by the Manhattan Community Board and Borough President Scott Stringer to reduce drum circle playing to two hours between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., drumming that has been irritating the neighborhood’s residents over the last several weeks, had to be voted on. Now. And it had to survive 9/10 consensus as well as two “blocks.”

Occupy Wall Street is built on incredibly utopian and idealistic grounds. General Assemblies, which begin every evening around 7 p.m. with the words “mike check, mike check,” lay out everything demonstrators need to know about protesting Wall Street. Wiggly fingers up high mean you approve of the proposal being discussed, wiggly fingers low mean disapproval, a diamond can interrupt proceedings, an X with your arms (also known as a block) means you have serious ethical concerns. And a block is a very serious thing. It’s a veto, and whoever vetoes has to present his or her concerns to the rest of the assembly.

As the drum debate unfolded last night, one person would speak, and then it would be repeated twice by the rest of the crowd as it filtered toward the back, so everyone knew what was being said. Like this:

My concern/MY CONCERN/My concern
Is that the drummers/IS THAT THE DRUMMERS/Is that the drummers
May entirely disregard/MAY ENTIRELY DISREGARD/May entirely disregard
Decisions/DECISIONS/Decisions
Made by this Assembly/MADE BY THIS ASSEMBLY/Made by this Assembly

Or:

The drums/THE DRUMS/The drums
Are a way/ARE A WAY/Are a way
For people to find us/FOR PEOPLE TO FIND US/For people to find us

Or:

Drums/DRUMS/Drums
Are really cool/ARE REALLY COOL/Are really cool
And when people get off work/AND WHEN PEOPLE GET OFF WORK/And when people get off work
Seeing a bunch of people/SEEING A BUNCH OF PEOPLE/Seeing a bunch of people
Playing drums/PLAYING DRUMS/Playing drums
Is really cool/IS REALLY COOL/Is really cool

(PHOTOS: Scenes From the Wall Street Protest)

And this went on and on as more and more people expressed their concerns for what seemed like a reasonable request by a community board that has largely been supportive of Occupy Wall Street: drum circles specifically limited to daytime playing hours, but individual drum playing could occur at any time. One woman decided to address the General Assembly to bring up concerns over cancer-causing agents. Not exactly drum-related.

But the demonstrators took the proposal incredibly seriously, believing that any attempt to suppress the protest should be opposed. And they took their own proceedings seriously. It mattered that they achieved 90% consensus and aired every single complaint and addressed every single block.

The living organism in Zuccotti Park lays open the inborn problems of democracy. It’s time-consuming. It’s difficult. It’s tiring. And Occupy Wall Street is a micro-democracy writ large. It’s a tiny republic on steroids, which makes it even more difficult to approve actions, even though the participants all have a baseline of common grievances.

While discussion of the impending police action on the movement’s unofficial home did take place, most of debate revolved around what seemed to be a crucial decision about drum circles, even though it wasn’t clear they’d have anywhere to drum the following day. When I left, after the General Assembly was adjourned, it was still unclear when they were going to drum.

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