No sooner had six panelists finished opening remarks last Saturday evening than a woman scampered onstage and yelled, "Mic check!" It was an orchestrated effort by several dozen Occupy Seattle activists to use the "People's Mic" to interrupt a forum at Town Hall—a forum in favor of Occupy Wall Street, featuring three wonks and three activists from Occupy Seattle. Their stunt replaced what was supposed to be an informed discussion with an uninformative shoutathon about process that consumed most of the evening. They booed opinions they disagreed with and drove supporters out of the building.
"I walked in supportive and left unsupportive," said 69-year-old Mary Ann, who declined to provide her last name. "I'm turned off by the negative shouts and repetition, and all I can think about is a cult."
She added: "And I believe in every one of their damn principles."
Across the country, police and mayors have been sweeping occupiers out of their camps; conversely, here in Seattle, protesters have become their own greatest public-relations liability. After a week of mediagenic protests (largely civil disobedience aimed at Chase Bank), the debacle at Town Hall was one of several recent unflattering incidents. For another example, about 30 protesters associated with Occupy Seattle stormed a public meeting at the Horace Mann building in the Central District on November 11 to "reclaim the space for the community," according to a text from one of the protesters. Their efforts failed, and it turns out they crashed a mentorship program for high school dropouts.
Meanwhile, Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) officials have grown upset with declining sanitary conditions among campers occupying the campus. "They said they would get their own Dumpster, but they haven't yet—three weeks into it," says SCCC spokeswoman Judy Kitzman. Trash has been piling up or going into the college's trash receptacles, and "rats don't wait for their process," she continues.
Back at Town Hall, activists were interrupting the panel because, some said, they opposed the power dynamic created by speakers onstage talking into microphones. While Occupy Wall Street ostensibly uses the belabored People's Mic—which involves one person speaking and the crowd repeating everything—to amplify free speech, that night the echoing cacophony was used to silence the panel.
Audience members Paula and Brian King also headed for the door early, with Brian explaining, "We are leaving because they are looking inward at themselves and their eccentric process rather than reaching out to people."
Organized by Town Hall (and cosponsored by The Stranger), the forum featured three activists from Occupy Seattle and luminaries from labor, economics, and politics: Washington State Labor Council secretary-treasurer Lynne Dodson, progressive taxation activist Nick Hanauer, and GMMB political strategist Frank Greer. Several older, hard-of-hearing audience members pleaded to let the panelists proceed: "Some of us who are old, we don't understand when people are screaming," explained Melanie Jackson to the protesters. "This process alienates people and takes a lot of time." Nevertheless, the Occupy activists demanded a vote to overtake the forum.
By a show of hands, moderator Nick Licata determined that the activists had been outvoted. But they refused to lose. They demanded another vote and a chance to read the rules of a general assembly while we repeated them back.
"Assembly time is precious," one protester yelled. "Assembly time is precious!" we all yelled back, wasting precious time. Meanwhile, an activist slept spread-eagle on the floor in front of the stage, and the man next to me worked through half a tin of chew.
It was 8:30 p.m. at this point, one hour after the event began, and we'd only heard opening statements. With a half hour left, it was apparent that the Occupy Seattle activists had repressed whatever thoughtful ideas the panelists brought to the stage and were willing to fill the time with chatter about unenlightening process. They were also being rank hypocrites. Here was a group purporting to give people a voice and cut through the bureaucratic layers of government and capitalism. Instead, they quashed ideas and replaced them with their own bureaucratic process reserved for a minority that wanted power.
One gray-haired woman who was walking out put it like this: "It was very divisive. Now they are a little group, like the 1 Percent."
JM Wong from Occupy Seattle justified the interruption, saying, "We need to respect the movement that uses this process. I stick to it because it is a democratic process." Some shouted, "This is what democracy looks like."
However, the Occupy activists seemed woefully misguided about what democracy looked like. On his way out the door, Brian King added, "They think it is more important to purify themselves rather than connect with people who are not like themselves. They probably can't get much further than they are right now."
Indeed, the group resisted connecting even with their most ardent supporters. During opening remarks, Wong declared that Occupy Seattle wanted "no leadership from the Democratic Party or union bureaucrats. Nonprofits are trying to co-opt us."
The AFL-CIO's Dodson, who represents 400,000 workers and was sitting a few feet away, politely explained that labor unions are part and parcel with the Occupy movement's push for economic reform. "I like to consider myself a union activist, not a union bureaucrat," she said. "This is labor's fight; this is our fight."
Some of the negative attention is clearly overblown. While SCCC claims there is a rat problem, an inspection of the grounds by a Seattle/King County Public Health inspector on November 14 reportedly turned up no evidence of rats. SCCC has also claimed that it is shouldering an economic burden from heightened security, but the college never provided a figure. And while the city estimates it has spent $529,609, largely on policing, it's clear that Mayor Mike McGinn has used it mostly for his discretionary policing plan (sending dozens of cops daily to Westlake Park for weeks on end while making only a handful of arrests).
At a general assembly on November 14, protesters stood in the cold, talking about community clean-up efforts and future protests to earn goodwill.
"We need to turn the media perception," a young woman said. "We need to turn the media perception," we repeated back. "From negative to positive," she said. "From negative to positive," we echoed.