Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Occupy as Form: Laurel Butler

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the working session “Occupy as Form” on February 10, 2012. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Laurel Butler, Education and Engagement Specialist and Youth Arts Manager for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

How does the consensus decision-making process function on an embodied level? Moving through downtown Oakland the night after the police raid, I am struck by the heightened kinesthetic awareness evident in the hundreds of bodies that fill the streets.  True to the Occupy ethos, there is no top-down leadership, and yet the group is certainly moving together, en masse, with implicit nonverbal agreements about directionality, pauses, speed, and – in particular – a highly attuned empathetic response mechanism that kicks in as we encounter the blockades of riot police.  I am reminded of Susan Foster’s essay Choreographies of Protest, which “probes both the collective connectivity that is achieved among protesting bodies and the violence of the encounter between their bodies and those defending the status quo.” (397)  I think about the consensus process as demonstrated in the viral video shown above (, and the values it appears to enact: collaboration, cooperation, agreement-seeking, inclusivity, egalitarianism, as well as a distinct sort of suspension of certitudes, a patience with the procedure, a different kind of listening and attention.  How does our collective movement through the streets embody these same principles?  A handful of folks expressed, aloud, their discomfort with the nonspecific nature of our flocking: “Where are we going? Are we headed back to the plaza? Who’s in front?”  Their desire for answers seemed analogous to the primary critique of Occupy at the time: the lack of a list of demands, the ambiguity around the direction in which the movement was headed.  And yet, in the moment, those individuals actually seemed to be listening less than those of us who were silent, wide-eyed, and in our bodies.  One of the roles of the consensus decision-making process is the empath, or 'vibe watch'.  This person is charged with monitoring the 'emotional climate' of the meeting, taking note of the body language and other non-verbal cues of the participants.  Acknowledging and foregrounding the critical role of corporeal information in the communication process once again affirms the “central role that physicality plays in constructing both individual agency and sociality” (Foster, 395) within the consensus-based General Assemblies.  To “occupy”, to be physically present in inhabiting a space, seems to be a reclaiming of the body’s role in theories and practices of nonviolent communication and collective action.


  1. I look forward to engaging in a conversation about the role and importance of bodies in protest, occupation, public space, and democracy. Thank you for adding the "choreographies of protest" and the "vibe watch" to this discussion.

  2. I remember my collaborator, Valerie Imus, coming back from a visit to New York in the earliest days of OWS and acting out the choreography of the mic check in the car as we drove from one meeting to another. It seemed so outlandish at the beginning, that we would embrace a gesture that made communication in a meeting longer, rather than shorter! And yet, over time, this has become another physical emblem of this particular moment of protest - the body-feeling of using your own vocal cords to echo and amplify someone else's speech patterns and meaning. This takes up time and space differently, like so many of the body processes that are a part of Occupy, and brings these differences into public consideration. I look forward to this being a part of Friday's conversation!