What about those hand signals?

The same week that Steven Colbert pretended to mock Occupy Wall Street’s hand signals, I saw them used at an Occupy Boston General Assembly, and my Social Movements class studied the pitfalls of too much and too little “movement culture” – quite a serendipity!

Using the six measures of degrees of movement culture that my students learned from John Lofland’s article, the Occupy movement’s group process seems to be on the far end of the movement-culture spectrum: 1) there seems to be widespread agreement about it; 2) it’s quite distinct, different from the wider culture; 3) its scope reaches into every part of occupiers’ lives together; the consensus rules, including hand signals, are 4) numerous in quantity and 5) have a lot of complexity; and 6) they are very expressive of the protestors’ values and visions.

How well is this movement-culture-drenched group process serving the occupiers’ goals? Here’s what I observed one evening at Occupy Boston. A young white man with perfect teeth and glasses, speaking in a newscaster-standard accent, explained the hand-signals (e.g. “cross your arms to block consensus”) and listed the order in which points should be raised. Two similarly middle-class-seeming young white people introduced themselves as the facilitators, and a fourth read a proposal about changing the times of General Assemblies. Then one co-facilitator held up the C-shaped hand signal and called out, “Clarifying questions only!” Twenty minutes later they moved on to Points of Information, then Points of Process. Someone who snuck a negative opinion in as a Point of Process was chastised by many downward-twinkling hands for not sticking to the order. It was over an hour before opinions pro or con were invited.

Meanwhile, a gaggle of older black and white men, most with some missing front teeth, were clustered off the left edge of the lighted stage area. One of them, a middle-aged African American carrying a stack of the Spare Change newspapers that homeless people sell on Boston street-corners, was agitated, bouncing on the balls of his feet and saying repeatedly, “This is bullshit, man!” Others were trying to calm him down.  At this mixed-class gathering, no one with any missing front teeth or with working-class accents stepped up to the mic or used any hand signals that evening. Their opinions didn’t seem to be expressed via the much-touted participatory democracy of the General Assemblies, at least not that evening.

Perhaps what I noticed was an aberration; it’s just anecdotal evidence from an occasional visitor.

But it didn’t surprise me to perceive a class association with process styles. In my dissertation research on 25 varied social movement organizations (SMOs) in the US in 2007-8, I’ve found a rough class correlation with degree of movement culture. The labor movement today (unlike, say, in the 1930s) has few symbolic cultural elements, except for a few unions’ colors and calling each other “brother” and “sister.” Similarly, community anti-poverty groups tended to blend in culturally with their neighborhoods and have few ritualized occasions. By contrast, the groups in my study whose members come from the highest class backgrounds, the anarchist direct action groups and other groups with global causes, such as anti-war and anti-corporate globalization, were more likely to dress differently than their mainstream peers, used more leftist jargon, infused their daily lives with more alternative lifestyle choices, and created more elaborate  group processes.

In analyzing transcripts of SMOs’ meetings, I found that highly stylized group processes, further from everyday conversational norms, were introduced and practiced mostly by people from professional-middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds. Many of them were attached to particular meeting processes that they deemed essential to their SMOs living by their values. But when complicated and unfamiliar process was used, working-class non-leaders often remained silent. The activist leaders who were most successful in empowering grassroots working-class and poor people tended to use the back-and-forth patterns of everyday conversation during meetings. When community members spoke, someone would immediately answer, often including affirming words such as “Right!” and “Thank you!,” and immediate responses on the same topic were usually welcomed.

The cultural associations of participatory group processes change over time, as Francesca Polletta has shown us. It’s not a timeless universal truth that SMOs created by activists from more elite backgrounds have greater degrees of movement culture than working-class-rooted SMOs.  But in the US, at least since the 1960s counterculture, bohemian styles have come primarily from rebels who grew up in the white professional-managerial middle class (PMC). The historical roots of today’s consensus process grew from PMC Quaker tradition and the anti-war, second-wave feminist and human potential movements.

I go back a long way with some of this counterculture group process. In Movement for a New Society, the nuclear power movement, and the Central American anti-intervention movement, I was an enthusiastic user and teacher of an elaborate consensus decision-making process with hand signals. But in recent decades my opinion has shifted, as I’ve seen the importance for cross-class coalition-building of some radical groups coming across to potential allies as no weirder than necessary.

In teaching Lofland’s concepts, I pointed out two sets of pitfalls, the pitfalls of too much movement culture and the pitfalls of too little. Collective identity may remain weak when there’s no movement culture, and loyalty to the movement may not survive repression, counter-movements or other hard times. It may be difficult to recruit visionaries to a cultural space that seems just like the surrounding mainstream. But with too much movement culture, some potential recruits may be repelled; many may agree with the cause but feel uncomfortable with the movement’s cultural style. Movements that take off and gain majority public support often draw on widespread cultural resonances, so creating alternative symbols and frames may have the effect of keeping the group small.

It’s tricky to find the balance. Often the answer is to have more than one kind of group within a movement: prefigurative groups that put “be the change we want to see” into practice through countercultural innovation, and reform-oriented groups that bridge across differences to build coalitions and communicate with policy-makers. In seeking the right balance for a particular SMO, it’s important to ask whose cultural tastes becomes the group norm.

The Occupiers are rightfully proud of their leaderless participatory democracy, which they believe manifests their “We are the 99%” cross-class solidarity. For some participants it’s the most exhilarating part of the movement.  But I have a values question for all readers who are movement-builders: If it turns out that there’s a trade-off between strengthening the voices of historically marginalized participants and using stylized group process, including hand signals, which would you choose?

And for you social scientists studying the Occupy Movement, I have an empirical question: Are the hand signals being introduced and used disproportionately by white participants raised by college-educated professional parents, and does requiring their use ever marginalize anyone, such as working-class and long-term impoverished people, people of color, or new arrivals? Does anyone have any evidence that contradicts what I observed?

It’s just a question, not a presumption or a criticism. But those who want this movement to grow and become more class- and race-diverse should be willing to ask it.


Filed under Daily Disruption

3 responses to “What about those hand signals?

  1. Peter

    Interesting posting, let me share some thoughts on that. A while back, when there were student-fee protests in Europe I was somewhat puzzled by that hand-sign democracy as well. My experience from then was somewhat the following:

    The “sign” culture helps to de-emotionalize discussions. It helps to restore a certain “organized” way of doing things and allows to make progress. It also helps to create to the “outsider” the impression of a more organized crowd.

    To me this seems somewhat similar to prohibiting any emotional/vocal outburst at sporting matches. It would attract a very different crowd. A crowd that is much more interested in the game itself and its tactics than of the emotional experience of winning and loosing. But I can see that this “silence” might be actually channeling emotions towards more goals and actions, while at the same time reducing emotional outburst. It could be the case that the first is leading to more immediate action – momentum driven, while the second could be leading to a more long-time action.


  2. Amy Jonason

    Yes, perhapst he sign culture could positively influence the long-term sustainability of the movement. But, if it systematically excludes participants of non-white and/or non-middle-class backgrounds, then what will its sustainability matter?
    One could argue that it’s white, middle-class people in general who a taste for interactions with a low emotional tone. (This has been observed in literature on how various religions denominations “do” church.) It’s perhaps only a white middle-class person who would find the hand signals to be a more “organized” way of doing things. Betsy suggests that a non-white and/or non-middle-class person might see the hand signals as a source of confusion, excluding those who aren’t “in the know” and actually hindering the progress of the movement, insofar as “progress” means diverse people working together to achieve common goals.


  3. Glenn from Occupy Baltimore

    I agree with Peter that “the ‘sign’ culture helps to de-emotionalize discussions.” This was definitely the primary intention when Occupy Wall Street first emerged. I continue to inform people that the role of hand-signals, along with the Facilitators, is to also help facilitate the General Assembly. Sign culture does not systematically exclude participants. Yes, traditionally marginalized communities find a difficult time among majority white middle class occupations, but this is not the result of hand signals. I believe, this exclusion paints a picture of a larger disconnect between different modes of organization and communication between both communities. Like Amy says, its the white middle class individuals who seem to prefer this style. I would argue that the hand signals actually empower most people to participate, but it is the Process and Consensus-based decision making which becomes a site of contention. From what I’ve observed many people have complained about the rules put in place and the slowness of the General Assembly, rather than the hand signals.


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