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Who by Fire, Who by Drum Circle?

Drums present Occupy Wall Street with same problem anti-Semitism does

Marc Tracy
October 25, 2011
Drummers at Zuccotti Park over the weekend.(Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Drummers at Zuccotti Park over the weekend.(Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

It will not be surprising if today the occupation of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan—the linchpin of a movement, Occupy Wall Street, that has claimed the allegiance of millions around the world—will come to an end because of two or three (or even just one) obnoxious, selfish drummers. According to an urgent message from the movement organizers, they have been unable to coax a few drummers into complying with requests put forward by the local Community Board that would have limited drumming to two (or maybe four) hours per day, during daylight hours. The CB meets today and very likely has the power to force an eviction, which, while not necessarily fatal to the overall movement, certainly would prove a crushing blow.

What can be confusing to people about Occupy Wall Street is that the incredibly arcane, “consensus-based” philosophy that governs the Lower Manhattan occupation itself has nothing, really, to do with the motivations of the broader movement or its “99 percent” message—and yet, because that large movement draws its strength from this specific occupation, that philosophy and its consequences matter a great deal. And that philosophy’s Achilles heel is its inability, born from its rejection of the concept of representation, to form an institution in which, say, a spokesperson can speak for the movement even if not every single member of the movement agrees, and in which no organized group within the movement enjoys the equivalent of the governmental monopoly on the use of legitimate force. The drummers are a test case: Most of the occupiers want the drumming severely curtailed; even a working group formed by many drummers has agreed to the curtailments. But a few bad apples (among whose many accusations is, yes, the charge that Occupy Wall Street is “not Palestinian enough”) are able to ruin the whole bunch because there is no mechanism for stopping them or even dissociating from them.

This is relevant to us because maybe the first and most prominent instance of this dynamic were the few straggling anti-Semites who turned up at the rally. The Anti-Defamation League saw these people and, while specifically rejecting the notion that the movement itself is anti-Semitic, did, reasonably, ask the movement to condemn the anti-Semitism. The problem, as Tablet Magazine columnist Michelle Goldberg laid out last week, is that the movement is structurally incapable of speaking in a single voice to condemn just about anything. More than three weeks ago, I wrote that this reluctance to take a stand might hurt the movement’s ultimate effectiveness. I didn’t imagine that it would also threaten its very viability.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.