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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why I'm leaving Occupy Atlanta

An Occupy Atlanta supporter packs up his gear at the end of the AT&T Occupation.
  • Joeff Davis
  • An Occupy Atlanta supporter packs up his gear at the end of the AT&T "Occupation."

George Chidi, a metro Atlanta journalist and researcher who's participated in several Occupy Atlanta demonstrations, says he's finished with the leaderless movement. After Occupy met last night at Woodruff Park to discuss next steps, Chidi penned the following "break-up letter" to the group, which he's given us permission to publish.

Tonight, I quit Occupy Atlanta for good. This is the angry break up letter.

Before I am inundated with the smug I-told-you-so's from folks wondering what I've been thinking this whole time, a few words about what drew me to the — what shall we call it? the cause? the gathering? the emergence? — of the Occupy movement.

I'm a relative rarity among Occupy here by dint of profession and education — an Occupier with an MBA. There's been a persistent gap of culture and world-view to bridge for me from the start, papered over in part by the strength of my convictions about the need for changes in the way the financial system works.

The MBA program at Georgia Tech reshaped the way I look at the connection between Wall Street finance and public policy. We started our core financial and accounting classes just as the worst of the Wall Street catastrophe hit in the fall of 2008. Every day, professors Charles Mulford and Jonathan Clarke would spend a couple of hours putting the insanity seeping from the pages in the Wall Street Journal into context. A section about accounting for assets on the balance sheet would become a deep conversation about the manner in which banks choose not to mark their loans to the market value to maintain capital requirements. A section about the use of the Black-Scholes options formula would segue into questions about holding financial managers accountable for the creation of long-term value.

Much of this began to crystallize for me with a reading of Nicholas Nassim Taleb's "The Black Swan," which pointed out the underlying causes for the 2008 crash with startling predictive power. The compensation structure in place on Wall Street incentivizes bubble-blowing risks and largely ignores tail risk and human risk factors. Exercising some control over policy — the means to engineer a government bailout — is viewed as a hedging strategy, despite the obvious increase in systematic moral hazard which further encourages high-risk behavior.

Private speculative gains. Socialized speculative losses. Each getting bigger with each boom-bust cycle. I viewed it as an existential threat to the country when I joined Occupy, and I still do.

I believe that the pattern will continue unless it becomes politically lethal for policy makers to suborn it. I believed that Occupy Wall Street — and its local branch in Atlanta — were the nascent expression of that political lethality, the visible manifestation of a public ready to figuratively tar-and-feather anyone in power who would put the interests of a small group of wired financial insiders over that of the public treasury, regardless of party.

This did not turn out to be an accurate description of Occupy Atlanta.

And it seems tonight that if it does become applicable to the group, it will be the sheerest of accidents. To say that Occupy Atlanta has lost its purpose demeans the word. Occupy Atlanta, it seems, never had purpose and despite my fervent hopes appears congenitally incapable of obtaining one.

- -

I dismissed many of the early criticisms of the Occupy movement — that "leaderless" groups were inherently dysfunctional, that they didn't know what they stood for, et cetera — in favor of a portfolio entrepreneurs' approach to investment. Try lots of things, all at once. Monitor progress carefully. Cut losers off quickly and redirect resources into new projects or existing projects that are bearing results. Iterate and adapt. If one project is a big-enough home run, the other losses won't matter.

The Occupy movement looked at first like the ideal kind of experimental platform for a new kind of politics, the sort of thing that could provide an asymmetrical counterweight to the influence of big money. As a group populated with lots of technically-savvy Gen Y activists, I expected lots of innovation around social media and mobility. Think lean startups — shoestring operations launched in a back room with no resources, purposefully designed to test disposable ideas cheaply until one sticks.

In that vein, I was willing to accept a certain amount of eccentricity in the process and the participants. That was a mistake.

It's more than just the up-twinkle, stack-taking, dignity-destroying highly-unfocused and miserably unproductive General Assembly process.

Occupy Atlanta tends to downplay the social problems displayed by its membership, but these problems are serious and have systematically alienated the mainstream public, the very "99 percent" of early sloganeering.

Arrests of Occupiers at bank protests or during demonstrations around foreclosures are common knowledge and heralded. Less discussed have been the "extracurricular" arrests of Occupy participants for drug use, public intoxication, assaulting police officers or each other, as well as other crimes.

Those among us with strong confirmation biases around police persecution might easily conclude that any arrest of someone who has been an active supporter of Occupy Atlanta can be explained away as an act of political targeting. I'm not going to argue that this kind of targeting hasn't occurred. But after six months of observation, I can draw some reasonable conclusions about the people involved. Many of these incidents have nothing to do with Occupy and everything to do with the character of the people involved.

The dynamics of insurance make for an interesting analogy here. An insurer can only guess at the risk of a client getting sick, based on common characteristics for age, sex, lifestyle, claim history and the like. Folks who get insurance, however, are somewhat better judges of their risk. People who know, cold, that they'll be using more in insurance than they'll pay will seek out insurers. Folks who know they're being overcharged stay out of the pool if they can. As a result, over time, the only people left in the pool are the ones with the worst risk and the highest cost to the insurer.

Insurance only works under three conditions — when the insurer knows as well as anyone what the true risks are for a client and can charge accordingly, when there's a mechanism for kicking out the highest-risk claimants or a mechanism for keeping low-risk clients in the pool.

It's called adverse selection. Occupy Atlanta has been in a state of adverse selection for months. At first, the pool of participants reflected something akin to the public at large — at least, the left-leaning public. But as it became clear that the group tolerated ... say, Marxists, or 9/11 Truthers, or just general nut-cases, those with the most sensitivity to that flavor of politics left. With each ... let's call them people with "normal" political views ... departure, the concentration of nuttery increased, further taxing the toleration of those who remained. Those who are left now are largely the hard-cases, folks who would have no other home for political purposes.

Occupy has no means for "charging" people to participate — it can't really demand more of the most crazy and remain an egalitarian movement. It has steadfastly refused to kick anyone out. So it's working overtime to draw new members in. And failing, at that.

I have not forgotten the issues around the early "Tactical Unity" committee within Occupy, initially formed to provide some kind of physical security for the tent camp in October and to mediate conflict. Tactical Unity became the stomping grounds for people with an easy relationship with violence and was ultimately disbanded.

Even now, long discussions continue about managing disruptive Occupy members. Several people have expressed significant concerns about their physical safety at meetings in Woodruff Park, both from the many homeless people who wander through a General Assembly to the very Occupiers among them.

According to the CDC, roughly three people in 100 are walking around in a state of serious psychological distress — mental illness, diagnosed or not, possibly related to drug dependency. My thumbnail, anecdotal, highly-subjective estimate for Occupy Atlanta would be right around five times that rate, higher when the turnout is smaller. Occupiers, look around, count heads and ask yourselves how far off I am.

Put simply, upon encountering Occupy, Joe Citizen is likely to conclude that it is literally crazier than average.

- -

I'm more concerned about defining victory, though.

In order to approach Occupy entrepreneurially, it helps to know how to measure results relative to the effort exerted — real results, not the ginned up garbage metrics presented by dot-com companies on a road show. For a business, it's free cash flow, or perhaps market share, or revenue growth, or return on equity.

What does Occupy Atlanta want to achieve? Is it public awareness? Public support? Increasing participation? Self-sufficiency?

I know the facile answers I've been fed, over and over, by people in the movement. "It's all of the above, and more!"

Well, sure. That posture's working like gangbusters so far.

By any objective measure, Occupy Atlanta has less of all of these things now than it did four months ago. The movement has fewer resources, a lower public profile, an electorate that has grown disillusioned with them and far, far fewer people involved.

The purpose of purposeless has been to promote the idea that each Occupier defines what the movement means to them. No one speaking on behalf of the movement has validity. This has allowed people with very, very toxic political views to legitimately claim the backing of an attention-getting mass of people while allowing folks who disagree with them — or their tactics — plausible deniability.

As a practical matter, this "diversity of tactics" approach sidesteps accountability — and the actual formulation of strategy. There is no strategy. There's only what a group of people feel like doing right now, regardless of how counterproductive it may feel to other members. We had long, ugly conversations about this problem after the Union City incident, in which Black Bloc-type vandals decided to trash public property after an Occupy event.

Regardless of how people have tried to use the term to paper over differences in the name of unity, diversity of tactics is an anything-goes license. A discussion of actual strategy would have to come to agreement on what tactics are acceptable.

This issue isn't just about the use of violence; it goes to the heart of figuring out if what Occupy does even works.

Marches and rallies are being called for on the May Day general strike — an event I do not support and will not participate in, simply because I can see how comically ineffective it will be. The tent protest against AT&T's decision to shift roughly three percent of its workers from union wireline jobs to non-union jobs in the U-Verse division was so little respected that the union itself did not meaningfully participate.

Meanwhile, protesters against Coca-Cola's corporate abuses have linked up through Occupy to demonstrate at its annual shareholders' meeting. Ron Allen is helping bus people up to Chicago to protest against NATO. Occupy Atlanta members have a half a dozen different projects in play right now, with varying formal connections back to the organization. Jonah Bautista and SHIFTbikes runs free bike workshops — complete with free bikes — out of the Peachtree & Pine homeless shelter.

I defy anyone to adequately describe a meaningful strategic connection between these actions.

Right now, we have folks connected to the Occupy movement holed up in foreclosed houses all over metro Atlanta. I've more than defended these home occupation protests — I have argued that they're an unvarnished good and evidence of the value of the movement. They can draw attention to mortgage and foreclosure fraud, violations of the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act and plain corruption. In some cases, the home occupations could provide that asymmetrical counterweight to big banks I so desire.

But I'm guessing. I have no idea if the home defense actions are actually working in the way I'm describing. I've tried a couple of times to really dig into the background of each of the cases, looking for a way to predict success on these terms. The people within Occupy who are most involved in the home occupations also tend to be the least forthcoming about their interests. The more moderate Occupiers report a sense of thinly-veiled hostility toward anyone who isn't a hardened Marxist-type or anarchist poking around the Glen Iris occupation, for example.

Is there a strategy to the home occupations? A long-term goal that can be plotted through these occupations? Or are occupation targets chosen simply because someone called for help to the right person at the right time? I have no idea.

I mention this because a tremendous amount of the human and media capital of the movement is tied up in the home occupations, but without a strategic plan, there's no telling what will come of it, if anything at all. I could say the same for the movement at large.

- -

Tonight at Woodruff Park (I've long avoided calling it Troy Davis park for sensible reasons), roughly 80 people attended a "strategy" meeting, to determine where Occupy Atlanta should go from here, after its successful defense against the anti-protest bill last month, SB 469.

A note about that victory, for context. Conservative legislators here in Georgia, at nearly no cost in time or tears to themselves, were able to tie Occupy Atlanta and other progressive organizations in knots for weeks with the authoring of a single bill that had no reasonable chance of passing judicial scrutiny. Meanwhile, the legislature essentially rewrote the tax code, will force welfare recipients to undergo drug tests and banned abortions after 20 weeks — all laws that would have otherwise drawn much more intense scrutiny and opposition from these groups.

This meeting tonight was meant to be the starting point for an progressive offense. As far as I could tell, nothing of the sort emerged.

Thinking like a strategist, I would first ask what end state I desire. What goal does Occupy hope to achieve? I would then ask what would have to change to achieve that goal, and then what I can do to make those changes. I would look for ways to measure success, so I could shift tactics from those with less effectiveness to those with more.

Good strategists don't merely think about their own abilities and resources. They look at the field of play and how it might change, and how people with their own goals might alter that field, challenge their moves, or work with them for mutual benefit.

I came to the meeting with some faint hope that a critical mass of those who remain would see the problem associated with a lack of strategic focus and work toward fixing that.

This is not the conversation had tonight. Instead, it was a brainstorming party about all the many, many different things people could do that were each vaguely Occupy-ish. In that sense, the "strategy" for Occupy moving forward had been pre-determined: do everything. Again, I wouldn't be averse to that, if there was a means of measuring success and moving resources toward more successful endeavors along some objective basis. But a judgment about someone's action? In Occupy? Scandalous.

So, I'm done.

I was called "impatient" on the way out of the meeting, as I explained my objections. "This is a revolution," Misty said to me. "It's going to take a long time."

Set aside all of the calls for "Revolution!" by leftist radicals for the last 110 years, with all the miserable failure that has come of it — the two lifetimes of patience demanded by loyalty to this view of revolution.

If I were truly impatient, I would have left in the first two or three weeks as did most other people. This was not a second chance. It was six months of chances.

I chalk up my continued activity with Occupy Atlanta to a terrible case of consistency and commitment bias. People have a natural desire to remain consistent with previous commitments. It's easier. Society values people who can keep their commitments. At some point early on, it became easier for me to continue to support the group, regardless of my personal reservations, in order to make my earlier decisions to help justifiable.

This is, of course, the same psychology used by Mary Kay saleswomen, Scientologists and death cults to keep recruits from climbing the wall.

To call me impatient is to get the question exactly backward. What has Occupy Atlanta done to earn my continued patience? What path remains, given its current condition — riven by a pathological lack of focus, competing factions, mental illness and deteriorating good will from the public?

To this day, hard-core Occupiers bristle when asked to define the movement. But tell them that the movement itself is useless or has achieved nothing and people will rise to its defense. Somehow, imparting a positive value judgment is easier than accepting a negative one. So be it.

But it's logically impossible to simultaneously claim Occupy is all things to all people and then to say that positive achievements can be attributed to its work. And I tire of shelving the cognitive dissonance of that.

I've made friends among its members, and I hope to keep them. Individually, there are some great, highly intelligent, productive people who have supported the movement. But collectively, Occupy Atlanta isn't worth two tugs on a dead dog's tail, and anyone spending time trying to fix it or guide it or work with it may as well roll their resources into a giant blunt and smoke it for all the good it will do them or the world.

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