Jazz Hands and Waggling Fingers: How Occupy Wall Street Makes Decisions

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

If you walk past the Occupy Wall Street protesters at Zuccotti Park, you may see a lot of waggling fingers. It looks a bit like jazz hands, but here it indicates silent applause or agreement within the complex system of gestures that the group's General Assembly uses to make collective decisions. Limp wrists to the floor indicate disagreement. Making a diamond shape with your hands raises a procedural interruption. And the dreaded crossed fists, a Japanese import known as the batsu, signifies an outright block on a proposal. Veteran outdoor activists know even more signs, like rolling both hands to say “yeah, we get it, wrap it up,” or wiggling their fingers at eye-level (imagine playing a tiny air guitar) to say “I’m confused.”

I am still playing a tiny air guitar, so I sit down for a further explanation from Matt, a Brooklyn grad student who runs some of the meetings, and who asked that his last name be kept confidential because of worries that his participation in the protest might cost him his day job. He says that no single person can “lead” the General Assembly, which is “an open, horizontal, prefigurative democratic space.” Matt just happens to be “on the facilitation team,” one of the occupation’s many groups that present at the Assembly.

When faced with questions big and small — Should we demand international debt forgiveness? Should we rent a commercial kitchen? — a rough count of happy fingers is the best way for facilitators to determine whether there is a majority support for any given proposal. This kind of sign-language decision-making is a new staple of left-wing protests. The gestures were popularized in 2007 by European groups like Climate Camp, Seeds for Change, and UK Uncut, but they were showing up in protest manuals as early as 1994.

The use of consensus hand signals can be traced back to Robert’s Rules of Order, written by a cranky Civil War general after he was booed out of a Baptist church meeting in 1876. But Robert’s venerable rules, although they were good enough for Stringer Bell on The Wire, are too hierarchical for Occupy Wall Street, and organizers say they tend to encourage the formation of fractious coalitions and voting blocs. “Here, we come as individuals,” Matt tells me. And just about every individual has hands.

Then there’s the awkward business of deciding who gets to speak, and in what order. For this, Matt and the facilitators use something called “progressive slant.” Occupiers are recognized not in the order they raise their hands, but with a mind to race and gender. “If we’ve heard from ten male-bodied people, we’ll call on ten non-male-bodied people,” says Matt. The process of slant calls, proposals, blocks, and amendments can be laborious. But any deviation prompts a wave of limp disagreement-wrists and shouts of “Tyranny!”

The occupation’s organizers and leaders stress its disorganization and leaderlessness. But watching the General Assembly, it’s clear that the gesture system gives facilitators a bit more power than they let on. When proposals clash or are blocked, facilitators often suggest “middle ground” options. As the last to speak before a gestural “temperature check,” they often get the most silent applause. Since amplification devices aren’t allowed in Zuccotti Park, the occupation uses a “human megaphone”: speakers pause after each phrase and the group chants it back. Though slow-going, it gets the job done.

The wave of waggling fingers is cresting nationwide, with occupations from New Haven to Atlanta adopting similar gestures. Matt told me that facilitators across the country have become frustrated with textbook left-wing activism, structured hierarchically with “a preset agenda, a speaker, a march, and everybody going home, feeling good. It resembles the system we’re working against.” A downtown park filled with a thousand waggling fingers certainly doesn’t resemble anything the 1 percent has ever seen before.