Leaderless protest leads to arrests

The arrests at the Brooklyn Bridge during the Occupy Wall Street march probably could have been avoided had the march been led by seasoned organizers.

The police suckered the marchers into the arrest trap. NYPD was on bullhorns saying if marchers went on the bridge they would be arrested. A march led by experienced organizers wouldn’t have entered the trap. They would have stopped at the line then, as thousands backed up behind them and things got tense, negotiated to cross the bridge. That might well have worked.

I helped organize many protests in Los Angeles a few years back, including massive anti-war protests where tens of thousands came. I drove the truck that led several marches. (This was when I was with ANSWER, we’ve since gone our separate ways, to put it mildly. But that’s another story.) During these and other protests, sometimes things got really tense between LAPD and the protesters. Here’s the key part. LAPD knew who to talk to and so did we. Lots of negotiations happened before the march so while we might not have been thrilled with each other, we were on speaking terms. This helps when things get tense.

OWS had no leaders. No one was leading the march. They were newbies and got played for suckers. Oh well, learn from that and move on. But it does illustrate why leaderless resistance doesn’t work in groups beyond a few isolated people in a cell. At some point, there has to be leaders.


  1. I agree with most of your analysis, Bob, but disagree with your conclusions. Initially I thought I’d reply in a post but this will have to suffice for now. Yes, the people at OWS are newbies and, apparently, did get suckered into walking across the Bridge. But you then jump to the conclusion that “leaders” are needed.

    Instead, I think this gives us good reason to really think about how we structure our groups. I’ve mentioned Stephen Shalom to you before. But his Particpatory Politics, I believe, gives us a good window into how we might fashion these “leaderless” groups to work.

    The basic idea is that, yes, we need to break groups down into manageable bits where everybody can actually talk and know everybody else. That size might fluctuate but let’s say less than 25 people. And that 25 picks a delegate (leader) and so on. Every 25 groups or so gets together via their delegate and so on. Now you have delegates who are directly accountable to a very small group. So we maintain that directly democratic spirit that is reigning at OWS now. People really have a voice. We don’t want them to lose that the way people did at ANSWER Rallies where you were just a number. And in the chaos they can still have someone to look to for guidance.

    Basically I don’t discount the need for “leaders” even in “leaderless groups.” But the leader of 300,000 people is vastly different than an elected delegate of, say, 25 people. We need to really re-think how we create and buiild these massive movements while still maintaining the intimacy of smaller groups. I think Stephen Shalom does a good job of that.

    • But consensus doesn’t work, as far as I can tell, in a mass protest, where the situation can change instantly and decisions have to be made fast and probably with insufficient information. If the march needs to stop at the bridge before people get kettled, you can’t relay word back to the 2,000 leaders of the groups of 25 that we need a consensus in the next 15 seconds.

      So, the best way I guess is to insure the leaders are genuinely chosen and respected. Feel free to post about this here with your views! And how being on our podcast this Thursday too?

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