Ask around for the leaders at an Occupy Lawrence protest, and you’re likely to get an answer that sounds something like this:
“What makes (the movement) so attractive to so many people is that it’s leaderless,” said Cody Alley, 25, standing near a group of tents in South Park last week.
A Kansas University political science professor who studies protests and repression, though, says it’s impossible to have a protest without leaders.
“There had to be someone who said, ‘Let’s go to Wall Street, and let’s occupy,’” said Ron Francisco, who organizes data on protests around the world. “There’s a leader somewhere, but we don’t know who it is.”
Locally, the Occupy Lawrence movement has all sorts of “point people” who organize all sorts of matters for the group — everything from collecting donations to acting as a liaison with city government. But those “point people” don’t consider themselves “leaders.”
Jason Phoenix, 32, of Lawrence, said he’s the point person for talking to the media, among other duties. He said he considered himself more of an adviser than a leader.
All major decisions are made by consensus at 6 p.m. daily assembly meetings, as group members raise two arms to indicate agreement and put two arms down to indicate they disagree.
The people who set the agenda for the meetings rotate around, Phoenix said, and, even though he’s a “point person,” that doesn’t mean what he says goes.
“I can advocate for something as much as I want to, but the group makes its own decisions,” he said.
When asked who organized Occupy Lawrence in the first place, Phoenix said he didn’t know. He said he found out about it through other means.
“I saw a flier,” he said.
It still took someone to set up the website and Facebook page to begin the movement. In this case, that was Steve Robinson, 56, a self-employed chess teacher who lives on Pennsylvania Street in Lawrence, and his wife, Lori Learned Robinson.
He said he was inspired to try to get a local movement going after watching a YouTube video about the Occupy Wall Street movement in late September. So he and his wife went to the Web and to Facebook to try to drum up support for an Oct. 8 rally on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence.
Robinson said he asked friends of his on Facebook to indicate they were attending the rally even if they had no plans to, in the hopes of generating more interest in the rally. He also recruited a few others to help him organize events.
“To me, the movement is leaderless because people have become disillusioned with leadership,” he said.
Interviewed on Wednesday, Robinson said his involvement had since scaled back. He was at home on Wednesday, and hadn’t been to the daily organizational meetings for at least the last few days, he said. And he doesn’t call himself a leader, either. He plays a “gadfly” role these days, he said.
“If I’m a leader, we’re in more trouble than we thought,” Robinson said.
Leaders of major protest movements are usually of a higher social class and economic status than most of the followers, said Francisco, the KU political scientist. Whether that will hold true for the national Occupy effort has yet to be seen.
“The leader of this movement obviously doesn’t want to be known,” Francisco said.