Occupy History

I just read a great article on the Occupy movement in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine, apparently written before the elimination of tents from New York’s Zucotti Park. It’s long, even with my edits, but I think well worth your time. Here it is (thanks, Jeff Sharlet):

It started with a Tweet – “Dear Americans, this July 4th, dream of insurrection against corporate rule” – and a hashtag: #occupywallstreet. It showed up again as a headline posted online on July 13th by Adbusters, a sleek, satirical Canadian magazine known for its mockery of consumer culture. Beneath it was a date, September 17th, along with a hard-to-say slogan that never took off, “Democracy, not corporatocracy,” and some advice that did: “Bring tent.”

On August 2nd, the New York City General Assembly convened for the first time in Lower Manhattan, by the market’s bronze icon, “Charging Bull.” It wasn’t the usual protest crowd. “The traditional left – the unions, the progressive academics, the community organizations – wanted nothing to do with this in the beginning,” says Marisa Holmes, a 25-year-old filmmaker from Columbus, Ohio, who was working on a BBC documentary called “Creating Freedom,” about why people rebel. “I think it’s telling that, of the early participants, so many were artists and media makers.”

Even the instigators and architects present at the creation marvel at how things just happened. “It was a magic moment,” says Kalle Lasn, Adbusters‘ 69-year-old co-founder. “After that, things took on a life of their own, and then it was out of our hands.”

Adbusters‘ call to arms had been timid by the standards of the movement quickly taking form. The magazine had proposed a “worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics,” but these went no further than pressuring Obama to appoint a presidential commission on the role of money in politics. In Lasn’s imagination that would be just the start. “We knew, of course, that Egypt had a hard regime change where a torturous dictator was removed,” he says, “but many of us felt that in America, a soft regime change was possible.”

Possible, but not likely. They were still thinking in inches. “To be perfectly honest, we thought it might be a steppingstone, not the establishment of a whole thing,” says David Graeber, a 50-year-old anthropologist and anarchist whose teaching gig at Yale was not renewed, some suspect, because he took part in radical actions. It was Graeber who gave the movement its theme: “We are the 99 percent.” He also helped rescue it from the usual sorry fate of the left in America, the schisms and infighting over who’s in charge. Having shown up at the August 2nd meeting, he was surprised to find a rally dominated by the antiquated ideas of the Cold War left. He recognized a Greek anarchist organizer, Georgia Sagri, and with her help identified kindred spirits. “I didn’t recognize faces – everybody was so young. I went by T-shirts – Zapatistas, Food Not Bombs.” Anarchists in name or inclination. Graeber calls them the “horizontal crowd,” because they loathe hierarchy. “It was really just tapping on shoulders. And a lot of people said, ‘Shit, yeah.'”

They set up a circle in a nearby park, dubbed it the New York City General Assembly and got down to talking about how they’d pull off the occupation. They only numbered about 60 people, they had no money, and they were planning to take over one of the most heavily policed public spaces on the planet. Adbusters had called for 20,000 bodies; only 2,000 showed up on September 17th. Maybe 100 of them slept over that first night in Zuccotti Park, a block-long granite plaza tucked between skyscrapers. The next night, there were a few more, and on Monday morning, they were still there. There was a police raid on Tuesday, and the little press the occupation got was mocking: the New York Times sent an entertainment reporter, who made fun of the protesters. In the days that followed, the few grew in numbers, a demographic that didn’t conform to media clichés: anarchist punks, out-of-work construction workers, and teachers who slept in the park and rose early to go to school. Cooks and nannies and librarians, lots of librarians, and Teamsters and priests and immigrants, legal and otherwise, and culture jammers, eco-warriors, hackers, and men and women in Guy Fawkes masks, an army of stunt doubles from “V for Vendetta,” joined by young veterans of the Arab Spring and the revolts in Greece and Spain.

Now there are more than 1,600 occupations around the country and the world, some big, most small, some no more than one angry soul on the side of the road with a sign that says “We are the 99 percent.” We’re in Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, Seattle, and Nashville; in London, Sydney, Cape Town, Tokyo, and Sao Paulo. At the start of this month, Occupy Wall Street was serving more than 3,000 meals a day from its free kitchen, stocked mostly with donated food. At night, a rotating cast of as many as 500 bedded down in the park, many of them using blankets and sleeping bags provided by the occupation. A library held some 4,500 cataloged volumes – everything from the Communist Manifesto to He’s Just Not That Into You, an all-volunteer medical staff provided free health care, and a station was giving out hand-rolled cigarettes.

One of the basic premises of the Occupy movement is the idea that democracy exists for most Americans as little more than an unhappy choice between two sides of the same corporate coin. “We’ve been so alienated from our own sense of agency that being asked to be part of any real decision is exciting,” a woman in her late thirties who calls herself Beatrix told me. She’s one of the old hands, close to the core of nearly every major radical action in New York of the past decade. “Movements usually spend a lot of time on education, telling people why they need to come to the demonstration,” she said. “This is exactly the opposite. The people came. Now we’re all deciding together what happens.”

“Right off the bat I was addicted,” says Jesse LaGreca, sipping a beer at a fireman’s bar near the park. Two hundred and fifty pounds, with wiseguy eyes and a permanent ruddy flush, LaGreca looks like he grew up on a bar stool in a place like this. He has a decade-plus of dead-end jobs behind him. The best was managing a L’Occitane store in the West Village – $15 an hour, no health insurance. Lately, he’s been making his living as a writer, posting deeply researched rants against the Republicans on the liberal blog Daily Kos and asking for donations. “You put up a Pay­Pal link and tell people, ‘Dude, I’m fucked. Can you help me?'” Just before heading down to Occupy Wall Street, he wrote a post called “If I light myself on fire, do you think these bastards will notice?” It was a tribute to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who did just that, igniting the Arab Spring.

“I’m not gonna lie,” LaGreca says. “First thing I saw at the park was the topless girls. Can’t help it, dude. But then I saw the food lines” – the Occupy Wall Street kitchen, feeding all comers – “and then I saw the books. I’m a nerd, man. I read and read.” He dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, but continued his education on the job as a school janitor in New Jersey. “Read all of Thoreau, Emerson, Shakespeare. Read a lot of Dostoyevsky. I was a shitty janitor.”

There were books, free food, and women, but that wasn’t what kept him there. “People were talking – everybody, and I could talk, too.” He didn’t just have a voice; he had amplification – the human microphone. On the fourth day of the occupation, a former science teacher named Justin Wedes was speaking to the crowd through a megaphone when a policeman threw him to the ground, the first of a series of rough arrests that morning. One man’s face was ground into a flower bed, another was dragged and cuffed ’til his hands bled, another was left gasping, denied his inhaler. The cops moved in, citing a law prohibiting the use of electronic amplification. This turned out to be a lucky break: without conventional means, the occupiers had to figure out a new way to hear one another.

The “people’s mic” begins with a single voice, calling “Mic check!” “Mic check!” the assembly thunders back. It’s absurd, its inherent humor and brevity undercutting the wordy earnestness that usually makes political meetings unbearable. “My concern”/”MY CONCERN”/”is deeper”/”IS DEEPER”/”than sleeping bags!”/”THAN SLEEPING BAGS!”

“The cops made a huge mistake,” says LaGreca. “The people’s mic is such a unifying force. Almost like a choir. Like a modern religious revival. But it’s a civil revival. We’re becoming citizens down here.”

Occupations are about refilling space – parks and plazas, a hollowed-out public sphere. That begins with bodies, accompanied by noise. Which is where the drums come in, bongos and tablas and tambourines and full drum kits with snares. In the beginning, the drummers drummed as long as their arms could flail, sometimes 12 hours a day. The noise was so loud it was like a wall on the western edge of the park. At first the drums were exciting, even if you weren’t really a drum-circle kind of person, which most of the occupiers weren’t. But then they got annoying. Like when you were trying to sleep. Or talk. Or hold a general assembly.

One of the first times the General Assembly asked the drummers to quiet down, they simply moved their drums farther down the park. Another time, the drummers said what they were doing was sacred; they’d quiet down in a little while (they didn’t). “This movement would not be here right now if we didn’t do what we did, by playing all day,” a drummer boasted. One night they grew so rowdy, they began to drown out the General Assembly altogether. So the first order of democracy was to bring the drummers, many of whom did not want to stop drumming long enough to talk, into the assembly. A lot of them weren’t interested. What was to be done?

The drummers did it themselves, imperfectly but “horizontally,” through self-regulation rather than “vertical” rule imposed from above. They pulled themselves into a “working group,” one of the key units of organization in the occupation – there are 82 as of this writing and there will almost certainly be more tomorrow. The drummers called their group Pulse and agreed to lay down their sticks for a while to attend general assemblies.

“John,” a compact man, all taut vein and muscle, with a shock of wiry gray-black hair, spoke for Pulse one night. “We,” he said. “We,” the crowd said. “Want to respect you. But we want respect too!” The drummers, he reminded the General Assembly, had restricted themselves to two-hour sessions, noon to two and four to six. But there was a move afoot to cut them back to only one two-hour drumming period. “We are the movement’s heartbeat!” John shouted. “You’re cutting out your heartbeat!”

To which another speaker, an earnest young woman named Linda, responded, “I have a clarifying question. How is it that one group can claim to be my heartbeat?”

The first night that I stayed at Zuccotti Park, bodies were laid out like tiles, head to toe, in circles and blocked out in squares and the occasional heap. There were street-sleeping pros, homeless and crusty punks, wrapped up in tarps, a few people on air mattresses with fluffy pillows. I didn’t actually sleep. I paced among the tarp-covered bodies, sat on the steps, browsed the library, drank coffee from the food trucks open 24/7. The second night, after beers with LaGreca and a few other occupiers, I followed his friend Austin, a college dropout – a casualty of his student loans – who works with autistic children, to the Comfort Station for some bedding of my own. “We’ll set you up on the margins,” said Austin. “That way you can get out if you need to.”

Twice I woke up. Once when a squat woman with dreads down to her knees shuffled by with a broom, a cleaning detail, and woke another sleeper, who stood up with his sleeping bag wrapped around him, stumbled, and gave up, letting it drop to reveal a sculpted body, naked but for dog tags. And a second time when a deranged man, top-heavy like a bulldog, punched the air above my head, daring anyone to take a shot at him. The occupation’s security, thin-limbed men with walkie-talkies, spread their arms out like birds and surrounded him. “We love you, man,” they said, over and over, containing but never touching. Finally he fled; the scene was too strange for conventional crazy.

If Occupy is “semireligious,” which is how many at the park describe it, and “a spiritual insurrection,” in the words of Adbusters senior editor Micah White, then its rituals might be counted as these: First, occupation itself. Second, the General Assembly. Third, the kitchen and the food line. And finally, sleep, lying among your comrades, everyone vulnerable, everyone absurd, stretched out between the coffee trucks and the police cruisers, under the watchful eye of a mobile NYPD surveillance tower jacked up over a truck.

When I returned a week later, the scene had darkened. “It started with punks and nice academic anarchists and grad students and labor organizers,” said a journalist who’d slipped into the movement. “Then it got really mainstream. But now it’s like a circus.” The human mic wasn’t as loud. The sanitation group threatened to strike. There were more signs that made no sense, suspicions of police infiltration, and accusations of treason. The people who ran the kitchen, confronted by street people in need of more care than a protest camp can provide and sometimes given to violence, revolted, serving only rice. They even proposed a fast. The other organizers would have none of it. “In this camp, the bullshit flows in certain directions sometimes,” said one participant at a daily coordinators’ meeting, but that’s not an excuse for starving anybody. “Everybody eats,” chimed in another coordinator. “Junkie or tourist, donator or worker – everybody eats.”

The tents proved to be one of Occupy Wall Street’s most contentious issues. At the start of the protests, the rapper Lupe Fiasco donated 50 tents, but the police tore them down. In mid-October, members decided to try again, putting up a medical tent. Police moved in to dismantle it, but Jesse Jackson happened to be visiting the camp and put his body in the way. Cops on the scene got the word from on high that it wasn’t worth it to try and arrest him. With the tents came a new kind of territory: turf, even private property. The park’s sobriety, an agreed-upon principle, began to erode. The police reportedly started directing street people to the park, but refused to help when some got out of control. Junkies came and then the people who supply them. Some tents became shooting galleries. Rumors began to circulate – that there’d been a stabbing, that someone was running around with an AIDS-infected needle. A man who worked in the kitchen was arrested for sexual assault.

By late October, there were three levels of internal security. The kitchen closed at eight. The 24/7 library rolled up around midnight. Liberty Park was a city, and it had hours. Anyone can still join though. It’s another old protest slogan metamorphosed. “Whose streets?” would go the call. “Our streets,” came the reply. Now it’s personal. Whose city? Your city, there for the making. All you have to do is show up.

Reporters keep sniffing around for leaders, but while it’s true that the movement has spawned celebrities – like LaGreca, who lambasted a Fox News reporter in a YouTube clip that went viral – its resistance to organized leadership has proved enduring. Kalle Lasn watches in awe from his home in Vancouver. David Graeber left for Austin four days after the occupation started. Marina Sitrin stays active on the legal team dedicated to working with Occupy Wall Street’s arrestees (there have been almost 1,000 arrests in New York and more than 3,000 movement-wide, as of this writing), but she’s far enough removed from the action that LaGreca has never heard of her, just as the thousands who have joined the camp for a night have never heard of him. The evasion of organized leadership that for many began as a tactic – leaders are targets and weak links, subject to prosecution and co-option – has now grown into a principle.

Which leaves the biggest questions – what is Occupy trying to say, and who will be its voice? – with no conventional answers. The press finds this maddening. It “doesn’t really take you to a particular bumper-sticker action,” declared a puzzled Gerald Seib at The Wall Street Journal, unable to imagine any other worthwhile outcome. Even some within the movement have their doubts. “You don’t seriously believe this is a leaderless movement, do you?” Cecily McMillan, a 23-year-old graduate student at the New School, asked me one day. Not possible, she says, that’s an illusion crafted by the OWS secret elite, who she insists are unresponsive to the demand for a concrete agenda by the “actual 99 percent.”

McMillan is Northeast regional organizer for the youth section of the Democratic Socialists of America, which bills itself as the largest socialist organization in the United States. She’s been involved with the Occupy movement since August, despite sharp differences with most of the people in the park. “I believe in a constrained view of revolution,” she says, by which she means putting pressure on mainstream politicians. And for this, she says, she has suffered. “I have been called a terrorist. I have been called CIA, FBI. I have been called a Democrat!” Like Lasn, she wants regime change. Unlike most of the occupiers, she believes it requires the guidance of those, like her, possessed of what she calls “cultural capital.”

She’s a former cheerleader; she used to want to be a politician. She says her studies and her work – she’s also a nanny – prevent her from sleeping in the park. But she’s not afraid to put her body on the line. She was arrested after she charged Wall Street three times, a “direct action” that even some veteran anarchists – militant and masked – considered wildly courageous, if foolish. A cop thought so, too, blasted her with pepper spray, knocked her down, stepped on her head and snarled obscenities at her.

McMillan is a representative of the working group bluntly calling itself Demands that doesn’t have broad support. The question of demands – whether to make them, when to make them, and what to demand – is a peculiar one in that it’s at the heart of the national occupation debate, and yet mostly irrelevant to the occupiers at Wall Street. They simply want a better world, which, as far as they’re concerned, they’ve already started building.

McMillan sees herself as giving “a voice to the voiceless.” To do that, she says, the movement needs concrete demands. The demand at which the group arrived – “Jobs for All,” meaning a public-works program providing 25 million union-wage jobs – was not her first choice, but she was a servant of “the workers.”

While we were talking, a tall woman with olive skin and a black leather coat was giving me the evil eye. She was part of a little squad of four that became a nucleus around which more gathered, until they became about a dozen. That’s when they surrounded me, cutting me off from McMillan. They were, I learned, a “swarm,” and they were performing an “intervention.”

“We heard there’s a Rolling Stone interview about demands,” said a longhaired man in shorts and only wool socks on his feet, a leaf pinned to his sleeve. Talking about demands, he said, could lead to “co-optation of the movement,” since “demands are pretty much speaking for the whole group.”

“All we want is a voice,” McMillan said. Next to her, a woman tilted a shoulder away from McMillan and declared to me and the rest of the swarm, “I want to be clear. We can have a voice without having demands.” Marisa Holmes, the filmmaker who’d been there since the beginning, seemed egoless, yet confident.

From there, the conversation revolved around intricacies of process. What’s consensus? 90 percent? 80 percent? 75 percent? At issue were reports that McMillan had attempted to strong-arm decisions based on a simple majority vote. McMillan seemed frustrated by the accusation, but couldn’t deny it. Two months ago, she was a perfect organizing machine – disciplined, articulate, working-class roots with a grad-school veneer. But she was discovering she didn’t function as well on the new terrain of the occupation, where the traditional methods of the left no longer meant as much as they once had. She had no idea that providing “a voice for the voiceless” was not a service in demand in a movement built on the idea that everyone can speak for themselves. To her, the occupation was a symbol more than a community. When we walked by the camp later that night she seemed surprised: “They have tents now?”

Almost everyone you meet in the park will tell you some variation of one thing. They aren’t doing this for 2012, they don’t want to go to Washington, they don’t care what Congress or the New York Times or Bill Maher or Kanye West thinks of them. They aren’t trying to provide a voice for the voiceless. They’re doing it for themselves, and they speak for no one but themselves. They are the 99 percent; so am I, so are you. Make your own demands if you want to.

Late one night, I met a woman named Elisa Miller at the Occupy Library. A 38-year-old former landscape architect who took a bus up from New Orleans, Miller had been in the park since the beginning. She said she hadn’t really laughed since Katrina: “We’ve been occupying New Orleans for six fucking years.” But something had changed. She had long straight brown hair and the loose rubbery gestures of someone who’s exhausted and yet glad to be awake. “You come here with what you’ve been OCD’ing about,” she said. “First day, you’ve got a sign: ‘Tax the rich!’ And it’s, like, sure, that’s a good idea. But then you’re here for a couple of days, you work in the kitchen or in the library, you speak up when you want to, and you get to thinking, this is exactly what you need. You can march if you want to, but here?” She turned a circle, sweeping it all in, cops included. “This is where we’re rebooting history.”

So it seemed on my last day at Liberty Plaza, the Sunday following last month’s freak snowstorm. “What will happen in the winter?” has been a refrain almost as incessant as the drumming. The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. Nobody has “known” anything that would happen so far. Maybe they will endure; maybe they will retreat; maybe Mayor Bloomberg will, like the mayors of Oakland and Denver, attack with gas and horses. “Subzero sleeping bags” are a topic of constant conversation, three words murmured or proclaimed with defiance and shivers. The morning after the big snow, I expected to find the occupiers blue-lipped and worried. Right before the storm, the city had confiscated their generators, used for emergency heat, among other things, and the bicycle-powered batteries they’d been building for just such a contingency were not yet ready to pedal. The wet snow collapsed tents, and the wind blew away tarps and signs and extra clothing. Copies of the Occupied Wall Street Journal whipped up into the night and plastered sidewalks.

But as I made my way to the park the next morning, the camp was sparkling. The snow had melted, and tents were clean, books dry, jeans strung on clotheslines. The kitchen was serving up roast turkey for all comers. And they came from everywhere, occupiers and street people and tourists, drawn, like me, to what they’d thought would be a scene of disaster. Some of the tourists picked up signs. “I guess I am the 99 percent,” said an electrical engineer from New Jersey. An elegantly dressed white-haired woman leapt at a chance to work in the kitchen. Another woman brought a bag of helium-filled yellow balloons. The drummers, led by a dark-skinned man whose face was hidden by a green bandanna, sounded energized, as if the night’s cold had taught them all a new, less angry rhythm. That night, the General Assembly would be dedicated to a battle over demands; but that morning, the first of what might be a long and hard winter at Liberty, was a reprieve, a fantasy, a multitude, an imaginary city raising

About (They Got the Guns, but) We Got the Numbers

I'm an artist and student of history, living in Eugene, OR. On the upside of 70 and retired from a jack-of-all-trades "career," I walk, do yoga, and hang out with my teenage grandkids. I believe we can make this world better for them and the young and innocent everywhere, if we connect with each other and create peaceful, cooperative communities as independent of big corporations and corporate-dominated governments as possible.

Posted on November 17, 2011, in Anarchism, Change, Politics, The Occupy movement and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This is a terrific article, Maggie. So glad you found and posted it.

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