The battle for the soul of occupy
IN EARLY FEBRUARY, Marisa Holmes, a 25-year-old anarchist who had been one of the core organizers of Occupy Wall Street, was contacted by an assistant of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield — yes, that Ben and Jerry — looking to set up a conference call. Over the course of Occupy’s long winter hibernation, when friends and foes alike wondered if the movement, not even six months old, had already lost its way, Ben and Jerry decided OWS needed a professional fundraising arm. The pair calculated that it would be possible, with help from fellow liberal activists like former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg, to infuse nearly $2 million into the movement, in the form of grants to various Occupy projects around the country and a permanent headquarters for OWS in New York.
But Ben and Jerry heard that Holmes and other members of Occupy had been expressing concerns. Holmes grew up in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, in a liberal, upper-middle-class family not so different, sensibility-wise, from the world of the ice cream moguls. Her father is an attorney; when Holmes was 14, she helped work on his campaign for city council. But since then, she’d become far more radical than her parents. For a while, she lived in a communal house in Detroit; last May, enthralled by the Arab Spring, she decided to travel to Egypt by herself, mere months after the uprising in Tahrir Square, to shoot a documentary, though she didn’t speak a word of Arabic. In September, she bedded down in Zuccotti Park from the very first night of the Occupation, invited down by her friend David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist academic who has been credited with coming up with the slogan “We are the 99 percent.”
Holmes herself is tiny, sleepy-eyed and temperamentally uncompromising. The latter trait can be tedious, like when she facilitates Occupy meetings and has people go around the room and state their names and gender-pronoun preferences, but also awesome, like the time Russell Simmons stopped by Zuccotti Park and wanted to be bumped up on the speakers’ list and Holmes told him, “Are you crazy? You’re number 12. Get used to it!” The conference call, suffice it to say, did not go well. Ben and Jerry seemed confused by her objections. “They said, ‘What’s the problem? Don’t you want our money and support?’” Holmes recalls. Occupy had been founded on anarchist principles of “horizontalism” — leaderless directdemocracy, most poetically embodied in the People’s Microphone. “They didn’t get that it was a problem to create a hierarchical nonprofit institution and pick out leaders,” Holmes went on. “I was nice to them at first, but finally I said, ‘I know that’s how you’ve done things in the past, but that’s not how we’re doing it.’”
Holmes was especially wary of the offer because money had already proved so divisive within Occupy. The group had been flooded with donations in the wake of the police actions of the fall, but soon found itself consumed with squabbles over how to spend it. And petty bickering over things like subway MetroCards had highlighted not only tactical questions about what Occupy’s next move should be, but a more existential crisis. Having so suddenly and unexpectedly captured the world’s attention, now the question arose: What, exactly, would Occupy become?
For instance, many in Occupy had no problem with Ben and Jerry’s offer. One of their key allies became Shen Tong, a 43-year-old software entrepreneur who, as a campus radical in Beijing in the late Eighties, had been one of the student leaders of the Tiananmen Square uprising, part of the delegation that attempted to negotiate with the Chinese government. Later, when the tanks rolled in, he ran into the streets, begging soldiers not to fire. One of them blew a hole through the face of the woman next to him. Shen barely managed to escape to Boston, where he would study philosophy and sociology at Harvard.
Now he lives in Soho, not terribly far from Zuccotti Park, with his wife and three young children. In person, he’s weirdly ageless, with smooth skin, jet-black hair and an easy smile. Sipping an espresso at a cafe near his apartment, he looks around and says, “If we were having this conversation in Beijing, there would be security sitting at that table. We’d be followed everywhere we go.”
Shen observed Occupy from a distance at first. After a few weeks, impressed that the movement had stuck to a clear, simple message and was attracting an unusually broad group of supporters, he went down to check it out with his kids. His second day there, he found himself thinking, “This is it” — something he’d never thought possible, a second Tiananmen moment. He stepped down as president of his software company to dedicate all of his time to Occupy, focusing on his particular skill set, infrastructure and resources, “the sort of really boring projects you need a global CEO to work on.” Shen had no problem partnering with one-percenters like Ben and Jerry; as a student of global protest, he strongly believes Occupy requires more structure to carry on the fight.
“We wouldn’t be here without anarchists,” he says. “Purist idealists are very important in any transformative social movement. I was one! I understand it — they open the floodgates. But my job is different. It’s about trying to create a mass movement. Or, at the very least, having mass outreach to the 99 percent.”
But Occupy is already a mass movement, Marisa Holmes will tell you, angrily. She thinks Occupy just needs to keep doing what Occupy has been doing. “We don’t ask permission,” she says. “We don’t make demands.”
When Ben and Jerry unveiled their Movement Resource Group at a panel discussion at a church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Holmes attended. During the event, she stood up, her voice shaking, and said she assumed everyone present had the best of intentions, but that the MRG, with its top-down structure, was “exactly the kind of organization OWS is not and has never been about.” She went on, “I can’t get rid of this sinking feeling in my stomach that this will destroy the very foundation of the movement I tried to build. What do you hope to achieve with this?”
After a long, awkward pause, Ben Cohen leaned into his microphone and said, “I guess what we hope to achieve is to help the movement grow and thrive.”
Which, of course, was the entire problem: whose movement, exactly, and what would its future look like?
EVERYTHING WENT DOWN SO fast it’s easy to forget how the spread of Occupy was, itself, a minor miracle. It was planned and executed by a small group of self-identified anarchists, many of them veterans of the anti-globalization movement of the late Nineties who hoped to disrupt, and eventually upend, capitalist dominance over all aspects of society, and who now suddenly found themselves with a worldwide audience. These were people like David Graeber and the publishers of the satirical anti-corporate magazine Ad-busters, neo-Situationist pranksters who made the initial call for occupation and coined the phrase Occupy Wall Street. “For years, we’ve been saying we have to jump over the dead body of the old left,” says Adbusters co-founder Kalle Lasn. “So I wasn’t surprised when things blew up in New York. But when it started spreading, and culminated in over a thousand occupations, yes, that did take me by surprise. After 20 years of talking about another 1968, I’d been feeling a bit despondent.”
The tents went up at a moment of wholesale institutional malaise, three years into a grinding recession, when it was becoming apparent to millions of Americans that even the minimal sops doled out to the middle class and its aspirants — school, home, pension, the occasional vacation or doctor’s visit — required indentureship to a financial system whose primary function was to serve as the house bank for the oligarchy’s private casino. Graeber, whose book Debt: The First 5000 Years has become a foundational text for Occupy, likes to say that if Aristotle could be ferried via time machine to the present day, he’d consider the difference between indebted Americans renting themselves out to their employers and indebted men of his own age selling themselves into slavery nothing but a legal technicality.
Occupy made no promises. It wasn’t trying to sell you anything — not hope, not change, not toothless reform. It was simply an elegant gesture of refusal, a way of saying to the system that screwed us all, “I prefer not to.” The cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff, whose upcoming book Present Shock deals in part with the Occupy movement, says, “For the past three or four hundred years, if you wanted to get the lords in power to agree to something, you had to create these big groups to march on the castle and demand change.” Rushkoff sees Occupy as less about goal-oriented, means-to-an-end political activism — what he calls the “mythologically constructed Eyes on the Prize” political movements of the 20th century — and more about enlightenment, a realization that “oh, wait, the feudal lord doesn’t genuinely have any right to say what happens to the peasant, and the agreement to grow food for the lord is just that, an agreement.”
Various antecedents have been cited, from the Arab Spring to the occupation of the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. But as Zoe Sigman, a young member of Occupy Chicago, points out, the true founding father of Occupy, in an anti-hero sort of way, might be President Obama. In 2008, while still an undergraduate, Sigman campaigned for Obama in Iowa, but like many progressives, became disillusioned as “Change We Can Believe In” morphed into “Realpolitik We Can Grudgingly Accept.” “For kids raised during the Bush regime, seeing our country go to war and our parents lose their jobs and their houses, we all got so excited about this potential for hope,” Sigman says. “The problem with hope is that it’s a promise, not an action. And if you don’t deliver…” She trails off, then says, “Hope is a dangerous weapon. I don’t put my hope in politicians now. I put my hope in people.”
After Mayor Bloomberg ordered the razing of the Zuccotti Park encampment in November, Occupy’s initial burst of energy dissipated. Most of the activists continued doing what they’d done while the world was watching — talk — but now, few paid attention. Robbed of its symbolic hub, OWS struggled to maintain focus. People grew frustrated with the endless general assembly meetings, in which anyone who showed up had an equal right to speak and consensus decision-making became an impractical and dispiriting slog. At Occupy Portland, I met a professional stand-up comedian named Arlo Stone. He had sharp, daggerlike sideburns and was raising his children as anarcho-primitiv-ists: largely off the grid, home-schooled, no vaccines. When I asked him if he’d written any Occupy jokes, he said, “Oh, sure. ‘How many Occupiers does it take to change a light bulb? I don’t know — we’re still looking for consensus on if the room is dark, but we’re putting together a light-bulb-changing working group and we anticipate a detailed press release sometime over the next week.’”
As one of the mildest winters in recent memory wafted on, Occupy, incredibly, seemed to fade away. Some of the sympathetic observers who’d watched in awe as the activists so sawily reclaimed the terms of debate felt betrayed by the movement’s apparent lack of staying power. It wasn’t fair, of course, to demand instant, structural fortitude of what was, by definition, a leaderless and vaguely defined uprising. Still, the infighting and an absence of discipline emerging from OWS felt symptomatic, to some, of the left’s perennial ability to internally debate itself out of seemingly unsquanderable opportunities.
“That’s what I’m most afraid of, that this fucking old loony left will reassert itself and destroy us,” says Lasn, who just turned 70, and who speaks with an Estonian accent that has the gleefully miserable quality of a Werner Herzog voice-over. “For all of their wrongheaded ideas, the Tea Party had a certain ability to get things done,” he continues. “Whereas the left is always in danger of talking itself into the ground. Anyone who’s ever been to a lefty meeting knows you go there full of hope, then after three hours of everyone having their moment in the sun, you walk out feeling more hopeless than ever.”
IN MANY WAYS, OCCUPY HAD BE-come a victim of its own unbelievable success. Lasn, an apostate from the marketing world, proved genius at branding, but failed to consider the difficulty of managing expectations. For Occupy activists, coming up with an Act Two that could somehow rival its initial novelty and raw excitement seems, in hindsight, as doomed an undertaking as recording a second Strokes album.
Some within the movement felt that in order to recapture the world’s attention, another marquee event would be necessary. And so for months now, whenever people asked what happened to Occupy, the thing you’d hear most often was, “Just wait until May Day.” Celebrated around the world as International Workers’ Day, May 1st struck many as the perfect opportunity for OWS to emerge from hibernation and launch a spring offensive, in the form of a nationwide general strike.
In New York, thousands packed into downtown’s Union Square, where artists like Tom Morello and Das Racist were staging a free concert. Haywood Carey, a 29-year-old from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who slept in Zuccotti Park for most of the fall, made his way through the crowd. A refugee from the establishment left, Carey has worked as a union organizer and is a former Democratic Party staffer. He has a teamster’s stocky build, and what’s left of his hair — a trim beard — is a vivid shade of red. After the messy fight over President Obama’s health care bill resulted in a compromised victory with no single-payer option, Carey quit, and spent the next six months in a deep funk, basically sitting on his couch in Chapel Hill and thinking, in his words, “What did I just give the last 10 years of my life and all of the hair on my head for?”
Then Occupy happened. “And,” Carey says, “I went, ‘Oh! That’s it.’” He’d recently broken up with his girlfriend, and so he gave up his apartment, sold his car and hitched a ride to New York. He arrived at Zuccotti Park at seven in the morning, a few weeks in. It felt kind of dead compared to what he’d imagined, because most people were asleep. Then the kitchen opened, and he had some breakfast. Then he went to an information table and asked a couple of basic questions. The woman behind the table said, “I have no idea. This is my first day. Would you like to help?” So he moved behind the table. “That’s kind of what Occupy is all about,” he says.
Because of his labor background, Carey, who is named after Big Bill Haywood, the union hero and a founder of the Wobblies, had joined the May 1st planning coalition, but eventually felt like he had to step away, unhappy with the direction it was taking. A general strike means, by definition, most workers stay home, and the audacity of Occupy calling for one, with minimal union outreach — it’s illegal for union employees to even participate in a general strike — rubbed many the wrong way. It also seemed like a recipe for May 1st to be declared a failure if most people went to work (which is what ended up happening). Occupy eventually tried to dial back its messaging, somewhat lamely claiming that they hoped to “redefine” what a general strike could be — which is sort of like spending a Saturday night at home alone masturbating to Internet porn and then insisting you were actually redefining what an orgy could be.
More significantly, the general strike pointed to continued tensions with the organized left. Many of the anarchists in Occupy had a fundamental problem with what they called the “undemocratic” structure of unions and had no issue with offending such a stalwart Democratic ally. Earlier port shutdowns led by Occupy Oakland had already exposed these fault lines, enraging some West Coast union leaders. One high-ranking labor official, who wished to remain anonymous, told me, “These are people who get impatient and frustrated because they don’t want to talk to elected leaders. Then they issue these declarations like some fat fuck in Iran issues a fatwa. The general strike was a joke. I mean, who gives a shit?”
Though he’d stepped away from the planning, Carey was in high spirits at the rally. He was living nearby now; post-Zuc-cotti, a wealthy supporter of Occupy had been letting him and his newly reconciled girlfriend (who’d wound up moving into his tent during the Occupation) live in her spacious wine cellar. (“It’s bizarre,” he says. “I went from Wall Street to the West Village. Now all I see is rich people.”) Soon, a jubilant crowd estimated at 30,000 would march into the heart of Wall Street, ending triumphantly with a general assembly in a riverside park not far from the New York Stock Exchange. “You guys might as well max out your credit cards,” a friend of Carey’s joked. “Capitalism is falling in a couple of hours!”
Further downtown, just a few hours earlier, a more radical group of Occupy activists had gathered in a cement park on the Lower East Side. Years ago, this had been a rough neighborhood; now, the park was flanked by a Whole Foods and an art-house movie theater. To those on the more uncompromising edge of Occupy, the very notion of a “permitted” march was anathema to the anarchic spirit of the movement, which was all about reclaiming public space and exercising radical freedom. And so, to that end, this Occupy splinter group had decided to stage its own illegal “black bloc” march.
Black bloc was proving to be another fissure within Occupy. It is a militant tactic in which masked, black-clad protesters are willing to engage in illegal, sometimes violent, acts (such as the window-smashing that went on during the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle) in the name of revolution. So far, they’d mostly appeared in Oakland, where the general assembly has refused to pledge itself to nonviolence. Because Occupy groups around the country have issued statements of solidarity with Oakland — and continue to defend black bloc, using the euphemistic term “diversity of tactics” — some more-seasoned activists are troubled.
On the Lower East Side, a predictable face-off was taking place. Lining the street in front of the park, an intimidating wall of NYPD officers stood in military formation. On the steps of the park, directly opposing the officers, stood about 200 Occupiers, nearly all of them dressed entirely in black, their faces covered to the eyes with black bandannas. Several held a banner that read, inexplicably, THE STATE KILLS FAGGOTS: CASTRATE THE STATE. Others unfurled an even larger banner reading FUCK THE POLICE, positioning themselves so they directly faced the officers.
This could not end well. And yet it almost sort of did. The moment the protesters stepped onto the sidewalk, the cops moved in, snatching and arresting a couple of would-be marchers and their banners as the rest of the crowd immediately fell back. Chaos momentarily ensued. And then, almost surely by design, the bulk of the wildcat march began sprinting en masse in the opposite direction, deeper into the park, eventually spilling into the narrow streets of the Lower East Side. It was an impressively wily move, and the police were clearly not ready to give chase. The mob brought any traffic to a halt as they moved the wrong way along one-way streets, tipping over garbage cans, dragging police barricades in front of cars and pounding on the sides of stalled trucks.
In Chinatown, the Chinese pedestrians — many of whom likely had firsthand experience with the potential societal downsides of actual revolution — seemed variously frightened and unimpressed. At one point, a pudgy black bloc kid, spotting a photojournalist, turned around and clocked him in the side of the head. “No pictures!” he snarled, before running off.
A second black-bloc protester stopped to see if the photographer was hurt and began to apologize. “What the fuck is wrong with you people?” the photographer shouted. There were reports of several other attacks on people taking pictures.
Meanwhile, the black bloc, now slowed to a brisk march, neared the upscale Soho shopping district, where they would disperse after a couple of their number were arrested. The loathsome kid who’d hit the photographer started up a chant.
Kill all the cops Burn all the prisons C-O-M-M Comm-u-nism!
It was strange how far his voice carried, and the way everyone else seemed to fall silent. For a moment, it looked as if he was going to be alone on this one. Then all of the people marching alongside him erupted in laughter and cheers.
BEYOND THE JUVENILE thrill of public misbehavior and fucking with authorities, one would still be hard-pressed to discern any tactical upside to the wildcat march. If Occupy has any interest in winning over hearts and minds, in fact, the march was actively counterproductive. On a practical level, such incidents also make it easier for the police to justify their own outrageous actions.
In the fall, a coordinated nationwide clampdown resulted in the clearing of every major Occupy camp in a matter of weeks. Over 700 OWS activists were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge; tear gas was used on protesters in Oakland and Seattle. The NYPD, in particular, has taken to treating protesters like suspected terrorists, conducting surveillance on prominent Occupiers. The morning before the general strike, police raided the homes of several New York-area anarchists who’d participated in past Occupy actions, under the flimsiest of pretexts — in one case, an open-container violation that was several years old. There’s also been legal harassment: Occupy protesters at the University of California-Davis whose blockade led to the closing of a U.S. Bank branch could, outrageously, be ordered to pay over $1 million in damages to the bank, while New York’s district attorney has been granted the power to subpoena the Twitter feeds of activists.
“If our momentum has faltered, it’s important to say why: an insane and illegal crackdown on people exercising their First Amendment rights,” says Astra Taylor, a documentary filmmaker who edits the free broadsheet Occupy! Gazette. “So has Occupy ‘lost’ momentum, which implies Occupy dropped the ball all on its own, or has it hit the big ugly wall of state repression?”
The end result — certainly no accident — was that a widely popular protest movement no longer focused on the venality of Wall Street, a point most of us could agree upon. Instead, Occupy would become, in many respects, a protest about its own right to protest — valid, of course, but also a muddying of the message, and one with a less broadly populist appeal.
One of the most vivid examples of the police crackdown took place on the six-month anniversary of Occupy, which happened to fall on an unseasonably warm Saturday in March. It was also St. Patrick’s Day, and Zuccotti Park might have been the only public place in Manhattan in which there was no danger of stepping in a puddle of green vomit or being serenaded with a version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” About 700 people had gathered in the park to celebrate, and by evening, a festive, decidedly mellow air had fallen over the place. It was a clear night, and staring up at the imposing skyscrapers surrounding the park, it was easy to understand why making a stand right here, deep inside enemy territory, must have felt so heroic, like a ragtag guerrilla army billeted at the gates of Mordor.
The fact that a phalanx of police officers were assembled just outside the park lent the party an extra frisson. It was telling that, on a holiday dedicated to public drunkenness, the NYPD saw fit to dedicate a significant number of its officers to surrounding a bunch of sober, law-abiding citizens hanging out in a public space.
Shane Patrick, a 32-year-old member of the OWS press team, made his way through the crowd. Patrick grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, first-generation Irish-American. After working for years in the music industry, Patrick went back to school in 2008; two months later, the economy collapsed, leaving him saddled with a student loan, and though he’s now a prime organizer at Occupy, he’s still looking for a day job. There are times when he’ll be in the middle of submitting resumes for entry-level receptionist positions and then will have to stop to do a phone interview with the BBC.
Tonight, Patrick ran into a group of friends and they began debating whether or not they should stay all night. A sleepy-looking girl with a nose ring said, hopefully, “If being the most radical means being the most tactical, maybe our best tactic will be to get to bed early tonight so we can be more alert tomorrow?”
“That’s actually a quote from page 11 of Che Guevera’s Guerrilla Warfare,” Patrick noted dryly.
The cops moved in at midnight. It was an intimidating show of force, a solid wall of about a hundred officers. Over a megaphone, one of them ordered, “Leave the park now or you will be arrested.” The vast majority of the Occupiers complied, aside from a core surrounding a tarp who’d decided to force a standoff. I was still in the park when I saw an officer leading away a young female protester in handcuffs. Suddenly, she reared back and elbowed the cop in the face. She managed to run forward a few feet before the officer tackled her to the ground. The hand of another officer roughly shoved me out of the way as a half dozen cops rushed to the scene and piled on.
As people spilled out of the park, the police funneled everyone down a narrow sidewalk. Someone tripped, and the cops surged forward. I saw one officer violently shove a bearded protester in the chest, like a playground bully. In all, 73 people were arrested, many taken away in commandeered city buses. The following Monday, Bloomberg told reporters, “You want to get arrested? We’ll accommodate you.”
AROUND THE COUNTRY, LOCAL Occupy groups have wrestled with similar problems. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel cracked down mercilessly on an attempted early encampment, which has had the effect of forcing Occupy Chicago to focus more on neighborhood-level direct actions — fighting school closings in poor neighborhoods and tuition hikes at DePaul University. Portland, meanwhile, held down the largest Occupy camp in the country before it was cleared in November, an estimated 500 campers. As one member of Occupy Portland told me, “We just had such a huge base of people ready to be outside — drifter kids, homeless people.”
At the end of February, Occupy Portland called for a nationwide day of direct actions targeting the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. It was a worthy, and sophisticated, goal: Prior to the work of groups like Occupy Portland, ALEC had comfortably operated behind the scenes, lobbying for pro-business, but also explicitly right-wing, legislation on behalf of a corporate membership that included Walmart, ExxonMobil and Bank of America, backing everything from Arizona’s xenophobic anti-immigration statutes to legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act.
Portland embodied, to me, another of the major hurdles facing Occupy. Like an indie-rock band suddenly catapulted to international superstardom, Occupy was now part of the mainstream, but not necessarily of it. Despite the fact that their movement had become a worldwide sensation, and received visiting dignitaries like Kanye West and Alec Baldwin, many of the core organizers were committed anarchists.
A meeting to plan the Portland march took place at a communal activist house on the outskirts of town, BORED? read a sign on the wall with some envelopes pinned beside it. WRITE TO A POLITICAL PRISONER. One of the housemates was a petite, extroverted redhead in her twenties named Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky. Except for the anarchy symbol pinned to her fleece, she might have stepped out of an REI catalogue. When I arrived, Zimmer-Stucky was showing around her mother, Jacqueline, who was visiting from the Bay Area and planned to participate in the march. “This is your protest pack for tomorrow, Mom,” she said, unzipping a backpack. “OK, we’ve got vegan gluten-free bars, a whistle, pen and paper, gauze, a 50-50 mix of Maalox and water — you pour this into your eyes if you get pepper-sprayed. Alcohol swabs for tear gas. You want to get another strong scent in your nose. In Palestine, we used onions.”
As always, I was impressed by the intelligence and dedication of most of the Occupy activists I met, from the skinny young anarchist spinning out various “Malthu-sian doom scenarios” of environmental catastrophe to David Osborn, a professor at Portland State University, who tells me, “A whole generation has now been primed for social action. Will it happen this spring? I hope so. But it could be a year from now.” To be sure, there are also darker, more conspiracy-minded characters. One night at a bar, another Occupy Portland planner — a woman in her late twenties — starts telling me how 9/11 was an inside job, that there were no bankers or members of the one percent in the towers when they collapsed. When I tell her that’s crazy and point out that I’ve heard similar things from fanatical Muslims, only instead of “one-percenters” they say “Jews,” the girl says, “That’s probably true too — I wouldn’t be surprised. And I’m Jewish.”
The march takes place on a cold, rainy day, but still ends up drawing an impressive turnout, nearly 700 people. It’s incredibly well-organized, with multiple stops in front of ALEC-affiliated storefronts and office buildings in downtown Portland, many involving elaborate street theater. Aside from some puerile baiting of the police — when mounted officers ride alongside the crowd, a chant of “Get those animals off those horses!” erupts — the tension between the protesters and the motorcycle cops blocking the march from turning down various streets is minimal.
The next day, though, the protest barely received any coverage outside of Portland, and I wondered if the whole exercise had been just another affirmational liberal circle jerk. But by April, pressure on ALEC had continued to build, exacerbated by the revelation that the group promoted the “Stand Your Ground” laws that had come under fire in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. After major corporate members such as Coca-Cola withdrew their support — costing the group hundreds of thousands of dollars — ALEC caved, announcing it would disband its committee for social legislation. The next week, one liberal group announced it was pressing the advantage and challenging ALEC’s tax-exempt IRS status, while The Washington Post noted that “like the Koch Brothers… [ALEC] has gone from a little-known acronym to a political fireball.”
SUCH A CLEAR-CUT VICTORY provides one obvious way forward for Occupy: continued direct actions targeting corporate malfeasance, working in conjunction with existing activist groups. Indeed, around the country, Occupy groups have been staging actions at corporate shareholders’ meetings, reclaiming foreclosed homes from banks and organizing on college campuses in opposition to onerous student loans. Carne Ross was drawn to Zuccotti Park around the same time as Haywood Carey, though in many ways their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. A dapper 45-year-old Brit who could pass for a Wall Street banker, Ross is a former diplomat who famously resigned his post in protest of the ramp-up to the Iraq War. Since then, he’s converted to anarchism and runs a New York nonprofit, working as a sort of diplomatic consultant out of a swank loft space. Ross never spent the night in the park; he has a wife and kids, and admits to initially being “quite put off by the aesthetics of it. ‘Occupy’ wasn’t a word that really sang to me.”
But Ross, too, soon found himself enchanted by the possibility of the movement. A trained economist, he decided to start an Alternative Banking working group, with the ambitious plan of setting up an Occupy Bank — built on a cooperative, credit-union model, but operating nationwide. “There’s a big Hyde Street retailer in Britain with huge profits, all shared amongst its workers,” Ross notes. “Everyone gets eight weeks holiday a year, wonderful pension plans. But culturally, we’ve been told there’s only one model of a company, which is purely profit-driven, where the workers get paid the least possible. In fact, that’s not the best model for a sustainable economy, and there’s some evidence that shows if you treat your workers better and pay them more, particularly if you give them a stake, then they will perform better. It’s kind of obvious.”
What’s also obvious is that this phase of Occupy, with talk of credit unions and occupying the SEC, while eminently worthy, is also kind of boring, especially when compared to the thrill of Occupy’s park phase. Some, though, are ready to move on. “It’s easy to go back to the park occupation and fetishize it, in a way,” says Occupy Chicago’s Brian Bean. “I prefer not to run a mini-society — I want to run society.”
To that end, only two days after the May Day march, an Occupy contingent met at a UAW space in Manhattan’s Garment District to discuss a week of direct actions, each day targeting a different theme. It was a bit of a hodgepodge of causes — mass incarceration, immigrant justice, food security, the environment — and I couldn’t help wondering if someone would come up with a Wall Street-related reason for Freeing Mumia. (An activist friend involved in the Iraq War protests once told me the decline of the movement could be traced alongside the number of words they were forced to add to their posters.)
Once the meeting broke off into smaller groups, some familiar tensions arose. In the group I joined, one guy was dressed like such a cartoonish protester (tie-dyed peace-symbol necklace, filthy bare feet), I assumed he was a police infiltrator. But everyone seemed to know him. He kept jumping ahead of other speakers and making irritating objections, to the exasperation of everyone else present. By the end of the 30-minute meeting, ideas have been tossed around, but the main thing that’s been agreed upon has been a need to hold another meeting.
Also present at the working group, though, was Lucas Vazquez, who, in the best-case scenario, will be the real future of Occupy. Vazquez is such a freakishly poised and well-spoken 18-year-old he could be a character from a Wes Anderson movie. He began commuting to Occupy from his home in Huntington, Long Island, even convincing his parents, Argentinian immigrants who’d been radicalized during their home country’s brutal dictatorship, to allow him to sleep in the park every other night for a few weeks. “I told them, ‘It’s for the revolution!’” he says.
Vazquez has been inspired by the workers’ collectives that formed in Argentina after the economy collapsed — forming neighborhood assemblies, turning factories into worker-run cooperatives, even creating their own currency. He believes similar models could be put in place here. “The encampment was important in redefining public space, but now I’m worried about where the movement is headed,” Vazquez says. “Occupy started as a symbolic action, but there’s a point where symbolism has to give way to the real. We need to start building alternate institutions and saying, We’re going to replace you, capital. And we have our own structure in place.’”
Marisa Holmes is here, too, hoping to act as a sort of — well, whatever the opposite of a moderating influence would be. The week of actions being discussed tonight has raised concerns, as a number of the organizers present come from more traditional left groups, which Holmes thinks possess an “authoritarian impulse.” We sit down in the break room, next to a water cooler, and she looks around and smiles, like she’s in the belly of the beast. “A lot of the people here were dismissive of this movement to begin with,” she says, lowering her voice. “They came to our early meetings but left because they couldn’t control it. Now these same people want to get on the bandwagon.
“Occupy has become a brand now,” she continues. “I used to think that was a good thing that it could spread like a meme.” She smiles again, but in a more melancholy way. “Now it worries me. Because corporate groups with more resources can take that meme and push it more easily than we can.”
Shen Tong, for his part, continues to work with the Movement Resource Group. He’s also started his own Occupy group, 99% Solidarity, which is busing activists to Chicago in conjunction with a week of protest surrounding the NATO summit. 99% Solidarity has also issued a list of demands and has called for all of Occupy to make a pledge of nonviolence.
“The problem is not anarchists at all,” Shen says. “You need them to keep society honest. It’s dogmatic radicals overcompen-sating for their new, but not terribly deep, understanding of things like anarchism. Struggling with hierarchy, that’s a very correct critique. Structure, on the other hand, is necessary. Chomsky — a good anarchist! — will even tell you that a movement needs representation on some scale. Do the math! It’s not possible without it.
“What real revolutionary change needs to do is build a big tent,” Shen, ever the diplomat, continues. “People worry about co-opting, but I want everyone to co-opt this. Occupy is an idea. People say, “This is Occupy,’ ‘No, no, no, this is Occupy,’ and that’s a good thing. You know, the word ‘conspiracy’ comes from the Latin. It means ‘to breathe together.’ Let’s breathe the same air.”
One thing everyone agrees on is that patience is key. “Look at the civil rights movement — they got the shit kicked out of them for years,” says a 26-year-old Occupier from New Jersey named Yotam Moram. “This could all be nothing. But it could also be the beginning of a popular social movement, and if that’s the case, these six months are a blip on the map. This will take a long time. Possibly a lifetime.”
“WHAT I’M MOST AFRAID OF IS THAT THE OLD LOONY LEFT WILL REASSERT ITSELF,” SAYS KALLE LASN, ONE OF OCCUPY’S FOUNDERS, “AND DESTROY US.”
“THE PROBLEM IS NOT ANARCHISTS,” SAYS ONE ACTIVIST. “IT’S DOGMATIC RADICALS. REAL REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE NEEDS TO BUILD A BIG TENT.”
A peaceful occupier in New York
WHOSE OCCUPY? Marisa Holmes (left) says Occupy should continue as is, while Shen Tong says to become a mass movement, it must focus and make demands.
STREET WAR Occupy Oakland has refused to renounce violence and openly clashed with the police.
The black-bloc faction of Occupy embraces aggressive tactics.
Tens of thousands took to the streets of Manhattan for the May Day march.
BLACK BLOC The militant anarchists of Occupy trouble many veteran activists.
By MARK BINELLI