How it came about, what it means, how it works and everything
QUESTION: I hear that Adbusters organized Occupy Wall Street? Or Anonymous? Or US Day of Rage? Just who put this together anyway?
All of the above, and more. Adbusters made the initial call in mid-July, and also produced a sexy poster with a ballerina posed atop the Charging Bull statue and riot police in the background. US Day of Rage, the mainly internet-based creation of IT strategist Alexa O’Brien, got involved too and did a lot of the early legwork and tweeting. Anonymous—in its various and multiform visages—joined in late August. In New York most of the planning was done by people involved in the NYC General Assembly, a collection of activists, artists and students first convened by folks who had been involved in New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts. But no one person or group is running the Wall Street occupation.
So nobody is in charge? How do decisions get made?
The General Assembly has become the de facto decision-making body for the occupation at Liberty Plaza, just a few blocks north of Wall Street. Get ready for jargon: the General Assembly is a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought, and it’s akin to the assemblies that have been driving recent social movements around the world in places like Argentina, Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and so on. Working toward consensus is really hard, frustrating and slow. But the occupiers are taking their time. When they finally get to consensus on some issue, often after days and days of trying, the feeling is quite incredible. A mighty cheer fills the plaza. It’s hard to describe the experience of being among hundreds of passionate, rebellious, creative people who are all in agreement about something.
What are the demands of the protesters?
Ugh‚ the zillion-dollar question. Again, the original Adbusters call asked, “What is our one demand?” Technically, there isn’t one yet. In the weeks leading up to Sept. 17, the NYC General Assembly seemed to be veering away from the language of “demands” in the first place, largely because government institutions are already so shot through with corporate money that making specific demands would be pointless until the movement grew stronger politically. Instead, to begin with, they opted to make their demand the occupation itself—and the direct democracy taking place there—which in turn may or may not come up with some specific demand. When you think about it, this act is actually a pretty powerful statement against the corruption that Wall Street has come to represent. But since thinking is often too much to ask of the American mass media, the question of demands has turned into a massive PR challenge. The General Assembly is currently in the midst of determining how it will come to consensus about unifying demands. It’s a really messy and interesting discussion. But don’t hold your breath.
How many people have responded to the Adbusters call? How large is the group? And how large has it ever been?
The original Adbusters call envisioned 20,000 people flooding the Financial District on Sept. 17. A tenth of that probably ended up being there that day. Despite a massive Anonymous-powered online social media blitz, lots of people simply didn’t know about it, and traditional progressive organizations like labor unions and peace groups were uncomfortable signing on to so amorphous an action. Over the course of a difficult first week, with arrests happening just about every day, new faces kept coming as others filtered out to take a break. The media coverage after the mass arrests On Saturday, Sept. 24 and alleged police brutality has brought out many more. Now, during the day and into the night, one finds 500 or more people in the plaza, and maybe half that sleeping over. At any given time, several thousand people around the world are watching the occupation’s 24/7 livestream online.
What would a “win” look like for the occupation?
Again, that depends on whom you ask. As Sept. 17 approached, the NYC General Assembly really saw its goal, again, not so much as to pass some piece of legislation or start a revolution as to build a new kind of movement. It wanted to foment similar assemblies around the city and around the world, which would be a new basis for political organizing in this country, against the overwhelming influence of corporate money. That is starting to happen, as similar occupations are cropping up in dozens of other cities. I’ve heard some people saying, when Liberty Plaza was swamped with TV news cameras, “We’ve already won!” Others think they’ve hardly begun. Both, in some sense, are true.
Are there cops all over the square? How bad has the police brutality been?
The police presence is nonstop, and there have been some very scary encounters with them—which also gave occasion for tremendous acts of courage by protesters. The worst incident was last Saturday, of course, but there has been very little trouble since then. A large contingent of protesters has no intention of getting arrested, and almost nobody is interested in taking pointless risks or instigating violence against people or property. The more that ordinary people join the cause—together with celebrity visitors like Susan Sarandon, Cornel West and Michael Moore—the less likely the police will probably be to try to suppress it. As one sign along Broadway says, “Safety in Numbers! Join Us!”
If I can’t come to Wall Street, what else can I do?
A lot of people are already taking part in important ways from afar—this is the magic of decentralization. Online, you can watch the livestream, make donations, retweet on Twitter and encourage your friends to get interested. People with relevant skills have been volunteering to help maintain the movement’s websites and edit video—coordinating through IRC chat rooms and other social media. Soon, the formal discussions about demands will be happening online as well as in the plaza. Offline, you can join the numerous similar occupations that are starting up around the country or start your own. Check occupytogether.org. Finally, you can always take the advice that has become one of the several mantras of the movement, expressed this way by one woman at Tuesday night’s General Assembly meeting: “Occupy your own heart,” she said, “not with fear but with love.”
A version of this article was originally published on thenation.com