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Reawakening The Radical Imagination: The Origins Of Occupy Wall Street

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Three months ago, a loosely organized group of activists concerned about growing income inequality, corporate greed and the global influence of powerful financial institutions decided to make Lower Manhattan its home, setting in motion a movement known as Occupy Wall Street.

Since then, tens of thousands of people who share Occupy Wall Street's concerns have taken to the streets throughout the United States and around the globe, shifting the national discourse away from the federal deficit and toward financial woes of a more personal nature, like student debt.

Now Occupy Wall Street is much larger than its initial small group of organizers. President Barack Obama and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have given it a nod. Many among its now-broad base of supporters hold conventional political views. Some 64 percent call themselves Democrats, according to a recent AP-GfK poll.

The movement didn't get that big simply because AdBusters, a Canadian magazine, sent out a flashy email promoting it, or because the hacker collective Anonymous flicked out a few tweets. Instead, it took a group of about 200 committed activists 47 days to outline the ground rules that have allowed the protest to flourish.

Older organizers were protest veterans, members of far-left parties, anarchists or unaffiliated supporters of the anti-globalization movement who have spent the decade since 9/11 marching against banks and both Democrats and Republicans. Many of them can tick off battle scars and arrest records from a long list of protests: the WTO in Seattle in 1999; the G-7 in Washington in 2002; the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004. Often, their efforts passed by with little media attention.

None of them had any idea what would happen on day one of Occupy Wall Street -- or how the rest of the country and the world would react. But after lifetimes spent in the political wilderness, they tapped into the anti-Wall Street zeitgeist in a way they never imagined.

"I was worried about whether it would come off. I'm shocked the way it's touched the mass U.S. population," says Jackie DiSalvo, a semi-retired college professor active in radical politics since the 1970s who attended early Occupy meetings. "It just goes to show you how the media and the political parties distort the positions of the American people. You would have thought the American people only cared about deficits."


Before its world debut in Zuccotti Park, the New York City General Assembly -- the official name of the decision-making group for the much larger and looser Occupy Wall Street movement in New York -- went to work on the nitty-gritty planning for an occupation.

Occupy Wall Street's organizers took their cue from months of protests in the Arab world, Europe and New York City. In Europe over the summer, hundreds of thousands marched against cuts intended to stem the Eurozone crisis. A Spanish contingent camped out in Madrid's Puerta del Sol, purposefully adopting the tactics Egyptian revolutionaries employed to such success in February.

What all three of those occupations have in common, says Luis Moreno-Cabullud, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania who took part in the Spanish demonstrations before returning to New York to plan, is "being inclusive, setting aside strong ideological identities that could divide and also, of course, the idea of taking the square to try and do a replica of the society you would like to see."

That "replica" is about a lot more than tents: it's about struggling towards a world without injustice. Before Occupy Wall Street came along, the struggle in the United States took the shape of a small protest organized by a loose coalition called New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts.

Starting in mid-June, a group of mostly young, mostly leftist activists took to the sidewalk near City Hall to protest financial austerity. They dubbed their city Bloombergville, in honor of the mayor's plan to lay off 4,000 public school teachers and close 20 fire companies. The Green Party, the International Socialist Organization and the South Bronx Community Congress were among its endorsers. AFSCME DC 37, the city's largest municipal union, dropped off food but kept some distance from the group's more radical elements.

Bloombergville had sleeping bags, a library, teach-ins and a nightly assembly open to all. All of those elements would be familiar to anyone who's ever strolled through Zuccotti Park. But some participants felt it fell short in other areas.

"There is a straight line from Bloombergville to Occupy Wall Street," says Justin Wedes, a 25-year-old part-time teacher who took part in Bloombergville. "It's a straight line, but it's also full of a lot of lessons learned."

For one, Wedes believes, the campers played by the rules too much. On the advice of lawyers, they took advantage of a loophole in New York law that allowed them to sleep on the edges of sidewalks, which kept them out of jail, but also made the place look a little pathetic. Bloombergville also appointed negotiators to speak to the authorities, which Wedes argues "created essentially police within our group that were like mouthpieces for the NYPD."

What's more, focusing on the single issue of budget cuts allowed the protest to be co-opted. Injustice and inequity were reduced to budget lines.

"In the messaging, it was really a one-issue thing," Wedes says. "It was like, we're going to sleep out here until the City Council stops these budget cuts, these unfair budget cuts."

When the council passed a budget that managed to avoid most layoffs, the activists packed up. Still, like Wedes, many of them saw fiscal austerity as more than just a local issue, and one without an expiration date.


On July 13, just two weeks after Bloombergville turned into a ghost town, the Vancouver, Canada-based magazine AdBusters issued a somewhat cheeky call to "Occupy Wall Street."

"Are you ready for a Tahrir Moment?" the magazine asked. "On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months."

In addition to that, Adbusters gave the "Tahrir moment" a Twitter hashtag (#OccupyWallStreet) and a campaign poster (a ballerina balanced atop a bull). Beyond a few coordinating emails later on, that was about the extent of AdBusters' involvement, according to several organizers.

For the Bloombergville crew, the AdBusters call seemed to drop like manna from the skies. Seizing on the call to Occupy Wall Street, New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts sent out an email to its allies. The coalition invited interested folks to gather near "Charging Bull," the Arturo Di Modica structure near Wall Street. The meeting was meant to be both a protest and also, according to the email's language, a "people's general assembly."

Mary Clinton, a 25-year-old labor studies graduate student at the City University of New York who helped edit the call to action, explains that asking for the Aug. 2 gathering to be a general assembly was "chosen based on inspiration from Tahrir Square and the acampadas in Madrid and Barcelona."

But the meeting also had a dual purpose as a rally. The program also called for a "speak-out" about economic injustice, and activists chose Aug. 2 because of a looming debt ceiling deadline.

So some of the city's most committed leftist activists gathered by the bull, hoping they could put aside their differences and focus on targeting Wall Street.

It didn't work.

As David Graeber, a self-described anarchist and an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, recounted, the factions' internecine distrust became unwieldy.

"When I arrived, I found the event had been effectively taken over by a veteran protest group called the Worker's World Party," Graeber wrote. "They had already set up their banners, megaphones, and were making speeches -- after which, someone explained, they were planning on leading the 80-odd assembled people in a march past the Stock Exchange itself."

For weeks, Graeber and a loose-knit group of anarchists, several of whom who had been protesting since Seattle in 1999, had been discussing occupations at an artists' collective called 16 Beaver. Now, what had seemed to be their moment was now slipping away. The anarchists weren't there for a rally -- they were there to start planning for Sept. 17 in earnest.

So Georgia Sagri, a friend of Graeber's and an enfant terrible on the New York art scene who had experience with anarchist street protests in Greece, took the bull by the horns. "This is not the way that a general assembly is happening! This is a rally!" she shouted, marching off with Graeber and others to start an assembly of their own.

Sagri's complaint upset some of her fellow protestors, recalls Yotam Marom, a lead organizer on Bloombergville who approached the Occupy Wall Street call somewhat cautiously because of concerns that it lacked a broad base beyond the activist community. The anarchists effectively "interrupted a bunch of people of color speaking on megaphones," Marom says. "So there's kind of two sides to everything."

But when this breakaway meeting began, says Moreno-Cabullud, the significance of labels fell away.

"In the end, both groups were together, so that's why I don't think it's really a big deal. I'm not interested in identifying [people as] Marxists," he says. "I think you are in the movement because you're a human being."


As the meetings evolved, they became forums for people to air their grievances.

"In their day to day lives they don't participate, they have no power in the decisions that affect them," Marisa Holmes, a self-described anarchist who facilitated several early assemblies, says of what motivated people to participate in the movement. "They work with hierarchy all day, every day."

After a second meeting near the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park, the group outgrew sidewalks and decided collectively to meet on Saturdays in Tompkins Square Park.

"Established left organizations ... they all were like forget this, this is a disaster, it's a hoax," recalls Holmes, a 24-year-old Hunter College graduate student. As she remembers it, they were skeptical of the idea that a movement beginning with a hashtag from AdBusters could really take off.

"Which is great for us," she says. "Because we didn't really want them."

Instead, she says, "we had democratic socialists, we had anarchists, we had Marxist-Leninsts, we had people who were just angry the banks had been bailed out."

Michael Mulgrew, the president of New York City's powerful United Federation of Teachers, remembers thinking that when he first heard about the movement through member emails at the start of September, he had his doubts.

"There have been a lot of things like this going on, over the last two years, and, well, let's see how this goes," he recalled thinking. "Are they going to get thrown out? Are the police going to pull them out of there?"


Without unions or other broad-based organizations backing them, the group in Tompkins Square Park was mostly young and mostly white. It also endured some early hiccups. One dispute in particular focused on whether the General Assembly should align itself with labor.

In late August, 45,000 Verizon workers walked off the job amid contract negotiations, claiming the company was greedily taking advantage of the economic downturn to stiff them on wages and benefits. A proposal was brought up to actually hold a meeting of the General Assembly on the Verizon picket line, demonstrating Occupy Wall Street's solidarity -- but one person, Alexa O'Brien, strenuously objected.

Fellow organizers describe O'Brien, an IT professional in her mid-30s, as a hard worker whose fierce devotion to a single issue conflicted with others' vision of a more broad-based protest. Before AdBusters' call had been issued, O'Brien had founded an organization called US Day of Rage -- its name taking a page from protests in Egypt -- focused on getting money out of politics.

O'Brien says that while she doesn't personally have anything against unions, she didn't want the movement to be cast as simply another labor-backed protest.

"The idea of allowing a diversity of voices, including those on the conservative end, are really critical to the independence of the assembly, but also to enacting the kind of reform that we're going to need," she says.

That insistence that conservatives, even Tea Partiers, needed to feel welcome at Occupy Wall Street struck others as wrongheaded. Graeber described O'Brien as "shadowy" in an essay, and conspiracy theories sprouted that she might be some sort of plant.

"I think a lot of people thought that I was a libertarian, or that I was some kind of constitutionalist," O'Brien says. "I am a constitutionalist -- not in the sense that's understood in the media. I believe that we need structural reform."

She didn't want the group to look like a union tool. In the end she won the point, but almost created a deep split among the organizers.

"That was a real setback," says Jackie DiSalvo, 68, the semi-retired teacher at Baruch College who attended early Occupy Wall Street meetings and now works on its labor outreach working group. "It would have been very good if we had done that. We didn't know how to handle a block at that point."

Between the labor dispute, and another argument over setting up a website, some grew concerned about whether a general assembly could really pull off an occupation of Wall Street. If every conversation was about one person's block, or about whether the group needed to achieve two-thirds or nine-tenths consensus before it could make up its mind, coming to large decisions seemed impossible.

"I was worried that this would become an insular, process-oriented fringe-left event," says Marom, a Bloombergville organizer who says he is now active in Occupy Wall Street but rarely spoke in Tompkins Square Park.

"I got so frustrated with it that I left," says Wedes. "I said to myself, I'm done with this. This group of people is great, they have good intentions, but I don't feel like it can be effective. I'm done. And that was probably two or three weeks before September 17."

But he kept in touch.

"I just happened to stay on the email list," he remembers. "And I got this email to this link from the video of the ... May 15 movement in Madrid. It was a really beautiful documentary, and I sat and I watched it, and I realized that the process they were using was the same, the same consensus-based process -- with a few tweaks -- that people were attempting to use here in Tompkins Square Park. After seeing that and seeing what it could produce, and seeing how beautiful it was when viewed from afar, and not from the thicket inside, I realized I had to give it another try."

Others had a similar experience.

"I was really won over," DiSalvo says. She skipped a few meetings after the labor dispute but came back because, she says, "Everybody could participate as individuals, so it wasn't like a coalition of organizations where people had this double agenda between their organization and the coalition they're in."


As Sept. 17 approached, the organizers' plans for the occupation were getting more specific. They were preparing packets full of legal information about what would and wouldn't get people arrested, and drawing up a map of which locations could work as possible campgrounds. The media's attention to their efforts, meanwhile, grew more intense, in large part due to an assist from Anonymous, the loose-knit confederation of hackers who have pursued a random list of targets, including the United States government.

A video announcement about Occupy Wall Street, purporting to be from Anonymous, generated a flurry of excitement on Twitter and in the press. But there weren't too many Guy Fawkes masks in Tompkins Square Park, where the organizers of Sept. 17 were busy fretting about how to occupy Manhattan's Financial District.

A "test run" on Sept. 1 showed that the NYPD would act quickly to keep Wall Street itself clear. Nine activists who tried to sleep on the street were arrested, even though they erected no tents.

At the heart of the General Assembly's preparations for Sept. 17 were its legal and tactical working groups. Both were trying to decide which spaces could work as occupation zones. Organizer Marina Sitrin, who had participated in protests against the IMF and the World Bank, knew that location was everything. The right place could be both symbolically powerful and a shield against police repression.

Zuccotti Park was a backup locale for the nearby One Chase Manhattan Plaza, which the police blocked off on Sept. 17. A private developer created Zuccotti to take advantage of a special zoning exemption that allowed it to add a few extra stories to a nearby office tower in exchange. Under city planning rules, the park, while privately owned, is treated as a virtual public space.

The unusual ownership status of the park meant there are few legal precedents to guide the Bloomberg administration and Brookfield Office Management, its owner, when confronting and trying to evict the occupiers.

Protesters were well aware of Zuccotti's place in the legal gray zone before Sept. 17, according to Sitrin, who is herself a lawyer and was a member of the legal working group. "That was very interesting to us then too," she recalls. "People had researched all of the ownership questions related to all of the potential places."

Going into the big day, organizers had several thousand Facebook RSVPs but no firm grasp on how many people would actually show.

Although Moreno-Cabullud was involved since the first day, he goes so far as to say that “we didn't really organize it." Instead, he argues, Occupy Wall Street was simply “something they tried to help," whose outcome they could not have predicted because “many people came through the internet."

The movement was so decentralized that rumors swirled on the right that ACORN, the SEIU or the Democratic Party were behind it. Organizers laughed those conspiracy theories off, but they were wrestling with fears of their own.

"On the 16th, we had a huge training," recalls Matthew Presto, a 24-year-old student at the Bank Street College of Education who is also an activist in Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. Presto had helped train potential protesters through the training working group about their legal rights. "Rumors spread about undercovers being around, and who's an informant. So we were all getting paranoid, and most of us didn't sleep that night."

The next morning, in the hours before the days events were scheduled to kick off with a meeting at Bowling Green, Presto packed a bag with everything he thought he might need: a solution of liquid, antacid and water he hoped would protect him against police chemical sprays; energy bars for food; and legal contacts written in Sharpie on his leg.

One thing he and several other organizers didn't bring: sleeping bags. After the test run on September 1, the organizers thought the NYPD would crack down on them. The night before September 17, Presto remembers, he had "dreams about getting hit over the head by a baton by the police."

On Sept. 17, hundreds and then thousands filtered into Lower Manhattan and eventually to Zuccotti Park. In perhaps the movement's greatest stroke of luck, the NYPD let them stay there.

Hundreds and then thousands gathered. Some of the younger ones, who hadn't been hardened by years of activism, brought sleeping bags because they really believed they would spend the night on Wall Street.

"That was an incredible moment," says Sitrin. "Knowing that people were willing to stay."


Although its masses of supporters on that first day mostly heard about it through Facebook, Twitter, emails or the media, Occupy Wall Street did not materialize out of thin air.

“That's the way a lot of revolutions tend to be framed, as if it were a spontaneous burst," says Presto. All the same, he acknowledges, he and his fellow organizers -- who might have been ignored just a few years ago -- took to the streets at a fortuitous moment.

What happens next for the camp in Zuccotti Park, as winter looms, is an open question. But the ultimate legacy of Occupy Wall Street, some organizers contend, is already assured.

"We succeeded on day two," says Sitrin. Occupy Wall Street's victory, she argues, came when it became apparent the Bloomberg administration wouldn't be able to kick out the campers without a fight and the media began to take notice.

Sitrin says that Occupy Wall Street aimed to "awaken the radical imagination" in a country where widespread protests on the scale of Europe's had yet to occur.

Now, Sitrin says, "we can say out loud that there is a crisis."

Amanda M. Fairbanks and Lila Shapiro contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: This article originally incorrectly stated that Bloombergville protesters used tents, not sleeping bags, to sleep on city sidewalks.