Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images
A masked man protests at Revolution Park in Guadalajara, Mexico on Oct. 15, 2011, after a worldwide demonstration against corporate greed and government cutbacks.
Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images
Nathan Schneider is an editor for the blogs Waging Nonviolence and Killing the Buddha, an online magazine of religion, culture and politics.
It all started with an e-mail. On July 13 Adbusters magazine sent out a call to its 90,000-strong list proclaiming a Twitter hashtag (#OccupyWallStreet) and a date, September 17. It quickly spread among the mostly young, tech-savvy radical set, along with an especially alluring poster the magazine put together of a ballerina atop the Charging Bull statue, the financial district's totem to testosterone.
The idea became a meme, and the angel of history (or at least of the Internet) was somehow ready. Halfway into a revolutionary year—after the Arab Spring and Europe's tumultuous summer—cyberactivists in the United States were primed for a piece of the action. The Adbusters editors weren't the only ones organizing; similar occupations were already in the works, including a very well-laid plan to occupy Freedom Plaza in Washington, starting October 6.
Websites cropped up to gather news and announcements. US Day of Rage, the Twitter- and web-driven project of a determined IT strategist, endorsed the action, promoted it and started preparing with online nonviolence trainings and tactical plans. Then, in late August, the hacktivists of Anonymous signed on, posting menacing videos and flooding social media networks.
But a meme alone does not an occupation make. An occupation needs people on the ground. By early August, a band of activists in New York began meeting in public parks to plan. Many were fresh off the streets of Bloombergville, a three-week encampment near City Hall in protest of layoffs and cuts to social services. Others joined them, especially artists, students and anarchists—academic and otherwise. (US Day of Rage's founder was there too.) This "NYC General Assembly" met first at the Charging Bull, then at the Irish Hunger Memorial along the Hudson River and then at the south end of Tompkins Square Park. The turnout was usually around sixty to 100.
The General Assembly, which would eventually morph from a planning committee into the de facto decision-making body of the occupation, was a hodgepodge of procedures and hand signals with origins as various as Quakerism, ancient Athens, the indignados of Spain (some of whom were present) and the spokescouncils of the 1999 anti-globalization movement. Basically, it's an attempt to create a nonhierarchical, egalitarian, consensus-driven process—the purest kind of democracy.
Of no small significance was that this was taking place in direct contradiction of what Wall Street has come to represent: the stranglehold on American politics and society by the interests of a wealthy few, a government by the corporations and apparently for them.
In its initial call Adbusters had posed the question, "What is our one demand?" Echoing the determination to oust Hosni Mubarak that temporarily unified Muslim Brothers with Christians and feminists in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the idea was that an occupation like this in the United States could similarly mount enough pressure to enact one critical, game-changing policy proposal. Adbusters, as well as people at the General Assembly, pitched in their suggestions: a "Tobin tax" on financial transactions, reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act or revoking corporate personhood. (Nicholas Kristof later rehearsed some of these in the New York Times.) But the discussions never seemed to get anywhere. No single demand seemed like enough to address the problems of the system, and few of these upstarts relished the thought of begging for anything from the powers that be.
Tabling that discussion week after week, the General Assembly focused on more practical matters. There were debates about tactics, fundraising, food and wrenching ones about how to build the GA's website. Over time, the sense emerged that demands weren't the right thing to be after. In the first place, it didn't seem likely that the 20,000 people Adbusters hoped for would appear anytime soon. (Even if they did, when 20,000 people had marched for a day on Wall Street in May, it hardly made a dent.) The more realistic and strategic goal, it seemed, was movement-building. Just as assemblies like this one had spread through Spain in the summer, and through Argentina after the economic crisis in 2001, they would try to plant the seeds for assemblies to grow around the city and around the country. These, in turn, could blossom into a significant, even effective, political movement. Specific demands might come later, after the movement grew.
To give you an idea of where this was starting from: the occupation began with just a few thousand dollars on hand and no idea who would show up.
Read more at The Nation.