Where Did #OccupyWallStreet Come From?

When the histories of #OWS begin to be written, two primary sources will be invaluable, and you can read them right now.

The first is written by an outsider, Sean Captain of Fast Company. Unlike the standard media narrative that relies on Google to dig out a story, Captain actually showed up and reported on what he heard and saw. Here’s his report on the first General Assembly meeting, which took place at Bowling Green (near the bull statue) on August 2 [the date is noted incorrectly in the article as August 3-4]:

The call said “general assembly.” To some it was taken as more of a literal open gathering than a proper, organized assembly. Whatever it meant, it began as an old-school rally with speeches by lifelong local activists. Most came from New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, a city group that stands exactly for what the name suggests. Many were members of DC37, the biggest city employee union. Homeless advocates were on hand. The first five speakers were African American or Latino.

While the dedication was admirable, the rhetoric was antique. We must “fight back by any means necessary,” said dreadlocked Larry Hales of NYABC. One open-mic speaker evoked Hitler. “Abolish Capitalism!” said young socialist Caleb Maupin. I had a pleasant chat with Diane Sare, a LaRouche Congressional candidate from New Jersey.

Then hot-tempered Greek student Georgia Sagri shook things up. She took the mic, saying, “This is not the way that a general assembly is happening! This is a rally!” She continued to blurt out criticisms and piss people off. But a chunk of them, mostly students but also middle-aged folk, joined her in a circle for a radical-consensus general assembly–a mainstay process in countries like Greece and Spain.

Captain then goes on to describe several other key events in the planning of the occupation. I’ve been intensely interested in the movement since I first heard about it on Twitter on July 25 and have been watching it from a slight distance ever since. I confess that while I thought the idea to make an American Tahrir at the “scene of the crime” of 2008 was brilliant, I did not believe it was going to happen. I’m also, frankly, not a joiner by nature, and, when you get right down to it, perhaps too much of an introvert to be much of an activist. But my story is another story. The point I want to make is that I was aware, via the website OccupyWallSt.org, that these events were being called, but Captain puts flesh and blood on the skeleton of the ideas I had about what actually went on with them. Unlike the present situation at Liberty Plaza, there were no live-streaming cameras recording the event. The whole world was not watching. Captain was.

Captain’s report is flawed in the way any professional media narrative will be flawed. He wrote accurately about what he saw but he did not have the benefit of veteran activist, anthropologist and author (of ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’) David Graeber’s insider’s knowledge of the New York City (and global) activism scene. A story by Fast Company‘s Neal Ungerleader, “The Stealth Leaders of Occupy Wall Street,” names Graeber as one of the key organizers and an influence behind the horizontal structure of the General Assembly.

Here is Graeber’s description, on the website Naked Capitalism, of the August 2 meeting at Bowling Green:

On August 2, I showed up at a 7 PM meeting at Bowling Green, that a Greek anarchist friend, who I’d met at a recent activist get together at 16 Beaver Street, had told me was meant to plan some kind of action on Wall Street in mid-September. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the background: that a month before, the Canadian magazine Adbusters had put out the call to “Occupy Wall Street”, but had really just floated the idea on the internet, along with some very compelling graphics, to see if it would take hold; that a local anti-budget cut coalition top-heavy with NGOs, unions, and socialist groups had tried to take possession of the process and called for a “General Assembly” at Bowling Green. The title proved extremely misleading. When I arrived, I found the event had been effectively taken over by a veteran protest group called the Worker’s World Party, most famous for having patched together ANSWER one of the two great anti-war coalitions, back in 2003. 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.

The usual reaction to this sort of thing is a kind of cynical, bitter resignation. “I wish they at least wouldn’t advertise a ‘General Assembly’ if they’re not actually going to hold one.” Actually, I think I actually said that, or something slightly less polite, to one of the organizers, a disturbingly large man, who immediately remarked, “well, fine. Why don’t you leave?”

But as I paced about the Green, I noticed something. To adopt activist parlance: this wasn’t really a crowds of verticals—that is, the sort of people whose idea of political action is to march around with signs under the control of one or another top-down protest movement. They were mostly pretty obviously horizontals: people more sympathetic with anarchist principles of organization, non-hierarchical forms of direct democracy, and direct action. I quickly spotted at least one Wobbly, a young Korean activist I remembered from some Food Not Bomb event, some college students wearing Zapatista paraphernalia, a Spanish couple who’d been involved with the indignados in Madrid… I found my Greek friends, an American I knew from street battles in Quebec during the Summit of the Americas in 2001, now turned labor organizer in Manhattan, a Japanese activist intellectual I’d known for years… My Greek friend looked at me and I looked at her and we both instantly realized the other was thinking the same thing: “Why are we so complacent? Why is it that every time we see something like this happening, we just mutter things and go home?” – though I think the way we put it was more like, “You know something? Fuck this shit. They advertised a general assembly. Let’s hold one.”

So we gathered up a few obvious horizontals and formed a circle, and tried to get everyone else to join us. Almost immediately people appeared from the main rally to disrupt it, calling us back with promises that a real democratic forum would soon break out on the podium. We complied. It didn’t happen. My Greek friend made an impassioned speech and was effectively shooed off the stage. There were insults and vituperations. After about an hour of drama, we formed the circle again, and this time, almost everyone abandoned the rally and come over to our side. We created a decision-making process (we would operate by modified consensus) broke out into working groups (outreach, action, facilitation) and then reassembled to allow each group to report its collective decisions, and set up times for new meetings of both the smaller and larger groups. It was difficult to figure out what to do since we only had six weeks, not nearly enough time to plan a major action, let alone bus in the thousands of people that would be required to actually shut down Wall Street—and anyway we couldn’t shut down Wall Street on the appointed day, since September 17, the day Adbusters had been advertising, was a Saturday. We also had no money of any kind.

I highly recommend Graeber’s article as it assesses “the strange success” of #ows from the perspective of someone who has been not just hoping for but working toward such a movement since the 1970s. Graeber’s piece should answer a lot of questions of the curious, particularly on the intellectual framework the occupation and its political expressions are based on.

I’ll leave you with one more taste of Graeber’s musings:

“We are watching,” I wrote [for The Guardian], “the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt.” Three weeks later, after watching more and more elements of mainstream America clamber on board, I think this is still true. In a way, the demographic base of OWS is about as far as one can get from that of the Tea Party—with which it is so often, and so confusingly, compared. The popular base of the Tea Party was always middle aged suburban white Republicans, most of middling economic means, anti-intellectual, terrified of social change—above all, for fear that what they saw as their one remaining buffer of privilege (basically, their whiteness) might finally be stripped away. OWS, by contrast, is at core forwards-looking youth movement, just a group of forward-looking people who have been stopped dead in their tracks; of mixed class backgrounds but with a significant element of working class origins; their one strongest common feature being a remarkably high level of education. It’s no coincidence that the epicenter of the Wall Street Occupation, and so many others, is an impromptu library: a library being not only a model of an alternative economy, where lending is from a communal pool, at 0% interest, and the currency being leant is knowledge, and the means to understanding.

PS: I’m indebted to Micah Sifry for bringing these two articles to my attention.

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5 thoughts on “Where Did #OccupyWallStreet Come From?

  1. Pingback: Debt Society in Need of a Revolution « Tragic Farce

  2. Pingback: Occupy Wall St: the Economics of Slavery « Machimon

  3. Pingback: Will the “Final” Revolution Be Started by Second Amendment Absolutists? | Tragic Farce

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