Reminiscences of a Wall Street Occupier

I don’t remember exactly where I first saw the Adbusters poster with a ballerina poised atop the famous Charging Bull statue in lower Manhattan, calling for the “occupation” of Wall Street on September 17, 2011 but it was certainly an eye-catching. I do remember thinking it was funny in a weird kind of way. “Occupy Wall Street? Yeah, like that’s going to happen,” I laughed to myself. In light of how the Occupy Movement would later develop, it’s worth looking at the longer call for a “Million Man March on Wall St,” authored by Kono Matsu that was posted on Adbusters website on February 11, 2011:

“Revolutions are not unplanned and leaderless events. Nor do they happen like ‘spontaneous combustion.’ The mass protests that have erupted in Cairo’s Midan Tahrir square, and are close to toppling Mubarak’s regime, were orchestrated by a handful of Internet savvy organizers known as the April 6 Youth Movement. For two years they planned, strategized, thought things through. Their first act surprised even themselves: in the wake of Tunisia, they called for a day of protest and 90,000 supporters showed up. It was this initial mass, backed by popular enthusiasm, that then propelled the uprising.”

And indeed, there was some leadership and orchestration behind the creation of the Occupy Movement. Adbusters co-founder Kalle Lasn and senior editor, Micah White, sent an email to subscribers in June telling them, “America needs its own Tahir.” Lasn’s story is interesting. Born in Estonia in 1942, his family fled the Soviet Army during World War II and spent time in a German refugee camp before emigrating to Australia. There, Lasn earned a degree in applied mathematics, then relocated to Tokyo, where he spent five years running his own market-research firm. He made a lot of money, travelled the world and moved to Canada, where he devoted himself to experimental filmmaking and environmental protection. In 1989, when the Canadian Broadcasting Co. refused him airtime for a thirty-second “mind bomb” aimed at the forestry industry, Lasn realized that he would never get a fair shake from corporate mass media. So, with Bill Schmalz, an outdoorsman who had worked with him as a cameraman, he founded Adbusters. Among other things, Lasn used the magazine as a platform for strident criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, His most controversial moment came in 2004, when he wrote an essay on Jewish influence on U.S. foreign policy. Lasn included a list of powerful neoconservatives, with asterisks next to the names of those who were Jewish. Realizing that he was courting charges of anti-Semitism, Lasn wrote:

“[T]he point is not that Jews (who make up less than 2 percent of the American population) have a monolithic perspective. Indeed, American Jews overwhelmingly vote Democratic and many of them disagree strongly with Ariel Sharon’s policies and Bush’s aggression in Iraq. The point is simply that the neocons seem to have a special affinity for Israel that influences their political thinking and consequently American foreign policy in the Middle East.”

The ballerina atop the bull image came to Lasn late one night while walking his German shepherd, Taka: “the juxtaposition of the capitalist dynamism of the bull,” he remembered, “with the Zen stillness of the ballerina.” In the background, protesters were emerging from a cloud of tear gas. As New Yorker writer Mattathias Schwartz noted in a November 2011 article, “The violence had a highly aestheticized, dreamlike quality, an Adbusters’ signature.” White and Lasn spent a few days in early July debating when the occupation should start. At first, White argued that it should begin on July 4, 2012, so that protesters would have time to prepare. But Lasn worried that the political climate could shift entirely by then. So, he proposed late September of 2011; then settled on the seventeenth, his mother’s birthday, as the exact date with White’s agreement.

Adbusters and sent out a tactical briefing email on July 13 and within minutes, Justine Tunney, a twenty-six-year-old Philadelphian registered “,” which soon became the movement’s online headquarters. She began operating the site with a small team, most of whom were, like her, transgender anarchists. They jokingly called themselves the “Trans World Order.”

Encouraged by the quick response, White connected with New Yorkers’ Against Budget Cuts, which had previously staged an occupy-style action called “Bloombergville” and was already planning an August 2nd rally at the Charging Bull. NYABC agreed to join forces with the nascent Occupy Movement. But this resulted in some confusion on August 2nd, when scores of activists showed up, expecting a rally for NYABC. They erected a small stage and began giving amplified speeches, which alienated the roughly fifty Adbusters supporters, mostly anarchists, who came expecting a planning session. There was some angry shouting before a group of anarchists broke off, sat down in a circle on the cobblestones, and held their own meeting.

The anarchists immediately agreed to use “horizontal” organizing methods, according to which, meetings are known as general assemblies and participants make decisions by consensus and give continuous feedback through hand gestures. Moving one’s fingers in an undulating motion, palm out, pointing up, means approval of what’s being said. Palm in, pointing down, means disapproval. Crossed arms signals a “block,” a serious objection that must be heard. Some participants knew this style of meeting from left-wing traditions stretching back to the civil-rights movement and earlier.

Late that night, David Graeber, a fifty-year-old professor at the University of London and an anarchist theorist who helped facilitate the first meeting, sent an e-mail to White, in Berkeley, asking him for guidance. “How did it all start?” Graeber asked. White told him, saying that the goal was “getting the meme out there, getting the people on the streets.” He added, “We are not trying to control what happens.”

However, early on, Lasn and White said that the Wall Street occupiers needed a clear message. The revolutionaries in Cairo, they wrote, presented “a straight-forward ultimatum”: they wouldn’t leave the square until President Hosni Mubarak left office. Adbusters invited readers to “zero in on what our one demand will be.” The suggested ideas included a Presidential commission charged with ending the influence of money in politics, and a one-per-cent “Robin Hood tax” on all financial transactions.

After the August 2nd gathering, protesters planning the September occupation met again, on August 9th, at the Irish Hunger Memorial, near Battery Park; all subsequent meetings were held on the south side of Tompkins Square Park. Early on, they decided to call the organization the New York City General Assembly. In theory, the job of facilitating the meetings rotated among the eighty or so attendees. In practice, facilitation fell to a much smaller set of people who had experience with the general-assembly process. As Schwartz noted in his New Yorker piece, “The leaderless movement was developing leaders.” Graeber was among this first rank of equals, as was Marisa Holmes, a twenty-five-year-old anarchist and filmmaker.

On Saturday, September 17, several hundred protesters met near the Museum of the American Indian at Bowling Green because the NYPD had surrounded the “Charging Bull” with barricades and, a few blocks north, sealed off a stretch of Wall Street around the New York Stock Exchange. The previous week, members of the General Assembly had stocked up on food, made bail arrangements, and circulated flyers. Still, most of them had doubts that much would come of the occupation. “I, along with many others, expected that it would fizzle out in a couple of days,” Holmes said.

The blocking off of the Charging Bull and Stock Exchange forced members of Occupy’s “Tactical Committee” to reconnoiter a backup “Location 2,” which was Nearby Zuccotti Park, once known as Liberty Plaza Park but renamed in 2006 for its owner, Brookfield Properties chairman, John Zuccotti. Zuccotti had the advantage of being a privately owned public space, which zoning laws required to be open for “passive recreation” twenty-four hours a day in contrast to public parks which could be closed by the city at dusk or other curfews imposed.

Zuccotti Park soon became the site of an ongoing encampment. I heard about it from friends who had been down there to visit, so I decided to see what it was all about myself. I listened to some of the speakers, amplified by the “people’s mike.” I had conversations, including with some who had come afar from New York to be there, about how Wall Street had been once again allowed to drive the world’s economy off a cliff and how the government’s response had been to bail it out, to actually reward it, while demanding brutal sacrifices of “austerity” from the rest of us. I accumlated the obligatory collection of flyers, event notices and free or small donation newspapers from all the radical groups in the area one usually does at these kinds of gatherings. I noticed someone wearing a button that said, “Fight Like an Egyptian” and thought it was cool. But one memory has stayed with me in particular. A woman at a stand was ladling out some kind of pudding-like concoction with raisins and asked if I would like some. “Sure,” I said, “How much?” “Nothing,” she replied. With that I knew the powers that be wouldn’t allow this to go on much longer.

Despite the wonderful spirit of rebellion and cooperative values it engendered, the Zuccotti encampment soon began to run into difficulties. As law professor, Alasdair Roberts noted in his 2012 review of several books on the Occupy Movement, including The Occupy Handbook and This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement:

“[OWS] ran Zuccotti Park for only eight weeks but this was long enough to persuade many participants that a pure form of horizontalism simply did not work. A range of problems familiar to any city councilor emerged within Zuccotti Park with extraordinary rapidity. An unrelenting circle of drummers alienated sympathetic neighbors and drove many of the park’s own residents ‘apeshit crazy.’ ‘A real sense of mutual antipathy’ emerged between residents of the eastern and western end of the park, who differed in socioeconomic background and political ideology. Reports of violence and drug dealing became more frequent. The General Assembly struggled to manage these problems and other aspects of camp life, efficiently.”

By mid-October, 2011, supporters in Tokyo, Sydney, Madrid, and London held rallies; encampments sprang up in almost every major American city. Nearly all of them modelled themselves on the New York City General Assembly: with no official leaders, rotating facilitators, and no fixed set of demands. One of these spin-off groups was Occupy Astoria-Long Island City (or LIC), which started meeting regularly in the exhibition gallery of the Greater Astoria Historical Society. As a board member of the Society, in sympathy with the movement, I encouraged it to be allowed to meet there and began attending meetings myself. At the first, the room was packed with at least thirty people or more, sitting on chairs placed in a big circle. We all just sat there for a while, unsure of what to do or say, until finally somebody spoke. What he said I can’t even remember.

From there Occupy Astoria-LIC became a kind of roving demonstration unit. We marched in the 2012 St. Pat’s for All parade in Queens, founded by Irish-American activist, Brendan Fay, as an alternative to the LGBTQ+ unfriendly Ancient Order of Hibernians’-sponsored parade in Manhattan. We joined a march in Manhattan in support of the people of Greece being ravaged by the EU’s austerity demands. We got hold of a button maker and made a bunch of nice, “Occupy Astoria-LIC” buttons emblazoned with an image of Astroria’s Hell Gate Bridge. But we also formed working groups and discussed what we should do as an organization. One idea was to start our own credit union. The Credit Union Working Group, which I was part of, had a couple of preliminary meetings to discuss what was involved but for one reason or another, including a key participant later moving to Florida, the idea never got off the ground.

Occupy-Astoria-LIC also became something of community building project. People who had lived in the same neighborhoods but had never known each other were now coming together on a regular basis and I made several good friendships that have lasted to this day. We had a group picnic in the summer of 2012. There was face painting for kids, people with home businesses brought their wares to sell and one of our members even did some exotic dancing for us. It was all great fun and this kind of thing is actually an important apect of movement building. But, as Lasn and White noted, movements also need specific goals or demands in order to survive and they need to figure out how to accomplish them (ie are you to engage in political/electoral activity or some other means of attaining your goal?). But there was a strain of thought within the Occupy Astoria- LIC, which held that demands were not necessary and that we should rather carry out demonstrations outside of big banks and perhaps “occupy space,” like vacant store fronts, though what exactly this would accomplish was not entirely clear to me.

With no clear agreed upon goals or demands to rally around or a method to achieve them, Occupy Astoria-LIC meeting turnouts dwindled to the point where there was no point in holding them anymore. Our Facebook page still exists and is semi-active with posts. But aside from that, the organization exists only in our memories now.

With the tenth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street upon us, there’s been much discussion on whether the movement was a success or failure. As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. Occupy spun-off successful ongoing organizations like the Debt Collective and helped Seattle Marxist economics professor and Occupy activist, Kshama Sawant defeat a four-term incumbent Democrat to become the first socialist to win a city-wide election there in a century. However, it’s also important to note that the vanguard leadership for the Sawant campaign came from the highly disciplined, Trotskyist Socialist Alternative Party she belonged to. As a city councilor, Sawant and SA became instrumental in leading the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle, which provided inspiration for the Fight for 15 Movement in other cities, including New York. For their efforts, Sawant is now facing an unprecedented recall campaign being orchestrated by Amazon and other corporate opponents of her progressive agenda.

But on a broader scale, the Occupy Movement clearly failed to develop into something lasting, something that could push American politics in a more progressive direction. And the void created by that failure has been unfortunately filled by a new form of fascism that knows exactly what it wants and will stop at nothing to get it. Thus, there is a greater and more urgent need for a unified, well-led, organized and purposed progressive-left resistance, not only to the original targets of Occupy Wall Street but also to this new and darker movement for an overt, authoritarian form of capitalism in the United States.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City