How a Protest Became a Movement

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Reawakening The Radical Imagination: The Origins Of Occupy Wall Street
Huffington Post
November 10, 2011

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.”

BLOOMBERGVILLE

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.

“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.”

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 tent 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 tents, 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.

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 pitch their tents 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.

ADBUSTERS

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 Hunter College 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.

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