The idea of occupying Wall Street originated with an email blast by the lefty magazine Adbusters, best known for not accepting advertising. Adbusters is based in Vancouver but two-thirds of its readership is in the U.S., and in July senior editor Micah White and writers called for a 20,000-strong extended occupation on Wall Street, with the hope that Americans, complacent in the throes of a going-on-five-year recession, might adopt some of the outrage and effectiveness of the Arab Spring.
“We’ve been kind of watching the Egyptian uprising and the Spanish uprisings and wondering, why aren’t Americans also rising up against the financial fraudsters that are ruining people’s lives,” said Mr. White, who lives in Berkeley and has not ventured to New York for the proceedings. “I think we wanted to catalyze a people’s democratic spring in America.”
The email went out to Adbusters’ 90,000 subscribers.
“The basic model is to combine the Egyptian Tahrir uprising with the Spanish acampadas,” Mr. White said, referring to a string of extreme sit-ins across Spain in May and June. “You hold a symbolic space and you hold people’s assemblies.”
Of course, the protesters aren’t technically holding a space on Wall Street. Liberty Park Plaza, also known as Zuccotti Park, is two blocks away from Wall Street, where police regularly patrol the barricaded area around the New York Stock Exchange, a security measure implemented after Sept. 11.
“Adbusters put out the call, but they had no idea what they were talking about,” said Guy Steward, an 18-year-old unemployed New Yorker in thick glasses and a blue bandana. He read about the local effort on Tumblr and has been involved since the first day. “They’re a bunch of Canadians. They were like, ‘Go set up tents on Wall Street!’ You can’t set up tents on Wall Street. You’ll get shot.”
The grassroots New York City General Assembly, a scattered but competent body of activists, sprang up Aug. 2 and starting hammering out logistics through a series of hyper-democratic meetings in which everyone is given a chance to speak, every proposal is voted on, nothing happens without consensus (reached when there is no outright opposition to a proposal), and individuals are not bound by the group’s decision. The process is painstaking, but it worked—the group picked a place and the memo spread via Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and word of mouth.
The protesters now hold General Assemblies twice a day. There are three key components to the meetings: the “human microphone,” in which the people closest to the speaker repeat his or her words in unison for the rest of the crowd; the “stack taker,” who manages the list of people who want to speak; and a set of hand signals that include “spirit fingers” to indicate assent and arms crossed in an X to indicate a question or objection.
On Monday after the march and pep talk by Mr. Moore, the crowd was feeling especially empowered and optimistic. “Mic check!” yelled a blond woman in a black tank top and yoga pants. “MIC CHECK!” the audience bellowed back. Lately, most of the business at the General Assembly has involved proposals for the formation of new committees. On Monday night, various protesters suggested an animal rights committee, a translation committee, a committee for “matching volunteers with tasks” and a diversity committee (most of the protesters are young, white English speakers). The “vision and demands” committee was slated to speak Monday night, but could not finish its highly anticipated proposal in time. “I must say—” one audience member said.
“I MUST SAY,” the crowd repeated.
“I am disappointed—”
“I AM DISAPPOINTED!”
“That we still do not have—”
“THAT STILL WE DO NOT HAVE!”
“A list of demands.”
“A LIST OF DEMANDS!”
Sure, there is an abundance of inarticulate hippie-types on hand, ever ready to assume the modified lotus and ostentatiously meditate. And yes, The Observer was forced to relocate to McDonald’s to write because three young men on the plaza wouldn’t stop crowing about how they were tripping on acid. But some protesters have managed to tow a more compelling line.
On Aug. 23, an activist—actually a reporter, who asked to remain anonymous because he was concerned about running afoul of his editor—launched wearethe99percent.tumblr.com, which contains some of the stronger arguments for the Occupy Wall Street movement. “It’s time the 1 percent got to know us a little better,” the site says, referring to the nation’s richest percentile. Readers submitted pictures of themselves holding up signs. “I’m an unemployed college grad living with my parents,” read one. “Working 67 hours a week but can’t afford to buy school supplies for my daughters,” said another. “I’m 18, a college freshman. My dad has been unemployed for over two years and nobody is hiring. I haven’t been to the doctor’s since I was 14.” Most of the people pictured are 23 or younger. Student debt, health care and persistent unemployment are recurring themes.
The kitchen started serving coffee, juice and fruit at 6 a.m. as dawn broke over the plaza. Earlier, Mr. Steward had remarked that some pictures “made it look like a hobo camp,” which was exactly how the scene must have appeared to the business-attired professionals who were starting to appear on the sidewalk. At the west entrance to the plaza, a protester was sleeping in a chair with his mouth half-open, knees splayed apart, his head completely lolled to the right. Next to him was the orange poster bearing the day’s official agenda.
Correction: This story originally referred to Micah White as editor-in-chief of Adbusters; he is a senior editor. The Observer regrets the error.