November 2011, Week 1


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The Audacity of Occupy Wall Street

Richard Kim |
The Nation
November 2, 2011

A few years ago, Joe Therrien, a graduate of the NYC
Teaching Fellows program, was working as a full-time
drama teacher at a public elementary school in New York
City. Frustrated by huge class sizes, sparse resources
and a disorganized bureaucracy, he set off to the
University of Connecticut to get an MFA in his passion-
puppetry. Three years and $35,000 in student loans
later, he emerged with degree in hand, and because
puppeteers aren't exactly in high demand, he went
looking for work at his old school. The intervening
years had been brutal to the city's school budgets-down
about 14 percent on average since 2007. A virtual hiring
freeze has been in place since 2009 in most subject
areas, arts included, and spending on art supplies in
elementary schools crashed by 73 percent between 2006
and 2009. So even though Joe's old principal was excited
to have him back, she just couldn't afford to hire a new
full-time teacher. Instead, he's working at his old
school as a full-time "substitute"; he writes his own
curriculum, holds regular classes and does everything a
normal teacher does. "But sub pay is about 50 percent of
a full-time salaried position," he says, "so I'm working
for half as much as I did four years ago, before grad
school, and I don't have health insurance.. It's the
best-paying job I could find."

Like a lot of the young protesters who have flocked to
Occupy Wall Street, Joe had thought that hard work and
education would bring, if not class mobility, at least a
measure of security (indeed, a master's degree can boost
a New York City teacher's salary by $10,000 or more).
But the past decade of stagnant wages for the 99 percent
and million-dollar bonuses for the 1 percent has
awakened the kids of the middle class to a national
nightmare: the dream that coaxed their parents to meet
the demands of work, school, mortgage payments and
tuition bills is shattered. Down is the new up.

But then in these grim times, something unexpected
happened: at first scores met in parks around New York
City this summer to plan an occupation of Wall Street,
then hundreds responded to their call, then thousands
from persuasions familiar and astonishing, and now more
than 100 cities around the country are Occupied. In the
face of unchecked capitalism and a broken, captured
state, the citizens of Occupy America have done
something desperate and audacious-they put their faith
and hope in the last seemingly credible force left in
the world: each other.

Sometime during the second week of the Occupation, Joe
took that leap. Within his first hour at Liberty Park,
he was "totally won over by the Occupation's spirit of
cooperation and selflessness." He has been going back
just about every day since. It took him a few days to
find the Arts and Culture working group, which has its
roots in the first planning meetings and has already
produced a museum's worth of posters (from the crudely
handmade to slicker culture-jamming twists on corporate
designs), poetry readings, performance-art happenings,
political yoga classes and Situationist spectacles like
the one in which an artist dressed in a suit and noose
tie rolled up to the New York Stock Exchange in a giant
clear plastic bubble to mock the speculative economy's
inevitable pop.

Alexandre Carvalho, a Brazilian doctor who worked in
Rio's favelas and was one of the original organizers of
Arts and Culture, explains that the group's praxis
revolves around two principles. "First-autonomy,
horizontalism and collectivism. We're nonhierarchical,
self-regulating, self-deliberating and self-organizing.
Everyone is creating their own stuff, but we're
connected to a larger hub through the Arts and Culture
group." The second principle is something Alexandre
calls "virgeo," a mashup of "virtual" and
"geographical." "We try to have both an on-the-ground
conversation and an online conversation so that people
all over the world can send their ideas and respond to
our work." The same concepts apply, more or less, to the
other culture working groups at OWS-from Media (which
shoots video for OWS's livestream, documents direct
actions and produces educational videos) to the Library
(which has received more than 3,500 books, all logged in
an online card catalog, from the nearly complete works
of Noam Chomsky to Creative Cash: How to Sell Your
Crafts, Needlework, Designs and Know-How).

At one of Arts and Culture's meetings-held adjacent to
60 Wall Street, at a quieter public-private indoor park
that's also the atrium of Deutsche Bank-it dawned on
Joe: "I have to build as many giant puppets as I can to
help this thing out-people love puppets!" And so Occupy
Wall Street's Puppet Guild, one of about a dozen guilds
under the Arts and Culture working group, was born. In
the spirit of OWS, Joe works in loose and rolling
collaboration with others who share his passion for
puppetry or whose projects somehow momentarily coincide
with his mission. With the help of a handful of people,
he built the twelve-foot Statue of Liberty puppet that
had young and old alike flocking to him on October 8 in
Washington Square Park. Right now, he's working with
nearly thirty artists to stage Occupy Halloween, when
his newest creations, a twelve-foot Wall Street bull and
a forty-foot Occupied Brooklyn Bridge inspired by
Chinese paper dragons-along with a troupe of dancers
playing corporate vampires-will inject a little bit of
countercultural messaging into the annual parade of
Snookis and True Blood wannabes strutting down Sixth

Those of harder head or heart may tweet-giant puppets,
#srsly? Yes, it's hard to draw a straight line from
something like Occupy Halloween to the overthrow of
global capitalism or a financial transactions tax or
student debt relief or any number of goals-some of
world-historical magnitude, some straight from the
playbook of reformist think tanks-that swirl around
Liberty these days. But it's creative types, either
shoved into crisis by the precarious economy or just
sick of making things under the corporate system, who
have responded most enthusiastically to Occupy Wall
Street's call. It's not where one might have looked for
a revolt to emerge organically. In subsequent
Occupations like the one in Oakland, anti-racist
organizers have been a dominant force; and in Rust Belt
towns across the Midwest, blue-collar types have led the
way. But the first spark, here in New York, was
generated when artists, students and academics hooked up
with activists from Bloombergville, a three-week
occupation near City Hall to protest the mayor's budget
cuts. This unlikely mix has proved to be a tactical
boon, says Alexandre: "Artists are in a privileged
position to take the terrain without too much
repression. It's harder for the police to move against
you when you are clearly doing something nonviolent and

When I ask Joe if he thinks Occupy Wall Street should
make repealing budget cuts like the ones that struck New
York's public schools a priority, he replies that the
thought hadn't really crossed his mind. "I hope there
are groups of people who are working on that specific
issue," he says, but for the moment he's "prioritizing
what I'm most passionate about." Which, he explains, is
"figuring out how to make theater that's going to help
open people up to this new cultural consciousness. It's
what I'm driven to do right now, so I'm following that
impulse to see where it leads."

* * *

Since September 17, the first day of the Occupation,
thousands of people have flocked to Liberty to follow
this impulse to live life anew. To stay for even a few
days there is to be caught up in an incredible delirium
of talking, making, doing and more talking-a beehive in
which the drones have overthrown the queen but are still
buzzing about furiously without any immediately apparent
purpose. Someone might shout over the human microphone,
"Mic check! (Mic check!) We need! (We need!) Some
volunteers! (Some volunteers!) To go to Home Depot! (To
go to Home Depot!) And get cleaning supplies! (And get
cleaning supplies!)" A handful of people might perk up
and answer the call-or not, in which case it is made
again and again. Sometimes too many show up and are sent
away; sometimes an Occupier jumps to attention but gets
distracted by something or someone shiny in Liberty's
evolving alleyways, and instead of shopping for the
revolution is next seen discussing the politics of
micro-finance. Somehow, some way-brooms and mops, bleach
and scrub brushes show up. They mysteriously vanish, and
an ad hoc committee is organized to replenish them and
then to guard them. To this day, Liberty is kept
relatively clean, which keeps the cops out; the mums in
the planters still bloom, hardy by stock but made
hardier by the Occupation's life-sustaining and
downwardly distributed ethic of care.

One of the first working groups that the original
organizers created was simply called Food, and its first
budget aspired to raise just $1,000 for peanut butter
sandwiches. It now takes in donations from around the
world and dishes out up to 3,000 meals a day; nobody is
turned away as long as there is a morsel left, and there
almost always is. Pizzas arrive by bike or car, many
sent by labor unions; canned and dry goods are shipped
to OWS's UPS address (118A Fulton St. #205, New York, NY
10038); oatmeal, quinoa and rice come in large sacks and
small supermarket packages; chicken and beef, apples and
seasonal root vegetables are trucked in from organic
farms upstate. Trained chefs were quick to volunteer
their time and have even opened up their kitchens.

Once the Occupation took root in Liberty, new working
groups formed to meet its growing human needs:
Sanitation; Comfort (which collects and distributes
sleeping bags, tarps and warm clothes); Medics (which is
staffed by nurses, doctors, therapists, acupuncturists
and EMT workers, and sees up to 100 patients a day);
Security (yes, there is some form of "law" at OWS,
including guidelines against public urination and
defecation); and Sustainability (which composts 100
pounds of food waste each day and handles Liberty's
recycling program). Each day, the race to reproduce life
itself at Liberty begins, and each day it is largely
met, in theory at least, without the use of two things-
the money-form and hierarchy.

A mantra that pings around Occupy Wall Street is that
the Occupation is creating within the quadrants of
Liberty Park the society it wants to see in the outside
world. This claim has struck some as naïve: after all,
union pizzas don't descend from heaven; they are paid
for by dues collected by union leaders. But the idea
isn't really to be segregated and self-sustaining. As
Yotam Marom, a 25-year-old organizer who is affiliated
with a participatory socialist collective called the
Organization for a Free Society, puts it, "We're
creating alternative models of the world we want to live
in while also using those new institutions as a staging
ground to fight for that world-that's what's radical and
cool about occupations." Academics call this
"prefigurative politics," a term that describes acting
as if utopian democratic practices exist in the here and
now. Its precedents include Gandhi (We must be the
change we want to see in the world), European
autonomism, the anti-nuke movement and, most recently,
the anti-globalization movement, especially its
anarchist tendencies.

On the ground at Liberty, prefigurative politics is
manifest in the directly democratic process that guides
the nightly General Assembly as well as all working
groups and caucus meetings. In fact, the principle of
horizontalism strongly influences all social relations
there. When I dropped in on the library one day it was
being staffed by Bill Scott, an associate professor of
English at the University of Pittsburgh; Steven Syrek, a
graduate student in English at Rutgers; and Briar
("gender pronoun: it!"), an undergrad at NYU who was
debating whether to drop out of school instead of
racking up more debt. In another context they might have
been stacked up vertically (professor, TA, student), but
at Liberty they were all just putting stickers on books.

Anyone who shows up can participate on equal terms in
the General Assembly and working groups; there is no
membership, and proposals must pass by consensus. Anyone
can block consensus out of "serious ethical or safety
concerns," and if those aren't resolved by amendments or
clarifications, a vote is taken for modified consensus,
which requires 90 percent support. A number of
procedures and group norms-from the "progressive stack,"
which privileges minority speakers; to the practice of
"step up, step back," which calls on participants to be
aware of how often they speak; to daily meetings of the
Facilitation working group-guard against the breakdown
of these processes. They can be slow, frustrating and
sometimes ugly-and who has time for all these meetings?-
but overall the crowd seems mostly satisfied with what
has gone down so far. ("We're at least as effective as
the US Senate," one organizer told me.)

* * *

More than any other quality of Occupy Wall Street-except
perhaps for the ubiquitous drum circle-it is these
anarchist practices that have elicited the most hand-
wringing from establishment leftists. Some, like New
School politics professor James Miller, worry that OWS
will recapitulate the failures of the New Left. In an
op-ed for the New York Times, Miller warned that an
obsession with participatory democracy could allow
violent militants or ideological extremists to hijack
the movement, and he darkly cited the French anti-
globalization manifesto The Coming Insurrection, a text
he calls a "touchstone for the anarchists in Occupy Wall
Street," as evidence of the movement's potential to
descend into nihilism. The Coming Insurrection is,
indeed, a worrying text; it predicts the total collapse
of modern society, instigated in part by local cells of
revolutionaries who exploit moments of crisis (e.g.,
Hurricane Katrina) in order to replace late capitalism
with autonomist units of life. But few Occupiers I met
at Liberty had even heard of the book, and the idea that
it laid the template for Occupy Wall Street seems
largely to come from Glenn Beck, who has been obsessed
with it for years and sometimes attributes Obama's
actions to its philosophy.

More to the point, from day one the Occupation has been
scrupulously nonviolent. Its emphasis on autonomy and
consensus has tempered rather than emboldened the
fetishization of militancy. Nobody is coerced into a
direct action, and much deliberation is given to how
direct actions could affect the most vulnerable in the
group-like undocumented immigrants and the Occupiers,
those who sleep at Liberty and have developed a
surprisingly close relationship with the beat cops who
patrol it.

Does callous revolutionary fervor exist in and around
Occupy? Sure, there are flashes of it-for example, at a
recent debate about Occupy Wall Street at Bluestockings
bookstore, Malcolm Harris, an editor at The New Inquiry
journal, responded to a question about whether anarchist
tactics could achieve free higher education by saying
that "a free university in a capitalist economy is like
a reading room in a prison" (boos and obscene gestures
ensued). But most OWS activists I spoke with forcefully
rejected the idea that the movement should or would
heighten crisis to provoke revolutionary struggle. "I'm
not for increasing the immiseration of people around the
world who are starving. Who are we to say, Let it get
really bad?" asks Yotam.

OWS organizers are, moreover, acutely aware that the
movement's extraordinary potential lies in its ability
to bring together a range of participants who coalesce
maybe once in a generation: anarchists and Marxists of a
thousand different sects, social democrats, community
organizers, immigrants' rights activists, feminists,
queers, anti-racist organizers, capitalists who want to
save capitalism by restoring the Fordist truce, the
simply curious and sympathetic. Republicans like Eric
Cantor have denigrated Occupy Wall Street as "a mob,"
and the right-wing press has raised the specter of
"anarchism" to distinguish OWS from populism. But it is,
in fact, the movement's emphasis on direct democracy,
derived from anarchism, that has allowed such an
unwieldy set of actors to occupy the same space. Early
on, it was the consensus model that enabled a handful of
people of color to block language in the movement's
Declaration of the Occupation of New York City that they
felt falsely suggested a postracial America. "It was a
very scary experience. It was still a majority-white
space, and we were four visibly brown people-one wears a
turban-standing up to say, No, this can't happen!"
recalls Thanu Yakupitiyage, a 26-year-old immigrants'
rights organizer. But the block held, and the language
was amended, and instead of bolting from Liberty (This
is just a bunch of white folks in the park, she
originally thought), Thanu helped establish OWS's People
of Color working group-which, among other goals, tries
to make sure that minorities are represented in every
other working group and caucus.

Likewise, the movement's malleable and open nature has
created space for a range of supporters and affinity
groups, like the Occupied Wall Street Journal, now
published in Spanish and online, and OccupyWriters.com,
a collective started by Nation writers Jeff Sharlet,
Kiera Feldman and Nathan Schneider, which has gathered
some 2,000 signatures and published short dispatches and
vignettes by Lemony Snicket, Alice Walker, Ursula K. Le
Guin and others. True to spirit, anyone who identifies
as a writer can sign the OccupyWriters.com petition, and
the original organizers are taking a step back from the
project to make way for new blood, including from
outside New York. These media endeavors may not work per
se under the auspices of the New York General Assembly,
but they've lent their creative energies to the mix-
helping to break through the establishment press's early
condescending coverage.

At the moment, the movement's energy is overwhelmingly
directed at keeping this fusion of forces alive, to
focus on what unifies-the common belief, for example,
that capitalism is out of control and that the political
system has broken down-rather than what divides; and to
debate without hard preconceptions a range of solutions.
As Kobi Skolnick, an Israeli-American activist who comes
out of the peace movement, put it, "Socialism is a great
idea. Anarchism is a great idea. Moderating capitalism
is a great idea. We can't afford to have an either/or
mentality anymore." It's a message that even Occupy Wall
Street's revolutionaries can get down with, for now. As
Alexandre Carvalho says, "We are on a path that goes to
revolution, but it can pass through reform."

In this early stage, the movement seems both extremely
fragile and extremely potent. The threats of police
action, internal rancor, negative public opinion and
burnout all loom; like the winter, some of those perils
are unavoidable. But so far the Occupiers have pulled
off a remarkable feat-to summon all the specters of left
history and yet slip past the fatal noose of infighting.
Who knows how long this will last? If it does, perhaps
the culture of anarchism will be remembered as the
left's exonerator instead of as its hangman's knot.

* * *

On the ground, it hasn't been the hardliners who have
most exulted in the social experiment that is Liberty
Park. Living in the conditional tense requires more than
just ideological commitment; it takes the curious
mixture of patience and innocence found mostly in the
young. At the heart of the Occupation are young
professionals and creative types-architects, graphic
designers, programmers, curators, musicians, writers,
managers, actors and Williamsburg hipsters whose talents
primarily lie in stitching birds onto things (see
Creative Cash). They take part, on and off, in the
General Assembly, but they are mostly concerned with
creating the dizzying life-world that has distinguished
the movement as a cultural as well as political force.
Many of these folks are strivers facing downward
economic pressure, but a good number of them could be
members of Richard Florida's "creative class," those
whose presence supposedly signals affluence.

Liberty Park is culture-rich, but not in that way. Its
denizens include Katie Davison, a 31-year-old filmmaker
who used to direct fashion commercials until her family
became "collateral damage in the financial crisis": her
father, once an executive at GMAC, died in a car crash
the same day he was fired from a subsequent job. At some
point, Katie vowed to stop doing commercial work and
started a documentary on inequality and the collapse of
the American dream. Her friends said she was crazy, and
sometimes she felt that way too until she followed a
hunch and got on a plane from Los Angeles to New York on
September 16, one day before the Occupation began. She's
been shooting video for the Media group ever since,
although like many early Occupiers, she soon faced a
dilemma: funds depleted, should she take a paying gig or
keep working for the Occupation? She chose both. "I
don't understand how I'm going to balance the revolution
and editing this vampire movie," she laments.

For Katie, who comes from an anti-capitalist background,
the appeal of OWS is "beyond political": it is
"spiritual and philosophical." Her day-to-day work life
is defined by the principles of horizontalism, autonomy
and collectivism. Like a lot of Occupiers, Katie says
that the point of working without hierarchies is to
"show through direct action that something else is
possible.. This empowers people who have no power in the
real world, but in this world they do, and this changes
human potential and the human value system." Katie
admits that at times "working with people in an all-
inclusive manner has been very difficult." She's used to
hierarchical structures on production sets ("I'm the
director-and I direct"). In the beginning, the Media
working group was mobbed with volunteers who said they
could shoot; but when the videos came in, it became
clear that folks were coming from different skill
levels. "How do you create something where people don't
feel bad about the things they are making?" she asks.
One solution has been to adopt a collective model in
which roles are traded day to day; another has been to
set up trainings and classes so that "photographers can
learn to walk straighter now." This focus on empowerment
has also informed the relations between groups in
different cities-the New York livestream was set up by
people from Global Revolution who had been in Madrid's
Puerta del Sol. When the Occupation in Washington, DC,
took off, Global Revolution sent a team there, and then
to Pittsburgh, and the OWS Media group has also been in
touch with Occupations across America to share lessons
and pitfalls.

The term "consciousness raising" drops without
embarrassment from many mouths, and there is an
Education and Empowerment working group whose mission is
essentially that '70s thing. All of this comes with
contradictions; for example, the now ritualized focus on
leaderlessness tends to obscure the relative power and
legitimacy bestowed upon early Occupiers. Conversely,
the open-ended, consensus-driven meetings have led to
situations where newcomers can block proposals that
movement die-hards have worked on for weeks.

How this social experiment relates to OWS politics and
goals, its future and its capacity to create enduring
change, is very much an open question. Will Briar have
as many opportunities as its fellow librarians have had?
Will Joe get the health insurance and job stability he
needs? Can Occupy Wall Street affect the lives of people
outside Liberty's borders?

* * *

Since the last week of September, when Occupy Wall
Street hit the front pages after videos of unwarranted
police aggression went viral, the question of demands
has increasingly weighed on the movement. At first, the
issue came from the outside and carried the whiff of
appeasement: What do the kids want, and how can they be
bought off? Some Occupiers shot back in defiance,
"Demands are for terrorists!"

But as the movement has grown-taking in veteran
organizers and garnering declarations of solidarity from
labor, progressive community groups, left-leaning
intellectuals, think tanks and even members of Congress-
the question has become more insistent. Some pressure
has come from these allies, who have been happy to grab
onto Occupy's unexpected coattails or collaborate on a
series of direct actions but who approach politics from
a more constituent-based, results-driven model. No
doubt, elected officials would also like to see demands
made, as everyone from President Obama to New Jersey
Governor Chris Christie has comically tried to both
sympathize with and distance themselves from the
Occupation's primal expressions of frustration and rage.
With approval ratings at 43 percent and climbing (that's
almost five times higher than Congress's 9 percent), the
movement has intruded upon electoral politics, and a
list of demands that could be rejected or accommodated
would certainly help the pols fill out their dance

But the push for demands has come from the inside too. A
Demands working group took shape in early October,
largely outside Liberty. A hasty New York Times article
almost exclusively quoting its members provoked fierce
criticism at that night's General Assembly, which
released a statement saying that "the GA has not reached
a consensus regarding any statement of demands.and the
demands list submitted to the NYT was never presented to
the GA." Likewise, on October 21, OccupyWallStreet.org
posted a disclaimer saying that the Demands group is
"not empowered by the NYC General Assembly," is "not
open-source and does not act by consensus" and "only
represents themselves."

But a movement that claims to be open to all isn't in a
great position to exile its dissidents, so since that
dustup, the Demands group has been absorbed into the
process. It now posts its documents online and uses
modified consensus rules, although some question the
group's fidelity to such procedures and consequently
also the group's legitimacy. These issues flared up at
the October 30 General Assembly, when the Demands group
presented its first proposal, a call for "a massive
public works and public service program" that would
create "jobs for all." After a heated and messy
deliberation that failed to get past even the first
round of questions, the proposal was tabled until the
next week, allowing Demands to conduct more meetings and

That General Assembly exposed a clear ideological schism
between anarchists, on the one hand, and Marxists,
progressives and liberals, on the other, with the former
predisposed to reject any demands (like jobs for all)
that appeal to the state instead of directly to the
people. But the meeting wasn't particularly well
attended-as many Occupiers at Liberty were milling about
reading, singing or kibitzing on other matters as were
clustered around the human mic-and away from the fray,
in the working groups themselves, the issue seemed much
less polarized and much less significant. Most
organizers I spoke with were open to demands at some
point but preferred to focus on movement building for
now. "I think one day there could come a time for
demands," says Katie Davison, "but right now I think
demands would fracture and divide people.. We need a
movement of solidarity that is about values first, and
we're still coming together and finding out what we all
agree on."

There is, of course, a danger that with so much ebb and
flow, the movement won't be sensitive enough to
recognize when that moment is reached, or that the
Occupation will focus too much on education and
empowerment, descending into a navel-gazing stupor. The
emphasis at Liberty on the experiential has so far been
a politicizing force, its creative chaos a blessing-but
for how long? Already many early Occupiers have grown
frustrated with what they call the fetishization of life
at Liberty, with merely holding the square. "It's become
acceptable just to be at Zuccotti Park," says Yotam
Marom, "but now we need to up the ante. The direct
action needs to shift gears again-it can't just be
symbolic. It has to be a true disruption of business as

Early in the Occupation, Nation writer Jeff Madrick
urged the Occupiers to "go to where the injustice is,"
and they have-to Harlem to protest the NYPD's stop-and-
frisk policies, to Verizon's corporate headquarters to
protest on behalf of CWA employees, to wherever New York
Governor Andrew Cuomo sets foot to protest state budget
cuts and his refusal to extend a state millionaire's
tax, and to branches of big banks to noisily withdraw
their patronage in favor of credit unions. If there is
some meaningful convergence between traditional social-
democratic politics and the anarchist-inflected focus on
experience, perhaps it lies in these direct actions. As
the members of a new generation put their bodies on the
line, they discover that their languishing talents can
be deployed in the pursuit of justice. What's a name for
this-organized anarchy or socialism with a beat? What
matters is that it's working for now.

Richard Kim is the executive editor of TheNation.com.


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