Pre-Occupied: The origins and future of Occupy Wall Street.
BY MATTATHIAS SCHWARTZ (Originally published in The New Yorker)
Kalle Lasn spends most nights shuffling clippings into a binder of plastic sleeves, each of which represents one page of an issue ofAdbusters, a bimonthly magazine that he founded and edits. It is a tactile process, like making a collage, and occasionally Lasn will run a page with his own looped cursive scrawl on it. From this absorbing work, Lasn acquired the habit of avoiding the news after dark. So it was not until the morning of Tuesday, November 15th, that he learned that hundreds of police officers had massed in lower Manhattan at 1 A.M. and cleared the camp at Zuccotti Park. If anyone could claim responsibility for the Zuccotti situation, it was Lasn: Adbusters had come up with the idea of an encampment, the date the initial occupation would start, and the name of the protest—Occupy Wall Street. Now the epicenter of the movement had been raided. Lasn began thinking of reasons that this might be a good thing.
Lasn is sixty-nine years old and lives with his wife on a five-acre farm outside Vancouver. He has thinning white hair and the small eyes of a bulldog. In a lilting voice, he speaks of “a dark age coming for humanity” and of “killing capitalism,” alternating gusts of passion with gentle laughter. He has learned not to let premonitions of apocalypse spoil his good mood.
The magazine, which he founded twenty-two years ago, depicts the developed world as a nightmare of environmental collapse and spiritual hollowness, driven to the brink of destruction by its consumer appetites. Adbusters’ images—a breastfeeding baby tattooed with corporate logos; a smiling Barack Obama with a clown’s ball on his nose—are combined with equally provocative texts and turned into a paginated montage. Adbusters is not the only radical magazine calling for the end of life as we know it, but it is by far the best-looking.
Lasn was interrupted by a phone call about the Zuccotti eviction while in bed, reading Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending.” He rose and checked his e-mail. There was a message from Micah White, Adbusters’ senior editor and Lasn’s closest collaborator.
“Eerie timing!” White wrote. Earlier that night, Adbusters had sent out its most recent “tactical briefing”—a mass e-mail to ninety thousand friends of the magazine—proposing that the nation’s Occupy protesters throw a party in mid-December, declare victory, and withdraw from their encampments. A few hours later, officers from the New York Police Department began handing out notices stating that the park had become dangerous and unsanitary, and ordering the protesters to leave, so that it could be cleaned. Those who refused to go were arrested, and whatever they left behind was carried off by the Department of Sanitation, to a depot on West Fifty-seventh Street. After a long night of angry marches and meetings, the protesters were allowed back into Zuccotti, with newly enforced prohibitions on tents and on lying down. The protest continued, but the fifty-nine days of rude, anarchic freedom on a patch of granite in lower Manhattan were over.
White reached Lasn by telephone shortly before nine. Lasn was in the bathtub, and White told him details that he had learned online about the eviction. The police had established a strict media cordon, blocking access from nearby streets. “It was a military-style operation,” he said. These words made Lasn think of the bloody uprising in Syria. He quickly decided that the apparent end of Zuccotti was not a tragedy but the latest in a series of crisis-driven opportunities, what he calls “revolutionary moments,” akin to the slapping of a Tunisian fruit vender. “I just can’t believe how stupid Bloomberg can be!” he said to me later that day. “This means escalation. A raising of the stakes. It’s one step closer to, you know, a revolution.”
Lasn and White quickly hammered out a post-Zuccotti plan. White would draft a new memorandum, suggesting that Phase I—signs, meetings, camps, marches—was now over. Phase II would involve a swarming strategy of “surprise attacks against business as usual,” with the potential to be “more intense and visceral, depending on how the Bloombergs of the world react.” White could hear the excitement in Lasn’s voice. Even as Lasn vented about the morning’s counterrevolution, he was doing what he could not to splash.
This is how Occupy Wall Street began: as one of many half-formed plans circulating through conversations between Lasn and White, who lives in Berkeley and has not seen Lasn in person for more than four years. Neither can recall who first had the idea of trying to take over lower Manhattan. In early June, Adbusters sent an e-mail to subscribers stating that “America needs its own Tahrir.” The next day, White wrote to Lasn that he was “very excited about the Occupy Wall Street meme. . . . I think we should make this happen.” He proposed three possible Web sites: OccupyWallStreet.org, AcampadaWallStreet.org, and TakeWallStreet.org.
“No. 1 is best,” Lasn replied, on June 9th. That evening, he registered OccupyWallStreet.org.
White, who is twenty-nine years old, was born to a Caucasian mother and an African-American father. “I don’t really fit in with either group,” he told me. He attended suburban public schools, where he began a series of one-man campaigns against authority. In middle school, with his parents’ blessing, he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. In high school, he founded an atheists’ club, over the objections of the principal. This led to an appearance on “Politically Incorrect,” and atheist organizations flew White to their conferences to give talks. “It all went to my head,” he said. “I became a little ego child. Ego destroys. I was too young to understand that.”
Though he describes himself as a “mystical anarchist,” White has three strict rules that govern his day: No naps. No snacks. Get dressed. “By dressed,” he told me, “I mean pants and a shirt. Enough so that if someone came to the door and knocked on it you wouldn’t be totally embarrassed.” After earning a B.A. at Swarthmore, he wrote a letter to Lasn, whom he had never met, saying that he would be arriving in Vancouver in a matter of weeks and wanted to be put to work.
Lasn was born in Estonia, but his earliest memories are of German refugee camps, where his family ended up after fleeing the Russian Army during the Second World War. He remembers falling asleep on a cot as his uncles talked about politics with his father, a tennis champion who buried his trophies in the back yard before rushing the family onto one of the last boats to Germany. “World wars, revolutions—from time to time, big things actually happen,” he told me. “When the moment is right, all it takes is a spark.”
Lasn’s family left the refugee camp for Australia, where he grew up. He has a degree in applied mathematics, and he began his career designing computer war games for the Australian military. Using this expertise, he started a market-research company in Tokyo during Japan’s postwar boom, where, by feeding punch cards into an I.B.M. mainframe, he created reports for consumer brands, many of them alcohol and tobacco products. “It’s easy to generate cool if you have the bucks, the celebrities, the right ideas, the right slogans,” he says. “You can throw ideas into the culture that then have a life of their own.” He made a lot of money, travelled around the world, moved to Canada, and devoted himself to experimental filmmaking and environmental protection. In 1989, when the CBC refused to sell him airtime for a thirty-second “mind bomb” aimed at the forestry industry, Lasn realized that his politics would never have a place within the mass media. With Bill Schmalz, an outdoorsman who had worked with him as a cameraman, Lasn founded Adbusters.
Lasn says that Adbusters has a circulation worldwide of roughly seventy thousand. The magazine accepts no advertising, and relies on newsstand sales and donations. Adbusters was an early supporter of Buy Nothing Day, a protest holiday, in late November, during which people abstain from shopping. In 2003, Lasn started producing the Blackspot, a sneaker made partially of hemp, which he still sells online. Lasn has long used the magazine as a platform for stridently criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and his most controversial moment came in 2004, when he wrote an essay on how Jews influence U.S. foreign policy. Alongside the essay was a list of powerful neoconservatives, with asterisks next to the names of those who Lasn believed were Jewish.
This spring, the magazine was pushing boycotts of Starbucks (for driving out local businesses) and the Huffington Post (for exploiting citizen journalists). Then, in early June, the art department designed a poster showing a ballerina poised on the “Charging Bull” sculpture, near Wall Street. Lasn had thought of the image late at night while walking his German shepherd, Taka: “the juxtaposition of the capitalist dynamism of the bull,” he remembers, “with the Zen stillness of the ballerina.” In the background, protesters were emerging from a cloud of tear gas. The violence had a highly aestheticized, dreamlike quality—Adbusters’ signature. “What is our one demand?” the poster asked. “Occupy Wall Street. Bring tent.”
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. Lasn believed that the political climate could have shifted entirely by then. He proposed late September of this year; then he settled on the seventeenth, his mother’s birthday. White agreed. Lasn instructed the art department to insert “September 17th” beneath the bull and the ballerina, and Adbusters devoted a tactical-briefing e-mail on July 13th exclusively to the proposed occupation.
White watched as the e-mail’s proposal raced around Twitter and Reddit. “Normal campaigns are lots of drudgery and not much payoff, like rolling a snowball up a hill,” he said. “This was the reverse.” Fifteen minutes after Lasn sent the e-mail, Justine Tunney, a twenty-six-year-old in Philadelphia, read it on her RSS feed. The next day, she registered OccupyWallSt.org, which soon became the movement’s online headquarters. She began operating the site with a small team, most of whose members were, like her, transgender anarchists. (They jokingly call themselves Trans World Order.)
Encouraged by the quick online response, White connected with New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, which had previously organized an occupation-style action, called Bloombergville, and was already planning an August 2nd rally at the “Charging Bull” to protest cuts that would likely result from the federal debt crisis. They agreed to join forces, and N.Y.A.B.C. said that it would devote part of its upcoming rally to planning for the September 17th occupation.
This resulted in some confusion on August 2nd, when scores of graduate students and labor activists showed up, expecting a rally for New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts. 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.”
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, the movement’s center of gravity shifted from Vancouver to New York. The 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. 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. Holmes is dark-haired and eloquent; she has the parliamentarian’s trick of making harsh ultimatums sound palatable, even breezy. When she wants to emphasize a point, she doesn’t raise her voice; she turns her palms up and shrugs. Earlier this year, she flew to Cairo and filmed the Tahrir demonstrations. “It was the same as here,” she says. “They had speakers, banners, direct actions. I spent ninety per cent of my time in cafés, drinking Turkish coffee and talking.”
At 11 A.M. on Saturday, September 17th, an elementary-school teacher I’ll call P. left his Brooklyn apartment and got on a subway heading to Manhattan. (He requested that he be identified by the first letter of his last name, because he was concerned that he would be fired from his job.) He wore a red sweater and brown pants. Earlier that morning, he had sent a vague e-mail informing a co-worker that he might not show up Monday morning. He was part of the Tactical Committee, a subgroup of the General Assembly whose responsibility was to figure out where, exactly, the occupation would take place.
P. took the subway to Bowling Green. On his way to the exit, he passed a line of police officers accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs. Outside, police had surrounded the “Charging Bull” with barricades and, a few blocks north, sealed off a stretch of Wall Street around the Stock Exchange. P. tried to look nonchalant as he carried a black messenger bag that contained a first-aid kit, a bottled solution of liquid antacid and water (to remedy the effects of tear gas and pepper spray), fifteen Clif bars (carrot cake), and several hundred photocopied maps, showing seven possible locations. “We decided that low-tech communication methods would be best,” P. told me. “If we’d used a mass text message, or Twitter, it would have been easy for the police to track down who was doing this.”
P. majored in math at a small liberal-arts college and plays in two bands, “some punk, some noise.” Like most of Occupy Wall Street’s core organizers, P. is an anarchist, meaning that he is “dedicated to the eradication of any unjust or illegitimate system. At the very least, that means the eradication of capitalism and the state.” He does not smash bank windows, though he said that he does not necessarily disapprove of people who do.
At Bowling Green, several hundred protesters had gathered near the Museum of the American Indian. 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,” Marisa Holmes says.
P. quickly found the two other members of the Tactical Committee, both white men in their twenties. All three were “extremely nervous,” P. says. They left to scout Location Two, three-quarters of an acre of honey-locust trees and granite benches, a few blocks to the north, called Zuccotti Park. It was almost empty, and there were few police nearby. As the Tactical Committee had learned in its research, Location Two was a privately owned public space. While the city can close public parks at dusk, or impose other curfews, zoning laws require Zuccotti’s owner to keep the park open for “passive recreation” twenty-four hours a day.
Soon, maps were distributed and people began to murmur, “Go to Location Two in thirty minutes.” The first arrivals took seats beneath the trees on the eastern side, arranged themselves in small groups, and ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. By that afternoon, nearly a thousand people had gathered for a general-assembly meeting. Late that night, P. went home; nearly three hundred of his comrades settled in to sleep there.
In the next few weeks, the encampment became more established, with tents, desks, walkways, wireless Internet, a kitchen, and an extensive lending library. A sort of organization took shape, with people forming a seemingly endless array of working groups: Structure, Facilitation, Sanitation, Food, Direct Action, Safe Spaces. A mid-October balance sheet from the occupation’s Finance Working Group reported that it had received four hundred and fifty thousand dollars in donations, which it was keeping in two accounts at Amalgamated Bank. Almost every afternoon for two months, depending on the weather, hundreds of people gathered in the park. Some were drawn to the cameras and the spectacle; some came for the free food, shelter, and medical care; and some showed up for the earnest political conversation and because they believed that this might be the beginning of a revolution.
What did the movement want? On September 20th, three thousand miles away from Zuccotti Park, White and Lasn tried to write a manifesto in the form of a letter to President Obama. They sought to have banking-industry regulations tightened, high-frequency trading banned, all the “financial fraudsters” responsible for the 2008 crash arrested, and a Presidential commission formed to investigate corruption in politics. “We will stay here in our encampment in Liberty Plaza”—Zuccotti Park’s post-occupation name—“until you respond to our demands,” the letter concluded.
“Micah, this is a wonderful draft,” Holmes replied on September 22nd, when White e-mailed her Adbusters’ proposed letter. “However, the General Assembly is going through this very process of drafting a statement. It should be ready this afternoon.” A week later, the General Assembly adopted a “Declaration of the Occupation,” which is more a world view than a list of demands. “We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies. . . . No true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power.” The rest of the six-hundred-word declaration is taken up mainly by “grievances,” which place the blame for everything from poison in the food supply to cruelty to animals on these corporate forces, also known as “they.” What should be done to remedy these grievances? “Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face; and generate solutions accessible to everyone.”
To many in the park, vagueness was a virtue. It also had a history. In 1962, student radicals gathered in Michigan to complete the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society. One student argued that an early working draft was too utopian and impractical. But Tom Hayden, the main author, wrote that the movement should “remain ambiguous in direction for a while: don’t kill it by immediately imposing formulas. . . . When consciousness is at its proper stage, we might talk seriously and in an action-oriented way about solutions.”
Soon after finishing the declaration, the early organizers started to have a problem: their solutions were to be accessible to everyone, but so was their protest. The crowds at those early meetings came in response to messages broadcast over a narrow channel, the Adbusters list. They were committed to a tangible goal, with an immediate deadline. But in early October, as the national media seized on the Zuccotti Park story, the rest of the ninety-nine per cent started showing up. The G.A. had to tackle three new challenges simultaneously: holding ground; managing a semi-permanent village; and guiding a much larger and more cacophonous political conversation. All this had to be done with almost no heat, running water, or electricity.
Consensus—the agreed-upon method of decision-making—wasn’t easy among hundreds of self-identified ninety-nine-per-centers, whose politics ranged from “Daily Show” liberalism to insurrectionary anarchism. Because of the ground rules determined by the people sitting on the cobblestones in August, no decision could be made without giving everyone in attendance the chance to cross his or her arms and bring the meeting to a halt. According to the G.A.’s rules, a nine-tenths vote could override a block, but only after each block had explained his or her objections and the facilitators had responded. The least reasonable people often got the most time to speak.
“The G.A. is beautiful, but it’s not an effective decision-making body,” Holmes told me in mid-October. She wanted things to be slightly more hierarchical, with a Spokes Council that would have limited day-to-day authority over the camp.
On October 28th, three dozen members of the Facilitation Working Group gathered around metal tables in a public atrium at 60 Wall Street to set that night’s agenda. They were going to discuss Holmes’s proposal again, but what else? An older man with bushy eyebrows was videotaping the proceedings. He said that he represented the Demands Working Group, and he wanted the G.A. to demand jobs for all. “The G.A. already said this is a movement without demands,” another man said. “So how can there be a working group on demands?”
Other people approached the facilitators. A group of herbalists wanted fifteen hundred dollars to make medicines. Someone wanted to present “Native American peace principles” derived from the Iroquois Confederacy. Someone else had a facilitation accountability model, a spreadsheet for evaluating the facilitators. A representative from an N.Y.U. student group asked the G.A. to formally endorse Occupy Oakland’s Day of Action. He was informed that such an endorsement had already been made. A few minutes later, everyone began speaking at once. “Whoa!” a facilitator cried. “Let’s take a breath and get centered. This is a valid conversation, but this is not the right venue to have it.”
As the facilitation meeting was wrapping up, Marisa Holmes, wearing a dark-green trenchcoat, arrived; soon she was conferring with two other organizers over cold noodles about how they would present the proposal for the Spokes Council that evening. She had arrived with the team that was to conduct the general assembly, and the atrium quickly reorganized itself around them. Despite the movement’s taboo on leaders, many in this group had accrued a sort of power. “Marisa is a quiet leader,” Marina Sitrin, an occasional facilitator and the author of a book about horizontalism in Argentina, says. “She’s not a young Tom Hayden, the white-male type who by force of personality and speech wins an argument.”
When it was time for the general assembly, a crowd of four or five hundred had gathered around the steps on the park’s eastern side. Most spent the next three hours packed in, knee to knee, on the cold stone. “I hope everyone’s doing well!” Nelini Stamp, one of the facilitators, cried. “High hopes! High energy!”
“High hopes! High energy!” the crowd repeated.
“This is going to take forever,” someone in front muttered.
Stamp ignored him. She began leading the general assembly in the song “Solidarity Forever.”
“Not everyone here is into your narrow union politics,” the voice in front said.
“It’s not a union song,” Stamp said. “It’s union like ‘unity.’ ”
The voice came from a man in his mid-twenties wearing a camouflage jacket. He was sitting on a concrete bench in front of the facilitation team, one boot resting on his knee, eating sweet-potato chips and drinking from a Starbucks cup. He had the haggard look of someone who had spent a few weeks sleeping outside in a city. Known to other occupiers as Sage, he had written “SAGE’S” on the brim of his baseball cap in marker. Sage continued speaking as Holmes presented the proposal. “These are all tourists,” he said. “You do not live here.” Every time he spoke, the people sitting next to him stiffened and frowned. Sage did not seem to notice.
During a twenty-minute breakout session to discuss the proposal, Lisa Fithian, a fifty-year-old organizer who works with Holmes, made her way to the bench in front and told Sage about her success with the Spokes Council model. She said that she had worked on the nineteen-seventies anti-nuclear campaign and the W.T.O. protests in Seattle, in 1999.
“This is not a fucking college dorm,” Sage said. “Until you can speak honestly with me, I’m not having a conversation.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Fithian said. “I don’t need this shit in my face.”
“Look, I was at Tompkins Square Park,” Sage said. “This whole thing has been hijacked by socialist students who have insinuated themselves into the square. These people don’t see me. They don’t think I comprehend. So I see everything.”
“I hear you,” Fithian said.
“Why should someone who lives here have to conform to a bunch of tourists?” Sage asked.
“Your energy is hurting my system,” Fithian replied.
“Look, sometimes you have to put your body on the machine,” Sage said.
“This is not the machine!” Fithian said, her voice rising.
A tall man with a stubbled face tried to calm Sage down. His name was Evan Wagner and he was wearing a red North Face jacket. Like Sage, he was one of the few people sleeping in the park who bothered with general assemblies. Unlike Sage, he seemed like someone who could find a job if he wanted one.
Sage waved Wagner off. “Dude, you are playing a homeless person,” he said. Soon Sage was quiet. It was as though Fithian had absorbed Sage’s rage so the rest of the meeting would not have to.
When everyone returned, each smaller group described its concerns about the Spokes Council proposal. There was a question about exactly how blocks would work, and worries about a “Spokes Council-ocracy.” The tall office buildings were funnelling a cold breeze in from the Hudson River. Around ten, a facilitator called for a vote. “Three people are frustrated,” she said. “Hundreds are getting frustrated. All those in favor, please raise one hand.” Sage raised his hand.
The facilitation team counted the votes and added them up on a cell phone. The proposal passed, two hundred and eighty-four to seventeen. Stamp jumped up and down. Her voice was hoarse from three hours of yelling. “Everyone is beautiful!” she shouted. “Everyone is awesome!”
Those who were around at the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement talk about the old “vertical” left versus the new “horizontal” one. By “vertical,” they mean hierarchy and its trappings—leaders, demands, and issue-specific rallies. They mean social change as laid out by Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” and Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” where outside organizers spur communities to action. “Horizontal” means leaderless—like the 1999 W.T.O. protests in Seattle, the Arab Spring, and even the Tea Party. Anyone can show up at a general assembly and claim a piece of the movement. This lets people feel important immediately, and gives them implicit permission to take action. It also gives a disproportionate amount of power to people like Sage.
One influence that is often cited by the movement is open-source software, such as Linux, an operating system that competes with Microsoft Windows and Apple’s OS but doesn’t have an owner or a chief engineer. A programmer named Linus Torvalds came up with the idea. Thousands of unpaid amateurs joined him and then eventually organized into work groups. Some coders have more influence than others, but anyone can modify the software and no one can sell it. According to Justine Tunney, who continues to help run OccupyWallSt.org, “There is leadership in the sense of deference, just as people defer to Linus Torvalds. But the moment people stop respecting Torvalds, they can fork it”—meaning copy what’s been built and use it to build something else.
In mid-October, 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. Today, endorsements of the Occupy movement can be found everywhere, from anarchist graffiti on bank walls to Al Gore’s Twitter feed. On a rain-smeared cardboard sign near the shattered window of an Oakland coffee shop that had been destroyed by a cadre of anarchists during a nighttime clash with police, someone wrote, “We’re sorry, this does not represent us.” Below that, someone else wrote, “Speak for yourself.”
At times, horizontalism can feel like utopian theatre. Its greatest invention is the “people’s mike,” which starts when someone shouts, “Mike check!” Then the crowd shouts, “Mike check!,” and then phrases (phrases!) are transmitted (are transmitted!) through mass chanting (through mass chanting!). In the same way that poker ritualizes capitalism and North Korea’s mass games ritualize totalitarianism, the people’s mike ritualizes horizontalism. The problem, though, comes when multiple people try to summon the mike simultaneously. Then it can feel a lot like anarchy.
The politics of the occupation run parallel to the mainstream left—the people’s mike was used to shout down Michele Bachmann and Governor Scott Walker, of Wisconsin, in early November. But, in the end, the point of Occupy Wall Street is not its platform so much as its form: people sit down and hash things out instead of passing their complaints on to Washington. “We are our demands,” as the slogan goes. And horizontalism seems made for this moment. It relies on people forming loose connections quickly—something that modern technology excels at.
Events in New York seemed to bear out Lasn’s hunch that the temporary eviction of the protesters from Zuccotti Park was an opportunity rather than a defeat. The organizers were quickly able to regroup and agree that they should return to the park, despite the newly enforced ban on tents. Last Thursday, the movement mounted one of its largest protests to date. Demonstrators tried to shut down the New York Stock Exchange (they failed), organized a sit-in at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, and tussled with police in Zuccotti Park. More than two hundred people were arrested. Similar Day of Action protests temporarily blocked bridges in Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, Portland, and Philadelphia.
No matter what happens next, the movement’s center is likely to shift from the N.Y.C.G.A., just as it shifted from Adbusters, and form somewhere else, around some other circle of people, ideas, and plans. “This could be the greatest thing that I work on in my life,” Justine Tunney, of OccupyWallSt.org, said. “But the movement will have other Web sites. Over the coming weeks and months, as other occupations become more prominent, ours will slowly become irrelevant.” She sounded as though the irrelevance of her project were both inevitable and desirable. “We can’t hold on to any of that authority,” she continued. “We don’t want to.”
After the phone call with White, on the morning the New York police cleared Zuccotti Park, Lasn drove to Vancouver, to a hundred-year-old house that serves as Adbusters’ headquarters. Lasn rents the top two floors, which look down on Granville Island and False Creek; he runs the magazine out of the basement.
Lasn flung down his battered briefcase in the cramped conference room that he uses as an office. There is a phone, but no computer, and Lasn spent most of the day sitting at a table and brainstorming with his employees, the oldest of whom was thirty-two. After conferring with an Adbusters writer and the office manager, he modified that morning’s bathtub plan. The next tactical briefing would be split up into a series of e-mails sent out over time. “The chessboard has been overturned, and now a new game begins!” Lasn reasoned, shortly after noon. “The stakes are so much higher this time. First, we need to let the dust settle.”
Lasn called White to talk about this new plan, but White had already left for the University of California’s Doe Library, where he spends his afternoons looking for snippets of radical thought for Lasn’s plastic sleeves. It’s the point in his day when he leaves behind all electronic devices to seek what he calls “a burst of clarity.”
White is not on Facebook, which he calls “the commercialization of friendship.” He uses e-mail and Twitter only because he feels compelled to. His position has softened since the time when he believed in what he calls “the Heideggerian critique of technology—that it turns us into empty matter for the exportation of capitalism.” Lasn welcomes the international media attention that Adbusters has received. “I’m surfing,” he said, when I asked if he ever felt swamped by the flood of incoming messages. White feels differently: “All these e-mails—it feels like a denial-of-service attack against my brain.”
Every day, as White walks from his home to the library, he is confronted by traces of what he helped create: posters in store windows supporting a general strike in Oakland; posters supporting the occupation wheat-pasted onto a football statue; “We Are the 99 Percent!” slogans written on walls in chalk.
“I almost feel like I’m a ghost, or like I’m living in a dream, where my conversations with Kalle have manifested in reality,” he said. In mid-November, sixteen hours after someone created a short “Micah M. White” entry on Wikipedia, White nominated it for deletion. “Person is non-notable,” he wrote. ♦