Inside Occupy Wall Street

How a bunch of anarchists and radicals with nothing but sleeping bags launched a nationwide movement

November 24, 2011
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It started with a Tweet – "Dear Americans, this July 4th, dream of insurrection against corporate rule" – and a hashtag: #occupywallstreet. It showed up again as a headline posted online on July 13th by Adbusters, a sleek, satirical Canadian magazine known for its mockery of consumer culture. Beneath it was a date, September 17th, along with a hard-to-say slogan that never took off, "Democracy, not corporatocracy," and some advice that did: "Bring tent."

On August 2nd, the New York City General Assembly convened for the first time in Lower Manhattan, right by the market's bronze icon, "Charging Bull," snorting in perpetuity. It wasn't the usual protest crowd. "The traditional left – the unions, the progressive academics, the community organizations – wanted nothing to do with this in the beginning," says Marisa Holmes, a 25-year-old filmmaker from Columbus, Ohio, who was working on a BBC documentary called Creating Freedom, about why people rebel. "I think it's telling that, of the early participants, so many were artists and media makers."

Even the instigators and architects present at the creation marvel at how things just happened. "It was a magic moment," says Kalle Lasn, Adbusters' 69-year-old co-founder. "After that, things took on a life of their own, and then it was out of our hands."

Adbusters' call to arms had been timid by the standards of the movement quickly taking form. The magazine had proposed a "worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics," but their big ideas went no further than pressuring Obama to appoint a presidential commission on the role of money in politics. In Lasn's imagination, though, that would be just the start. "We knew, of course, that Egypt had a hard regime change where a torturous dictator was removed," he says, "but many of us felt that in America, a soft regime change was possible."

Possible, but not likely. They were still thinking in inches. "To be perfectly honest, we thought it might be a steppingstone, not the establishment of a whole thing," says David Graeber, a 50-year-old anthropologist and anarchist whose teaching gig at Yale was not renewed, some suspect, because he took part in radical actions. It was Graeber who gave the movement its theme: "We are the 99 percent." He also helped rescue it from the usual sorry fate of the left in America, the schisms and infighting over who's in charge. He had shown up at the August 2nd meeting thinking it was an Adbusters thing; he was surprised to find a rally dominated by the antiquated ideas of the Cold War left. "This is bullshit," Graeber thought. He recognized a Greek anarchist organizer, Georgia Sagri, and with her help identified kindred spirits. "We looked around. I didn't recognize faces, everybody was so young. I went by T-shirts – Zapatistas, Food Not Bombs." Anarchists in name or inclination. He calls them the "horizontal crowd" because they loathe hierarchy. "It was really just tapping on shoulders. And a lot of people said, 'Shit, yeah.'"

They set up a circle in a nearby park, dubbed it the New York City General Assembly and got down to talking about how they'd pull off the occupation. They were inspired by something they'd read on the Adbusters website, a quote from Spanish political theorist Raimundo Viejo, who was active in the revolts across Europe this year. "The anti-globalization movement was the first step on the road. Back then, our model was to attack the system like a pack of wolves. There was an alpha male, a wolf who led the pack, and those who followed behind. Now the model has evolved. Today we are one big swarm of people."

But the reality was, they only numbered about 60 people. "You always fantasize," says Graeber. "But at some level, you've given up on thinking it's really going to work." They had no money. And they were planning to take over one of the most heavily policed public spaces on the planet. "Everybody was talking about occupying Wall Street," says Marina Sitrin, author of an oral history of revolution called Horizontalism. "Having been around NYPD for two decades, I kind of chuckled to myself and decided not to share what I thought at the time was a wise perspective, which is we should prepare for everybody to get arrested." And that'd be the end of it, another short, sharp chapter in the little-read book of the modern American left.

Adbusters had called for 20,000 bodies; only 2,000 showed up on September 17th. And maybe 100 of them slept over that first night in Zuccotti Park, a block-long granite plaza tucked between skyscrapers a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. The next night, there were a few more, and on Monday morning, they were still there. There was a police raid on Tuesday, and the little press the occupation got was mocking: The New York Times sent an entertainment reporter, who made fun of the protesters. In the days that followed, the few grew in numbers, a demographic that didn't conform to media clichés: a gritty spiral jetty of anarchist punks and out-of-work construction workers and teachers who sleep in the park and rise early to get to school. Cooks and nannies and librarians, lots of librarians, and Teamsters and priests and immigrants, legal and otherwise, and culture jammers, eco-warriors, hackers, and men and women in Guy Fawkes masks, an army of stunt doubles from V for Vendetta, all joined by young veterans of the Arab Spring and the revolts in Greece and Spain – actual revolutionaries who had overthrown dictators and made Western nations shake.

Now there are more than 1,600 occupations around the country and the world, some big, most small, some no more than one angry soul on the side of the road with a sign that says "We are the 99 percent." They are in Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, Seattle and Nashville; in London, in Sydney, in Cape Town, Tokyo and Sao Paulo. By November, Occupy Wall Street was serving more than 3,000 meals every day from its free kitchen, stocked mostly with donated food. At night, a rotating cast of as many as 500 bed down in the park, many of them using blankets and sleeping bags provided by the occupation. There's a library with some 4,500 cataloged volumes – everything from the Communist Manifesto to He's Just Not That Into You – an all-volunteer medical staff to provide free health care, a station that gives out hand-rolled cigarettes if you want them.

Six weeks in, when Marina Sitrin sat down to collect her thoughts about the movement she had helped start, words failed. So she began with a slogan – "my favorite chant, preferably sung: This is what democracy looks like." The kind of thing you'd hear shouted at every rally against a war or a law or a reactor for the past 20 years. But it wasn't true anymore. This isn't just what democracy looks like, say the occupiers, it's what it feels like.

One of the basic premises of the Occupy movement is the idea that democracy exists for most Americans as little more than an unhappy choice between two sides of the same corporate coin. "We've been so alienated from our own sense of agency that being asked to be part of any real decision is exciting," a woman in her late thirties who calls herself Beatrix tells me. She's one of the old hands, close to the core of nearly every major radical action in New York of the past decade. So she's a little jaded, but even so, she's startled by what's happening: "Movements usually spend a lot of time on education, telling people why they need to come to the demonstration. This is exactly the opposite. The people came. Now we're all deciding together what happens."

"Right off the bat I was addicted," says Jesse LaGreca, sipping a beer at a fireman's bar near the park. Two hundred and fifty pounds, with wiseguy eyes and a permanent ruddy flush, LaGreca looks like he grew up on a bar stool in a place like this. He has a decade-plus of dead-end jobs behind him. The best was managing a L'Occitane store in the West Village – $15 an hour, no health insurance. Lately, he's been making his living as a writer, posting deeply researched rants against the Republicans on the liberal blog Daily Kos and asking for donations. "You put up a ­Pay­Pal link and tell people, 'Dude, I'm fucked. Can you help me?'" Just before heading down to Occupy Wall Street, he wrote a post called "If I light myself on fire, do you think these bastards will notice?" It was a tribute to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who did just that, igniting the Arab Spring. LaGreca also asked for a MetroCard.

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