Inside Occupy Wall Street

Page 3 of 3

The question of demands, in all their variety – whether to make them, when to make them, what to demand – is a peculiar one in that it's at the heart of the national occupation debate, and yet mostly irrelevant to the occupiers at Wall Street. Their demand is simply for a better world, which, as far as they're concerned, they've already started building. So to say that McMillan's group didn't have broad support would be kind. The divide in the park might be better expressed as between those who didn't believe that the demands group even counted as a part of the occupation, and those willing to let them propose their demands before shooting them down.

McMillan seems to see her role as an underground leader almost as a genetic birthright. "My grandfather is Harlon Joye," she told me almost immediately and emphasized several times across a number of conversations. "He drafted the SDS constitution" – as in, Students for a Democratic Society, one of the key organizations of 1960s revolt. She sees herself as giving "a voice to the voiceless." To do that, she says, the movement needs concrete demands. Any demands. The demand at which the group arrived – "Jobs for All," meaning a public-works program providing 25 million union-wage jobs – was not her first choice. But McMillan's will did not matter – she was a servant of "the workers."

While we were talking, a tall, beautiful woman with olive skin and a black leather coat was giving me the eye. The evil one. She was part of a little squad of four that became a nucleus around which more gathered, until they became about a dozen, and that's when they surrounded me, close up, cutting me off from McMillan. They were, I learned, a "swarm," and they were performing an "intervention." On me.

"We were hearing there's a Rolling Stone interview about demands," said a longhaired man in shorts and only wool socks on his feet, a leaf pinned to his sleeve.

"We're actually just talking about my history?" said McMillan.

"There's been a lot of issues with the demands," no-shoes said, ignoring McMillan. "As well as the kind of press we're getting. The place we're in now, as a movement, is actually slaying co-opters. Any political, ideological co-optation of the movement."

"That's actually where our conversation started," said McMillan.

"Right. But a lot of people see the discussion coming from the groups you've been working with." He mimed out the problem with his hands, one socked foot balancing on the other. "Demands are pretty much speaking for the whole group."

"All we want is a voice," McMillan said.

Next to her, a small pale woman with a quiet face and quick eyes tilted a shoulder away from McMillan and declared to me and the rest of the swarm, "I want to be clear. We can have a voice without having demands." She was Marisa Holmes, the filmmaker who'd been there since the beginning. She seemed egoless, her confidence precise.

From there, the conversation devolved into a dense thicket of the intricacies of process. What is consensus? Where's the threshold? 90 percent? 75 percent? 80 percent? At issue were reports that McMillan had attempted to strong-arm decisions based on a simple majority vote. McMillan seemed frustrated by the accusation, which she couldn't quite deny. Two months ago, she was a perfect organizing machine – disciplined, articulate, working-class roots with a grad-school veneer. But she was discovering she didn't function as well on the new terrain of the occupation, where the traditional methods of the left no longer meant as much as they once had. She had no idea that providing "a voice for the voiceless" was not a service in demand in a movement built on the idea that everyone can speak for themselves. To her, the occupation was a symbol more than a community. When we walked by the camp later that night she seemed surprised: "They have tents now?"

Almost everyone you meet in the park will tell you some variation of one thing. They aren't doing this for 2012, they don't want to go to Washington, they don't care what Congress or The New York Times or Bill Maher or Kanye West thinks of them. They aren't trying to provide a voice for the voiceless. They are doing it for themselves, and they speak for no one but themselves. They are the 99 percent; so am I, so are you. Make your own demands if you want to.

Late one night, I met a woman named Elisa Miller at the Occupy Library. It was 2 a.m., and people were still up talking, a group of four Hasidic Jews sitting on the broad steps of the park's shallow stone bowl, singing quiet Hebrew harmony around a soft guitar. Miller, a 38-year-old former landscape architect who took a bus up from New Orleans, had been in the park since the beginning. She said she hadn't really laughed since Katrina: "We've been occupying New Orleans for six fucking years." But something had changed. She had long straight brown hair and the loose rubbery gestures of someone who's exhausted and yet glad to be awake. "You come here with what you've been OCD'ing about," she said. "First day, you've got a sign: 'Tax the rich!' And it's, like, sure, that's a good idea. But then you're here for a couple of days, you work in the kitchen or in the library, you speak up when you want to, and you get to thinking, here's exactly what you need. You can march if you want to, but here?" She turned a circle, sweeping it all in, cops included. "This is where we're rebooting history."

So it seemed on my last day at Liberty Plaza, the Sunday following last month's freak snowstorm. "What will happen in the winter?" has been a refrain almost as incessant as the drumming. The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. Nobody has "known" anything that would happen so far. Maybe they will endure; maybe they will retreat; maybe Mayor Bloomberg will, like the mayors of Oakland and Denver, attack with gas and horses. "Subzero sleeping bags" are a topic of constant conversation, three words murmured or proclaimed with defiance and shivers. The morning after the big snow, I expected to find the occupiers blue-lipped and worried. Right before the storm, the city had confiscated their generators, used for emergency heat, among other things, and the bicycle-powered batteries they'd been building for just such a contingency were not yet ready to pedal. The wet snow collapsed tents, and the wind blew away tarps and signs and extra clothing. Copies of the Occupied Wall Street Journal whipped up into the night and plastered sidewalks.

But as I made my way to the park the next morning, the camp was sparkling. The snow had melted, tents clean, books dry, jeans strung on clotheslines. The kitchen was serving up roast turkey for all comers. And they came from everywhere, occupiers and street people and tourists, drawn, like me, to what they'd thought would be a scene of disaster. Some of the tourists picked up signs. "I guess I am the 99 percent," said an electrical engineer from New Jersey. An elegantly dressed white-haired woman leapt at a chance to work in the kitchen: "I can do that," she declared. Another woman brought a bag of helium-filled yellow balloons. The drummers, led by a dark-skinned man whose face was hidden by a green bandanna, sounded energized, as if the night's cold had taught them all a new, less angry rhythm, like they were laughing behind their bandannas. That night, the General Assembly would be dedicated to a battle over demands; but that morning, the first of what will likely be a long and hard winter at Liberty, was a reprieve, a fantasy, a multitude, an imaginary city raising its flags.

Photos: Occupy Wall Street
Photos: Rock Occupies Wall Street
Photos: Occupy Wall Street Timeline
Obama, Occupy Wall Street and the Rebirth of the Left
Matt Taibbi's Advice to the Occupy Wall Street Protesters

This story is from the November 24, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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