The Battle for the Soul of Occupy Wall Street

Eight months after shaking the world, the movement finds itself divided about what comes next

Demonstrators link arms during Occupy Wall Street's May Day protests in New York.
SACHA LECCA/Rolling Stone
June 21, 2012 1:25 PM ET

In early February, Marisa Holmes, a 25-year-old anarchist who had been one of the core organizers of Occupy Wall Street, was contacted by an assistant of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield – yes, that Ben and Jerry – looking to set up a conference call. Over the course of Occupy's long winter hibernation, when friends and foes alike wondered if the movement, not even six months old, had already lost its way, Ben and Jerry decided OWS needed a professional fundraising arm. The pair calculated that it would be possible, with help from fellow liberal activists like former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg, to infuse nearly $2 million into the movement, in the form of grants to various Occupy projects around the country and a permanent headquarters for OWS in New York.

But Ben and Jerry heard that Holmes and other members of Occupy had been expressing concerns. Holmes grew up in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, in a liberal, upper-middle-class family not so different, sensibility-wise, from the world of the ice cream moguls. Her father is an attorney; when Holmes was 14, she helped work on his campaign for city council. But since then, she'd become far more radical than her parents. For a while, she lived in a communal house in Detroit; last May, enthralled by the Arab Spring, she decided to travel to Egypt by herself, mere months after the uprising in Tahrir Square, to shoot a documentary, though she didn't speak a word of Arabic. In September, she bedded down in Zuccotti Park from the very first night of the Occupation, invited down by her friend David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist academic who has been credited with coming up with the slogan "We are the 99 percent."

Holmes herself is tiny, sleepy-eyed and temperamentally uncompromising. The latter trait can be tedious, like when she facilitates Occupy meetings and has people go around the room and state their names and gender-pronoun preferences, but also awesome, like the time Russell Simmons stopped by Zuccotti Park and wanted to be bumped up on the speakers' list and Holmes told him, "Are you crazy? You're number 12. Get used to it!" The conference call, suffice it to say, did not go well. Ben and Jerry seemed confused by her objections. "They said, 'What's the problem? Don't you want our money and support?' " Holmes recalls. Occupy had been founded on anarchist principles of "horizontalism" – leaderless direct democracy, most poetically embodied in the People's Microphone. "They didn't get that it was a problem to create a hierarchical nonprofit institution and pick out leaders," Holmes went on. "I was nice to them at first, but finally I said, 'I know that's how you've done things in the past, but that's not how we're doing it.'"

Holmes was especially wary of the offer because money had already proved so divisive within Occupy. The group had been flooded with donations in the wake of the police actions of the fall, but soon found itself consumed with squabbles over how to spend it. And petty bickering over things like subway MetroCards had highlighted not only tactical questions about what Occupy's next move should be, but a more existential crisis. Having so suddenly and unexpectedly captured the world's attention, now the question arose: What, exactly, would Occupy become?

For instance, many in Occupy had no problem with Ben and Jerry's offer. One of their key allies became Shen Tong, a 43-year-old software entrepreneur who, as a campus radical in Beijing in the late Eighties, had been one of the student leaders of the Tiananmen Square uprising, part of the delegation that attempted to negotiate with the Chinese government. Later, when the tanks rolled in, he ran into the streets, begging soldiers not to fire. One of them blew a hole through the face of the woman next to him. Shen barely managed to escape to Boston, where he would study philosophy and sociology at Harvard.

Now he lives in Soho, not terribly far from Zuccotti Park, with his wife and three young children. In person, he's weirdly ageless, with smooth skin, jet-black hair and an easy smile. Sipping an espresso at a cafe near his apartment, he looks around and says, "If we were having this conversation in Beijing, there would be security sitting at that table. We'd be followed everywhere we go."

Shen observed Occupy from a distance at first. After a few weeks, impressed that the movement had stuck to a clear, simple message and was attracting an unusually broad group of supporters, he went down to check it out with his kids. His second day there, he found himself thinking, "This is it" – something he'd never thought possible, a second Tiananmen moment. He stepped down as president of his software company to dedicate all of his time to Occupy, focusing on his particular skill set, infrastructure and resources, "the sort of really boring projects you need a global CEO to work on." Shen had no problem partnering with one-percenters like Ben and Jerry; as a student of global protest, he strongly believes Occupy requires more structure to carry on the fight.

"We wouldn't be here without anarchists," he says. "Purist idealists are very important in any transformative social movement. I was one! I understand it – they open the floodgates. But my job is different. It's about trying to create a mass movement. Or, at the very least, having mass outreach to the 99 percent."

But Occupy is already a mass movement, Marisa Holmes will tell you, angrily. She thinks Occupy just needs to keep doing what Occupy has been doing. "We don't ask permission," she says. "We don't make demands."

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