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The Battle for the Soul of Occupy Wall Street

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In New York, thousands packed into downtown's Union Square, where artists like Tom Morello and Das Racist were staging a free concert. Haywood Carey, a 29-year-old from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who slept in Zuccotti Park for most of the fall, made his way through the crowd. A refugee from the establishment left, Carey has worked as a union organizer and is a former Democratic Party staffer. He has a teamster's stocky build, and what's left of his hair – a trim beard – is a vivid shade of red. After the messy fight over President Obama's health care bill resulted in a compromised victory with no single-payer option, Carey quit, and spent the next six months in a deep funk, basically sitting on his couch in Chapel Hill and thinking, in his words, "What did I just give the last 10 years of my life and all of the hair on my head for?"

Then Occupy happened. "And," Carey says, "I went, 'Oh! That's it.'" He'd recently broken up with his girlfriend, and so he gave up his apartment, sold his car and hitched a ride to New York. He arrived at Zuccotti Park at seven in the morning, a few weeks in. It felt kind of dead compared to what he'd imagined, because most people were asleep. Then the kitchen opened, and he had some breakfast. Then he went to an information table and asked a couple of basic questions. The woman behind the table said, "I have no idea. This is my first day. Would you like to help?" So he moved behind the table. "That's kind of what Occupy is all about," he says.

Because of his labor background, Carey, who is named after Big Bill Haywood, the union hero and a founder of the Wobblies, had joined the May 1st planning coalition, but eventually felt like he had to step away, unhappy with the direction it was taking. A general strike means, by definition, most workers stay home, and the audacity of Occupy calling for one, with minimal union outreach – it's illegal for union employees to even participate in a general strike – rubbed many the wrong way. It also seemed like a recipe for May 1st to be declared a failure if most people went to work (which is what ended up happening). Occupy eventually tried to dial back its messaging, somewhat lamely claiming that they hoped to "redefine" what a general strike could be – which is sort of like spending a Saturday night at home alone masturbating to Internet porn and then insisting you were actually redefining what an orgy could be.

More significantly, the general strike pointed to continued tensions with the organized left. Many of the anarchists in Occupy had a fundamental problem with what they called the "undemocratic" structure of unions and had no issue with offending such a stalwart Democratic ally. Earlier port shutdowns led by Occupy Oakland had already exposed these fault lines, enraging some West Coast union leaders. One high-ranking labor official, who wished to remain anonymous, told me, "These are people who get impatient and frustrated because they don't want to talk to elected leaders. Then they issue these declarations like some fat fuck in Iran issues a fatwa. The general strike was a joke. I mean, who gives a shit?"

Though he'd stepped away from the planning, Carey was in high spirits at the rally. He was living nearby now; post-Zuccotti, a wealthy supporter of Occupy had been letting him and his newly reconciled girlfriend (who'd wound up moving into his tent during the Occupation) live in her spacious wine cellar. ("It's bizarre," he says. "I went from Wall Street to the West Village. Now all I see is rich people.") Soon, a jubilant crowd estimated at 30,000 would march into the heart of Wall Street, ending triumphantly with a general assembly in a riverside park not far from the New York Stock Exchange. "You guys might as well max out your credit cards," a friend of Carey's joked. "Capitalism is falling in a couple of hours!"

Further downtown, just a few hours earlier, a more radical group of Occupy activists had gathered in a cement park on the Lower East Side. Years ago, this had been a rough neighborhood; now, the park was flanked by a Whole Foods and an art-house movie theater. To those on the more uncompromising edge of Occupy, the very notion of a "permitted" march was anathema to the anarchic spirit of the movement, which was all about reclaiming public space and exercising radical freedom. And so, to that end, this Occupy splinter group had decided to stage its own illegal "black bloc" march.

Black bloc was proving to be another fissure within Occupy. It is a militant tactic in which masked, black-clad protesters are willing to engage in illegal, sometimes violent, acts (such as the window-smashing that went on during the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle) in the name of revolution. So far, they'd mostly appeared in Oakland, where the general assembly has refused to pledge itself to nonviolence. Because Occupy groups around the country have issued statements of solidarity with Oakland – and continue to defend black bloc, using the euphemistic term "diversity of tactics" – some more-seasoned activists are troubled.

On the Lower East Side, a predictable face-off was taking place. Lining the street in front of the park, an intimidating wall of NYPD officers stood in military formation. On the steps of the park, directly opposing the officers, stood about 200 Occupiers, nearly all of them dressed entirely in black, their faces covered to the eyes with black bandannas. Several held a banner that read, inexplicably, THE STATE KILLS FAGGOTS: CASTRATE THE STATE. Others unfurled an even larger banner reading FUCK THE POLICE, positioning themselves so they directly faced the officers.

This could not end well. And yet it almost sort of did. The moment the protesters stepped onto the sidewalk, the cops moved in, snatching and arresting a couple of would-be marchers and their banners as the rest of the crowd immediately fell back. Chaos momentarily ensued. And then, almost surely by design, the bulk of the wildcat march began sprinting en masse in the opposite direction, deeper into the park, eventually spilling into the narrow streets of the Lower East Side. It was an impressively wily move, and the police were clearly not ready to give chase. The mob brought any traffic to a halt as they moved the wrong way along one-way streets, tipping over garbage cans, dragging police barricades in front of cars and pounding on the sides of stalled trucks.

In Chinatown, the Chinese pedestrians – many of whom likely had firsthand experience with the potential societal downsides of actual revolution – seemed variously frightened and unimpressed. At one point, a pudgy black bloc kid, spotting a photojournalist, turned around and clocked him in the side of the head. "No pictures!" he snarled, before running off.

A second black-bloc protester stopped to see if the photographer was hurt and began to apologize. "What the fuck is wrong with you people?" the photographer shouted. There were reports of several other attacks on people taking pictures.

Meanwhile, the black bloc, now slowed to a brisk march, neared the upscale Soho shopping district, where they would disperse after a couple of their number were arrested. The loathsome kid who'd hit the photographer started up a chant.

Kill all the cops Burn all the prisons C-O-M-M Comm-u-nism!

It was strange how far his voice carried, and the way everyone else seemed to fall silent. For a moment, it looked as if he was going to be alone on this one. Then all of the people marching alongside him erupted in laughter and cheers.

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