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The Battle for the Soul of Occupy Wall Street

Page 5 of 5

Such a clear-cut victory provides one obvious way forward for Occupy: continued direct actions targeting corporate malfeasance, working in conjunction with existing activist groups. Indeed, around the country, Occupy groups have been staging actions at corporate shareholders' meetings, reclaiming foreclosed homes from banks and organizing on college campuses in opposition to onerous student loans. Carne Ross was drawn to Zuccotti Park around the same time as Haywood Carey, though in many ways their backgrounds couldn't be more different. A dapper 45-year-old Brit who could pass for a Wall Street banker, Ross is a former diplomat who famously resigned his post in protest of the ramp-up to the Iraq War. Since then, he's converted to anarchism and runs a New York nonprofit, working as a sort of diplomatic consultant out of a swank loft space. Ross never spent the night in the park; he has a wife and kids, and admits to initially being "quite put off by the aesthetics of it. 'Occupy' wasn't a word that really sang to me."

But Ross, too, soon found himself enchanted by the possibility of the movement. A trained economist, he decided to start an Alternative Banking working group, with the ambitious plan of setting up an Occupy Bank – built on a cooperative, credit-union model, but operating nationwide. "There's a big Hyde Street retailer in Britain with huge profits, all shared amongst its workers," Ross notes. "Everyone gets eight weeks holiday a year, wonderful pension plans. But culturally, we've been told there's only one model of a company, which is purely profit-driven, where the workers get paid the least possible. In fact, that's not the best model for a sustainable economy, and there's some evidence that shows if you treat your workers better and pay them more, particularly if you give them a stake, then they will perform better. It's kind of obvious."

What's also obvious is that this phase of Occupy, with talk of credit unions and occupying the SEC, while eminently worthy, is also kind of boring, especially when compared to the thrill of Occupy's park phase. Some, though, are ready to move on. "It's easy to go back to the park occupation and fetishize it, in a way," says Occupy Chicago's Brian Bean. "I prefer not to run a mini-society – I want to run society."

To that end, only two days after the May Day march, an Occupy contingent met at a UAW space in Manhattan's Garment District to discuss a week of direct actions, each day targeting a different theme. It was a bit of a hodgepodge of causes – mass incarceration, immigrant justice, food security, the environment – and I couldn't help wondering if someone would come up with a Wall Street-related reason for Freeing Mumia. (An activist friend involved in the Iraq War protests once told me the decline of the movement could be traced alongside the number of words they were forced to add to their posters.)

Once the meeting broke off into smaller groups, some familiar tensions arose. In the group I joined, one guy was dressed like such a cartoonish protester (tie-dyed peace-symbol necklace, filthy bare feet), I assumed he was a police infiltrator. But everyone seemed to know him. He kept jumping ahead of other speakers and making irritating objections, to the exasperation of everyone else present. By the end of the 30-minute meeting, ideas have been tossed around, but the main thing that's been agreed upon has been a need to hold another meeting.

Also present at the working group, though, was Lucas Vazquez, who, in the best-case scenario, will be the real future of Occupy. Vazquez is such a freakishly poised and well-spoken 18-year-old he could be a character from a Wes Anderson movie. He began commuting to Occupy from his home in Huntington, Long Island, even convincing his parents, Argentinian immigrants who'd been radicalized during their home country's brutal dictatorship, to allow him to sleep in the park every other night for a few weeks. "I told them, 'It's for the revolution!'" he says.

Vazquez has been inspired by the workers' collectives that formed in Argentina after the economy collapsed – forming neighborhood assemblies, turning factories into worker-run cooperatives, even creating their own currency. He believes similar models could be put in place here. "The encampment was important in redefining public space, but now I'm worried about where the movement is headed," Vazquez says. "Occupy started as a symbolic action, but there's a point where symbolism has to give way to the real. We need to start building alternate institutions and saying, 'We're going to replace you, capital. And we have our own structure in place.'"

Marisa Holmes is here, too, hoping to act as a sort of – well, whatever the opposite of a moderating influence would be. The week of actions being discussed tonight has raised concerns, as a number of the organizers present come from more traditional left groups, which Holmes thinks possess an "authoritarian impulse." We sit down in the break room, next to a water cooler, and she looks around and smiles, like she's in the belly of the beast. "A lot of the people here were dismissive of this movement to begin with," she says, lowering her voice. "They came to our early meetings but left because they couldn't control it. Now these same people want to get on the bandwagon.

"Occupy has become a brand now," she continues. "I used to think that was a good thing that it could spread like a meme." She smiles again, but in a more melancholy way. "Now it worries me. Because corporate groups with more resources can take that meme and push it more easily than we can."

Shen Tong, for his part, continues to work with the Movement Resource Group. He's also started his own Occupy group, 99% Solidarity, which is busing activists to Chicago in conjunction with a week of protest surrounding the NATO summit. 99% Solidarity has also issued a list of demands and has called for all of Occupy to make a pledge of nonviolence.

"The problem is not anarchists at all," Shen says. "You need them to keep society honest. It's dogmatic radicals overcompensating for their new, but not terribly deep, understanding of things like anarchism. Struggling with hierarchy, that's a very correct critique. Structure, on the other hand, is necessary. Chomsky – a good anarchist! – will even tell you that a movement needs representation on some scale. Do the math! It's not possible without it.

"What real revolutionary change needs to do is build a big tent," Shen, ever the diplomat, continues. "People worry about co-opting, but I want everyone to co-opt this. Occupy is an idea. People say, 'This is Occupy,' 'No, no, no, this is Occupy,' and that's a good thing. You know, the word 'conspiracy' comes from the Latin. It means 'to breathe together.' Let's breathe the same air."

One thing everyone agrees on is that patience is key. "Look at the civil rights movement – they got the shit kicked out of them for years," says a 26-year-old Occupier from New Jersey named Yotam Moram. "This could all be nothing. But it could also be the beginning of a popular social movement, and if that's the case, these six months are a blip on the map. This will take a long time. Possibly a lifetime."

This story is from the June 7th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

Related
Inside Occupy Wall Street
Matt Taibbi: Advice for Occupy Wall Street

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