Q: I hear that Adbusters organized Occupy Wall Street? Or Anonymous? Or US Day of Rage? Just who put this together anyway?
A: All of the above, and more. Adbusters made the initial call in mid-July, and also produced a very sexy poster with a ballerina posed atop the Charging Bull statue and riot police in the background. US Day of Rage, the mainly internet-based creation of IT strategist Alexa O’Brien, got involved too and did a lot of the early legwork and tweeting. Anonymous—in its various and multiform visages—joined in late August. On the ground in New York, though, most of the planning was done by people involved in the NYC General Assembly, a collection of activists, artists and students first convened by folks who had been involved in New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts. That coalition of students and union workers had just finished a three-week occupation near City Hall called Bloombergville protesting the mayor’s plans for budget cuts and layoffs. They had learned from the experience and were itching to do it again, this time with the hope of having a bigger impact. But no one person or group is running the Wall Street occupation entirely.
So nobody is in charge? How do decisions get made?
The General Assembly has become the de facto decision-making body for the occupation at Liberty Plaza, just a few blocks north of Wall Street. (That was Zuccotti Park’s name before 2006, when the space was rebuilt by Brookfield Properties and renamed after its chairman, John Zuccotti.) Get ready for jargon: the General Assembly is a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought, and it’s akin to the assemblies that have been driving recent social movements around the world, in places like Argentina, Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and so on. Working toward consensus is really hard, frustrating and slow. But the occupiers are taking their time. When they finally get to consensus on some issue, often after days and days of trying, the feeling is quite incredible. A mighty cheer fills the plaza. It’s hard to describe the experience of being among hundreds of passionate, rebellious, creative people who are all in agreement about something.
Fortunately, though, they don’t need to come to consensus about everything. Working alongside the General Assembly are an ever-growing number of committees and working groups—from Food and Media to Direct Action and Sanitation. Anyone is welcome to join one, and they each do their own thing, working in tacit coordination with the General Assembly as a whole. In the end, the hope is that every individual is empowered to make decisions and act as her or himself, for the good of the group.
What are the demands of the protesters?
Ugh—the zillion-dollar question. Again, the original Adbusters call asked, “What is our one demand?” Technically, there isn’t one yet. In the weeks leading up to September 17, the NYC General Assembly seemed to be veering away from the language of “demands” in the first place, largely because government institutions are already so shot through with corporate money that making specific demands would be pointless until the movement grew stronger politically. Instead, to begin with, they opted to make their demand the occupation itself—and the direct democracy taking place there—which in turn may or may not come up with some specific demand. When you think about it, this act is actually a pretty powerful statement against the corruption that Wall Street has come to represent. But since thinking is often too much to ask of the American mass media, the question of demands has turned into a massive PR challenge.
The General Assembly is currently in the midst of determining how it will come to consensus about unifying demands. It’s a really messy and interesting discussion. But don’t hold your breath.
Everyone in the plaza comes with their own way of thinking about what they’d like to see happen, of course. Along the north end of the plaza, there’s a collage of hundreds of cardboard signs people have made with slogans and demands on them. Bystanders stop and look at them, transfixed, all day long. The messages are all over the place, to be sure, but there’s also a certain coherence to them. That old standby, “People Before Profits,” seems to capture the gist fairly well. But also under discussion are a variety of other issues, ranging from ending the death penalty, to dismantling the military-industrial complex, to affordable healthcare, to more welcoming immigration policies. And more. It can be confusing, but then again these issues are all at some level interconnected.