It all started with an e-mail. On July 13 Adbusters magazine sent out a call to its 90,000-strong list proclaiming a Twitter hashtag (#OccupyWallStreet) and a date, September 17. It quickly spread among the mostly young, tech-savvy radical set, along with an especially alluring poster the magazine put together of a ballerina atop the Charging Bull statue, the financial district’s totem to testosterone.
The idea became a meme, and the angel of history (or at least of the Internet) was somehow ready. Halfway into a revolutionary year—after the Arab Spring and Europe’s tumultuous summer—cyberactivists in the United States were primed for a piece of the action. The Adbusters editors weren’t the only ones organizing; similar occupations were already in the works, including a very well-laid plan to occupy Freedom Plaza in Washington, starting October 6.
Websites cropped up to gather news and announcements. US Day of Rage, the Twitter- and web-driven project of a determined IT strategist, endorsed the action, promoted it and started preparing with online nonviolence trainings and tactical plans. Then, in late August, the hacktivists of Anonymous signed on, posting menacing videos and flooding social media networks.
But a meme alone does not an occupation make. An occupation needs people on the ground. By early August, a band of activists in New York began meeting in public parks to plan. Many were fresh off the streets of Bloombergville, a three-week encampment near City Hall in protest of layoffs and cuts to social services. Others joined them, especially artists, students and anarchists—academic and otherwise. (US Day of Rage’s founder was there too.) This “NYC General Assembly” met first at the Charging Bull, then at the Irish Hunger Memorial along the Hudson River and then at the south end of Tompkins Square Park. The turnout was usually around sixty to 100.
The General Assembly, which would eventually morph from a planning committee into the de facto decision-making body of the occupation, was a hodgepodge of procedures and hand signals with origins as various as Quakerism, ancient Athens, the indignados of Spain (some of whom were present) and the spokescouncils of the 1999 anti-globalization movement. Basically, it’s an attempt to create a nonhierarchical, egalitarian, consensus-driven process—the purest kind of democracy.
Of no small significance was that this was taking place in direct contradiction of what Wall Street has come to represent: the stranglehold on American politics and society by the interests of a wealthy few, a government by the corporations and apparently for them.
In its initial call Adbusters had posed the question, “What is our one demand?” Echoing the determination to oust Hosni Mubarak that temporarily unified Muslim Brothers with Christians and feminists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the idea was that an occupation like this in the United States could similarly mount enough pressure to enact one critical, game-changing policy proposal. Adbusters, as well as people at the General Assembly, pitched in their suggestions: a “Tobin tax” on financial transactions, reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act or revoking corporate personhood. (Nicholas Kristof later rehearsed some of these in the New York Times.) But the discussions never seemed to get anywhere. No single demand seemed like enough to address the problems of the system, and few of these upstarts relished the thought of begging for anything from the powers that be.