In the month before the destruction of the encampment in Zuccotti Park, I got in the habit of biking across the Brooklyn Bridge each night to talk with the Wall Street Occupiers and wander among the tents. There was always work to behold—bigger tents going up, new volunteers welcomed, the kitchen doling out free food, the media groups live-streaming, dishes being done, cops being teased—and always conversation to be had and heard.
The protesters liked to work, but they loved to talk, and mostly what they talked about was how to organize to destroy the power of money in America. They were pissed off about it—pissed off at the corporations, the banks, the financiers, the corrupt legislators, the corrupt presidents, the corrupt everything. “It doesn’t matter which party is in power,” Jeff Smith, a 41-year-old former media consultant, told me. “The banks and the corporations own them both.” And President Barack Obama? “He is worse than a corporate whore like Bill Clinton,” Smith said. “He’s like a Trojan Horse for the right-wing agenda. Obama mesmerizes his base of true believers with the skill of a televangelist and then turns around and sells them out in backroom deals with the plutocrats he seems to worship. It’s hard not to realize that his incompetence and/or duplicity is a driving factor behind Occupy Wall Street.”
Such was the talk. When they spoke honestly, the Occupiers admitted that they had no idea what to do about the total corruption of everything—except what they were doing in Zuccotti Park.
So they would occupy the space, hold the ground, and fill it with unwashed humanity, which is the kind of thing that’s not supposed to happen in Manhattan’s Financial District. They came in all races, all ages. There were schoolteachers, professors, ex-servicemen, sculptors, painters, dancers, musicians, writers, at least one retired male stripper, at least one Native American, many college students, some high-schoolers, and the homeless. They carved a community out of the park, a society in miniature, with its own rules and government and infrastructure—a library, kitchen, clinic, a newspaper called The Occupied Wall Street Journal, and even a tobacconist. They marched on Wall Street each day, made trouble, made noise, got arrested, met in a daily “general assembly” and in “working groups,” planned for the winter, and organized, not least, to make more trouble.
“This is not a protest,” one of their signs said. “This is an affirmation of the vitality and idealism erupting from underneath the AMERICAN NIGHTMARE.” The library grew ever larger—it soon had 5,000 titles, the only all-night library in the city—and the signs proliferated. “Jobs, Justice, Education,” they said. And: “End Student Debt.” And: “Reinstate Glass-Steagall; Make Corporate Lobbying Illegal.” The signs said that Wall Street was “the enemy of humanity.” They said, “We need only overthrow the investors—not the government.” More tents sprung up through October and November, the campers packing in by the hundreds, until little space was left. The expanding movement was forced to find nearby offices, at 50 Broadway, where it could now claim to have a bureaucracy.
Zuccotti Park was the movement’s mooring, symbolically and physically. It was also the launch point for the politics of disruption that came to be practiced almost every day by OWS. One afternoon, curious to see what kind of “direct action” Occupy was fomenting, I set out from the park for the Upper East Side headquarters of Sotheby’s auction house, on the occasion of a “contemporary art evening sale,” to join 200 people who were protesting the company’s labor policies.
More than a hundred police were deployed to control the picket line, which consisted of students from nearby Hunter College, Zuccotti Park Occupiers, and scores of Teamster art handlers who receive and install artwork for Sotheby’s, which had just reported the most profitable quarter in its 267-year history. A band of horns and drums led a jam of the 1930s labor chorus “Whose Side Are You On?” amid a cacophony of samba whistles and cowbells and cymbals and people shouting, “They say—cut back—we say—fight back!” One of the art handlers, 47-year-old Lorenzo Lamadrid, told me that the Teamsters were “asking for minimum stuff: cost-of-living increase, some small increase in our benefits. This is a multibillion-dollar company that just had three years in a row of record revenues. The top people get hundreds of millions in bonuses, and we get nothing?” Management was proposing a new contract that would phase out union jobs over time. When the union objected, the art handlers were locked out and replaced by nonunion temps. (Sotheby’s says it offered a “very fair contract,” and that its offer “remains on the table.”)
When auction-goers emerged from limousines and expensive cars to enter the building, they were pointed at, hissed at, booed, cat-called, drummed at, whistled at—a deafening racket that made my eardrums spasm. “Shame on you,” the crowd howled. “Shame for crossing the picket line!” (The sale totaled $315,837,000 in receipts.)
Private security men for the auction house, helped by the cops, fought to keep the passage clear, but protesters locked arms and lay on their backs in front of the building. “Union busting is disgusting,” they chanted. The police ripped them from each other, flipping their bodies prone, rubbing their faces in the concrete. They did not resist. A Sotheby’s guard stomped on the leg of a young protester named Andy Friedman, whose shin was cut open and streamed blood. The crowd boiled and seethed, doubling its efforts against the wooden planks of the barricades, lifting one of the planks off the sawhorses, heaving it forward and skyward as the cops rushed to hold the line and the picket spilled into the street. An elderly white-haired protester kicked a passing Bentley that nearly ran him over. The driver stopped, shot out of the car, and punched him.
The event seemed about to explode at any moment but somehow never did. As things calmed down, I ended up talking with a gravedigger from the Bronx, Christophe Silvera, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 808, the union at Woodlawn Cemetery. Silvera had come downtown with at least a half-dozen other cemetery workers to support the “brotherhood.” “If you squeeze the people,” Silvera said, “the people are not gonna stand for it. There’s gonna be a backlash. Conditions breed outcomes.”
Four expensively dressed women, blond and high-heeled, emerged from the auction house, passing us in a close-knit gaggle as they were jeered (“Shame on you, Ann Coulter!”), and waited to cross at the corner where I stood with Silvera. Their backs were to us, and Silvera addressed them with a preacher’s cadence. “There you go,” he said, “with your fancy clothes, and your fancy haircuts, and your fancy handbags, and your fancy shoes, your Prada this and Prada that, and all your comforts. But watch out. We dig graves for a living, might even dig yours someday.” The exquisite women turned to look, and there was fear in their eyes, and a young man, protesting nearby, told them: “Oh no, class warfare isn’t pretty.”
In July 13, the radical anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, a monthly glossy published in Vancouver, called on its website for a “Tahrir moment” in America, as part of a “worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics,” where “the people” would become “one big swarm” and demand change in the face of entrenched power. Twenty thousand “redeemers, rebels and radicals” were to converge two months later, on September 17, in the Financial District of Manhattan—“the financial Gomorrah of America”—and “put our asses on the line” by seizing “a square of singular symbolic significance” and holding it with “tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades.” The exhortation in Adbusters was the first time the world had heard the words “Occupy Wall Street.”
The invitation to occupy was answered by a labor coalition called New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, which had arisen earlier that summer in response to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s austerity proposals to balance the city’s books. Bloomberg wanted to lay off thousands of city workers, pack more schoolchildren into smaller rooms, cut funding for city libraries and scholarship money for students at city universities, and shut down at least 20 firehouses. “The real crisis is mass layoffs,” said the group’s Facebook page. “Hunger. Homelessness. Millions of homes in some stage of foreclosure. The bank--sponsored demolition of foreclosed homes. Looting of pensions. Dismantling of public schools. Furloughs. Union-busting.”
Dozens of members of New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts had gathered for two weeks in June to sleep on the sidewalk near City Hall. They called it Bloombergville. They had a Bloombergville Library, held teach-ins every evening at Bloombergville University, and marched daily on City Hall. Following their attempt on June 28 to blockade a building where the City Council was approving the mayor’s cuts, a near riot ensued, and 13 people were arrested.
New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts had been inspired in part by events in Wisconsin the previous February, when Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to end collective bargaining for public-sector unions was met with an occupation of the state capitol accompanied by marches of more than 100,000 people. The Wisconsinites, in turn, had been inspired by the demonstrations in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. A tent city went up in Madison, modeled after the Hoovervilles of the 1930s. It was called Walkerville. “From Walkerville,” says Jackie DiSalvo, a 68-year-old labor organizer with New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, “came the idea for Bloombergville.” And from Bloombergville was born Zuccotti Park—by way of an anarchist intervention in labor’s methods.
DiSalvo was there at the inception on August 2, when New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts held, at the market bull on Bowling Green, what it called a “general assembly” to plan the occupation. At least 80 people showed up, among them a professor of anthropology named David Graeber, who was on leave from the University of London, and a veteran Greek organizer named Georgia Sagri, who had gotten to know each other during the 2010 protests in Athens.
Graeber and Sagri, who identified themselves as anarchists, were disgusted. They saw nothing like a general assembly in what was unfolding. In the anarchist conception, a “GA” is not a rally or a speak-out, with a crowd listening blankly to leaders on podiums. A GA is designed to be participatory, democratic in the strictest sense. It is “horizontal”: All can speak, all are heard, all are leaders. Decisions are made not by majority vote but through the exhaustive and exhausting process of consensus.
So here were the “verticals,” with megaphones and a list of select speakers, and in response, the “horizontals” mounted a rebellion. “We didn’t know what a general assembly was,” says DiSalvo. “This woman from Greece, Georgia Sagri, starts objecting to what’s happening. She’s yelling, ‘This is a rally! This is not a general assembly!’ It was a very important intervention. ‘Anyone who wants to join in a general assembly,’ she said, ‘come over there.’ She points to an open space behind the market bull. At first, it’s only ten people—David Graeber and Sagri and a few others. Then it’s 30 or so people. Then it was everybody. That’s the beginning of Occupy Wall Street.”
From that first GA was also born the slogan around which the movement would coalesce. The rebellion needed to define whom it represented, to whom it would appeal. “Why not call ourselves ‘the 99 percent’?” asked David Graeber in one of the brainstorming sessions following the GA. “If 1 percent of the population has ended up with all the benefits of the last ten years of economic growth, controls the wealth, owns the politicians … why not just say we’re everybody else?”
“We Are the 99 Percent” would soon reverberate nationwide. In five words, the slogan captured the roiling discontent under the surface of American politics that had yet to be expressed in a way that most Americans could embrace. In the vision of OWS, the great mass was now arrayed against the Wall Streeters: the financiers, the money lenders, the hedge funders, the derivatives traders, the corporate lawyers, the tech magnates, the industrial monopolists, the big-money class. OWS had chosen the fortress of the enemy, a city where 1 percent of the population claimed close to 45 percent of all income.
It is a testament to the “leaderless resistance” that many of the people in the movement today know little or nothing about the efforts of DiSalvo or Graeber or Sagri. They do know the broad outlines of what followed the GA of August 2. The first working groups were spawned—small, self-organized subgroups with names like Process, Communication, Outreach, Direct Action. A half-dozen more GAs convened throughout August and the first half of September. A listserv was built to expedite ideas and plans among the working groups. There was a dry run a week before the appointed day: A dozen campers attempted to settle the sidewalk on Wall Street but were swept up and arrested.
On the afternoon of September 17, 2,000 people descended on Bowling Green, marched to Chase Manhattan Plaza, found it already barricaded, and opted, by consensus, for an alternate site: a grim stone-slab park between Liberty and Cedar streets, just off Broadway. David Haack, 26 years old, who studied American history in college and was tutoring schoolchildren in math and English, had been with the movement since the second GA, on August 7. When he arrived at Zuccotti Park on September 17, he thought “it wouldn’t last two days. Then it lasted two days, and I thought it wouldn’t last a week. Then it lasted a week, and I thought to myself that it was the start of a new America.”
At dawn on October 14, I went to the encampment expecting that it would be gone by the afternoon. The Bloomberg administration had announced that police would clear out the Occupiers by 7 A.M. to make way for cleaning crews. The place was said to be unsanitary. Following the dispersal of the crowd and the big cleanup, no person carrying a tarp or sleeping bag or bedroll—the paraphernalia of occupation—would be allowed back in. No person would be allowed to lie down and sleep. It was nothing more than a “cleaning,” Bloomberg said.
I had flown in that morning from the little town of Moab, Utah, where an occupation, amounting to 200 Moabites, had begun in a weedy lot across from the local branch of Wells Fargo bank. By mid-October, there were occupations in at least a hundred U.S. cities. But Zuccotti Park was the high ground to be held. A call to arms had gone out on the 13th on Facebook and the Occupy listservs and in text alerts, and in response at least 3,000 people had gathered in the predawn light to stop the eviction. They were met by hundreds of police officers who surrounded the perimeter in riot gear.
The Occupiers parried the threat of dispersal with brooms and mops and bleach. They swept and scoured. They chanted their defiance and banged on drums. At 6:28, Mayor Bloomberg called off the operation. Bloomberg claimed that Brookfield Properties, in its capacity as the private half of the public-private partnership managing the park, now sought at the 11th hour to compromise with the protesters. Perhaps the mayor saw a bloody mess on his hands and a public-relations disaster—3,000 New Yorkers who’d have to be beaten and tear-gassed in order to be moved.
“The people have prevailed,” announced OWS in a press release. “Brookfield Properties is the 1%. They have invested $24 billion in mortgage-backed securities, so as millions face foreclosure and eviction due to predatory lending and the burst of the housing bubble that Wall Street created, it’s not surprising they threatened to evict Occupy Wall Street.”
By the end of the month, 500 people lived at Zuccotti Park, in what amounted to a tent city of tight lanes and winding paths. They were rained on, sunned on, snowed on. They were getting cold as the winter approached, needing food, first aid, legal aid, and cigarettes, and dealing with the added pressure of thousands more people—part-timers, tourists, celebrities—stopping by during the day. They had help, to be sure, but apparently from no one in particular. They were receiving roughly $7,000 a day in “citizen donations”; by the end of November, they had an estimated $650,000 in financing. People from across the nation were ordering in boxes of pizza by the dozen from local restaurants. The United Federation of Teachers provided a mailroom nearby on Broadway to handle the flood of donated goods—sleeping bags, blankets, bedrolls, tents, clothing, shoes, laptops, solar panels, batteries, flashlights, rain gear, tarps, cameras, magazines, books, bottled water, hand warmers. One older woman, a Manhattanite volunteering at the park but not living there, set to knitting wool hats in preparation for winter. Above the seat where she purled, she kept a scorecard of her hat production.
One night in late October, I asked a 25-year-old ex-Marine named Brian Phillips how the society was kept in functional order. Volunteerism, cooperation, mutualism, decentralism, lack of hierarchy—these were the principles of the place. “But who organized it all?” reporters kept asking. Phillips dutifully answered: “Everyone did. Everyone has a voice here. The media thinks there’s gotta be—I don’t know what they think, but just shut the fuck up and listen to us.”
The radical humanist Paul Goodman, writing in the 1960s, illuminated the underpinnings of Zuccotti Park. Goodman saw “the growth among citizens of a feeling of powerlessness” to “initiate, decide, and cooperate.” If corporations had centralized power in supersized institutions, so had New Deal paternalism. Everywhere Goodman looked in American society, the model was always that of top-down authority. By contrast, the “principle of decentralism,” Goodman wrote, dictated that “authority is delegated away from the top as much as possible and there are many accommodating centers of policy-making and decision. … Each person becomes increasingly aware of the whole operation and works in his own way according to his own capacities.”
At the welcome desk in the park, a 24-year-old high-school dropout named Moses directed people to working groups by inquiring about their interests and capacities—his authority comprehensive but, he said, not coercive. “Someone comes in, ‘Oh, I have a graphic-design degree,’ but what I ask is, ‘Do you like graphic design?’” Moses told me. “‘What is it that you like to do? That you’re really good at?’ People are trained to be utilized. But who wants to be just utilized?”
Thus the working groups, each a center of decision--making, answered to the needs of the encampment. The Comfort group made sure people had clothing, boots, socks, sleeping bags, a spot in the park to sleep. The Medical group tended to injuries. The Library group sorted books. The People’s Kitchen kept Occupiers fed. These working groups in turn reported back to the GA, which met each evening at 7 in deliberations that often lasted until midnight.
For a time, the anarchist creed in action worked. “But our greatest strengths,” Phillips said, “also turned out to be our greatest weaknesses.” By the end of October, Phillips concluded the experiment was unraveling. “I came here to build a new way of life,” he had told me when I first spoke to him in the second week of the Occupation. “I’m on a journey of enlightenment.” Four weeks later—after two marches through Manhattan that drew tens of thousands of people and the support of big labor, after standing down the Bloomberg administration’s threat to bum-rush the park—he said, “We’re losing our meaning. We’re supposed to be uniting, but we’re not.” Factions had arisen: a “people of color” working group—separate but equal—and a gay and lesbian working group and a “transgender caucus.” Occupiers were screaming at each other in meetings over accusations of racism and sexism. There was a growing class divide: the educated political class on the east side of the park—the media and communication working groups, with their library and laptops and expensive cameras and Wi-Fi connections—and the bereft “ghetto” on the west side with its drum circles and dances.
“There’s not a lot of trust,” Phillips said. “There’s a lot of theft. We’ve lost $25,000 in computer equipment, digital cameras, cell phones. The Kitchen Fund had $4,500 embezzled. People are getting fussy, angry with each other. Desperate people are coming in and exploiting us. Food, cigarettes, money—they want it, we give it. We establish no authority to deal with them. There’s a group of punks”—in black rags and combat boots, sleeping with pit bulls—“who sit in a corner of the park dealing drugs: meth, ketamine, coke. They fight among themselves. They don’t work. They don’t speak. They don’t attend the general assemblies. They don’t join the working groups. No one confronts them, because we’re supposed to believe it’s unfair to exclude anyone. They’re getting smart: They go around with a bucket and ask for contributions from the tourists and go buy beer.” Phillips predicted the park would be empty by the end of the year. By November 1, he was gone.
Jeff Smith, the former adman who had been with the Occupation since its first day, September 17, was coming to similar conclusions. “I believe we’re rotting on the vine now,” Smith told me in mid-November. “The situation in the park is getting untenable, because there are too many people—namely the homeless and the deranged.” On a single Saturday night a few days earlier, two huge men had fallen to blows, throwing haymakers at each other, rolling among the tents. Another person pulled a knife. Another man went crazy, yowling, whirling, forced by a crowd of Occupiers to the perimeter of the park, where an emergency medical technician, dispatched to take him to the hospital, was knocked backward and broke an ankle. “There are now people who are coming in, taking a piece of the park, and they’re in it for themselves, and they don’t care what anyone else thinks or wants,” Smith said. “The idea behind this movement is cooperative—consensus is created by compromising. These are people who are not compromising. Every one of the occupations has had to deal with the homeless, and I like the fact that we have helped them. But we’re not a homeless shelter. I don’t think the park has very many weeks in it before it descends into chaos.”
The irony was that the bums and ghetto drummers and the gutter punks were the ones holding the park—sleeping in it, living in it, occupying it. Smith went home each night to an apartment with a warm bed and running water.
If the movement was struggling with the internal contradictions in Zuccotti Park, it had already upended the popular conversation about the American political economy, an astonishing feat in itself. “Occupy the narrative,” I had heard a protester in the park say. From the beginning, conservative media were reduced to muttering stereotypes: These were “failed human beings,” socialists, communists, fifth-columnists, violent, degenerate, dangerous. National Review called OWS “Occupy Salem,” a “witch hunt on Wall Street.” Liberal media were at first largely dumbfounded and dismissive, then exhilarated about the possibilities of the movement. The New Republic, after an editorial warning its readers to steer clear (“all their talk of ‘general assemblies’ and ‘communiqués’ and ‘consensus’ has an air of group-think about it that is, or should be, troubling to liberals”), subsequently published an endorsement of OWS by Jonathan Cohn and John B. Judis. MSNBC’s hosts cheered Occupy almost as loudly as Fox commentators had hailed the Tea Party. Pundits like The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg questioned whether the movement would ultimately be meaningful without a stronger connection to electoral politics: “Yes, O.W.S. has ‘changed the conversation.’ But talk, however necessary, is cheap.” Across the media spectrum, much of the analysis hinged on inevitable and inaccurate comparisons to the Tea Party and the anti-war protests of the 1960s.
The chief complaint from the mainstream left was OWS’s lack of demands. The movement apparently didn’t know what it wanted. (“We are the demand,” replied a sign held high at Zuccotti Park.) Much debate went on inside the movement over the issue. David Haack, who had studied the history of organized labor, thought Occupy needed demands to survive and grow, and, most important, to draw the unions into its ambit. In August, when Zuccotti had yet to be taken over, Haack joined the Demands Working Group, but the consensus in the GA held that any demand, even a single one, would be self-limiting; it would narrow the reach of the Occupation. Haack eventually came around to agreeing, because demands effectively would be a ceding of autonomy—a ceding of power.
“We didn’t want to tie ourselves to any one solution or ideology,” Haack told me. “We had created a cultural space that included everyone who wanted to talk about inequality, about corporate power, about economic injustice. The project Occupy Wall Street is engaged in is a radical critique of root power structure. If your goal is to completely get rid of the existing political system, you’re not going to demand anything from that system.”
On October 6, President Obama acknowledged the Occupation—“I think people are frustrated and, you know, the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” he told reporters at a White House briefing. Occupiers had been on The Charlie Rose Show, and on MSNBC telling Al Sharpton that “this is revolution, not reform,” and on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, whose host read for his audience the entirety of the Declaration of the General Assembly of the Occupation, issued on September 29: “We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” Mention of the phrase “income inequality” in print publications, online news stories, and broadcast transcripts went from 91 per week at the beginning of October to 500 per week by the end of the month, according to Politico. By the second week of October, the words most uttered on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC were “jobs,” “Wall Street,” and “occupy.” “Give credit to the Occupy Wall Street movement,” acknowledged AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, “for redefining the political narrative.”
The redefining of the narrative was such that a top finance-sector lobbying firm, Clark, Lytle, Geduldig, Cranford in Washington, suggested an $850,000 media campaign to “counter” Occupy Wall Street. The firm outlined the plan in a memo to the American Bankers Association: “It may be easy to dismiss OWS as a ragtag group of protestors [but] they are very nimble and capable of working the media, coordinating third party support and engaging office holders to do their bidding.”
A 55-year-old ex–draft resister named David Reece explained the nature of the threat to me one night at Zuccotti Park. Occupy, he said, was a “left populist movement, a true people’s movement, the kind we haven’t had in over a hundred years—the kind to take on the unfinished business of FDR’s New Deal.” Reece was drawing a lineage to the late-19th-century political eruption of Populism, when the Farmers’ Alliance and People’s Party arose in response to the depredations of the Gilded Age.
The Populists spoke the same language as OWS. “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin,” the People’s Party platform of 1892 declared. “Corruption dominates the ballot box, the Legislatures, the Congress. … The people are demoralized … our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished. .... The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes, unprecedented in the history of mankind, and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”
The Populists formed primarily out of the ranks of the self-proclaimed “producerists” of the South, Midwest, and West—tobacco and cotton farmers, railroad workers, miners. The producerists, snarling at “the Money Kings of Wall Street,” banded together to build a “moral economy” based on “democratic capitalism” in a “cooperative commonwealth”—a society free of “special privileges” and “centralized corporate despotism.” This “was more than a party and more than an ethos,” writes Lawrence Goodwyn, professor emeritus at Duke University, in Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. “It was, in fact, a new way of looking at things—a new culture, and one that attempted to shelter its participants from sundry indoctrinations emanating from the larger culture that was industrial America itself.”
From a historical perspective, the Occupiers are engaged in an attempt to retake old American ground. The Occupiers, like the Populists, decry the terrible debt burden imposed by the bankers—our student loans and foreclosed homes are their mortgaged farms. The Occupiers, like the People’s Party, want to nationalize banking and credit—public banks for the public good. Even the poetry of revolt is the same, as evidenced by a Populist song:
There are ninety and nine who live and die
In want, and hunger, and cold,
That one may live in luxury,
And lie wrapped in a silken fold.
The ninety and nine in their hovel bare,
The one in luxury with riches rare.
We are a country rich with a history of occupiers. Some have succeeded, others have failed. Think of Rosa Parks occupying a bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955; of the lunch counter sit-in of 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina; of Resurrection City, the poor people’s 1968 encampment in Washington, D.C. Think of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when workers occupied trains, yards, and roundhouses, paralyzing the country; and the sit-down strikes of the 1930s in Flint, Michigan, which spread in labor occupations nationwide. Think of the occupation of 1894 in Washington, D.C., when Jacob Coxey and his 600-strong Army of the Commonwealth of Christ descended on the Capitol demanding help from the government for the jobless, only to be arrested, assaulted, dispersed; and the occupation of the Bonus Army in 1932, again in Washington, whose 20,000 men in tents, seeking a promised bonus for serving in World War I, were scattered with tear gas on orders from President Herbert Hoover.
The occupation at Zuccotti Park would be scattered, too. But the movement had already taken hold beyond the park, beyond the anarchist experiment. The hundred-plus occupations nationwide, in city squares like Zuccotti, had cross-pollinated by coming together online, sharing tactics. A core of organizers—you dare not call them leaders in the leaderless resistance—had emerged, among them a veteran of the 1989 Chinese student democracy resistance, Shen Tong, who told me “This is more important than Tiananmen—it’s the single most important thing in the world right now. A civic revival: real direct citizen participation without waiting for institutions to tell people what to do and how to do it.” From its office at 50 Broadway, OWS was building coalitions. The movement had wide support from organized labor. When I first met organizer Jackie DiSalvo, outside the Sotheby’s picket in November, we watched as student unionists from Hunter College stood next to Teamsters and AFL-CIO members and teacher unionists and gravedigger unionists and art-handler unionists and Occupier hippies. She was ecstatic. “You have the beginnings of a labor coalition like we’ve not seen in our lifetimes.”
When Mayor Bloomberg’s inevitable crackdown came, the Occupiers expected a measure of the violence that had occurred in Oakland, when riot police had fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, battered skulls, and arrested scores of Occupiers. A 24-year-old Iraq War veteran named Scott Olsen, shot in the head with a tear-gas canister and hospitalized with a skull fracture and brain damage, became the movement’s first martyr.
In New York on November 15, the cops hit the park first with floodlights on cranes. The Bloomberg administration had learned its lesson from the abortive eviction of October 14. The operation was a blitzkrieg, planned in secret. Local subway stations were closed, the streets above and below Zuccotti were barricaded, and even the airspace was off-limits to news choppers. Reporters on the ground were pushed away, threatened if they resisted; at least six journalists were arrested, at least two pepper-sprayed.
Once the police descended on the park, with its 500 or so campers, pandemonium broke out. Some 1,000 officers, shielded and helmeted, swung batons, fired their “chemical agents.” The Occupiers chanted, “We love our country, and we love you.” Many scrambled to get out, but many others piled barricades out of chairs and tables or locked arms, forming a human wall.
“I can’t even estimate how many people were assaulted,” Jeff Smith told me on the night of the assault. “It was a stampede situation. People pushed with billy clubs and shields and driven to the ground. Hit with clubs on their chests and arms and backs, cracked across the face and head. The cops were hitting people when they were already down.” A city councilman, Ydanis Rodriguez, who had come to observe the eviction, was beaten, his face bloodied, and was hauled away in cuffs.
It was over by 4 A.M., and by dawn, metal barricades encircled the park. The tents were smashed and shredded, toppled into garbage trucks along with the hundreds of tattered backpacks and laptops and clothing and shoes that the Occupiers had called their property. The library was now a catastrophe; 4,000 of the books would not be recovered.
As day broke, the dispersed crowd gathered again by the hundreds and tried to take back the ground, armed with a temporary restraining order that OWS’s legal team had secured overnight from a New York state judge. It was in force until 11:30 A.M. A woman named Beth Bogart handed out 300 copies of the judge’s order among the crowd. She waved it at the police, one of whom punched her in the face, sending her to the hospital with a concussion.
At 11:25, a burly 40-year-old Occupier named Damien Guarriere, who had lived in Zuccotti for six weeks, told the crowd, “We have to take the park now!” He carried an American flag on a long pole and, waving it, he leapt over the barricade. A cop body-slammed him, and Guarriere flew in the air and over the barricade and landed on his ass, never letting go of the flag. He stood up and calmly said to the officer, “You just assaulted me.” Then he leapt over the barricade again and planted the flag in the soil, and the cops swarmed him.
Soon the courts would rule that the Occupiers could return—hold meetings, gather, yell, drum—but they could not camp. In retrospect, Bloomberg had done them a favor: The loss of Zuccotti reinvigorated the movement, because it was no longer saddled with the increasingly fraught endeavor of maintaining the park. “Occupy everything” was now the credo.
Two days after the eviction, on November 17, Occupy Wall Street organized its largest march. An estimated 32,000 people gathered in Foley Square and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. At least 40 representatives of major labor groups were arrested in the crossing. Earlier in the day, the streets around the New York Stock Exchange were shut down. A retired Philadelphia police captain named Ray Lewis, carrying a sign that said “NYPD Don’t Be the Mercenaries of Wall Street,” faced officers at the stock exchange and demanded to be arrested. When the NYPD finally complied, a huge cheer erupted.
The idea of the occupation—of a class revolt against the power of big money—has outlasted Zuccotti Park. For their movement to endure, and to have a lasting impact not just on the national consciousness but on policy as well, the Occupiers might take a lesson from the Populists. The People’s Party exploded on the American scene and quickly faded, though its platform did not. After years of ferment and debate, the party made what were once considered radical demands. It called for a progressive income tax, some form of social security, workplace regulation, banking regulation. It sought the secret ballot and direct election of senators. The hard-core Populists remained on the fringes, shouting to be heard, refusing to be co-opted, holding fast to their dream of a cooperative commonwealth. Yet much of what they envisioned came to pass within 40 years of the party’s flameout in the 1890s.
I expect the hard core of OWS will also shout from the outside looking in. The Occupiers have no interest in accommodating mere parties that play by the old rules. They want to raise consciousness—transform consciousness—and this they have already accomplished. That OWS calls for revolution is, perhaps, the first step toward reform.