NY ‘Occupy’ protests evolved from magazine appeal

Police arrest marchers from Zuccotti Park's Occupy Wall Street, during a protest near One Chase Manhattan Plaza on Wednesday in New York. The protest is now in its fourth week.
Bebeto Matthews | AP
Police arrest marchers from Zuccotti Park's Occupy Wall Street, during a protest near One Chase Manhattan Plaza on Wednesday in New York. The protest is now in its fourth week.
Posted Oct. 12, 2011, at 8:08 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 22, 2011, at 2:08 p.m.

NEW YORK — Early this year, the editors of a Canadian anti-establishment magazine watched Egyptians demanding democracy in Cairo, and young Spaniards camping out in city centers to protest high unemployment, and wondered, “Why isn’t this happening in America?”

So in an Internet posting in mid-July, Adbusters suggested a time — Sept. 17 — and a place — Wall Street — for people to make a stand. The editors didn’t organize any activists, or even visit New York, but thousands of people took their idea and made it real.

“All of us had this feeling that there was this powerful wave of rage rising up in America that hadn’t found its expression yet,” said magazine co-founder Kalle Lasn, who came up with the idea for the demonstration with Adbusters editor Micah White.

The Vancouver-based magazine audaciously called for 20,000 “redeemers, rebels and radicals” to flood lower Manhattan and occupy Wall Street for a few months. The crowds have been substantially smaller than that, and another key part of the original Adbusters call — that the protesters come up with “one simple demand” — has yet to materialize.

But the demonstration has created a political buzz and inspired dozens more encampments across the U.S.

On Wednesday, police arrested four people outside JP Morgan Chase offices where Wall Street protesters called in vain for a meeting with Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon. Protesters accused the police of rough handling. An Associated Press photographer witnessed police officers heading into the crowd of demonstrators to make the arrests.

Meanwhile, about 700 members of the Service Employees International Union marched through the Financial District; the union, which represents 23,000 office cleaners, is gearing up for contract negotiations with the Realty Advisory Board.

More protests are planned in Toronto and Vancouver this weekend, and European activists also are organizing.

“It has launched a national conversation. What’s wrong with a movement like that?” Lasn said.

The magazine that sparked that conversation is not exactly a household name for many Americans. Adbusters, which features provocative essays and spoof advertisements challenging people to reject consumer culture, has about 20,000 subscribers and sells about 80,000 copies at newsstands and independent bookstores, mostly in the U.S. It sells no advertising, and funds itself entirely throug h sales and donations.

The magazine launched its campaign simply. It created a website and designed a poster, featuring a dancer standing atop Wall Street’s famed charging bull statue while a riot rages in the background. It made some suggestions about what the protest’s one demand would be, but said the matter was best left to the people, to be decided by consensus at meetings leading up to the demonstration.

The West Coast magazine was in no position to do any actual organizing.

“We didn’t have a huge IT department. We didn’t have people on the ground in New York City,” explained White, who lives in Berkeley, Calif.

The people who turned Adbusters’ idea into a real protest were a combination of veterans of New York City’s activist scene and newcomers who saw the magazine’s call circulating on Twitter and other social media. They didn’t share any particular political goal, but held a unifying belief that the country’s economic and political systems are rigged to benefit big corporations and the very rich.

Many doubted that Adbusters’ call would be enough to create anything.

“A lot of us were skeptical of it, because it just sort of fell from the sky. Like, uprisings don’t happen just because you put them in the magazine,” Brooklyn activist Yotam Marom said. “It’s kind of a presumptuous thing to do.”

But the concept of a demonstration modeled loosely after the youth encampments in Spain resonated with a number of people who had been staging smaller protests in New York City for several months.

At first, Marom said, the idea of a massive, long-lasting occupation of Wall Street seemed out of reach. But the idea of grabbing space and refusing to let it go inspired him, as did the group’s unorthodox planning structure.

Rather than appoint leaders, or make decisions with straight up-or-down votes, the 50 to 200 activists attending those early organizing sessions, called general assemblies, were committed to making decisions by consensus only. If there wasn’t widespread agreement, there would be no decision, just hours and hours of discussion.

The limitations became apparent immediately.

“There was not a lot of consensus on anything. There wasn’t agreement on message. There was consensus to hold a public assembly on Wall Street,” said Alexa O’Brien, an activist with the group U.S. Day of Rage who attended the organizational meetings, most of which were held in New York’s Tompkins Square Park.

But there were benefits, too, she and other organizers said. The adherence to consensus building meant that fewer people felt excluded. People with very different goals were able to get things done.

Organizers scouted out public spaces where they might legally be allowed to assemble overnight, and not be subject to city park curfews. They settled on Zuccotti Park in part because it’s privately owned and required to be open to the public 24 hours per day.

“Quite a few of us were skeptical that we would be able to occupy anything,” said Marina Sitrian, a post-doctoral fellow at the City University of New York who began attending the planning sessions in August. “But people were arriving with sleeping bags. And some people had coolers. And some people were wearing backpacks. And I was thinking, ‘Oh, everybody else thinks we are going to stay. OK.”’

When Sept. 17 finally arrived, turnout was moderate for a city where 10,000 people can march through a neighborhood without raising an eyebrow.

Only a few hundred people stayed the night, but Sitrian said that even then, “it started to feel different” from other demonstrations she had attended. Soon there were not only committed activists in the crowd, but also “a lot of really regular working people, and people who had been laid off and didn’t know what to do,” she said

The event began to get national attention, and bigger crowds, when protesters posted video of a police commander shooting pepper spray at a group of female marchers who had been standing peacefully on the sidewalk. It grew again after nearly 700 people were arrested while trying to march across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Few of the protesters see the lack of specific demands as a failure, saying it’s too early for a consensus to emerge. Several activists at the core of the movement say their immediate goal is creating a new type of democratic decision-making that can be replicated at “Occupy” movements around the world.

Lasn, meanwhile, said he’s confident that “crystal clear demands” will emerge soon. He said he personally favors a call for a global 1 percent tax on all financial transactions as a way of funding social programs, redistributing wealth and discouraging wealthy corporations from treating the global economy like “a global casino.”

But he’s not in Zuccotti Park, and neither is White. Neither has actually seen the movement they inspired in person.

“We launched an idea and it captured people’s imaginations,” White said, “and they made it their own.”

Associated Press Writer Verena Dobnik contributed to this report.

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