Monthly Archives: November 2011

Do the Occupiers Know Their History?

The Democratic National Convention, 1968.

By Ezra Silk

I am sitting in a Starbucks in some distant outpost of metropolitan Dallas. There are Comfort Inns and Wells Fargo mini-towers all around, and the man sitting next to me is reading the Drudge Report. A nauseating, lounge-style cover of “Here Comes the Sun” just mercifully concluded.

Anyway, I just wanted to offer a few comments on some recent Occupy coverage.

New York magazine’s John Heilemann has written an interesting piece entitled, “2012=1968?” As you may have guessed from the title, Heilemann poses the question of whether Occupy Wall Street will split the Democratic vote and hand the presidency to the Republicans, ala the anti-war movement, Gene McCarthy, Humphrey, and Nixon in 1968. These types of, “Will history repeat itself?” stories can sometimes be painful, but this one is pretty good. I recommend it.

Heileman affirms a few of the things I’ve said, albeit with a slightly different twist. First, he decisively concludes that there are leaders, and proceeds to skewer the mythology of leaderlessness:

The people plotting these maneuvers are the leaders of OWS. Now, you may have heard that Occupy is a leaderless ­uprising. Its participants, and even the leaders themselves, are at pains to make this claim. But having spent the past month immersed in their world, I can report that a cadre of prime movers — strategists, tacticians, and logisticians; media gurus, technologists, and grand theorists — has emerged as essential to guiding OWS. For some, Occupy is an extension of years of activism; for others, their first insurrectionist rodeo. But they are now united by a single purpose: turning OWS from a brief shining moment into a bona fide movement.

That none of these people has yet become the face of OWS — its Tom Hayden or Mark Rudd, its Stokely Carmichael or H. Rap Brown — owes something to its newness. But it is also due to the way that Occupy operates. Since the sixties, starting with the backlash within the New Left against those same celebrities, the political counterculture has been ruled by loosey-goosey, bottom-up organizational precepts: horizontal and decentralized structures, an antipathy to hierarchy, a fetish for consensus. And this is true in spades of OWS. In such an environment, formal claims to leadership are invariably and forcefully rejected, leaving the processes for accomplishing anything in a state of near chaos, while at the same time opening the door to (indeed compelling) ad hoc reins-taking by those with the force of personality to gain ratification for their ideas about how to proceed. “In reality,” says Yotam Marom, one of the key OWS organizers, “movements like this are most conducive to being led by people already most conditioned to lead.”

Now, Heilemann doesn’t really answer the question of whether the leaders in New York are leading the national or international Occupy movement (I think he basically takes it for granted that they are). It’s very hard to tell. When I ask local Occupy leaders what role Occupy Wall Street (the New York protest) plays in the movement, they offer a variation on a theme. The theme is that while the New York protest is the “flagship,” or even “the mothership,” it leads by example — not by fiat. From what I’ve seen and heard, Occupy Wall Street holds enormous symbolic power and in many ways charts the direction of the national movement, but it does not rigidly control the other protests.

Heilemann also notes, as I have, that Occupy Wall Street has largely steered clear of the Obama Wars. He writes about an early November protest at the State Supreme Court building against the proposed foreclosure settlement being pushed by the Obama administration:

Which is to say, in most respects, it was just another day at OWS. But in one way it was novel: This was the first and only demonstration to date, as far as I can determine, aimed directly at Barack Obama. Continue reading

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An Incredible, Illuminating Rant

The permanent occupiers are chewed out by an ally.

By Ezra Silk

AUSTIN — I showed up at City Hall yesterday to attend a scheduled 5 p.m. meeting of the social contract committee. John Peck, who wrote the first draft of the social contract, had told me that the document was the next big step for Occupy Austin, so I figured he would be there. I couldn’t find him. And the meeting did not appear to be happening.

After a few minutes, I gave up on the social contract meeting, and walked up to a few people who looked like they might know what was going on. A rotund, bearded guy with horn-rimmed glasses was having a heated argument with a pretty young woman named Natalie. Both seemed well educated and extremely dedicated to the cause. They were discussing the fact that earlier in the day, no one had appeared at Occupy the Capitol, which along with the social contract, was supposed to be the next Big Thing for Occupy Austin. Both projects were supposed to inject some new momentum into the flagging protest by separating the dedicated activists from those simply looking for free food and camaraderie. The bearded guy, who apparently organized Occupy the Capitol, was arguing that the various homeless people and drug addicts — the 24/7 occupiers — assembled on the City Hall steps not only had little to contribute, but were dragging down the movement.

Natalie disagreed, vehemently. The more dedicated activists simply need to try harder to channel the permanent occupiers’ energy into politics, she said. The bearded guy accused her of being egotistical, and Natalie stormed away.

A few minutes later, Natalie walked up to the core group of occupiers, who, as is their wont, were lounging around on their patch of the city hall courtyard, not doing very much. After miraculously getting the occupiers attention, she proceeded to give this epic rant, which almost perfectly crystallizes the problems and aspirations of many of the occupations:

That’s kind of what this is about — is the apathy. This is about not working together and this is about — this place is drowning. Stop talking. This place is drowning and you’re not gonna have the support of anybody — the community with donations, you’re not gonna have the support of Occupy Austin to be here and sleep here — it’s gonna end very soon if we don’t quit all of this bullshit. The apathy. Do we all know what apathy is? It means you’re not caring or putting any energy or any self-concern into anything. That’s what apathy is and that’s what we’ve been seeing a lot of. Okay?

Two, is inconsideration. So, whether you see something happening or not, whether you care about it or not, you’re just not considering it and deciding that it doesn’t affect you, and, in fact, everything that happens here affects every single person here. So, why? People walk by, you guys wonder why we don’t, like, stay the night here? I mean, look, is there any room for me to set up a sleeping bag? What about the ten other people that walk through here, and wish that they could sleep here and there’s not room? So that’s the first thing, is downsizing a little bit. Okay?

Stop talking! A lot of people have too much stuff. I know it’s cold, so, like, blankets are okay but having, like, five bags and a whole section to just two people is not cool, because it makes everybody think that they’re not welcome. If you want other people to be here and sleep here and support you and understand you then you need to include them and welcome them, so that’s the first thing. Then, after that, it’s about mess and cleaning up after yourselves, for a start. So, every time I come here, I have to completely reorganize everything over there, because nobody can even put a lid back on a jar. What are we, five? That’s not cool, either.

So we need to start cleaning up after ourselves. That means picking up the trash, constantly. That means rolling up your bags during the day, so this doesn’t look like a trash heap. People don’t want to come here and spend any time here, because it’s not welcoming. We need to start being welcoming. We need to make it look welcoming, and feel welcoming, and that starts with cleanliness, like actually smiling at people. Not one person here, like, is happy ever. You know? I mean, where’s the good energy? I mean, okay, that, that’s a blanket statement. That’s not a hundred percent true, but that’s what it feels like a lot of the time being here. It’s just like, it’s oppressive, and it sucks, you guys, it really sucks! And we want this to be a happy family. We can work together and support each other, and not have to feel like we’re protecting our space for our lives because you’ll know that everybody around you is here to protect it too with you, and you don’t have to worry so much anymore. If you have too much stuff to be able to get up and go to the GA [General Assembly], that’s also fucked up, because you talk about us making decisions for you, but if you’re not there then, duh! We’re gonna make decisions, and if you’re not there to help make the decisions, then that’s your fault. I understand if you have things here, and there’s been theft, I totally see that, but we can do shifts, you know? Find your friends, and two of you stay the night, and we go and then we switch. Like, make it work! Be a part of what’s happening.

Because this is not just a tent city. It’s not. I’m sorry. Whether you want it to be or not, that’s not what this is! It’s not just a tent city! If you wanna stay here, you need to be active in Occupy Austin! If you don’t know what that is, you better find out, or you better get out! I’m sorry, but I’m tired of this. It’s bullshit, and everybody needs to shape up (applause). Okay? Continue reading

Did OWS Prevail Over the Supercommittee?

By Ezra Silk

Six weeks ago, I predicted in a comment on my cousin’s blog that the media discussion generated by Occupy Wall Street could push the Democrats to the left and prevent the deficit-reduction supercommittee from striking a bi-partisan deal that would have slashed popular social insurance programs:

Now, as the deficit-reduction supercommittee begins to form its recommendations over the next several weeks, Democratic (and Republican, for that matter) participants will be smart to pay attention to the rising populist anger in the streets and in the press as they consider efforts to “reform” Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the tax system. I believe that the current media discussion can have an impact on the supercommittee’s recommendation, which has the potential to reshape the American government over the next decade…This is one of the ways that the protests are creating a media and political climate that can (and already is) pushing the Democrats toward reform.

In today’s Washington Post, torture-loving hack Marc Thiessen fingers the real culprit in the supercommittee’s tragic failure to reach compromise: the Zuccotti-istas.

As Occupy Wall Street gained traction during the course of the supercommittee’s deliberations, it emboldened the Democrats to reject compromise and stick to their demands for a trillion-dollar tax increase. They seemed perfectly willing to let the supercommittee fail if those demands were not met. Why? Because the Democrats seem to believe that the Tea Party movement, with its calls for limited government and spending restraint, is waning. They believe it is being supplanted before our eyes by a new grassroots movement in favor of bigger government, higher taxes and more spending.

They are increasingly convinced that fiscal restraint is yesterday’s news and that class warfare is their ticket to reelection in 2012. That notion will be put to the test in 12 months’ time. But for now, let’s not pretend that GOP “intransigence” on taxes and a lone conservative activist were responsible for the failure of the supercommittee. If you want to find the shadowy force that exerted power over half of the members of the supercommittee, dooming it to gridlock and failure, look no further than the encampments of Zuccotti Park.

Obviously, Thiessen, a former Bush aide, is trying to give the GOP some cover as he paints the Democrats as tools of the “shadowy” anarchists in Zuccotti Park.

But, could it be true? Is Occupy Wall Street in any way responsible for the supercommittee’s “failure” — a failure that has been lauded by some on the left?

In all likelihood, we will never know. But the fact that Marc Thiessen is willing to venture this explanation — whether it has any truth or not — is significant in its own right. This movement, operating outside the formal structures of legislative activity, has assumed real power.

Less Camping, More Occupying

Occupy D.C. settles in at police headquarters.

By Rob Wohl

WASHINGTON — On November 10th, the Washington Post took a break from its hostility towards Occupy D.C., and ran an article that chronicled daily life in the camp at McPherson Square through an urbanist lens, under the headline, “The New Town Square.” The accompanying map identified the various public structures we’ve thrown up: the kitchen, the medical tent, the chapel, the library, the media center, and the “comfort tent,” which houses clothing and bedding. Over the last three weeks, the tents have kept coming. Now we have a “fun tent,” where people occasionally project movies, a “sustainability tent,” where people build things out of reclaimed materials and plot to exploit solar energy, an as-yet-unfinished anarchist info shop, and something called the “temple of love,” which I’m told isn’t what it sounds like, although I have no intention of entering it at night.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Us plucky occupiers have set up a bustling community that transposed some of the features of the much-mourned pre-industrial small town to the lifeless heart of the lobbying district of downtown D.C. So we can declare victory, right?

Except, this isn’t what I signed up for. In my ideal society of the future, people don’t live in parks. If we aren’t careful, the encampment might become a distraction from the occupation.

I would never argue that the camps aren’t important. The absence of channels for ordinary people to get involved in political discourse and plan collective action outside the blinkered area of the two-year campaign cycle is totally corrosive to real democracy. But in the world of “bowling alone,” of corporate news media, of university tuitions higher than the typical household income, there isn’t much of a public sphere in which we can do the messy work of citizenship. Without space to talk and to organize, it will be impossible to hit back against increasingly politicized and class-conscious business interests. The camps are supposed to be the public sphere objectified – a platform for politics from below, a new version of the New England town hall or the Roman forum (hopefully with less genocide and slavery). Plus, the camps are a great billboard. By holding public space, we let everyone know exactly where to go and what to do if they want to join the fight. And by putting them outside centers of power all over the country, we’ve painted a sign reading, “Watch your backs, motherfuckers,” across the urban landscape.

But the camps breed trouble. We spend a ton of time dealing with basic logistical issues, like how to keep people warm and where to shit. A few people need to stay up every night de-escalating fights. Campers are harassed every night by drunk people wandering out of the bars. Hungry people who failed to get any sleep the last night because a rain storm soaked their tent and a schizophrenic man spent the three o’clock hours mumbling about Jesus through a megaphone are not necessarily the most effective organizers. Continue reading

Thanksgiving in Zuccotti

By Gianna Palmer

NEW YORK— First, a short introduction is in order. My name is Gianna. I’m a journalist and a friend of Ezra’s. On two recent occasions, Ezra appeared rather suddenly in New York to cover the happenings at Zuccotti Park (also known as Liberty Square, depending on who you talk to). Both times, I gave him food and lodging. So I’d like to credit myself with tangentially helping Ezra get this site off the ground. Ezra, however, gets full credit for getting me interested in Occupy Wall Street in the first place. For anyone vaguely curious about Occupy Wall Street,  I recommend something like the series of discussions I had with Ezra about income inequality, mortgage-backed securities and American history. Thanks, ‘Zra.

Getting interested in Occupy Wall Street turned out to be a good thing for me professionally, too, because in October I got the opportunity to start reporting on it. I’ve been writing breaking OWS news and feature stories for McClatchy, a newspaper company that owns and operates 30 daily newspapers, including the Miami Herlad and the Sacramento Bee. Ezra has encouraged me to post here every so often, too.

So here I go.

Continue reading

Occupy San Antonio

One outpost of Occupy San Antonio.

The Strategist

John Peck.

By Ezra Silk

AUSTIN — At most of the occupations, when I ask questions about what’s next for the Occupy movement, demonstrators are usually grateful to have a discussion about the Big Picture. But having spent weeks ironing out the mundane details of their encampment, most occupiers don’t seem prepared to speak about the movement on a macro level.

That was not the case with John Peck. Peck, 52, is a small, intense man — a career painter from Sarasota, Florida who couldn’t find routine art work after the 2008 financial crisis. Struggling to pay his bills, Peck eventually found a job at an aluminum factory. But he grew tired of the long hours of physical toil and decided to embrace his downward mobility. Now, Peck is traveling the country, moving from occupation to occupation. He has been posted in Austin for several weeks.

I met Peck at the information booth for the City Hall occupation here. I was asking a volunteer some mildly critical questions about the occupations — whether they had become aimless, lost their symbolic impact, etc. Peck aggressively interjected, and we had a heated back and forth about Occupy’s media strategy. My argument was that before the Zuccotti raid and the U.C. Davis pepper spray incident, the occupiers were losing the war of ideas, because the problems (both real and imagined) of the occupations were dragging down the movement.

After a few minutes of talking past each other, we realized that we were in agreement. Peck whipped out his smartphone and showed me a number of email exchanges he had conducted with other occupiers. Forget the occupations, Peck told me. Most of the action is now taking place in cyberspace.

Peck had been participating in national conference calls over InterOccupy.com, the Occupy movement’s global communications network, since mid-October. But, only in the past week had the movement made real strides toward creating a global governance structure. Peck said he had participated in national and international Occupy working groups over the phone (there were Bahraini activists participating in one conversation, he said). In the meetings, participants will vote by punching in numbers on the phone. Anyone can listen in, Peck said, because there is nothing to hide. Continue reading

Occupy Austin Occupies the Capitol Steps

Occupy Austin demonstrates at the State Capitol building.

By Ezra Silk

AUSTIN – Yesterday, I spoke to a few Occupy Austin stalwarts at their tentless encampment in front of City Hall. The occupation was a bit lethargic, with a number of homeless and other disaffected people lounging around in a concrete courtyard. A number of sleeping bags were splayed out under a solar panel roof that protrudes off of City Hall. A few too many flies buzzed around the information booth.

The stalwarts let me know that they were planning on Occupying the State Capitol. There would be an 11 a.m. march from City Hall to the Capitol, they told me. I was told that it was going to be a big deal.

I showed up at the Capitol today around 1 p.m. There were maybe three dozen demonstrators standing on the front steps, mingling with a group of tourists who were waiting to enter the building. A blonde woman sporting Buddy Holly glasses and pushing a baby stroller was screaming at a man who had apparently told her to get a job. Someone told me that none of the unofficial leaders of the movement were in attendance. Due to poor planning, I was told, only three people participated in the march. There were no events or speeches planned. People chanted sporadically.

A University of Texas student set up a tent. Apparently, the city of Austin has an ordinance banning camping. Several Department of Public Safety officers swarmed, and told the student to take down the tent. After protesting the city’s camping ordinance, which he argued unfairly targets the homeless, the student dismantled the tent.

Anyway, here are a few pictures. I’m heading to San Antonio in a few minutes with cousin Ethan. I plan to check in on the occupation there.

The blonde woman screams at her critic.

The UT student defends his right to pitch his tent.

Continue reading

Occupy Nashville’s Global Communicant

Albert Rankin, Occupy Nashville's Global Messenger.

By Ezra Silk

NASHVILLE — When I spoke with Albert Rankin on the steps of Legislative Plaza last week, he was in a hurry. He had a flight to catch. As the system administrator for Occupy Nashville’s computer network, Rankin’s technical services are well-regarded enough that the members of Occupy Denver had agreed to provide him the funds to conduct a round-trip advisory mission to the Mile-High City.

Still, Rankin, a true believer in the Occupy movement, was willing to evangelize for half an hour about the successes of Occupy Nashville. During Rankin’s pitch, I managed to squeeze a few details from him about his participation in the virtual hive mind that is driving the global Occupy movement.

Rankin had not yet attended any other occupations, he told me. But over the internet, he had communicated with demonstrators at Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Dordrecht, Occupy Sydney, and Occupy Hong Kong, among others. Rankin had also met traveling occupiers from Occupy Chattanooga and Occupy Memphis, he said.

On the internet, Rankin communicates with other occupiers both publicly — through chat rooms, Twitter, Livestream.com, and Facebook wall posts — and privately — through email and Facebook messaging. Rankin will often chit-chat and exchange logistical tips with his far-flung network of occupiers, he said.

“ ‘How’s it going on the ground?’ ‘How are you feeling today?’ ‘How’s the weather?’ ‘How’s your camp holding up?’” Rankin said, mimicking his online conversations. “Anything that I would just talk about with another occupier at my own camp. Say I just woke up. Just, basically, a situation report.  ‘How are things going today?’ ‘Do we need any supplies?’ ‘Do I need to put out anything on the Livestream that we desperately need, like water?’ ‘Does anything need to be cleaned?’ ‘How are we looking on food?’ Just basic things.”

One piece of advice Rankin has been pushing on his virtual comrades is that during police confrontations, in order to make the protests’ non-violent principles clear, occupiers need to sit down before they are arrested.

Sometimes, the conversations are less mundane, he said. When there were persistent media calls for the movement to issue a set of demands, Rankin said, he discussed the issue online with other occupiers.

“As far as media and perception and stuff like that, absolutely we keep in touch with each other,” he said.

Rankin estimated that he is one of several thousand occupiers around the world — mostly members of their respective occupation’s “media team” — that are engaging in these sorts of informal online discussions with other members of the Occupy movement. Although there have been efforts to coordinate the discussions, many of them are conducted independently of any centralized communications structure, he said. Continue reading

The Taxonomy of Train Riders

"Dirty kids" Victor Romeo, Paul, unknown, Amber, and Joey pose for a picture.

By Ezra Silk

NEW ORLEANS — On Wednesday night, I met a few more train hoppers. They had settled a small corner of Duncan Plaza with tents and the odd piece of rotting furniture. For most, it was their first occupation. The exception was Victor Romeo, who said he had been to occupations in San Francisco, Oakland, San Antonio, Houston, and New York. They seemed generally receptive to the message of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The group helpfully elucidated to me some of the basics of their culture.

First, most train riders identify as “kids.” If you see another train rider, it’s a sign of recognition to say, “what up, kid?”

Respectable terms of self-identification include “gutter-punk,” “train kid,” and “dirty kid.” A “schwillie kid” is a train rider who likes to drink.

On the low end of the totem pole are “greenhorns” and “oogles.” A greenhorn is a novice. An oogle is the scum of the earth — both vain and weak. An oogle, for example, would brag that he or she had hopped twenty trains. In response, a respectable dirty kid would identify the oogle as such, and the oogle would not fight back.

The group estimated that there are several thousand train riders across the country. Members of the group are well acquainted with each other, they said. The vast majority ride trains by choice. Many come from broken homes.

One of the dirty kids, Joey, was surprised that I did not know there is a “nomadic revolution” transpiring in America today. More and more disaffected young people are rejecting the false premises of the American Dream and riding trains instead, he told me.

Amber Koral Valinski, whose great grandfather hopped trains, framed the dirty kid lifestyle as a move toward conservation. While most young Americans spend their time driving cars and polluting the environment, dirty kids reject the automotive culture. Continue reading