In 2008, Barack Obama lit a fire among young activists. Next year, Occupy Wall Street could consume him.
By John Heilemann
New York magazine
Published Nov 27, 2011
The post-Zuccotti era of Occupy Wall Street began for Max Berger just after 1 a.m. on November 15, when he learned via text message that a forcible eviction of the park was close at hand. At 26, Berger is a redheaded Reed College alum and professional activist; his employers have included the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Van Jones’s outfit, Rebuild the Dream. By hard-core standards, he had come late to the OWS action, not visiting the park until a week after the protest got going on September 17. But Berger found himself sucked in and became one of its central players. Now, with Zuccotti under siege, he raced to the park and fired off a series of frantic tweets—before being put in handcuffs. “People singing Marley!” “Press not being let in. This is gonna be some Tiananmen shit.” “They can take this park, but they can’t stop this movement. This will backfire. We will win.”
Berger’s optimism was shared by his OWS cohorts. Upset as the organizers were about losing the symbolic value of the encampment at Zuccotti, the way it happened—in a late-night raid by police in riot gear, with reporters denied access and even arrested—had its own symbolic oomph. The organizers thought, too, that the eviction would confer another benefit: catalyzing turnout for the next major OWS demonstration, which was scheduled to take place two days later. And although the “day of action” on November 17 failed to shutter the stock exchange, the demo’s marquee goal, the show of force in Gotham was impressive—and replicated on a smaller scale in cities around the country.
When histories of Occupy Wall Street are written, those days in November will no doubt be seen as a watershed. In just two months of existence, OWS had scored plenty of victories: spreading from New York to more than 900 cities worldwide; introducing to the vernacular a potent catchphrase, “We are the 99 percent”; injecting into the national conversation the topic of income inequality. But OWS had also suffered setbacks. The less savory aspects of the occupations had provided the right with fuel for feral slander (Drudge: “Death, Disease Plague ‘Occupy’ Protests”) and casual caricature. Even among some protesters, there was a sense that stagnation had set in. Then came the Zuccotti clampdown—and the popular perception that it meant the end of OWS.
It’s perfectly possible that this perception will be borne out, that the raucous events of November 17 were the last gasps of a rigor-mortizing rebellion. But no one seriously involved in OWS buys a word of it. What they believe instead is that, after a brief period of retrenchment, the protests will be back even bigger and with a vengeance in the spring—when, with the unfurling of the presidential election, the whole world will be watching. Among Occupy’s organizers, there is fervid talk about occupying both the Democratic and Republican conventions. About occupying the National Mall in Washington, D.C. About, in effect, transforming 2012 into 1968 redux.
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.”
And so in coffee shops and borrowed conference rooms around the city, far from the sound and fury in the park and on the streets, the prime movers have been doing just that—meeting, planning, talking (and talking) about the future of OWS. The debates between them have been fierce. Tensions have been laid bare, factions fomented, and ideological cleavages exposed—all of it a familiar recapitulation of the growing pains experienced by protesters of the past, from those in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the sixties to those fighting for workers’ rights in the thirties.
Where OWS departs from precedent is in the breadth of support from the get-go for its overarching critique in the electorate at large. A November NBC–Wall Street Journal poll found that more than three quarters of voters agree that America’s economic structure unfairly favors the very rich over everyone else, and that the power of banks and corporations should be constrained. “It took three years from the start of the anti–Vietnam War movement to the point when the popularity of the war sank below 50 percent,” observes Columbia professor and social-movement historian Todd Gitlin. “Here, achieving the equivalent took three minutes.”
Capitalizing on this support is the central issue facing OWS, and its ability to do so will depend on myriad factors, including the behavior of plutocrats, politicians, and police. (In terms of presenting shocking and morally clarifying imagery, the recent pepper-spraying incident at the University of California, Davis, struck many as reminiscent of Bull Connor’s goons dousing civil-rights protesters with fire hoses in 1963.) But it will also depend on which of two broad strains within OWS turns out to be dominant: the radical reformism of social democrats such as Berger, who want to see a more humane and egalitarian form of capitalism and a government less corrupted by money, or the radical utopianism of the movement’s anarchists and Marxists, who seek to replace our current economic and political arrangements with … who knows what? “My fear is that we become the worst of the New Left,” Berger says. “I don’t want to live in a fucking commune. I don’t want to blow shit up. I want to get stuff done.”
In the beginning, the idea that what became Occupy Wall Street would amount to much at all, let alone become a vehicle for getting stuff done, struck Berger as unlikely—and he was not alone. One of the unifying sentiments among many of the prime movers was skepticism about the protest in the weeks leading up to it. After a call in July by the Canadian magazine Adbusters for a “Tahrir Moment” in lower Manhattan on September 17, a series of general assemblies were held in places such as Tompkins Square Park to plan the occupation. But the early gatherings were dominated by antiquated far-left fringe groups, such as the Workers World Party, and marred by internecine squabbling.
Vlad Teichberg was one of those in the crowd turned off by what he saw, at least at first. “It was problematic,” Teichberg says. “The groups wanted to control the process. But no consensus could be reached. So eventually a lot of the groups dropped out, but individuals stayed. When I came to the last two or three GAs before September 17, it was actually amazing, because suddenly you had a group that was easily finding consensus.”
Today, Teichberg spends much of his time in a small, dark, second-floor room in a clapped-out building on Lafayette at Bleecker. (His neighbors include the War Resisters League, the Socialist Party USA, and the Libertarian Book Club.) This is the original home office of globalrevolution.tv, which channels vérité video from occupations around the world through hosting sites such as Livestream.com.
Teichberg is a 39-year-old Russian immigrant with stooped shoulders and a mop of brown hair who grew up in Rego Park and is so jacked in to the electronic grid that he comes across like a character out of Neuromancer. But what makes him so interesting is that you could just as easily imagine him making a cameo in The Big Short. A math prodigy who was a Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalist before matriculating at Princeton, he left college (temporarily) after his sophomore year and went to work for Bankers Trust, the first in a string of Wall Street gigs at firms including Deutsche Bank, Swiss Reinsurance Corp., and HSBC. And what did he do in those places? He created, modeled, and traded derivatives, including some of the first synthetic CDOs. As he told the London Times, he was “one of the people [who] built that bomb that blew up the whole economy.”
Teichberg’s time in the Wall Street armament factory gave him a close-up view of everything wrong with the place: the culture of greed, the insane levels of risk, the corruption of the credit-rating agencies. “By 2001, it was obvious to me it was going to blow up,” he says, “and I wanted to be nowhere near it.” But he didn’t leave. Instead, hopping from job to job, he tried to put brakes on the process, devising new ways to value risk more accurately, only to be rebuffed by his bosses. At the same time he starting taking the money he was making on Wall Street and funding ways to undermine it.
And not just undermine Wall Street. Teichberg had never been terribly political, but the Iraq War and what he saw as the exploitation of 9/11 awakened his inner activist. He co-founded a media collective and started staging guerrilla actions: filming the protests at the 2004 GOP convention; staging a flash mob at ground zero on the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War. He moved out of his Tribeca apartment and decamped to Bushwick, eventually taking up residence in what he describes as “a hard-core anarchist punk house.”
This past April, Teichberg went to Madrid, where he worked at the media center of the Spanish anti-austerity protests. Upon returning to New York, he started building what he calls “Hackintoshes” (gussied-up used Dell laptops) and distributing them, along with modified handheld video cameras, to teams of OWS protesters. Since then, he and his people have shipped laptops and cameras to countless other occupations. “Two hundred stations were streaming by October 15,” the day that OWS went global, Teichberg says. “Suddenly we’re sitting in front of a badly managed TV network.”
The centrality of Teichberg’s shop to OWS can’t be overstated. “The live stream is, in a way, the central nervous system of the entire operation,” Berger explains. “Because in moments where the police have tried to fuck with us, it’s our first line of defense. And it’s been a big part of how we disseminate our information, raise the money, everything.”
Over coffee one day around the corner from his office at the Yippie Museum Café, I ask Teichberg what kinds of changes he hopes to bring to the financial system. “I think you’re assuming that, for me, Occupy Wall Street is about Wall Street,” he replies. “Of course, it was a huge mistake to bail out the banks in 2008. If you did a proper analysis of how much money was lost when the bubble burst, it was north of $50 trillion. So pumping a trillion dollars into that system is giving Band-Aids to a corpse. We could have used that money to create an entirely new financial system, and the super-upper class would’ve taken a huge hit.
“But this really isn’t about having a few demands for reform of the Fed or the transaction tax,” he goes on. “We’re talking about changing our society, so we no longer measure each other in terms of money, but based on fundamental things. What makes us special is not what we are against but what we are for: equality, unity, mutual respect. Those are very important elements of this new human system we want to build.”
Vlad Teichberg’s résumé—his experience of having been in the belly of beast, getting a gander at its guts, and recoiling in horror—is unusual but not unique within the OWS core. Here and there I found penitent or apostate Wall Streeters and other former corporate tools now railing against the system that once kept them flush. Like Teichberg’s, their criticisms of that system are more sophisticated and precise than those of many of their comrades. But their politics, also like Teichberg’s, are the opposite: earnest and idealistic, for sure, but also vague and half-formed.
Take Amin Husain, who is characterized by a number of the prime movers as one of OWS’s “deep thinkers.” Husain, a 36-year-old Palestinian-American who grew up poor before becoming a corporate lawyer, spent much of the aughts working on complex structured-finance deals. His last job before leaving the law to become an artist was as a contract attorney at Cravath, laboring on behalf of its client PricewaterhouseCoopers when PWC was being sued over its auditing (or, arguably, non-auditing) of AIG, reading hundreds of internal e-mails that may expose the perfidy of both.
In his kaffiyeh and a camouflage military cap, Husain certainly has the look of a revolutionary, but he sounds more like the artist he’s become. When I ask what drew him to OWS, he says, “I felt it was a moment for something to shift. It’s time to have people empowered to imagine, what does it mean to live in a beautiful country like the United States of America? This is a movement not about speaking to people, but about hearing. It’s not for the people. It’s with the people. It’s a new way of thinking.”
This kind of talk is common among a certain sort of OWSer, especially those who are newbies to public agitation. But then there is another sort: committed activists. Among the OWS prime movers, a goodly number, including Yotam Marom, were involved in Bloombergville, the sidewalk protest near City Hall against the city’s budget cuts that took place last summer. While their vernacular is at times as airy as Husain’s, their politics are much firmer, steeped in the cut-and-thrust of battles for tangible objectives. And, unlike Husain, who invoked the phrase “leaderless movement” again and again, the activist prime movers make no bones about the fact that OWS has a leadership cadre—and that they are part of it.
“Anybody who says there’s such a thing as a totally nonhierarchical, agenda-less movement is … not stupid, but dangerous, because somebody’s got to write the agenda—it doesn’t fall out of the sky,” says Marom, who in some ways is Husain’s mirror image. A 25-year-old veteran of the New School occupation and co-founder of the quasi-socialist Organization for a Free Society, Marom was raised in Hoboken by Israeli parents and has lived in both a commune (in Israel) and a collective (in Crown Heights). Articulate and charismatic, he came to OWS with a bone-deep wariness toward many of the far left’s ingrained tendencies, notably “the glorification of process and vagueness,” he says.
At the outset, Marom represented one pole in a pivotal debate that illustrated immediately how easily OWS might be riven by factionalism: Should the occupation have demands? The media was asking incessantly what the protesters wanted. And so were important players in the institutional left. “Early on, the unions came down and were trying to figure out how to plug in,” recalls Teichberg. “They said, ‘We can’t get behind you until you have a concrete set of demands.’ ”
Marom and others agreed that demands were necessary. “Working families from the South Bronx aren’t gonna come to a general assembly for four hours to express their own demands,” says Marom. “Demands are one way for them to hear that it’s about them without them having to be there. Demands also give us clear markers and clear targets. If our demand is about housing, we know Chase is fucking over the housing market. Etcetera.”
But the resistance to demands within OWS proved stronger than the pressure for them, and the former stance prevailed. For one thing, explains Michael Premo, a 29-year-old Brooklynite activist who has worked on issues from HIV/AIDS to housing since his teens, “even people who are for demands can’t figure out what the demands should be.” For another, although there were and are plenty of proposals that most OWSers could get behind—from a moratorium on foreclosures to a hefty Wall Street transaction tax to debt forgiveness for student loans—articulating demands for any of them would exclude others. And at a time when the movement’s main goal is growth, that seems self-defeating. “When we can put a million people on the Mall,” says Berger, “then we can have demands.”
There is a subtler political logic in play here, too. “The problem with demands,” explains Marom, who says that in retrospect he is glad that he lost this debate, “is they allow people to tune out. The Onion had a funny thing: ‘The World Is Waiting for Occupy Wall Street to Articulate Demands So They Can Start Ignoring Them.’ The thing about Occupy Wall Street is, it’s so broadand imaginative that it allows everybody to hear themselves in it if they want to.”
Columbia’s Todd Gitlin, the third president of Students for a Democratic Society and author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, agrees that too much is made—at least for now—of OWS’s absence of demands. “The student-movement part of the civil-rights movement, its definitive call-and-response, was, ‘What do you want? Freedom! When do you want it? Now!’ ” he points out. “Is that a political program? Freedom?”
Eschewing demands is one thing; eschewing any kind of engagement in the world of practical politics and governance is quite another, and on this issue a much deeper schism exists among the prime movers. So far that schism has been papered over, except in one notable instance—a case that may prove an ominous portent for the future of OWS.
The march began in Zuccotti and ended in Foley Square in the mid-afternoon on the first Saturday in November. The crowd was maybe a thousand strong when it arrived in front of the New York State Supreme Court building. Some of the protesters tried to take the courthouse steps, only be met by a phalanx of cops sprinting over to block their path. Most of the marchers retreated to the center of the square, but a few who remained got rowdy. Shouting ensued. Scuffles, too. At least twenty people were arrested.
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.
The proximate cause of the protest was a proposed settlement between a coalition of state attorneys general and the country’s biggest banks in the months-long state and federal investigation of widespread mortgage fraud—in particular, “robosigning.” A few days earlier, Berger had heard that a deal worth north of $25 billion was close at hand; the White House and the Justice Department were leaning hard on the A.G.’s to get onboard.
To Berger, the settlement seemed a travesty—a craven cash-for-immunity deal. So Berger proposed and helped plan the Foley Square march. Because of the arrests, its theme got lost in the scant media coverage it drew. But if you were there, that theme was plain, from the enormous papier-mâché rendering of 44 to a sign bearing the slogan OBAMA, DON’T BE WALL STREET’S PUPPET.
Given Occupy’s scathing view of the nexus between capital and the state, you might think that such a demo would be uncontroversial within OWS’s ranks. Certainly that’s what Berger thought. “Substantively, immunity is a big fucking deal,” he says. “If we as a movement are capable of acting at key junctures where we have the capacity to shift the dialogue, we should. And if we’re gonna build and broaden the movement, we have to show that we are capable of using the power that we have already acquired.”
But Berger’s proposal wasn’t uncontroversial. Quite the contrary. It sparked an agitated backlash, in which a handful of core OWS organizers attacked the idea on three grounds. The first was that it risked alienating African-Americans. “The people we think will be the heart and soul of this movement have yet to join it, even though you see them in Sunset Park and you see them in Harlem,” says Husain. “They identify with the president. So going after him isn’t the smartest move.”
OWS is the “rotten fruit of Obamaism,” says a strategist.
The second was that by focusing on Obama, the march moved away from a systemic critique to a personal one, and thus let other responsible parties slide. “You need a message around Obama that doesn’t let Boehner off the hook,” says Premo. “All government is beholden to the same masters.” And the third was that by assailing a specific policy, the march could be perceived as carrying an implicit demand.
Looking back on it, Berger allows that each of these objections had merit and admits he handled the internal OWS politics poorly. Still, the furor seemed to frustrate and deflate him. “What’s the point of this protest if we don’t do things like this?” he wondered. “It’s ironic. At first, people thought I was a Democratic Party mole. Now I’m like, ‘Fuck it, Let’s go after Obama!’ and they’re like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.’ ”
In truth, Berger is seen by some as something nearly as nefarious as a Democratic hack: an agent of the professional left. From the moment OWS broke through in the mainstream media, every organization and personage in the progressive sphere, from the labor unions and MoveOn to Van Jones and Howard Dean, has beaten a path to the movement’s door. “We were all like, ‘Ohhhh, here the come the activists!” says Katie Davison, a 31-year-old filmmaker who has worked closely with Teichberg on the OWS media effort. “I guess we’ve arrived!”
The attempts by the institutional left to make common cause with OWS have raised hopes in some but hackles in many more. Some of the annoyance can be traced to the condescension of the left’s old hands. “There was a gentleman who gave this lecture the other day and said, ‘I’ve been doing this for 35 years,’ blah blah blah,” recalls Sandy Nurse, a 27-year-old New School graduate and former U.N. contractor who has been instrumental to planning OWS’s major actions. “I said, ‘If you’ve been doing this for 35 years and you’re still at square one, you need to fucking think about how you’re organizing.’ ”
There is also a deeper source of suspicion toward the mainline left: the fear of co-option. “Everyone is jumping in and wants a piece of this,” says Husain. “The largest threat to this movement is at the institutional level, with these traditional, run-of-the-mill organizations getting in. The problem is that you start taking what is potentially a transformative movement and start making it into a corporation that resembles an organization that has been retarded and nonfunctional.”
The more grounded prime movers, though, express a more balanced view. “I don’t think it’s possible to co-opt this thing,” says Marom. “For example, Howard Dean is sending around fucking yard posters with ‘We Are the 99%, Occupy Wall Street’ on them, but we don’t do anything because of it.” As for the institutional left, he goes on, “if you want to have a real movement, you need labor and people who have ties to political institutions. What are we gonna be, just a thousand college kids?
“We talk all the time about the danger of being co-opted and who would be co-opting this,” Davison says. “It would be the liberals, and that’s not a bad position to be in … But I don’t feel we should be used in service of anyone else’s agenda. We are not a rent-a-mob.”
For some in the Democratic Party, that may come as a news flash, however. Back in mid-October, I happened to be on a panel at Baruch College sponsored by Harvard’s Institute of Politics. The panel’s moderator asked how we thought Occupy Wall Street might affect the 2012 presidential race. Elaine Kamarck—a lecturer at the Kennedy School and veteran of Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and Al Gore’s in 2000—offered a sunny (for Democrats) prognosis. “I think it is evidence of the fact that the young generation, which is the Obama base, is still very much engaged … I think they’re going to turn out for him. They have some complaints with him, which are probably justified. But all I see there is the energy.”
Kamarck was echoing the view—or at the least the hope—of Obama’s reelection team. A week earlier, David Plouffe, his campaign manager in 2008 and now a senior adviser in the White House, had told the Washington Post that the Obamans intended to make the public ire at Wall Street crystallized by OWS “one of the central elements of the campaign next year.” A few days after that, the White House ostentatiously declared that Obama is fighting for “the 99 percent,” while the president himself told ABC News, “I understand the frustrations being expressed in those [OWS] protests.”
What Obama may not understand so well is the degree of frustration inspired by him specifically among the protesters and their prime movers. Or the extent to which OWS and its energy is, as one liberal strategist puts it, is “the rotten fruit of Obamaism”—an army of young people, many of them inspired and mobilized by his campaign in 2008, who feel betrayed by his performance since he has, er, occupied the Oval Office.
“He cheated,” says Husain, who volunteered for the campaign on the belief that Obama could be a transformative president. “He ran on a platform he never intended to push. He made promises he never intended to keep. I was just amazed in his inaugural speech how little transformative there was. And then Tim Geithner—what the hell was that? And then the bailouts. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what was going on. It was a continuation of the same bullshit.”
Then there are others who never put any faith in Obama in the first place. “The new boss is ever the same as the old boss,” says Sandy Nurse. “I think if either political party or politician thinks they have any credibility to come down here and tap into this energy, they’re gravely misinformed.”
The last point is one I heard again and again from OWSers about Team Obama’s talk of channeling the movement. “They don’t have a fucking clue what they are talking about,” says Berger. “These [protesters] aren’t out here because they’re offended that they haven’t been spoken to nicely. They’re out here because they owe shitloads of money in student-loan debt and can’t find a job. Or they can’t afford their mortgage. And if Obama thinks that they’re gonna be able to divert this energy by talking about doing something, he’s got another think coming.”
To be sure, if OWS falls part, Obama stands some chance of picking up the pieces. “If this dies, people might say, ‘Look, we need to do something,’ ” allows Husain. But what if the opposite occurs? What if OWS continues to grow?
If it does, it will mean that the movement has succeeded in drawing an influx of more conventional lefties and even plain-vanilla liberals, which in turn might exacerbate the tensions already extant between OWS’s radical and reformist elements, but would be the inevitable price of attaining mass scale. The efforts to make that happen are picking up steam by the day. Next week, for instance, two of the country’s largest unions, the SEIU and the CWA, along with progressive groups such as the Center for Community Change, are planning to bus thousands of protesters to Washington, set up tents on the lawn on the Mall, and stage an action called Occupy Congress.
Occupy Congress is intended to lobby on behalf of Obama’s jobs agenda. But in truth the expansion of OWS that it represents could pose substantial political risks to the president in 2012—and it is here that the parallels to 1968 are at once resonant and meaningful. Back then, Richard Nixon built his campaign around an appeal to “the silent majority,” fueling and exploiting a growing backlash among white middle- and working-class voters against the less palatable aspects of the counterculture and its movements, and tarring Hubert Humphrey with guilt by association with them.
In the run-up to 2012, eerily similar Republican efforts are already being market-tested—from Eric Cantor’s decrying of the OWSers as “mobs,” to Herman Cain’s claim that the protests are being “planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration,” to Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that the protesters should be told, “Go get a job right after you take a bath.” As organized labor becomes increasingly involved with OWS, expect the attacks to extend from hippie-punching to union-bashing. Reacting to the news of Occupy Congress, the influential conservative blog RedState.com declared, “What began as a Neo-Communist movement that allegedly only had the goal of destroying capitalism has now become a full-fledged, union-financed class war.”
Whether such absurdities will find much traction is an open question, but depending on how the movement conducts itself, there is a chance that the amount will not be zero. More worrying for Obama is the possibility that the growth of OWS might worsen the dilemma he already faces on the left, which shares, if less vehemently, the OWSers’ jaundiced view of his tenure. Amazingly enough, many of them were surprised when I pointed out that the demonstrations in Chicago in 1968 occurred at the Democratic, not Republican, convention, and helped to shatter Humphrey’s base—and it isn’t hard to imagine a similar fate befalling Obama should Occupy Charlotte come to fruition next summer.
“I’ve felt from the beginning that this was going to be a crucial problem,” says Gitlin. “A good deal of finesse might—might—succeed in creating a working alliance between Democrats and the movement, as opposed to a knockdown, drag-out cleavage. And both vectors matter here. The movement will have to reconcile its camps: those who say, ‘We want to push the Democrats hard to be progressive’ and those who scream, ‘Co-option.’ But a great deal depends on the Democrats. The other day, Bill Daley was asked, ‘Is [OWS] helpful?’ Daley said, ‘No, I don’t know if it’s helpful.’ Wrong!”
Gitlin smiles a rueful smile. “Of course, it’s also conceivable that the structural divergences are so great that they can’t be bridged. Sometimes these things blow up and leave everything in ruins.”
One early evening in November, Sandy Nurse and I were sitting on the floor of an OWS storage space, surrounded by backpacks, sleeping bags, piles of rain ponchos, and enough toilet paper, toothpaste, Kleenex, and Q-tips to stock a Wal-Mart. Nurse is a striking half-Panamian, half-Irish-American who grew up as a military brat, worked on activist causes such as human trafficking, and now is a self-described “ballbuster” logistician for OWS. She was telling me about the time when Charlie Rangel showed up while she was speaking before a march and wanted to address the crowd. “I turned around and said, ‘You can’t speak here, you’re too divisive a figure, you definitely don’t represent what this is about, so you probably need to leave,’ ” she recalled.
Given Nurse’s attitude, it’s not surprising that when Jesse Jackson arrived two weeks later, she was no more welcoming. This was at a smaller meeting in the offices of the Communications Workers of America at 80 Pine. On hand were about a dozen of the prime movers—Berger, Marom, and Premo among them—and some union representatives. No one was expecting Jackson, he came unannounced, and Nurse’s first thought was, Why should we interrupt this meeting for this person?
But Jackson played humble, taking the seat next to Nurse, asking if he was welcome, waiting quietly for his turn to speak. Then, holding Nurse’s hand, he proceeded to unfurl a soliloquy in which he described the occupiers as inheritors of the mantle of the civil-rights movement. He talked about Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, one of the last protests that MLK planned before his death. About Resurrection City, the shantytown on the National Mall that several thousand people populated in May and June of 1968. About how one advantage to having no identifiable leader is that “there’s nobody to assassinate.”
Jackson looked at Berger and asked, “What does Lyndon Johnson mean to you?” Berger shrugged. “The Vietnam War?”
Jackson folded his hands across his belly and declaimed, “Civil Rights Act of 1964—LBJ. The Voting Rights Act of 1965—LBJ. Medicare—LBJ. Medicaid—LBJ. Child Nutrition Act—LBJ. Jobs Corps—LBJ.”
A few of the OWSers greeted Jackson’s words with skepticism, but most found them powerful, inspirational. “The connection with historical movements is what gives this so much moral credibility,” says Berger. “For someone like him to tell us ‘You have a history, tap into that history’—literally, I have goose bumps.”
The question is whether OWS will heed the message of Jackson’s riff on LBJ: that the protesters need to ally themselves with semi-simpatico elected officials, and that merely howling about the depradations of the existing economic and political order won’t be sufficient to change either. “At some point, movements must take on some form, some identifiable agenda,” Jackson tells me later. “At some point, water must become ice.”
The most savvy and hard-nosed of the prime movers agree, and think that moment is coming soon. “My take has always been that this movement must move in the shape of an octopus,” says Premo. “The head of the octopus moves forward with a solid critical analysis of our economic and political system, but the octopus has eight tentacles, which can begin to gain concessions. There were organizations within the civil-rights movement that had the demands that allowed everything that was accomplished to be accomplished. The SCLC, CORE, SNCC, all the organizations within that movement had specific goals. And that’s the moment we’re in now, when we’ll probably see our SCLC, our CORE, our SNCC emerge.”
For that to happen, OWS will need to achieve at least four things. The first is to survive the winter, literally and metaphorically, going into hibernation rather than withering and dying. And in this regard, Mayor Bloomberg’s clearing of Zuccotti Park is likely to prove a boon to the Occupy forces, allowing them to stop expending so much energy on defending space and more on movement-building. The second, as Gitlin puts it, is “dealing with the crazy”—avoiding instances of violence and property destruction that would taint the movement’s image in just the way that Republicans and their media allies are attempting to. The third is that the protesters will need to put the conceit that the movement is leaderless behind them. For OWS to attract new adherents, it must have a clear and compelling voice, amplified by the media. The movement has many candidates who could step up and fill that void, if only the rank and file will permit it.
Fourth and finally, OWS will need to navigate the fork in the road between radicalism and reformism. “I don’t think it’s an either-or,” says Marom. “People who only want reforms are probably just handicapped by cynicism. And if you don’t want reforms as a revolutionary, then you’re not a revolutionary, because people need the foundations on top of which to survive. And people need to win things, to feel like it’s possible to win.”
Of course, the sense of possibility that progressives might win was what fueled the election of Obama. And their frustration is what has created the context for OWS—and raises the specter that it might alter the landscape the president must traverse next year in dramatic and unpredictable ways.
“Obama didn’t build a movement, he built an electoral machine,” says Marom. “If he had built a movement, he would not be where he is right now. But the fact that he was elected, that so many people came out in the streets for him, that people cried when he won, was an expression of the fact that they wanted what they thought he was, which is an alternative. He wasn’t it. He can’t deliver it. This political system can’t deliver it. This economy can’t deliver it. But there are millions of people who genuinely want it. That’s amazing and inspiring to people like us, who are just, like, ‘Okay. This is for real.’ ”