Fast Company

The Inside Story Of Occupy Wall Street

Frustration, doubt, chaos, and failures dominated the early days of Occupy Wall Street. So how has it lasted so long, grown, and spread around the country? Fast Company reporter Sean Captain was at the occupation from day one and looks back on a series of moments that made the movement feel different than any other action he'd covered or participated in before.

The public milestones of #occupywallstreet are well known. A July 13 call to arms by activist magazine Adbusters. An August 31 YouTube video by hacktivist collective Anonymous. A few hundred protesters on September 17. Arrests the 24th. Taking the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1. Massive media attention and a national movement afterwards....

Also In This Series

1// The Signs Of Occupy Wall Street (Oct. 7)
Signs, banners, and costumes have extra importance in a protest without a unified slogan [Slideshow].

2// The Stealth Leaders Of Occupy Wall Street (Oct. 7)
The movement prides itself on its lack of central authority, but here are the people keeping it humming.

3// Tahrir Over Here? (Sept. 21)
Occupy Wall Street claims to be inspired by the Arab Spring, but can it, too, convert social media outrage into real action?  

4// Protest On Wall Street Is Louder Online Than Off (Sept. 19)
Is the future of activism more digital than physical? 

But most accounts fail to grasp the real disruption going on here. Something was different about this initially chaotic-seeming assembly from the beginning. And if it was so chaotic, how has it grown from a toothless web post to an action threatening to go nationwide? By working differently than protests in recent American history--using everything from social media shadow puppetry to a radical consensus process and a lack of official leaders.

I've been following the movement and attending events and meetings from day one, and for much of the time, it seemed destined to flop. Yet it took off. In retrospect, there were moments where it became obvious something new was going on here. Here are some of those moments.

Aug. 2: Micro Rally and Birth of General Assembly

The call said "general assembly." To some it was taken as more of a literal open gathering than a proper, organized assembly. Whatever it meant, it began as an old-school rally with speeches by lifelong local activists. Most came from New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, a city group that stands exactly for what the name suggests. Many were members of DC37, the biggest city employee union. Homeless advocates were on hand. The first five speakers were African American or Latino.

While the dedication was admirable, the rhetoric was antique. We must "fight back by any means necessary," said dreadlocked Larry Hales of NYABC. One open-mic speaker evoked Hitler. "Abolish Capitalism!" said young socialist Caleb Maupin. I had a pleasant chat with Diane Sare, a LaRouche Congressional candidate from New Jersey.

Then hot-tempered Greek student Georgia Sagri shook things up. She took the mic, saying, "This is not the way that a general assembly is happening! This is a rally!" She continued to blurt out criticisms and piss people off. But a chunk of them, mostly students but also middle-aged folk, joined her in a circle for a radical-consensus general assembly--a mainstay process in countries like Greece and Spain.

Then it became something new.

The leadership moved from Boomers and Gen-Xers at one side of Bowling Green plaza to pragmatic Millennials on the other. Ideology was vague. The first lists of concerns included the deficit, Wall Street reform, and student loan forgiveness. Consensus was agonizing: It took half of the two-hour meeting to decide the time and place for the next meeting.

During a lull, I spoke with a student named Isham Christie (one of the first to provide his full name). "Democracy is a long meeting," he said.

He also gave me the backstory. Some people there had been in the anti-austerity occupation in Madrid. And several had experienced a very mini version of #occupywallstreet, a camp-out protest against city budget cuts called Bloombergville. It got by on as little as 12 people overnight, and sometimes hit 200 for rallies.

Though strategy was a mess, planning was precise. Core committees focused quickly on logistics, outreach and food. Members of the tech committee could manage servers, build secure sites, and implement search engine optimization. One of them, Justine O'Tonnaigh, had already created occupywallstr.org.

"It does have a lot to do with the tech community," but not necessarily Anonymous, said Willie, an American who had been part of the Madrid protests and, like many people, wouldn't give a last name.

Aug. 9: Expectations Crash

The next week, meetings relocated from Bowling Green Park under blue skies to a dreary room in the DC37 union headquarters near Ground Zero. This was a meeting of New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, a group with its own priorities. But Occupy Wall Street was the hot topic.

Some worried about the group "bouncing from action to action" and not focusing on political organizing in the boroughs. People bitched about Adbusters' disappearance after putting up its web page. Kelly, the group moderator, confessed, "We don't have terribly high expectations for September 17."

Yet in that sober room sat some of the key #occupywallstreet organizers. Jeremy Bold vaguely proposed "artistic activities" that ultimately jump-started the occupation--yoga practices, poetry readings, and the like.

Alexa O'Brien, founder of the new campaign-finance reform group U.S. Day of Rage, said that her energies were focused on a long-planned Oct. 6 rally in Washington D.C. Lorenzo Serna, who now heads the outreach committee, was nearly silent.

Afterward, most of the two dozen people trudged a few blocks to the Irish Potato Famine Memorial on the Hudson. The General Assembly had decided that all meetings must be outdoors, even when rain threatened as on that night. It was prelude to wet nights in Zucotti Park.

We endured three hours of random discussion, wrangled by exhausted moderators trying to preserve extreme deference and inclusivity. They could change the "stack," or order of speakers to ensure that no people, races, or gender dominated. Georgia, who had promoted the general assembly idea, frequently spoke out of turn.

A long argument ensued again about time and place for the next sure-to-be agonizing meeting.

At the end, I spoke to professor Luis Moreno-Cabllud of the University of Pennsylvania, and he was certain this wouldn't amount to much. It looked to me as if the 80-some people at the meeting might be, at best, the entire Sept. 17 turnout.

The one optimist I did find was Jeremy Bold. "Sure, there are going to be thousands of people there," he said. It sounded so naïve.

I unplugged for a few weeks.

September 1: Poetry, speeches and arrests

On Sept. 1, Bold called to tell me that the arts and culture committee had begun a very small occupation--about a dozen people playing music and Frisbee and reciting speeches and poetry at a statue of George Washington near Wall Street. I felt sorry for him.

That night, he said, a few of them would sleep out, testing a court ruling that protestors could gather on New York sidewalks, without a permit, as long as they didn't completely block them.

Court ruling or no, nine were arrested. Eight had been released the same day with a summons. A ninth stayed 24 hours and went before a judge, who threw the case out. The arrests became a top story on the Huffington Post, thanks in part to the HD video they shot of the incident.

Sept. 3: Tompkins Square Park And New Momentum

Recounting the arrests was the first item on the agenda at the next General Assembly meeting in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. Nine had been released the next day with a summons. A tenth went before a judge, who threw the case out.

Something had finally happened. It wasn't just meetings and emails. There had been a demonstration--albeit tiny--and arrests. For the first time, it felt like September 17th might not be a total flop.

The general assemblies were still drudgery. But serious work was happening in the committees. Arts and Culture had grabbed national news. The Tactical Committee was poring over a huge map of downtown, marking possible meeting places and designating facilitators who could handle relations with the police.

They didn't want to answer my questions. Alexa O'Brien said she wouldn't talk until she knew me better. Like some other GA members, she still thought I might be an undercover cop.

I wanted to talk with her because she had become a force in the movement. After initial skepticism, she had thrown Day of Rage (and its 7,000 members) behind #occupywallstreet, helping organize other occupations in cities like LA, San Francisco, and Seattle (which her dad was leading).

Alexa was setting up nonviolent training classes as well as working with the National Lawyers Guild to have help on the ground in case of arrests. Some protestors wrote the hotline number on their arms.

All this time, there had been an intense discussion in the GA's Google group about whether or not #occupywallstreet should follow the law or do civil disobedience. That matter still isn't settled.

September 17: Paper Tiger

I had no trouble catching a subway to Wall Street that morning. The car was nearly empty.

Around the Bull, it looked like Aug. 3 again. It was hard to tell the motley crew of protestors from tourists. Diane Sare and about a dozen LaRouchites sang in a choir, while two opponents screamed at them.

I asked a cop if this protest looked special. "I've seen plenty of these," he replied.

But the prospects looked better when Alexa O'Brien came up to me with a bright smile. (She'd decided I was all right.) This protest didn't have to be big. It was a first step and a chance to try new methods and technology. "We're learning," she said. In particular she was excited about open-source software called Ushahidi. Using the website (displayed on her 3G iPad), email, or text messages, protestors can report anything they see--police, the size of crowds, Wi-Fi hotspots, public restrooms--and also get the latest updates so they can reorganize on the fly.

#Occupywallstreet was potentially a step to bigger things for her, especially the Oct. 2011 Washington rally which would happen soon.

But as we walked the financial district, she kept rattling off surprising stats. She wore an iPhone headset the entire time, on a conference call with "people I trust, monitoring what's going on," she said cryptically. Mostly, they were telling her about rankings on Twitter. "#DayofRage and #USDayOfRage are in the top 10," she said. #sept17 remained popular for a while. And #fuckwallstreet came from nowhere to be a top hashtag, then quickly disappeared.

Even my banal little tweets like, "Several blocks of Wall Street blocked off," were being retweeted like mad. I gained a lot of followers that day.

It was a matter of forced perspective. As camera position could make a man look like a Hobbit, the GA could position the occupation as gigantic--so they used a camera, livestreaming over 3G from just the right spot. A small crowd can look big when surrounding a camcorder.

Live streaming was just part of the media operation. The press team posts photos and videos every day--some showing ugly aspects like pepper-spraying and rough arrests. It's a continuation of the Arts and Culture Committee's arrest video.

The General Assembly has a press office that issues regular communiqués--initially with some creative accounting. The first communiqué, on September 18, claimed up to 2,000 protestors at the initial rally and up to that many sleeping in the park. But Doug Singsen, the cool-headed, middle-aged socialist in the group, had written in an email: "I think there were about 500-700 people in the GA, which was the peak attendance for the day, but only 200 or so slept over...."

September 17-19: Endurance

The General Assembly simply assumed that the occupation would work, so it did. When they couldn't get to Wall Street, they settled in Zucotti Park, renamed Liberty Plaza. And they slept there--just about 200 the first night (and ongoing).

Because the police wouldn't allow amplified sound, the GA deployed "The People's Mic"--repeating what the speaker says outward until everyone hears.

Onward: All Welcome

The same non-hierarchical structure that made and continues to make the GA meetings unwieldy also welcomes anyone to bring their own creativity. Someone posts a YouTube video. A couple dozen others wear Guy Fawkes masks. Suddenly, the masses of Anonymous are supporters. A panel truck with "Wikileaks" written on the side drives by, and now that unorganized organization is aboard.

But it's not all ruse. The "everyone welcome" approach has also brought in over a dozen unions from the United Auto Workers to the United Pilots, and varied celebrities from Michael Moore to Susan Sarandon to Jimmy McMillan, The-Rent-Is-Too-Damn-High guy. Currently, there's a rumor that George Soros will drop by. Whether or not he does, it's plausible.

And not posting clear demands, while essentially a failing, has unintended virtue. Anyone who is at all frustrated with the economy--perhaps even 99% of Americans--can feel that this protest is their own.

[Top image: Flickr user Adrian Kinloch; all others: Sean Captain]

Also In This Package

The Signs Of Occupy Wall Street (Oct. 7) Signs, banners, and costumes have extra importance in a protest without a unified, catchy message or agreed-upon list of demands. [Slideshow]

The Stealth Leaders Of Occupy Wall Street (Oct. 7) The movement aimed at calling attention to injustice in the American financial system prides itself on having no central leadership, and it's been criticized for having no central message. Here's how it's working anyway--and changing the way we think of protests. 

Occupy Wall Street: Tahrir Over Here? (Sept. 21) Yahoo blocked emails related to the ongoing protests on Wall Street. Meanwhile, attendees have been dealing with another problem: American protest rallies rely on mass media, not social media. 

Protest On Wall Street Is Louder Online Than Off (Sept. 19) A modest, recession-inspired demonstration grabs plenty of online attention. Is the future of activism more digital than physical?

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8 Comments

  • alexander the new yorker

    We should solicit donations and buy a building .. buy a billion rounds of hollow point ammo .. develop space weapons .. HAHAA; JUST KIDDING .. PEACE!!!

  • John Mack

    Ahem, isn't it our "leaders" (President, Congress) who are leaderless, refusing to define and confront our broken financial system?

  • John Howley

    It will take more than protests to effect sustainable change.  First, consider Barack Obama and remember the outpouring of pure joy on the night he was elected.  Change has not happened, and it is not just because the Republicans have blocked it.  Our change agent himself has brought us the fallacy of clean coal, a tar sands pipeline across the country, a politically-influenced $524 million loan to a questionable solar company run by political allies, and a Treasury Secretary who cut his teeth working for Henry Kissinger and protecting Wall Street.  All evidence that you cannot just vote, hope, and go home.  Second, consider the anti-war protests of the 1960's and 1970's.  The protests ended the war, but they also ended the Johnson Presidency, and gave us Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (along with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who of course came back in the W Administration to ruin the economy again).

    While I agree with many of the "anti" positions of occupy Wall Street -- and I am impressed with their use of technology to organize a virtually leaderless movement -- history suggest that the Establishment can outlast the people in the streets, unless the people in the streets are willing to get themselves and those who share their beliefs elected, which of course means taking responsibility for actually changing things and sustaining those changes over the long term.

    John Howley 
    http://www.john-howley.com

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    I'm very curious. On the one hand, I'm pretty capitalist, and I think socialism is a pretty bad idea, given what I have sen of its effects during my travels to other countries where it has been the dominant ideology. On the other, we do have some major problems in the US with income distribution, and with major talent going to wall street to learn to shuffle money profitably, instead of being used somewhere else to actually do something that adds the economy. I would love to see a simpler and more progressive income tax, or better yet, a consumption tax on stuff we want to reduce consumption of, like oil, gas, water, carbon, etc, with only a progressive income tax on upper-middle class and higher. Anyway, I think we need to do something, and while I may not agree with the occupywallstreet, I'm glad to see them doing something that could lead somewhere, rather than doing nothing. 

    David Kaiser, PhDExecutive Coach
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com

    Heroes and Heroines have a Guide:
    Arthur had Merlin
    Luke had Obin-Wan
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    You have Me

    Time to be Extraordinary!

  • John Mack

    Why not a stiff tax on money made from financial speculation? Our financial system is broken, diverting capital from investment in business growth and jobs to financial speculation, moving trillions around but not letting it stay anywhere long enough to be put to use by any operating business. Yes, trillions (216+ trillion in hedge funds plus the trillions that corporations are supposedly sitting on but actually using for financial speculation).

  • Richard Geller

    Those old enough to remember the civil rights movement and the anti-Viet Nam war protests of the 60's, know that fundamental change does not really come from Washington. "When the people lead, the leaders will follow" is unfortunately closer to the truth—unfortunate only because things have to get pretty bad before large numbers of people take to the streets in protest. But this cycle has been repeated often enough that there should be no surprise when it does happen.

    We are at another such point in our history when government has become so thoroughly dysfunctional, so firmly committed to maintaining the status quo of the privileged, that  fundamental reforms are required to assure the most basic expectations of any stable modern society: universal access to quality education, affordable healthcare, an economic Bill of Rights for all citizens, renewal of infrastructure, the rule of law, and a restoration of government's system of checks and balances.

    When we have hundreds of thousands marching on Washington and in all the cities of this country, some of our elected representatives will awaken to the urgent need for reform. For now, they are in denial that they are collectively (both Democrats and Republicans) wholly out of step with reality. 

    Properly famed, there are only seven or so basic issues that most Americans expect their elected officials to work, and no political rhetoric of finger-pointing and fear, whether from the right or the left, will hide their failure to do the job for which they were elected. 

    For most, I suspect their time has passed. We need younger representatives, who understand the world now, who are ready to work the problems and seek viable, sustainable solutions, not those who stubbornly cling to a world that no longer is.

  • Ross P

    This article brings up some good points. I went to the general assembly in SF on Thursday, have been following the events in Seattle, SF and NY very closely, and I intend on helping out a little this weekend (I can't camp but I can at least support them digitally/monetarily). 

    Many, many people resonate with Occupy's message but are turned off by the people who have formed the core of the leadership. The professional protesters if you will. I have nothing at all against them, they've done a great job so far. And the General Assembly is a great way to let everyone's voice be heard, but if everyone who speaks up is your typical socialist crust punk type (nothing wrong with that at all) then it's gonna turn off your average joe who is otherwise supportive. Local businesses and supporters are donating food and supplies at a rate far higher than needed, but feet on the ground is what is needed most.I think that as these individual movements grow, and clash with the authorities, they'll start to bring in more mainstream supporters just like in NY. We're already seeing it here in SF after the police raided the encampment on Thursday morning, hopefully it continues to grow.