War on Wall Street

A new protest movement, with Canadian ties, is taking shape, and spreading

War On Wall Street

Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis

Last Sunday, just before 7 a.m., as the sun cast its first light on Manhattan, cold, damp Zuccotti Park, just south of Ground Zero and north of Wall Street—those twin poles of a shattered American psyche—looked like little more than a junkyard. Shopping carts, blankets, garbage bags, sodden pizza boxes, piles of cardboard protest signs. Most of the two or three hundred anti-Wall Street protesters camping out there were wrapped in sleeping bags and under tarps, the pigeons pecking about their heads. A couple snuggled together on an air mattress. An elderly man in combat fatigues, his grey hair tied back in a bandana, slept against a concrete wall, a German shepherd at his side. Such were the moments of first light, before the makeshift village in Zuccotti Park came to life.

When the people awoke they gathered in groups to discuss ideas: corporate control, securitization, debt and credit, the environment, the Federal Reserve. There was heated debate and a lot of hugging. “I see it as a mathematical improbability to have a growth-based system based on finite resources,” said Tim, a 57-year-old bassist from New Haven, Conn., with long grey dreadlocks. “It’s kind of depressing, to be honest with you. I think the bottom is going to have to fall out of the economy.” When a protester approached asking for rolling papers, Tim promptly produced some from his pocket. “The solution is money,” said Rick DeVoe, 54, an environmental activist from East Hampton, Mass. “If the dollar doesn’t work for us, let’s create something that does.”

Over by the info booth a mousy girl in her 20s handed out a newspaper—The Occupied Wall Street Journal, a deliciously tongue-in-cheek jab at Rupert Murdoch’s business broadsheet. On a nearby table, various pamphlets lay strewn beside a Macdonald’s coffee cup and a well-thumbed copy of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. A white-haired soccer mom on vacation from Tennessee, all smiles and glasses, asked if there was a petition to sign. Volunteers distributed food from the kitchen—concrete benches laden with donated bagels, coffee, juice. At the media centre, marked off with caution tape, youths sat on cement benches glued to MacBooks, spreading the word on various social media networks. @OccupyWallStNYC, one Twitter handle among many here, had some 39,000 followers as of Tuesday.

Two weeks in and the once-amorphous Occupy Wall Street protests in lower Manhattan have begun to take form. (Protesters can’t occupy Wall Street, which has been barricaded and heavily guarded by police as a security measure since 9/11.) Labour unions and college students plan walkouts, slated for Wednesday, in solidarity with the movement, which has spread across the U.S.—to San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Washington—as well as to Europe and Japan. Occupy Toronto and Occupy Vancouver protests are slated for Oct. 15. Meanwhile, on Sunday, the NYC General Assembly, the activist group central to the protest, published a mission statement that read like a declaration of human rights. The leaderless colony that began as a group of disenchanted youths with no clear message has built a self-sufficient society, writ small, within the larger one they complain has grown sick and, moreover, had shunted them aside—offering no jobs, no prospects, no hope. The heart of that movement still beats in Zuccotti Park, dubbed Liberty Park by the colonists, an echo of Cairo’s Tahrir, or “Liberation” Square, where anti-Mubarak protesters staged an uprising earlier this year.

This movement differs from the anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, or last summer’s G20 protests in Toronto. Occupy Wall Street is not designed to counter a mainstream event—there is no World Trade Organization to oppose, no abstruse meetings of world leaders. Unions and formal NGOs, at least initially, played no organizational role (although Anonymous, a “hacktivist” collective that commits acts of civil protest online, helped promote it). Instead, the movement combines anger over America’s faltering economic prospects, with the captains of the financial sector that protesters believe recklessly gambled with the economy and lost, and widespread disappointment over Barack Obama’s presidency. Some observers compare it to the early Tea Party, calling Occupy Wall Street its leftist echo. Like the Tea Party, unemployment is an important driver here, particularly among the young—in August the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put the percentage of employed Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 at only 48.8 per cent.

A strange twist on this American phenomenon is the role Canada has played in fomenting the rebellion. Adbusters, a Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine, was first to promote the protests, agitating for an American Arab Spring. Some of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s most prominent luminaries are either Canadian or have strong ties to Canada. Naomi Klein, author of such seminal texts for the movement as No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, tweeted she would join the protest this week. Already in Manhattan is Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter and writer who has become a star of the movement, is married to a Canadian, frequently publishes in Adbusters, and last fall taught as a visiting prof at the University of Toronto.

In his essays, which tend to the apocalyptic—“We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity,” he writes in an Adbusters piece making the rounds among protesters—Hedges frequently cites Canadians, including Klein and John Ralston Saul, the vice-regal consort to governor general Adrienne Clarkson until her term expired in 2005. He argues Occupy Wall Street could only have begun in Canada, telling Maclean’s: “Canada is not as far gone as we are. If I write a book called the Empire of Illusion—which I have—I can be on the CBC nationally. That will never, ever, ever happen in the U.S.”

Hedges, a Harvard seminary graduate, is one of many fire-and-brimstone voices animating the protests. He peppers his essays with urgent calls for self-sufficient communities—far enough away from the chaos of broken urban centres to remain safe, with easy access to farmland—to “weather the coming crisis.” The Liberty Plaza tent village is a prototype of just this brand of post-apocalyptic self-reliance. That strain of thought, with its preoccupation with urban gardening and other forms of radical self-sufficiency, is a hallmark of the movement. “Apocalyptic scenarios are sounding far more realistic,” says Janet Conway, Canada Research Chair in social justice at Brock University, adding of the Liberty Plaza protesters: “They realize this is their best bet to rebuild any kind of livable community and environment and also think seriously about survival. They have their own medical clinic, cafeteria, library, regular popular assemblies. They’re figuring out what they need and how to do it.”

The Adbusters rhetoric, too, can sound occasionally apocalyptic—even Biblical. “Alright you 90,000 redeemers, rebels and radicals,” begins the blog post that first proposed an occupation, later referring to Wall Street as the “Gomorrah of America” and calling upon 20,000 people to “flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, [and] peaceful barricades.” Kalle Lasn, Adbusters’ founder, had long sought methods for sparking an anti-consumerist “cultural revolution” in North America. The Arab Spring looked like an appealing model. So did Spain’s acampadas movement, which, beginning in the spring, saw groups angry with government spending cuts erect tent cities in Barcelona, Madrid and elsewhere.

Lasn and his circle latched on to similar frustrations with Wall Street to galvanize protest here, and used social-networking techniques pioneered in the Middle East to communicate urgency. “We felt America was ready for a Tahrir moment—that people were losing their jobs, their houses,” says Lasn, who was born in Estonia and spent his childhood in a post-Second World War refugee camp. “We kept saying, ‘Well, why should we let the Tea Party have all the fun? And what would it take for us lefties to have that sort of passion, that sort of grassroots organization?’ ” Lasn’s brainstorming group hammered out a modern-day rallying cry—a hashtag, #occupywallstreet—allowing legions of Twitter users to search for and monitor the discussion.

As conceived by Lasn, who has not travelled to Manhattan and has maintained a behind-the-scenes role in the movement, that discussion and the Liberty Plaza assembly should settle upon a single doable measure—one demand to help solve the current crisis. “Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum,” the Adbusters call-to-arms argues, adding that the best candidate in this case is a demand that “Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.” In an interview, Lasn also suggests the adoption of a Robin Hood-style tax—dues on financial transactions designed to minimize speculation.

Yet the protesters in Manhattan appear less sure of what they want—indecision that’s almost systemic. Radically democratic and anti-hierarchical, they operate on a basis of strict consensus. That can lead to some surreal conventions. In the park’s general assemblies, any person can block a motion by simply crossing their arms in an X shape above their head. The protesters communicate via “human microphones”: when one seeks the floor, he or she will shout, “Mike check!” Those nearby reply “Mike check!” before immediately surrounding the speaker and repeating their message in unison, effectively acting as a human loudspeaker. “Mike check!” someone shouted when Maclean’s asked for an interview. “Does anybody here who was arrested want to talk to the press?” The crowd repeated him.

That crowd—represented widely in the media as white, liberal college kids—is surprisingly diverse, from raging grannies to street kids, union workers, professors, ex-bankers, human rights lawyers, military vets. Brian Phillips, a 25-year-old ex-Marine-turned-journalist, is both the occupation’s PR man and its de facto head of security. “We’ve had some gangsters steal our food and a drunk guy cause a disruption—otherwise things have been peaceful,” says Phillips, dressed in an army jacket and grey bandana. So far, Liberty Plaza has remained largely non-violent, though there have been hundreds of arrests—especially on Saturday, when thousands marched toward the Brooklyn Bridge, where, protesters say, police trapped them in a kettling tactic reminiscent of one used in Toronto last summer during the G20.

Could the Occupy movement become violent in just the way those G20 protests devolved into Black Bloc mischief and property destruction? “I hope not, because then they’re finished,” says Hedges. “That’s just what the power elite wants. Everybody who’s organizing in that park is working overtime to make sure it doesn’t happen.” Hedges argues it’s the movement’s very weakness for indecision that may save it from a knee-jerk descent into agent provocateur chaos. “Everything is formed by consensus, which is very cumbersome and time consuming—but it works. I can tell you they would not find a home within Liberty Plaza.”