Occupy Origins: An Oral History

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, dubbed the "anti-leader of Occupy Wall Street" by Bloomberg Businessweek, David Graeber, an American anthropologist at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years,  talks about where OWS goes from here.

While David Graeber is not personally taking part in today’s massive protests in lower Manhattan, he does have a great deal of insight into what brought the Occupy Wall Street movement to this point.  

On August 2nd, Graeber attended a protest in Manhattan’s Bowling Green Park in Manhattan where there was going to be a general assembly meeting. He was back in New York that summer after time spent working in London, and looking to catch up on what the activists in the city were working on. At the time, he said, there was talk around an idea being floated by Adbusters of some sort of occupation, but many activists were skeptical that an action would be successful in such a heavily-policed part of the city. A general assembly meeting seemed necessary to determine what course of action might be most viable.

So a few of us, me and my friends, showed up at this announced general assembly on August 2nd to plan the Wall street action on September 17th. And we were rather disgruntled to discover that it wasn’t a general assembly at all.

Graeber characterized what they found instead as organizers standing on a stage, rallying through microphones, calling for the assembled people to march with a list of demands the organizers had already printed.

You know, the whole conventional thing. And some of us looked at each other and said we don’t have to do this.

He said there was a feeling that many actions use radical language, but fall into a pattern in which a few leaders tell the masses what to do. Graeber and his friends decided this was the moment to change structure and embrace a what he called “direct democracy.”

Have a group of people, without a leadership structure, come together and make decisions collectively. And people within the anarchist, anti-authoritarian and also feminist traditions in America have been working for years on how to do that, people kind of knowhow you can conduct a meeting in a real democratic way. There’s been a lot of people putting a lot of thought into that. But he hadn’t really done it on a mass basis. So we thought, let’s try.

He said that organizers tried to keep control of the action and would not shift the structure to one he would find more democratic.

So we formed a circle on the other side of Bowling Green, and gradually everyone started breaking off from the rally and came over to ours, and that was the real birth of the movement.

Eventually, he said, even those who created the rally were convinced to come take part. The group split into subgroups to think about structure and consensus, and then reported back to the group as a whole.

Zuccotti Park was not the originally planned gathering spot—Graeber said it was number four or five on their list. Initially the marchers favored Chase Plaza, but it quickly became evident that that would not work.

We mapped out all these places and we announced one, but the thing is, if you announce something, even if it’s just on a listserve for other activists, you always know there’s going to be at least one cop on the listserv. And sure enough, the whole place was surrounded by giant fencing, even the night before. So that spot was blocked off.

He said maps were distributed with several options on them, and about thirty minutes before the meeting was due to begin, word went out to go to Zuccotti Park. That first night there, Graeber said, the mood was celebratory.

We’d had the sort of action at Bowling Green, we were assembling and doing various teach-ins, the Reverend Billy preached, there was music, there was yoga. It was sort of a little festival.

He said at that first the gathered numbers didn’t seem very large.

We had this thing thrown in our laps. August 2nd  to September17th isn’t a lot of time. So if we’re going to bus in tens of thousands of people, which was what Adbusters was imagining, you need months, and also you need money. We had no money at all.

But by the time the meeting began, there were already over two thousand present.

We had to have two thousand people meet together and come to a collective decision, democratically, about what course of action to take. And believe me, that’s quite challenging. Not just doing it democratically, but doing it in a space where people can’t hear each other.

The decision to camp out was adopted partly out of practicality. The protesters knew a number of people would be coming in from out of town. At first they considered sleeping on the sidewalk on Wall Street, while others were in favor of occupying the park and setting up a model community.

It was fairly well-divided. More people were for the park, but we were working by consensus... we weren’t sure if the police were going to allow us to stay, but we figured the one thing the police least wanted was us to go to Wall Street, so we decided we would stay in the park and if they evicted us, we’d go straight to Wall Street.

They let the police know their plan. Graeber said that, while he thinks this influenced the police decision to allow the protesters to stay, the NYPD seemed determined to make things as difficult for the protesters as possible, arresting them for things like wearing bandannas around their neck or writing on the sidewalk in chalk.

Now the movement finds itself with a lot of unexpected financial support. Graeber said a friendly NGO has lent an account to keep the donations in for the meantime.

Almost as soon as it started people started sending in contributions, and almost all of it small twenty-dollar contributions, we don’t have any corporate sponsors, obviously, we don’t have any big institutions, even labor unions giving us big money. Little people have given money, and so much…It being a group that is decentralized and democratic, we don’t like have a funding base. It could create a hierarchy and people are a little worried about that.

Graeber had to leave Zuccotti Park after the first few days for personal reasons, but he said he felt it appropriate to leave as well for fear that he might end up being seen as some sort of leader. But Graeber said he still supports the movement whole-heartedly.

I’ll be back in a week, and participating as much as I can.