Nathan Schneider, Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Nathan Schneider (NS): I couldn`t not. I happened to be the first reporter allowed to cover the planning meetings that led to Occupy Wall Street, and when the movement became a tremendous media sensation in the fall of 2011, I felt an immense responsibility to communicate the wisdom and mayhem I witnessed up close to a world bombarded by misconceptions about this and other popular uprisings. Then, as Occupy`s fifteen minutes of fame faded, I stuck with it after most other note-takers left, chronicling both the disappointment and the persistent hope.
Much of this book originally appeared in articles written for publications like Harper`s and The Nation, but some of my favorite parts of it are stray quotations and anecdotes that were unpublishable in such outlets but which, I think, convey best of all what it felt like to be in the midst of this phenomenon. I compiled these "Notes" into the somewhat more permanent form of a book bin the hope of resisting the tendency toward amnesia that has so commonly befallen the history of U.S. movements.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NS: The overriding story of the book is that of a movement, in gestation and birth, coming to discover itself. I chose to follow most closely those organizers who had played a role in creating it—and then, when it swelled beyond their expectations, who tried to understand and harness what they`d created. I went to tons and tons of meetings and documented the minutiae of this mysterious process. I studied the ways in which the movement tried to tell its own story to the world, with varying success. And a thread that runs throughout the book, too, is my own struggle to understand what was taking place around me and to figure out my place in it — as reporter or participant, as critic or advocate, as skeptic or true believer.
Belief, too, is a concern throughout. My formal training was as a scholar of religion, and I couldn`t help but seeing Occupy as a new religious movement in formation. It struck me, for instance, that I never really understood the experience described in the Book of Acts of the early Christian church “holding all things in common” until Liberty Square. Even though explicit religion was less than a dominant presence at Occupy Wall Street, the whole experience was profoundly infused with faith. Understanding this, I think, helps us understand a lot of what was so bewildering about the movement to outsiders.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
NS: Reporting on Occupy took over my life just as I was on the brink of completing a very different kind of project, a history of arguments about the existence of God. (That book, God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, was also published by the University of California Press this year.) Ostensibly, it may seem hard to imagine two less likely topics for a single author to undertake. What they have in common in my head and for my method, however, is the exploration of how people attempt to give form and practice to their most prized, abstract ideals.
There is, anyway, a fair amount of religion in Thank You, Anarchy, for I saw it play an active part in Occupy in ways other observers rarely picked up on. It has even occurred to me that there is more faith in the book about Occupy than in the book about proofs for God.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NS: We live in a world where most people feel helpless about their capacity to bring about political and social change, though they know they want it. I think this is because we are perpetually fed with stories, fictional and otherwise, in which change takes place thanks to politicians and generals—people with too much wealth or too many guns, generally. I`m hoping this book will be read by people in a way such that they can imagine themselves as its protagonists, trying (and not always succeeding) to change what is thinkable and doable in their societies through creative resistance.
In the shorter term, I also hope the book will be helpful for people who feel frustrated with what became of the Occupy experience—that the story it tells will lend some closure and allow people still smarting from the movement to stay in the fight somehow.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NS: I`m writing a series of essays that further explore the intersections between religion and radical politics. One is on what apocalyptic theology can teach the climate justice movement, and another is on the relationship between monasticism and incarceration. I`m also, gratefully, continuing to serve as an editor for the website Waging Nonviolence, which covers resistance movements around the world every day.
J: How would you place Occupy Wall Street within the larger current of global resistance over the past three years—for example, the uprisings that have come to be called "the Arab Spring"?
NS: In the United States, where we like to think everything new begins, there was a frustrating habit of claiming "made in the USA" credit for the idea of Occupy—and, indeed, for the Internet technologies that supposedly made the Arab Spring possible in the first place. Nonsense. One thing that was impossible not to notice in the early planning meetings for Occupy Wall Street was that it was full of internationals, and that there was lots of talk (often from direct experience) about other movements taking place around the world. Most of the planners` interest, actually, was in the encampment movements in Spain and Greece, which Occupy quite closely resembled. They recognized that the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia took place in very different contexts and wouldn`t be as helpful as tactical models.
For all that the media wants to claim that this is a movement merely about income inequality in the United States, most of the key organizers always understood themselves as doing their part in a complex international liberation struggle from capitalist and militarist elites. The slogan atop the website OccupyWallSt.org was and is "the only solution is world revolution." Patriotic sentiments were almost always absent in the movement. Expressed in an appropriately rambunctious way, I refer you to another anarchist-y slogan that was heard from time to time: "No borders, no bosses, no bullshit!"
J: Do you think Occupy succeeded or failed, in the end?
NS: This question tends to be answered in peculiar and distracting ways, according to standards the movement didn`t set for itself. The goal that emerged from the planning meetings in New York before the occupation began was to inspire the building of a grassroots movement and to make it spread. This was exactly what happened, in fact, to a degree that exceeded the expectations even of the organizers. That moment has shaped public discourse irreparably and forged a new generation of activist networks.
Where Occupy failed—not electing "Occupy" politicians, not causing immediate revolution—were aspirations most organizers considered to not be strategic anyway. It has so far failed to mature into more sustainable models of organizing and self-governing, and that is a frustration. But, for what it was, its success was unbelievable to me, and to just about everyone taking part.
Excerpts from Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse
From Chapter One: Some Great Cause
Revolution didn’t seem like such a crazy idea in 2011. Just a few weeks into the year, two dictators had already bowed to the power of the people. By late February, the victorious Egyptians were phoning in pizza-delivery orders to the occupied Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Unrest followed the summer’s heat to Greece, Spain, and England. Europe’s summer was Chile’s winter, but students and unions rose up there too. Tel Aviv grew a tent city.
While Tahrir Square in Cairo was still full, the boutique-y activist art magazine Adbusters published a blog post imagining “A Million Man March on Wall Street.” But the United States appeared to go quiet after Madison, its politics again domesticated by talk of the “debt ceiling” and the Iowa Straw Poll; when tens of thousands actually did march on Wall Street on 12 May, few noticed and fewer remembered.
While following the march that day on Twitter from Florida, however, a thirty-two-year-old drifter using the pseudonym Gary Roland read about another action planned near Wall Street for the next month: Operation Empire State Rebellion, or OpESR. That tweet led him to a dot-commer-turned-activist-journalist named David DeGraw. DeGraw was working through the Internet entity known as Anonymous, which over the past year or two had been emerging from various cesspools online into a swarm of vigilantes for justice. With Anonymous, DeGraw had helped build safe networks for the dissidents of the Arab Spring. Since early 2010 he had also been writing about his vision of a movement closer to home, a movement in which the lower ninety-nine percent of the United States would rebel against the rapacity and corruption of the top one percent. An Anonymous unit formed to organize OpESR, calling itself A99.
Through DeGraw’s website, Roland helped make plans. Having recently lost his job as a construction manager for a New York real estate firm, he was familiar with the city’s public spaces and the laws applying to them. He proposed that OpESR try to occupy Zuccotti Park, a publicly accessible place privately owned by Brookfield Office Properties. On 14 June—Flag Day—Zuccotti Park would be their target.
Anonymous-branded videos announcing the action had begun to appear in March and got hundreds of thousands of views. Momentum seemed to be building. When the day came, though, only sixteen people arrived at Chase Manhattan Plaza, where the march to Zuccotti was to commence, and of the sixteen only four intended to occupy.
Undeterred, Roland decided to join another occupation that was beginning the same day near City Hall, a few blocks north. Organized by a coalition called New Yorkers against Budget Cuts, the so-called Bloombergville occupation would turn into a three-week stand against the city’s austerity budget. It didn’t seem to amount to much on its own, but it eventually proved to be another step building toward something that would.
“The attention we were able to get online,” David DeGraw wrote after the flop on 14 June, “obviously doesn’t translate into action.” Consoling himself with the thought that the attempt was at least spreading awareness, he started talking about trying again on 10 September, a date chosen in deference to the Anonymous convention of operating in three-month cycles.
More simultaneity, more synchronicity: 10 September was also the day on which a completely separate mass action was slated to happen in Washington. Seize DC, as it was called, came from a small organization called Citizens for Legitimate Government, which had experienced a period of some prominence during the Bush years.
“We’re thinking of this as a guerrilla protest,” CLG’s Michael Rectenwald told me on a park bench in Washington Square Park. (In addition to being the group’s founder, chair, and “chief editorialist,” he is a professor at New York University who writes about nineteenth-century working-class intellectuals.) The goal was to mount a protest against wars abroad and corporate control at home, beginning on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the 11 September attacks but possibly continuing much longer. “We’re trying to get the maximum impact for the numbers we have,” Rectenwald said. The details would be worked out more or less on the fly.
Numbers, however, were again the problem. CLG had called for Seize DC on its seventy-five-thousand-member e-mail list, but by late August it was clear that a turnout of even a thousand wasn’t likely. This, too, had to be put on hold.
The call that came on 13 July from Adbusters was just one more among the others. Like OpESR and Seize DC, its prospects were entrusted to the Internet. The name was in the idiom of a Twitter hashtag: #OCCUPYWALLSTREET. Accompanying that was an image of a ballerina posed atop the Financial District’s Charging Bull statue, with police in riot gear partly obscured by tear gas in the background. Red letters at the top asked, “WHAT IS OUR ONE DEMAND?” At the bottom, in white, it said “SEPTEMBER 17TH”—the birthday of Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn’s mother—and “BRING TENT.” The image appeared as a centerfold in an issue titled “postanarchism,” which also included an article by David Graeber. With that, more or less, the magazine’s logistical guidance ended.
“What we want to play is a more philosophical role,” Adbusters’s twenty-nine-year-old senior editor, Micah White, told me in August. Not dirtying their hands with organizing became just part of the aesthetic, part of the mystique.
Almost at once, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and Internet Relay Chat channels started appearing and connecting. “#OCCUPYWALLSTREET goes viral,” Adbusters announced in a “Tactical Briefing” e-mail on 26 July. The following day, Alexa O’Brien’s US Day of Rage declared its support for the occupation. O’Brien and the colleagues she’d found online were organizing actions on 17 September in Los Angeles, Portland, Austin, Seattle, and San Francisco, in addition to Wall Street. Her press releases and tweets became so ubiquitous that people started referring to #OCCUPYWALLSTREET and US Day of Rage interchangeably.
I first heard about the idea of occupying Wall Street while attending the planning meetings of yet another group that, since April, had been planning another indefinitely long occupation of a symbolic public space. In late July I attended one of its meetings, around a conference table in an office above Broadway shared by a handful of New York activist organizations. Those present, both in person and over video-chat, included some of the hardiest survivors of Bush-era dissent. They were mostly middle-aged, frustrated, and ready for a breakthrough. This October 2011 Coalition intended to set up camp at Freedom Plaza in Washington DC starting on 6 October, in time for the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. “Stop the machine!” went their slogan, “Create a new world!”
In early August, Al Gore told TV commentator Keith Olbermann, “We need to have an American Spring.” But people all over the country were already fumbling toward an American Autumn.
* * *
What, if anything, the hubbub online actually amounted to remained opaque. “We are not a political party,” Alexa O’Brien told me when I asked her about the nature of US Day of Rage in mid-August. “We are an idea.” Here’s how she described its genesis, out of the inspiration of the Arab Spring:
I felt that something needed to be done to help people have a space where they could discuss these issues and their self-interest without ideological talking points. I asked them to list their grievances on a hashtag—US Day of Rage asked people to list their grievances. Originally we were going to put them into columns. But what ended up happening is we realized that most of the grievances, whether on the left or the right, could be linked to corrupt elections. So we decided to keep it really simple. We need to reform our elections.
The idea that emerged out of these discussions on social media was an especially drastic kind of campaign finance reform: “One citizen. One dollar. One vote.”
She went on:
I wouldn’t even call myself an activist. I’m a normal nobody. I’m a nobody. I always say that. For me, this is an avocation. It’s an idea of service to my country, to my community, and to other people. In the beginning it was me, but I have to say “we,” because there was the hashtag as well. And it’s not me. In the beginning we had the hashtag, and we had a Facebook page. And what we did was we built a platform.
The platform also had a theme song, which appeared on the website in the form of an embedded YouTube video: the theme from the 1970s show Free to Be…You and Me.
On 23 August, an Adbusters e-mail featured a video of Anonymous’s headless-man logo and a computerized voice declaring support for Occupy Wall Street. Soon there were rumors that the Department of Homeland Security had issued a warning about 17 September and Anonymous; Anonymous bombarded mainstream news outlets with tweets demanding that they cover the story.
I see stuff on Twitter from people saying that we had interaction and then we cut off communication, but we never had any. I never communicated with Anonymous.
They [Homeland Security] believe that we are high-level Anonymous members, which is really a joke….We have had no contact with Anonymous. And that’s the honest truth.
An occupation, by definition, has to start with people physically present. Social media, even with whatever aid and cachet Anonymous might lend, isn’t enough—witness the failure of OpESR. Until 2 August, when the NYC General Assembly began to meet near the Charging Bull statue at Bowling Green, #OCCUPYWALLSTREET was still just a hashtag.
That first meeting was hosted by the coalition behind Bloombergville, New Yorkers against Budget Cuts, which had exchanged e-mails with Adbusters. Others learned about the assembly at a report-back from anti-austerity movements around the world at the nearby 16 Beaver Street art space on 31 July. What was advertised as an open assembly began like a rally, with Workers World Party members and those of other groups making speeches over a portable PA system to the hundred or so people there. But the anarchists started to heckle the socialists, and the socialists heckled back. The meeting melted down. Here’s how one participant, Jeremy Bold, described what took place in an e-mail the next day:
[A] few participants were adamantly opposed to the initial speak-out sessions being voiced through the loudspeaker, proclaiming that it was “not a general assembly” and demanding that a more open GA be created. Though organizers quickly shifted to the general assembly structure for the meeting, maintaining use of the loudspeaker caused the opposed participants to organize their own assembly, causing a brief bifurcation in the group: one group utilizing the GA structure of an open floor but maintaining the loudspeaker to contend with the traffic noise, the other group seating themselves in a circle closer to Bowling Green park. The breakaway faction had objected to the format because it appeared to function more like a rally than a GA and expressed concerns about being forced to speak under a particular political party or viewpoint, [and the breakaway faction] voiced this criticism; as they broke off to begin the GA, participants were stuck between the two groups. As the power began to die from the loudspeaker, the group voted by simple majority to move to the traditional GA and joined the circle, in which the GA was already under way.
Those who stuck around got what the anarchists wanted, and perhaps more: a leaderless assembly, microphone-free and in a circle, that dragged the 4:30pm event on until 8:30, with some people staying around to talk until eleven o’clock. They started using the language of the one percent versus the other ninety-nine—independently, it seems, of David DeGraw and A99. Working groups formed to do outreach, to produce media, to provide food.
Despite the presence of people from various contingents of the sectarian left who made their affiliations known with T-shirts and specialized rhetoric, none of these groups could dominate the NYC General Assembly. New York’s activists at that point were splintered and frustrated, and no one group could do much of anything on its own. One of them with a considerable role, the invitation-only Organization for a Free Society, was not the kind to announce its presence, and its members seemed to operate as individuals, not as representatives of a bloc. Even the anarchists, who set the format of the GA and furnished some of its more influential interventions, were in no position to run the show entirely. David Graeber told me,
The anarchist scene in New York had been very fragmented. The insurrectionists versus the SDS people—there’d been all these splits. It had become a little dysfunctional. The New York scene was fucked up, to be perfectly honest.
Describing the makeup of the GA, Graeber continued:
There was one fairly small crew—capital-A insurrectionary anarchists, they were there. But there was mainly what I like to call the small-a anarchists, people like myself.
I couldn’t tell you what kind of anarchist I am. I don’t feel any need to work in groups that are made up exclusively or mainly of anarchists, as long as they operate on anarchist principles. I see anarchism more as a way of doing things, a broad series of ethical commitments and principles, rather than an ideology. So people like that, there were a lot of them.
In lieu of anything else, small-a anarchy was an acceptable enough common denominator for the anarchists and everyone else. On that basis, the General Assembly would continue to meet about once a week.
The second meeting I attended was on 20 August, the fourth in all. It was relatively productive at first, even if short on consensus. The group didn’t, for instance, make any outright commitment to nonviolence, largely because they couldn’t agree on what it would mean to do so. No text for the Outreach Committee’s fliers could be passed. But people wiggled their fingers in the air when they liked what was being said and wiggled them down at the ground when they didn’t, so through these discussions everyone got to know one another a little better.
Soon, even that modicum of process started to fail. Georgia Sagri, a performance artist from Greece, paced around the periphery of the circle with a large cup of coffee in her hand, making interjections whether or not she was “on stack” to speak. She seemed less interested in planning an occupation than in the planning meeting itself. “We are not just here for one action,” she declared. “This is an action. We are producing a new reality!” The pitch of her voice rose and then fell with every slogan. “We are not an organization; we are an environment!”
Georgia’s powers of persuasion and disruption were especially on display when the discussion turned to the Internet Committee. Drew Hornbein, a red-haired, wispy-bearded web designer, had started putting together a site for the General Assembly. Georgia thought he was doing it all wrong. She didn’t trust the security of the server he was using—not that she knew much about servers—and wanted to stop depending on Google for the e-mail group. Her concern was principle, while his was expediency.
As Georgia and her allies denounced Drew publicly, he apologized as much as he could, but then he eventually got up and left the circle with others who’d also had enough. “I’m talking about freedom and respect!” Georgia cried. “This is not bullshit!”
She continued to hold the floor, proposing every detail of what the website would say and how it would look, reading one item at a time from her phone and insisting that the General Assembly approve it. The facilitators seemed exasperated. A passerby began playing Duck, Duck, Goose on the shoulders of those sitting under the Hare Krishna Tree.
The thrill I’d felt the previous Saturday turned to pretty thoroughgoing disappointment. I abandoned my reportorial post: I left early, after three and a half hours.
On the way out, I ran into a couple I knew from the October 2011 Coalition, Ellen Davidson and Tarak Kauff, who were just arriving from another gathering in Harlem. They had met each other at protests over the past few years, in jail after an action at the Supreme Court in DC, and in Cairo during a mobilization against Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. I updated Tarak—who had served in the army in the early 1960s and could still do a hundred push-ups—on what had been going on. None of it appeared to surprise or trouble him.
“It’s really, really hard,” he said in his Queens accent, as the Internet Committee proposals ground through consensus a few steps away. “They’re doing fine.”
[A full excerpt of Chapter One can be found here.]
[Excerpted from Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse, by Nathan Schneider, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2013 by Nathan Schneider. For more information, or to buy this book, please click here. Jadaliyya readers can use the following discount code at the publisher’s website: 13W4710.]