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Daniel Massey, Occupy Wall Street Takes a New Direction

Occupy Wall Street Takes a New Direction
Daniel Massey

Twenty-year-old East Harlem native George Machado initially assumed Occupy Wall Street was “just some well-meaning liberal arts college kids with money—same old, same old.”

But he attended a march and started showing up at Zuccotti Park. Now the college dropout who had never been an activist is at the fore of a group planning a series of militant protests Thursday that could signal a new, disruptive direction for the movement.

The actions, to mark two months since Occupy Wall Street began, will start with an early-morning attempt to shut down Wall Street and prevent the New York Stock Exchange opening bell from ringing. They will conclude with an evening march over the Brooklyn Bridge with union members and community groups.

Despite the public perception that the movement is leaderless, leaders have in fact emerged—and they're beginning to tackle tough questions about the next steps for the movement. While the public is riveted by events in Zuccotti Park, which the protesters call Liberty Square, these ad hoc leaders are debating whether to leave it. They're laying plans to spread the occupation to other city neighborhoods, build an infrastructure that can sustain the movement beyond the park and make Occupy Wall Street not just symbolic but intrusive.

“We're thinking about actions that truly disrupt business as usual in a way that forces people with power to stop in their tracks,” said Yotam Marom, a 25-year-old writer, teacher and musician from Hoboken, N.J., who has emerged as a key strategist. “We need to be attacking banks, not just by dancing around in lobbies, but by stopping them from doing things.”
Organizers are discussing how to halt foreclosures, develop banking alternatives and figure out what the movement means in the world of politics. Additional occupations are in the works, including ones aimed specifically at reclaiming foreclosed homes.

Whether they adopt that agenda is uncertain because the organic, extemporaneous movement lacks a defined hierarchy of decision-makers. But interviews revealed activists' perspectives and ambitions, as well as clues about the protest's future.

Nicole Carty, 23, first watched a live stream of Zuccotti from the comfort of her apartment. Soon she was a participant, then a leader, facilitating some of the movement's most contentious discussions.

The Brown University graduate, whose political activism was sparked by a class on globalization and social conflict, ran a general assembly meeting attended by hundreds the night before Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened to evict the protesters, and another in Washington Square Park that attracted some 3,000 protesters. The daily meetings are the hallmark of the movement's horizontal structure, where issues are debated and decisions made. She facilitated the first meeting of a controversial spokes-council, designed to streamline that consensus-building apparatus.

“Usually when we think of leadership, we think of authority, but nobody has authority here,” Ms. Carty said. “People lead by example, stepping up when they need to and stepping back when they need to.”

Ms. Carty calls Occupy not leaderless but “leaderful,” and says observers confuse its nonhierarchical structure with a leadership vacuum. The general assemblies are open to the public, as are its 84 working groups. Anybody willing to step up and work, as Mr. Camacho and Ms. Carty were, is welcome to.

It's an “open-source” movement, according to Beka Economopoulos, a self-proclaimed “professional organizer” who was initially skeptical of Occupy Wall Street but who now devotes 20 hours a day to media outreach and capacity building, despite being six months pregnant. “It isn't just social media, and it isn't just a few people,” the 37-year-old said. “It's about not thinking someone else is taking care of that.”

Beyond Zuccotti

Many of the emerging leaders are beginning to plot a new course for a movement that “has shifted the national narrative in ways that are hard to believe,” according to participant Jonathan Smucker.

The media is focused on the park—crime, incessant drumming, occupiers urinating on sidewalks—but organizers are quietly building the movement beyond it.

While tourists gawk and cameras roll, most of the organizing is taking place elsewhere: at a public atrium at 60 Wall St., in a conference room at the Professional Staff Congress' lower Broadway headquarters, in various coffee shops that surround the park and, increasingly, in neighborhoods from the Bronx to Brooklyn.

“The occupation is incredibly important as a symbol, as an organizing platform and as a model,” said another active participant, Max Berger. “But ultimately the impact the movement will have is a result of organizing that takes place outside the park.”

Mr. Berger, a 26-year-old organizer with Van Jones' American Dream Movement, joined Occupy after realizing that the institutional efforts he was part of were not prepared to generate the level of opposition he felt was needed.

Some participants have even had preliminary discussions about giving up the park, on their own terms, to focus their energies elsewhere.

Mr. Bloomberg has toned down his comments about the encampment, lessening the tension that made Zuccotti a powerful organizing tool. Talks of leaving the park are in the earliest of stages, and the occupation's laborious consensus-making process makes it unlikely to happen soon, if at all.

“If we figure out a way to transition away from the park's centrality in our story, it would be for the good, but that's in no way to diminish the sacrifice folks in the park have made,” said Mr. Berger, who has focused on developing new leaders among the protesters.

Organizers are trying to figure out how to move beyond the early excitement of the occupation to build structures that sustain and enhance it.

“The way it works is, right now we have a set of tactics and a core message we're associated with,” said Mr. Berger. “Those things are valuable, and we'll use them. But as we grow and develop, we'll diversify our tactics, expand our message and speak to different audiences that are a critical part of the 99%. What that looks like is open to discussion.”

Mr. Smucker, 33, who comes from conservative Bird-in-Hand, Pa., and who was radicalized by reading the Bible, said the movement has to expand to churches, schools, universities, workplaces and organizations.

“When people ask, 'How can I help?' the answer can't be 'Come down to the park,' ” he said. “Social movements succeed when they activate networks with infrastructure to become involved.”

A veteran activist who has been helping the press team, Mr. Smucker said he'd like to develop a Sunday school curriculum that connects the Bible to the message of the movement.
“What does the gospel say about wealth and power?” he asked. “What does it say about the 99%?”

To Nelini Stamp, a 23-year-old native New Yorker, it involves expanding general assemblies to workplaces, public-housing complexes and Appalachia, to give people tools to organize themselves.

Outer boroughs targeted

“The model of the general assembly can be really important to a lot of people across the country,” said Ms. Stamp, a canvasser for the Working Families Party who has become a conduit between the city's institutional left and the movement. “People have become so disconnected—'I'm so stressed out, I can't pay my bills.' But if you can teach them that model, they can start talking to each other.”

Already, occupations have sprouted up in Sunset Park, Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Bronx, Harlem, Washington Heights and Jackson Heights. Protesters are beginning to talk about providing services to underserved communities throughout the city. And the outreach team just launched Occupy Your Block, a program to link the occupiers to community organizations across the boroughs.

“We've occupied Wall Street,” said Michael Premo, a 29-year-old multimedia artist who has been at the forefront of actions protesting foreclosures. “Now, why is it relevant to your community? We need to be working with communities to contextualize the larger movement within the context of their everyday realities.”

The protesters are also thinking about how to work with the nearly 500 other occupations that have sprung up around the country and world, said 27-year-old Sandy Nurse. She has put her experience growing up on military bases and working in international aid to use by coordinating logistics for Occupy protests. “The movement has grown beyond the walls of this occupation,” said Ms. Nurse, who traveled to Occupy Boston last weekend. “We're seeing the start of a national movement.”

George Martinez, an adjunct professor of political science at Pace University and a cultural ambassador for the U.S. Department of State, has keyed in on expanding the movement beyond the park, helping to organize the Sunset Park and Bronx occupations and to connect the protesters to occupations across the country. He traveled to Detroit and Pittsburgh to deliver supplies and support to occupations in those cities.

An accomplished hip-hop artist, Mr. Martinez also recorded a music video in Zuccotti—the “Occupy Wall Street Hip-Hop Anthem”—to spread the message.

“Sometimes all we need is a spark,” the song goes. “I take money from the rich and invest it in the poor/It's been a long time coming/Time we settle the score.”

To an increasing number of protesters, settling the score is coming to mean transforming the movement from expressive to disruptive. The park was vital, they say, in creating space for protesters to believe an alternative was possible, but now they want to raise the stakes.
“The next phase is more occupations,” Mr. Premo said. “Liberty Square was just the beginning.”