By David Whitford, editor-at-large
FORTUNE — Kalle Lasn, the white-haired evangelist of Occupy Wall Street, was on the phone from Vancouver, pressing me in his thick Eastern European accent. “So how do you feel there at Fortune?” he asked before I could begin my interview. “Are you scared? You feel that some sort of a heave is happening underneath your feet?”
It was late October, six weeks into a movement that Lasn and his crew of “culture jammers” at Adbusters magazine take credit for launching. “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?” Adbusters posted on its website in July. “On Sept 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street.” Now Tahrir may have been a stretch. Even Lasn, who was born in German-occupied Estonia in 1942 and spent part of his childhood in a refugee camp, doesn’t think that America is quite ready for Tunisia-style “hard regime change.” Otherwise, good call.
But what’s next, now that winter is on its way and mayors in New York and Oakland, two of the movement’s epicenters, have sent riot squads to shut down the camps in their cities? Lasn told me during the same interview that perhaps the occupation as we know it was coming to an end. “Some heroic people will hang in there and sleep in the snow and inspire us all with their guts,” he predicted, “but by and large I think this movement is kind of peaking now and probably moving into its second phase, where people will go home and initiate myriad projects of all kinds.”
In the latest “tactical briefing” issued by Adbusters hours before police began dismantling the encampment at Zuccotti Park, Lasn noted the “ominous mood” and suggested a possible response: “We declare ‘victory’ and throw a party … a festival … a potlatch … a jubilee … a grand gesture to celebrate, commemorate, rejoice in how far we’ve come, the comrades we’ve made, the glorious days ahead. Imagine, on a Saturday yet to be announced, perhaps our movement’s three month anniversary on December 17, in every #OCCUPY in the world, we reclaim the streets for a weekend of triumphant hilarity and joyous revelry.” Time will tell.
Not since the 1960s have we seen anything like this, at least on the Left. I recently spent a few days visiting Occupy sites in New York, Boston, D.C., Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland (I was in Oakland on November 2 for the general strike and the march that briefly closed the country’s fifth busiest port) and I’m telling you: No matter how you feel about the protesters (and you’re not alone if you’re conflicted or confused), you would be impressed. Tent cities in the public square in cities all over America, crowds of marchers in the streets, over 4000 arrests nationwide—in my lifetime, and I’m past 50, that’s new.
I don’t wonder why this is happening. I do wonder, a little, why now? There’s nothing on the crowded Occupy agenda—the growing gulf between rich and poor, corruption on Wall Street, runaway speculation disguised as financial innovation, the erosion of the American dream, the steady undermining of democracy by big money and special interests, and looming environmental disaster—that hasn’t been a concern of many for many years.
Lasn claims he had forgotten but back in 1998 he told The Ecologist in London that the global economy was a “doomsday machine” and that “everyone on the planet who knows what’s going on can feel it, but we’re denying it. It’s waiting there in the background and as soon as it comes to the forefront, then that will be the catalytic moment when dramatic change will be possible.” I read Lasn’s words back to him and asked him if he thought that moment had finally arrived. “Exactly!” he said.
Occupiers: Not just students
Who are these people? Lots of earnest college kids, let’s start with that. (“They’re not all white,” I remarked to a colleague on an early visit to Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. “No,” she said, “but they all look like they have liberal arts degrees.”) When my boss sent me downtown, he specifically told me not to spend all my time talking to Oberlin students, so I’ll tell you about just one that I met in D.C., Sam Jewler. He was sitting outside a Starbucks (SBUX) on McPherson Square, in his red plaid shirt and his green watch cap, with his coffee and his MacBook Pro, trying to stay dry. It was the morning of the big East Coast storm and while it wasn’t snowing yet, it was windy, wet and bitter cold; I was so chilled I was shaking, and I’d only been out there a couple of hours.
“It’s not illegitimate for a lot of us to be college students,” Jewler said. “If you look at what happened in Cairo, that was largely college students who graduated and realized there wasn’t anything for them. That’s kind of what’s happening here.” Except that that’s not really Jewler’s story. He graduated in December, moved back in with his parents to save money while trying to launch a career in journalism, and was lucky to land a coveted paid internship at Washingtonian magazine. But the Occupy movement beckoned, and just last week, inspired by what he viewed as historic events and too opinionated by now to do the “false objectivity” thing, Jewler quit his paying gig (“yeah, it’s pretty weird”) to help launch the Occupied Washington Times. He sleeps in a tent now. With winter coming, he’s been climbing into his sleeping bag every night with all his clothes still on, but he’s waking up every morning, he told me, feeling “happy to be here.”
Who else did I meet? A young man reading Kafka on the sidewalk in Boston; a drifter in D.C. named Pockets—19 years old, no plans for college—who told me, “I hate money. It’s good when you have it but I often don’t;” Willard Lake, 49, also in D.C., an artist who showed me one of his anti-war paintings and said he’d trade it for “an iPad 2 and an iPhone, with service,” and afterwards bummed ten bucks off me for a bus ticket to Baltimore; Malcolm Brown, an 81-year-old Korean War vet and retired cop who was sitting on a bench in Denver’s City Center Park the day after police arrested 17 protesters, holding a sign that read “Corporations are not people” and “Money is not free speech;” Joel Haughee, a former SDS member from Indiana, living in Oakland now, who told me he drifted away from the anti-war movement when it turned violent in ’68 and worries now that the Occupy movement could come similarly unraveled if the anarchists have their way.
My favorite was Samantha Robles, goes by Sam: 20-something, long black hair with bangs, “Fight Your Demons” tattooed on her chest—a smart, assertive kid who said she didn’t go to college because she didn’t have the money and she didn’t want the debt. Sam left her home in Florida (“I needed a change”) and made her way to Boston. She found a restaurant job and a bed in a rooming house. When she heard about Occupy Boston, she kept her job but gave up her bed and relocated to Dewey Square. “I know it’s hard if you have a family,” she said. “You can’t come and stay here when you have responsibilities and things like that, when you’re so in the system with your life. But I have the freedom to be here and help as much as I can. I’d kind of feel like a jerk if I didn’t.”
Sam’s tent is on “Weird Street,” a section of the encampment fronting Atlantic Avenue. People driving by late at night after the bars close sometimes roll down their windows and yell “Get a job!” “I don’t understand how you could shame people for wanting to better the lives of other people,” Sam said. “The things that we want aren’t just for us, it’s for everyone. It’s equality for everyone. So you don’t have to worry when you wake up, ‘How am I going to feed my kids? How am I going to feed myself? What if it rains, where am I going to sleep?’ I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I wouldn’t wish that on the people who yell at us.”
Time to get political
In Los Angeles, I spent a morning wandering among the tents outside City Hall with Carol, an unemployed nurse. Carol is African American and probably about my age; she wouldn’t tell me her last name. I found her rolling her eyes and giggling at a flyer someone had posted on a message board, advertising for a “vegan naturist” house mate. She had come downtown, she said, because she wanted to see with her own eyes and try to understand what the protesters were protesting, exactly. She hoped that they were close to settling on a handful of specific demands that might lead some day to the kind of progress that the civil rights movement had achieved. The flyer did not give her hope. “This is lax,” she mumbled. “This is too lax.”
Eventually Carol and I made our way to the press tent, where we found Clark Davis, one of the organizers of Occupy LA, hunched over a laptop. Turns out Davis is worried about the same thing Carol is. “We’re ready as an organization to get political and start talking about some issues,” Davis said, but “right now, all we are is a bunch of people camping, basically.”
Davis’s immediate concern was dealing with all the homeless people who had joined the protest—a situation not unique to Los Angeles. “The fact that we do have food here,” Davis said, “that we do have shelter, that we do have water, we have restrooms—they are coming to us and we welcome them. Although it’s creating an external pressure on the movement which is making it difficult for us to focus on the reasons why we’re here, which is to create positive change in this country and throughout the world.”
Davis was keenly aware that unlike other Occupy cities, where police have clashed with protestors, official Los Angeles has been supportive. The city council passed a resolution in October that states “our economic system can only be called broken,” and strongly endorses “the continued peaceful and vibrant exercise in First Amendment Rights carried out by ‘Occupy Los Angeles’ on the City Hall lawn.” But for Davis, on this day, it was starting to feel like a missed opportunity. “They’re basically letting us do ourselves in,” he said. “It’s discouraging.”
If Lasn had been with me that day, he would have told Davis and the others to “keep that anger in their guts,” appreciate “the incredible thing that they already have done,” and not worry too much about where all this is going, not yet. Meanwhile, he says, “I hope that this initial, crazy, weird, nobody-quite-knows-what’s-going on phase of the movement goes on for as long as possible. As long as you can keep the world guessing, the more people will be pumping for meaning, and the more mystique this movement will have.”
After I left City Hall in Los Angeles, I drove out to Pasadena to have a cup of coffee with the Rev. Ed Bacon, the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church. Bacon has been preaching to his congregation (which includes more than a few one-percenters) about the Occupy movement for weeks, and had visited the camp just the day before. He was still excited by what he had seen.
“This is an opportunity to make the connection that Martin Luther King, I think, was killed for making,” Bacon said. “And that is that there are not competing social issues. The war-making system, the banking system, racial prejudice—all of these are interlocking evils. Some people get it in the neck physically from that, but all of us get it in the soul. And our soul, the American soul, and I think the soul of the world is distorted right now. I think the universe is conspiring to help us have a redemptive moment here.”