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The World Isn’t Flat: The Well-Intentioned Lie That Led to Occupy Wall Street’s Downfall

For six weeks, I was a sightseer in a foreign city in downtown Manhattan, a land with its own laws and institutions, bankers and janitors, leaders and followers, heroes and fools. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked why he chose to invade Zuccotti Park in the dead of night and sweep it all away, his answer was a familiar one: “Health and safety.” Occupy Wall Street had turned chaotic, he argued. It had to be excised from lower Manhattan like a malignant tumor, with the area sanitized of all press and onlookers. The excuse wouldn’t have worked without the help of a pervasive media meme: Zuccotti Park as a disorganized and diffuse horde of squatters. 

But the police didn’t just clear out a messy mob. They wiped out a newly self-sufficient city, the product of two months of improvised planning, coordination, and institution-building, much of which I saw firsthand. In the time I spent among them, I observed the occupiers question, fight, organize and reorganize themselves, through crises and well-warranted criticism. Bloomberg didn’t just disperse some squatters, but broke apart a full-fledged polity, with complicated, well-oiled structures for finance, warmth, food, and health. 

Unfortunately, the mayor’s rhetorical campaign against the demonstrators wasn’t just bolstered by the media. His rationale also found support in the occupiers themselves, who have naively and falsely asserted that their movement had no leaders or organizers. Wall Street’s occupiers—and the mainstream left that supports them—have unintentionally propped up the arguments of their fiercest critics and helped hasten their own eviction.

IT’S TRUE THAT if you spent a single afternoon at Zuccotti, near the beginning of the occupation, you wouldn’t have walked away impressed. There were boobs and bongos aplenty. There were protesters trutherizing 9/11 and defecating on police cars. Most of them couldn’t identify the Dodd-Frank Act, Elizabeth Warren, or the Securities and Exchange Commission. And even last week, you still wouldn’t have found much hope in the most dreadlocked and least clothed of the rank-and-file. Some on the left, yearning for their own Tea Party, tried to spin disorganization as a good thing. But in reality, few were served by the occupiers’ determination to eschew organizers, embrace the rabble, and harp on about leaderlessness. While the “horizontal” nature of the movement may have been good publicity, the results on the ground weren’t pretty: The first few weeks at Zuccotti Park were a mess.

But seven weeks later, the chimerical occupation had changed, grown, and organized. Loath as its leaders were to admit it, they were leading; angry as the occupiers were to take orders, they were being led. Before the raid on Monday, down in Zuccotti town bills were being paid, tents built, mouths fed, bodies warmed, plans proposed and passed, Brookfield kept at bay. The occupation had housed more people, hosted more events, brought in more speakers, written more documents, and managed more money than any Wells Fargo conference. I was shocked; they were shocked. Hundreds of people had been living comfortably outside in a major urban center for 59 days.

The feat that was the Zuccotti polity was made possible not by the movement’s 80-plus working groups, but by the central handful that played crucial organizational roles. In rough order of importance, they are: finance, facilitation, legal, sanitation, the people’s kitchen, information, direct action, shipping-inventory-and-storage, and town planning. When I talked to the core organizers that managed and spoke for these groups, they all told me they weren’t leaders, no way—then they would excitedly explain all the ways in which they led. Six weeks ago, a chief facilitator and grad-student named Matt told me that the occupation was a “horizontal, radical, open, transformative, prefigurative democratic space”—then explained how he chooses the speakers at General Assemblies. Last week, the occupation’s central labor leader, Jackie DiSalvo, told me flat-out: “At OWS, we try not to have leaders, but, in fact, that has resulted in our having many leaders.”

The decision-making structures have evolved as well, creating hierarchies and chains of command that have persisted beyond the crackdown on Zuccotti Park. The General Assembly, though still an important rallying tool, has ceded influence to a newly streamlined “spokescouncil” model. It is held indoors, with microphones. Factional interests are represented by single individuals, who sit and debate around a central dais. This Hamiltonian-representative model now serves as the governing apparatus of the protest—not the anarchic, painfully-slow finger-waggling of the General Assembly, at which any aging flower child can stand up and soapbox. As one organizer, codename “Zonkers” told me, the horizontal assembly had grown “unwieldy, cumbersome, and redundant.”

Then there’s the cash, half a million dollars of it, each cent meticulously recorded, deposited, and redistributed by the occupation’s powerful financial group. The eight bankers who manage the money have imposed checks and balances on the occupation’s nascent democracy. Their committee vets proposal budget before they reach the spokescouncil, vetoing wasteful ideas. And the group’s members face their own vetting: They undergo comprehensive background checks before being permitted to finger the bills. They navigate tax law, hire accountants, meet with bank boards, and make strategic investments. The drum circles and tobacco sellers accused finance of acting like the government and banks they’re trying to protest, but in reality the committee was setting rigorous rules to protect the occupation’s pocketbook.

There were also clearly identifiable leaders on sanitation, security, and town-planning who—up until Tuesday—had run rigorous weekly cleanings of Zuccotti Park, funded by regularly-refreshed budgets and supply lines from several Manhattan stores. In the face of Brookfield’s threat of forced cleaning, these committees were forced to form organizational structures on the fly. I would arrive in the morning to a smelly, soggy park. But as the hours ticked by, sanitation leaders would find themselves standing on benches, pointing to piles of trash, and directing foot traffic. They found help in administrative organizers, who got a hold of official park schematics, created a zoning map, and conducted a census. The squatters hated it. There were “fuck yous” and fistfights, tents overturned and belongings re-appropriated. As a titanic, red-bearded leader named Daniel Zetah told me, “A lot of people are like spoiled children.” But semi-organized they became.

To be sure, the park attracted its share of creeps—and media outlets inexplicably tried to explain a small crime bump across downtown as a result of Zuccotti City itself, rather than the over-aggressive police diversion it prompted. But the park itself, beyond a few petty thefts and drunken gropings, was a shockingly safe place to be. Security patrolled in rotating shifts at all hours; if something bad was happening, a shout would bring them running. At nights, I felt safer at the occupation than almost anywhere else in New York City. If I got cold, the occupiers would invite me into their tents. And if anyone got sick or injured, the well-stocked medical tent would fix them up for free.

All of this took stratification and political maneuvering. It was no dictatorship of the proletariat, but it was a system of governance and administration that had evolved through partisan struggle, harsh necessity, and messy democracy. It was a distinctly self-reliant project — American, even. The occupiers carved out a new land with new laws, even amid external invasion. On the night of Bloomberg’s eviction, they slept in a park that no longer resembled the diffuse malaise of weeks one and two.

By the occupation’s midpoint, many of the organizers recognized my face, and I theirs. Now, they’re spread across the city, their home and launching ground scattered to the winds. While I don’t know if I’ll see many of them again, I do know that perpetuating the myth of disorganization helped nobody. The leaders’ overtures towards leaderlessness were hypocritical, sparking bad blood between the organized and the organizers. As they claimed not to be giving commands, their commands were ignored. Tempers boiled over. “Someone has to be told what to do,” snapped a sanitation leader in a moment of crisis. “Someone needs to give orders.” Indeed, if the occupation and its leaders hope to survive, grow, and avoid civil war, they should recognize that it’s difficult to gain the consent of the governed when you won’t admit you’re governing.

Alex Klein is a freelance writer for New York Magazine and The New Republic.