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On September 17, 20,000 people will pitch tents and set up kitchens at Chase Manhattan Plaza in an occupation of Wall Street that will last for months — or at least, that’s what the organizers of Occupy Wall Street are hoping for. According to them, the event will involve a couple thousand people dancing to “Thriller,” doing yoga in the street, voicing their opinions, sleeping head-to-toe around a few city blocks, and trying not to get arrested.
We sat down with Occupy Wall Street organizer Will Russell, a grad student at Hunter College, to discuss the occupation’s realistic results and possible failure, the internal workings of the organizing process (anarchists!), and how Lupe Fiasco is helping out.
How did the organizing process start and how has it progressed?
There’s New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, and they organized Bloombergville. They decided to answer the call that was put out by Adbusters to basically occupy Wall Street. Their idea was 20,000 people, but they didn’t do any planning. They just kind of put out this call and said, “Hey, everybody should occupy Wall Street.”
New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts figured they would put out a call again to see if anybody answered it. It was put in the form of having a General Assembly (GA), like they had in the plazas in Spain. That was kind of the start of it; we’ve had, I think, six meetings since the first one. I believe the first one was August 2. The objective has been to plan for the actions of September 17 and the occupation.
What do you think is realistically going to happen? The goal is 20,000 people, but on Facebook there are only about 7,500.
I have no idea. I think it’s very likely we’ll be getting in the low thousands, but we’ll see. One of the things we’re trying to do to spur people to come as the occupation goes on — if we’re successful at actually setting up an encampment — is to have events planned for the week afterwards. We’re doing a Michael Jackson “Thriller” flash mob like they did in Chile, a lot of stuff like that to hopefully bring folks down there.
Ideally, how long would the occupation last?
As you can imagine, the GAs have been a little bit difficult. They’ve been dominated by people with various anarchist tendencies — some of which are easy to work with and make a lot of sense, others of which are very, very impractical and fantastical and have these idealized images of what society should be like and not really a clear idea of how to get to that. There are some people in the assembly who think we shouldn’t even have demands because it recognizes the state and legitimizes it, which is obviously problematic. And a lot of other people see it as being undemocratic to formulate demands before the action comes up, because that’s when people are going to be arriving, so we should be formulating the demands at that point. I disagree with that personally, but I think that’s actually the dominant view in the GA.
If you go back to your original question of how long this is going to last ideally, it depends on the amount of police repression, which is likely to be very significant because they’re still on high alert from September 11, and I know they’re waiting for us. We’ve done everything in the open and we’ve tried to keep things as clear and as transparent as possible in our planning. We haven’t always been successful in that, and I think not having demands going in is going to really limit what we’re able to achieve. Bloombergville’s success was fairly limited, but at least they had some demands for people to be sleeping on the street for. The question that’s going to come up really quickly is why the hell are we still here on Wednesday, if we’re still there at all.
You mentioned that a lot of the people involved are too idealistic. If your demands are very abstract and broad, when does it ever end?
I personally see a difference between vision and demands. There’s a French woman I was speaking with recently; she was involved in a protest in 2006 in which they were going to reform labor contracts with people under 26. She told me that the reasons those protests were really successful, not only in getting their demands met but also in reaching out to millions of people who would not otherwise be politically active, is because they had these demands, and they were practical. That victory showed a lot of people that activism is not just a game; it can actually get real results. We don’t have that here, unfortunately, at least not at this time. Another one of my worries is that we’re not going to be able to formulate demands within a reasonable amount of time.
What kind of precautions are you taking against possible police action and arrests?
At the last GA, the anarchists voted down the idea of having police liaisons and marshalls because they don’t like the idea of giving jobs to people. Their argumentation is extremely confused because they were saying we should have no police liaisons, but that we should have police liaison training. I tried to clarify that: “You mean we cannot endow that power into a person or everybody can be a police liaison?’ And then they were still going to do the training. It just didn’t make sense and when I brought that up, nobody seemed to get my point.
What we have been successful at is facilitating the spread of information about how to protest and occupy legally. Adbusters has not helped at all with this, by the way. In New York City, it’s legal to sleep on the sidewalk. You can occupy half the sidewalk. It’s legal to do this as a form of protest, as well. It’s illegal to be in a group of more than 20 people in a park, so we’re trying to let people know what is legal and what is illegal, just to facilitate a legal, peaceful occupation. We also have seven other spots we can go to if we get kicked out.
What’s Adbusters‘ role, apart from the initial idea?
That’s pretty much all they did. There was some talk about getting them to provide money to bus people in. I don’t know if that’s happened, but I would assume it hasn’t. All their flyers say to bring tents, which is great — it’s illegal, which is not a problem — but I just don’t think we’re going to be successful at setting up a tent encampment. Or basically, we’re not going to be successful at flouting the law unless we get 20,000 people, and that’s not going to happen.
What’s been the reaction from people who aren’t activists?
I was flyering at Hunter the other day, and people were reacting really well to it. Obviously, the idea of occupying Wall Street is a badass idea. It’s going to be fun too. We have all these events, like the “Thriller” thing, and we’re opening up an artist exchange, which is going to start at noon at Bowling Green. There’s yoga going on in the streets right now. So there’s a lot of good stuff, and I think people in general, whether they have a keen political conception of what’s going on or not, understand that the source of most of the problems in the U.S. comes from Wall Street. So people are supportive, but there’s a lot of skepticism.
What kind of skepticism?
A lot of people are hesitant to get on board because we don’t have demands. A lot of people are hesitant to get on board with the GA process because it’s frustrating and people just don’t want to go through that. Some of our GAs have gone for seven hours. Another big thing is that we have a huge international presence in the GA — mostly Europeans who’ve been inspired by the processes in their own countries and see this as an extension of that in the U.S. — but at the same time, it’s predominantly white, middle-class. Even the foreign people aren’t exactly working-class. That’s been a big criticism, and I think to some extent it’s valid. The occupation itself is going to be hard for underprivileged people to get to. That also separates what we’re doing from Tahrir Square in that that square was the center of the city and everybody interacted with it on a daily basis, but Wall Street is Wall Street — it’s like tourists and bankers.
If you don’t believe this will be successful, are you hoping it will be the first step in starting a new movement?
That’s my hope. Despite the frustrations of the GA, there’s been a lot of inspiring work come out of it. The last two GAs we’ve sort of started to find our legs, and we’ve actually been passing proposals, which is a huge improvement.
But I kind of see this as a learning experience for the left in the U.S. I mean, we’ve been on the retreat for a really long time. I don’t know if anything concrete’s going to come of this, but it could be an empowering experience for a lot of people. The GA that we’re going to have on Wall Street is going to be very different from the planning ones we’ve had. It’s going to be a place where people can voice their opinions. Hopefully this is a model that will spread, showing people that their voices can be heard and that there are other ways to make decisions.
How will it affect the average New Yorker?
If they don’t go to Wall Street, it probably won’t. But they should come! It’s going to be fun to go down there and see people doing yoga on Wall Street. There are going to be artists all over the place and people doing dances. Lupe Fiasco’s probably going to show up — he’s providing 50 sleeping bags. I mean, he has a concert in Philly on Saturday so he’ll probably show up later, but we’ll see. It’s going to be interesting at the very least. So come to Wall Street and bring your friends. The idea is to make this an occupation that’s going to last for a long time. Within a few days, we’ll be able to formulate a coherent set of demands, and we’re going to keep things going, and the idea is that it’s going to build from there. So if you miss things on the weekend, come during the week. That’s when we’re going to need you the most and when, I think, things are going to be the most exciting.